Science fiction, it is said, is the literature of ideas – a genre about going where nobody has gone before. Its iconic emotion is the “sense of wonder”; its iconic heroes are explorers and scientists. Now an indie game, Tiger Style’s Waking Mars, has distilled that spirit into a remarkable ten-hour package.
I wrote my first impressions of Waking Mars last year; you play an astronaut exploring a cave complex beneath Mars. Each area is home to a certain amount of Martian wildlife, and to progress to the next, you must increase the amount of life – the biomass – above a certain threshold. To do this, you flit about on a 2D, side-scrolling map of the area, planting seeds, tending to the newly grown plants, and collecting their secreted seeds to plant elsewhere or feed to animals. (While the game does look like a platformer, I found this is not the case; it emphasises exploration, not reflexes or timing, and in fact I recommend turning the difficulty down so you can focus on its strengths.)
This is a simple premise, but it’s done wonderfully. Over time, you encounter more, and more varied, species, each with their own ecological niche. There’s the Halid, your workhorse throughout the game: a plant with moderate biomass and the ability to produce a profusion of seeds. There are little scurrying creatures, which reproduce after eating Halid seeds; individually their biomass is trivial, but if you can fill a room with them… There are plants that offer high biomass, but that kill other organisms. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Along the way, you discover more and more species, more and more of the planet’s mysteries, and I wish I could spoil some of these for you – more than once, they made me think, “wow!”
Between those moments of discovery, Waking Mars is a relaxing game. As noted above, it’s not especially taxing on the player’s reflexes, and even the “puzzler” aspect of the game (how do I maximise this room’s biomass?) is not particularly difficult if you take a second to think about how the ecosystem fits together. Some players might find this repetitive, but I didn’t mind – I found it easy to immerse myself in the simple pleasures of playing cosmic gardener. Towards the end of the game, when there is little new to discover, the pacing does lag; on the other hand, you could view this as the moment when the game finally gives you the chance to play with every tool in the box.
Ultimately, Waking Mars is both one of the best science fiction games I have played, and an excellent game in its own right. If you like science fiction, or thoughtful games, or both, this is a must-buy: as other reviewers have pointed out, in a medium that is overwhelmingly about taking life, this is a game about nurturing it, and studying it, and watching it grow. Congratulations to Tiger Style, and more like this, please.
Technical note: I played this game on my Nexus 7, but unfortunately earlier Android versions suffered from occasional crashes and a game-breaking bug. Patching solved these problems, but also erased my saved game – I only kept my progress because I’d backed up my app data via some ridiculous jiggery-pokery. If in doubt, it may be worth considering other platforms (PC, iOS).
The basis of my review
Length of time: About 10 hours.
What I have played: Finished the game.
What I haven’t played: N/a