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Mood Pieces: Waking Mars – Atmospheric Hard Sci-Fi for Biologists

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This installment of Mood Pieces is about Waking Mars, an indie sci-fi game from Tiger Style  available for Windows, Mac and Linux, and Android and iOS devices.

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I bought Waking Mars for my iPad on the summer of 2012, but a bit weirdly it took me over a year to finish the game. This was because I started playing the game sitting on my balcony and enjoying the darkening summer evenings, but couldn’t get it finished before the autumn rolled in. Playing the game indoors just felt wrong, so I had to wait for the summer to come in again.

Waking Mars takes place in late 21th century when a vast complex of caves have been found under Mars. The main character of the game is an astrobiologist Liang, who gets stuck under the surface of Mars. The supporting characters are his colleague Amani, who stays in the base on the surface, and Liang’s artificial intelligence ART. Technically Waking Mars is a 2D platformer, but instead of jumping from ledge to ledge Liang flies around with a jetpack, which can’t just simply hover in place. There’s just enough skill involved to make moving around the subterranean caverns interesting, but without it overshadowing the actual idea of the gameplay.

One of the first things that struck me was how well the characters were written. They feel like real persons and somewhat untypical for game protagonists, not trope-laden Game Characters. Liang is an adult peaceful guy, a scientist who falls in love with the beauty of what’s discovered under the surface of Mars, and the discussions with Amani feel very natural.

What is discovered in the caves of Mars is, of course, alien life. Yes, all of us gamers know how this goes: first there are signs of life, then things wake up and then you’ll have to fight your way out. Except not in the case of Waking Mars. Instead of killing stuff Liang has to literally bring the dormant life forms of Mars, called zoa, back to life. The zoa are somewhere between plants and animals, most of them are sessile and may have hunting tentacles, and a few of them actually move around. Most of them reproduce by seeds or spores, but some of them actually eat the seeds of other zoa to reproduce. The zoa can’t grow just anywhere. There are fertile, alkaline and other patches of terrain, and the player can modify them in several ways – including feeding mobile life forms to predatory sessile ones, and using the carcasses to fertilize the patches.

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Someone writing the game clearly has some knowledge of biology, since the notes Liang makes and the characters’ dialogue – although making the expected sci-fi leaps that require suspension of disbelief – never sound like the end result of a random sci-fi jargon generator. The only blatantly silly thing in the game is Liang’s AI, which communicates in a really clunky way and with simple emoticons,but there is an in-game explanation for that.

Waking Mars is a superbly atmospheric and engaging game. You need to build a certain amount of biomass in different areas of the cave to open membranes that let you move further. You can zip around the cave complex looking for seeds and spores to plant in a new area, and all in all the game never feels simplistically “puzzley” when it comes to the core mechanics. Often you get so absorbed into making the small ecosystem thrive that the actual achievement of growing biomass comes as a surprise.

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The game has a few alternative endings, and my only gripe is that some of them are quite abrupt in a way that just leaves you blinking – so that was it? The “better” endings do provide a good amount of closure.

Waking Mars isn’t typical Mood Pieces fare in the sense that it’s not an experimental art game, but a very solid piece of indie game design and writing that manages to make a sort of dry scientific approach very atmospheric and engaging. If you want a game about alien life where you won’t need to suffer tropey characters or shoot a single alien, Waking Mars is definitely your game.

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