by Diego Beltrami
Waking Mars is a peculiar game, not only because it features believable characters but also because it’s in the strange position of being one of the few games that are about creating life instead of destroying it. But interestingly that’s not the only remarkable thing about it.
The whole game revolves around observing and studying the behaviour of different alien species of “flora” in order to create biomes that can be self-sustaining. Or at least that’s the concept behind it. Sadly in reality the game is about increasing points (biomass). The interaction between the different species is minimal and mostly player driven. Once a biome is set it’s pretty rare that it’ll change. It’s not about finding a balance between species in the different environment but the game it’s more alike to using the different seeds they produce to maximize use of terrain and thus points.
I suspect that what I hoped the game to be would’ve been much more challenging both for the player and from a game design standpoint. In a game like that the player should have to manage the synergies between different species, their needs and the available space. That if there is too much of one species it could actually overrun the place and kill itself in the process by destroying the source of its own sustenance. So I fear that game would end up becoming a puzzle room with a preset solution as there are just too many variables to contemplate that I’d be incredibly difficult for the player to actually achieve the correct balance. Also we should be aware that a system like this one should have a certain unpredictability to it, so a solution that once worked might fail in another try and it could even suddenly ruin a perfectly functioning solution. Could it be done despite all this problems? Probably yes. But would it be worth all the work needed to achieve it. I’m not so sure.
So I understand why Waking Mars is not the game I thought it would be.
And even if for moments I didn’t like its puzzle side I must say that I loved how it approached science. Inciting the player to conduct experiments and observation in order to understand Mars’ species. Which is actually a cleverly appropriation of a common gaming behaviour (at least for regular gamers) as it is typical for a player to test how the mechanics works, what does this thing do with that and the like. Waking Mars take that and incorporates into the game in a form of “dossiers” of the different species that help you understand how they work with the environment and other species. It’s a lovely little detail that actually helps the player keep track of what they’ve been doing to understand the mechanics of the game.
That’d be enough to set it apart, but what makes it truly shine it’s its characters depth. These are believable persons. Both Liang, the main protagonist, and Amani his handler are lovely written and the moments the game stops and lets these two characters exchange thoughts and memories that lets the player discover them as people creates and interesting relationship between the characters, environment and player. And it also creates a place for reflection. To think about motivations, moral dilemmas, purpose and life. It isn’t life changing, but it still saying something, be it about itself or the player.
Waking Mars is above all, a game about discovery. Scientific discovery, environmental discovery and personal discovery. It’s what keeps the game moving forward. Learning more of this place and its inhabitants, and that includes the human characters. In the end it’s great that there are games like Waking Mars. It shows that shooting things isn’t the only thing that games can portray effectively and provides a refreshing experience for those that are looking for something different.