Oh, what’s this? A game set on another world that features no guns or slavering alien beasties, but instead chooses a mature focus on exploration and discovery? You spoil me, indie gaming, you really do.
Waking Mars is a puzzle game where you play a space gardener trapped in a vast cave system with a bunch of hitherto-unknown alien plants (and a couple of animals). Each type of plant is one piece of a simple ecosystem with several interlocking parts – for example, if you take the seeds from the water plant and use them to water the green plant, the green plant itself will produce seeds that can be planted elsewhere. Feeding those seeds to one of the critters running around will create another critter. Feeding a critter to one of the acid plants will cause it to spit out an acid seed, while feeding that same critter to one of the barnacle plants will create composted remains that can be used to enrich an already-existing plant.
There are two puzzle elements to Waking Mars. The first is figuring out how this ecosystem works and how all the different bits fit together, and to its credit the game only tells you the very basics and leaves you to discover the rest on your own by way of experimentation. Every time you find out something new about a plant it gets recorded in your research log, allowing you to gradually piece everything together into a working whole. Some plants only like alkali ground. Some plants only like acidic ground. Watering a plant may produce an interesting new effect, or it may do nothing – but the only way you’ll find out is if you try it. The end goal of your tinkering with a particular cave’s ecosystem is to grow enough biomass to open the door to the next area, and the biomass levels are usually set high enough that it’s not just a simple matter of planting a seed in every available fertile patch of ground. Instead you have to use what you’ve learned to maximise the biomass gain from the resources you have available, and this is not always easy when certain plants aren’t available in certain caves and environmental hazards eat away at the stuff you’ve successfully managed to grow.
The second puzzle element is the story of Jiang, the scientist-explorer inside the caves, and his attempt to escape the caves while finding out as much about these alien lifeforms as he possibly can. Now, you may recall a certain rant on this blog about Prometheus and the “scientific” approach the characters took to exploring the alien derelict, so you know it’s something I like to see done right where possible. Jiang does it right. He’s a quiet, thoughtful man who has a great deal of respect for the ecosystem he’s messing with, and who begins the game advocating a policy of non-interference once it becomes apparent that his mere presence in the caves is altering that ecosystem; it is necessity which forces him to make the changes he has to in order to survive, and not convoluted plot logic. Jiang is in intermittent radio contact with Amani, another scientist located at the expedition’s base camp, but the caves make talking to her difficult and so most of the moment-to-moment revelations about the alien plant life are handled by his suit’s on-board AI1, which essentially exists to avoid the contrivance of having Jiang talk to himself the whole time.
I really can’t praise the characters and writing in Waking Mars enough. The story is not outstanding and travels some fairly heavily-trodden ground in the long-vanished alien civilization genre, but it’s very well-told considering this is an indie puzzle-platformer with limited resources. This owes much to the excellent static painted headshots of Jiang and Amani which allow them a great deal of facial expression without ever stretching their credibility in the way that animated headshots would, as well as the above-average voice acting. Jiang and Amani have a distinct rapport that never devolves into the seemingly-inevitable narrative tedium of flirtation and they’re totally believable and likeable as people. And this is something that I think is very important to the central mystery of Waking Mars – that is, what the hell all these plants are doing here and what their ultimate purpose is – because I as a player probably wouldn’t give a shit if it wasn’t related to me through the conversations between these two scientists. It has a far greater impact for the information being distributed on that personal level, and lifts the story up above its genre origins.
Which is a good thing, because I probably wouldn’t have finished Waking Mars if I hadn’t liked Jiang as a character so much that I wanted to see him escape the caves. There comes a point about two thirds of the way through where the game runs out of new things to throw at you and you’ve figured out how all the plants interact, and it’s at this point that the game becomes a simple matter of going through the motions. Getting to the end involves amassing high biomass scores in every area – higher than those required to open the doors blocking your progress – and to do this you need to either grow lots of high biomass plants or else find a self-sustaining way to increase biomass indefinitely. The former involves either growing the pain-in-the ass acid plants for which seeds are in rather short supply anyway, or else playing balloon football with the floating silver seeds which have the worst physics ever. Jiang gets around the caves using a jetpack which controls very well, but if he hits one of the seeds at the wrong angle he’ll glitch right through it and it’ll continue up to the ceiling where it can’t be retrieved, so this is not something you want to do long-term if you value your sanity.
The latter option is easiest, although it requires a bit of patience as well as the willingness to basically sabotage the game’s puzzle-based gameplay. What you do is, you take the following two facts:
• Green plants will continue to spit out seeds until there are either two seeds on the map or two green plants grown from those seeds.
• The spider critter things will eat green seeds to produce more critters and a small increase in biomass.
And you plant a crapload of green plants and then herd critters to the spot where their seeds land. Then you go and read a book for ten minutes. When you come back you will find a couple of hundred critters and a five-star biomass rating.
The problem with this is that neither activity is particularly engaging. Waking Mars is heavily based around discovery. As long as there’s new stuff to discover the game just flies along. Once the discovery well runs dry, though, the rest of the game is just meaningless busywork to reach an arbitrary biomass. It needed either more stuff or a shorter running time; the game lasted five hours so either solution probably would have worked okay, but as it is there’s this peculiar dead zone towards the end where the joy of discovery is gone and I wasn’t having any fun.
Still, that’s no reason to damn Waking Mars. It’s still a good 3-4 hours of puzzling and exploring that’ll make you feel like you’re genuinely unravelling a mystery, and since the dead zone doesn’t come until the end of the game you don’t have to play through it if you don’t want to. In fact I just now realised that Waking Mars reminds me rather heavily of The Dig; it’s a similarity that’s bloody obvious in retrospect but which goes a little deeper than you might think, since both games nail the dead alien world exploration thing right on but also have problems with some less-than-elegant gameplay mechanics. The Dig is one of those games I love for the way it tackles its subject matter rather than its gameplay, and while Waking Mars constructs its puzzles with a little more verve and panache it was the theme and the characters that carried me through here as well. It’s a competent puzzle-platformer in its own right but it’s the riddle of the unknown you’ll really be playing it for, and what you get out of it is going to very much depend on how much you happen to like that sort of thing. I happen to love that sort of thing, though, and so I have no hesitation in giving Waking Mars whatever clichéd metaphor of approval is considered appropriate in gaming circles these days.
- The sole misstep in terms of characterisation was making the AI the jokey comic type, like a more annoying version of C-3PO. ↩