Ken Levine Does Not Need Your Money. Play Waking Mars Instead.

I spent twelve-to-fifteen hours on Bioshock Infinite last week and, sad to say folks, it’s a whole bunch of bullshit. It’s generic, bang-bang-pow shoot shoot with an irritating, faux philosophical, pretentious abomination of a storyline which wants to be about seventy different things at once because it’s a Ken Levine game and Ken Levine is our Orson Welles. Well. At least Levine is pretty.

Because I want to dance the Tarantella on Bioshock Infinite’s fucking face because of how insulted I was by that game, I’m going to have to play it again–probably on easy mode and fuck the sidequests this time–and take copious notes. Having spent a week violently shooting hundreds of sane if ideologically-troubled people in the head, I kind of need a couple of days to lick my soul. IndieGameStand to the rescue; its current game is Waking Mars. I’m a sucker for shit with “Mars” in the title, particularly if it leads to Martians, and it’s IndieGameStand so I could pay what I want, so I gave One American Dollar to the game.

And yes, there is much to Waking Mars that is a very specific taste. The entire presentation reminds me of one of those mid-90s edutainment adventure games that–I’ll admit it, let’s all admit it because we’re smart people and we liked learning when we were kids, we don’t have to get all obnoxious geek pride about it but come on–I fucking loved. The inclusion of an extremely irritating AI sidekick that even the characters think is annoying but don’t realize is as annoying as it actually is–the multiculturalism of the cast (the main character is an Asian man, the support a black woman, both of which are astronauts on a mission to Mars and so with the capabilities that that implies, so wonderful to see a cast of non white dudes…and to not have the designers writing self-congratulatory essays about how edgy/superior they are for doing so like some Zinesters I know)–the digressions about geology (obviously one of the lessons this game is designed to teach)–in many ways it’s a 2013 update of that sort of thing. The story takes a bit to get going–the intro sequence is a little long–and it’s one of those which takes several thousand words more than necessary to say “Oh no! You’re trapped in the Mars Cave with weird alien life forms! Learn about them and escape!” Thanks, Levine, for inspiring games to be long-winded. The map is kind of awful, and it doesn’t need to be–it’s just poorly-drawn, poorly-designed, and poorly-implemented, and therefore it’s almost completely useless. I didn’t find there were enough landmarks in the caves to be able to navigate, so it’s a game that I’m lost in a lot. I don’t mind getting lost in games–I prefer it to having a giant arrow show me exactly where to go–and the game isn’t large or backtracky enough that I ever find it a problem.

But the main gimmick of the game–the ecology–is goddamn wonderful. Mars has life on it–Mars has fucking life on it!–and it’s described as this weird version that’s neither and/or both plant nor/and animal. They give off these “seeds”, and you spend the initial stages finding places to plant them. And then you learn that certain seeds affect other life–they can eat it or it waters them. And then they add more life forms to the mix. And soon you’re navigating an interconnected web of ecology. Everything has a very specific place in the ecosystem of the underground of Mars. It has a purpose–a main Thing It Does. But everything is affected by everything else–if it’s as simple as getting wet causes an animal to freak out and shake off the water, or as elaborate as how, if that same animal eats, it immediately parthogenically reproduces. The game is spent planting seeds and nudging the behavior of life and figuring out which ecosystem is the right one to help you accomplish your goals.

And yes, the game is about whether or not it’s right to fuck with an ecosystem in order to get your research done.

After Bioshock Infinite, I needed to play a game where the main verb was the opposite of “shoot”; and so, Waking Mars, whose main verb is “plant”. For a hiatus between weeks spent killing things, I felt I wanted to spend some time growing things.

Waking Mars is available, at this moment, on IndieGameStand; as of 10 AM EST on April 1 there are 14 hours left in order to get it on their pricing plan. (IGS is a great site anyway and you should check it out periodically!) It is $10 on Steam ordinarily and very much worth that–and fuck’s sake, it’s an indie game on Steam, it’ll go on sale and you know it. It did not cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make and it is not soulless.

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Comments (11)

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  1. Amanda says:

    Oh, how did I miss that you wrote about Waking Mars? I love this game.

  2. zpoc says:

    how dare a game be both thoughtful AND be pop entertainment!!!

    i don’t want to delve too deep in to your malformed criticisms, but those “sane” people see everyone that’s not them as worthy of literal destruction, and the ultimate outcome of the game is to prevent any of the bloodshed either inflicted upon them or that which they would ultimately inflict from even happening.

    get ready for your mind to be blown: well rounded adults can enjoy games like bioshock infinite AND waking mars (the former being one the best FPS i’ve played in years, the latter being easily my favorite ipad game). liking one and not the other doesn’t define you as either good or bad, smart or dumb, thoughtful or ignorant.

    honestly, i don’t care whether or not you liked the new bioshock game – what really bothers me is when people like you, who are so desperate to appear INTELLECTUAL and MORALLY SUPERIOR, are so quick to jump on games that actually try to do something interesting within the confines of the medium. you’re probably one of those dummies who think that starship troopers is nothing more than a thick-headed action movie, the subtext wooshing about a mile over your head.

    you’re clearly very angry that a game like infinite dare tread some middle ground in an attempt to touch on philosophical and ideological themes usually ignored by the medium entirely. why not be happy that a mainstream game is inching towards something better and more interesting? subversive mainstream art should be celebrated, not condemned.

    • Richard says:

      Don’t worry, Broseph. I’m going to be writing a review of it. My basic view of Bioshock Infinite is that it’s actually not very subversive at all–in fact, it’s so status quo that it’s almost regressive. Anyway, I’ll start on a replay of it in the next couple days, so watch this space!

      • zpoc says:

        wow “bro”, you’re so smart! only a towering intellect like yourself could dare to part the fog and see the hidden truth – despite bioshock infinite *seeming* to be subversive, it’s *actually* regressive and “status quo”. you should start a ‘replay’ of a clockwork orange next and tell us all about how it’s propagating rape culture. open our eyes, wise one! OPEN OUR EYES!

  3. Lee says:

    BioShock Infinite is inferior to Dishonored in every way.

    • Richard says:

      Dishonored had its issues, but it’s so much of a better game. In Infinite it felt so regressive that I wasn’t able to do things like climb onto boxes. Corvo feels more like a person and less like a camera. Have you read the posts on Electron Dance about the game?

  4. ShaunCG says:

    I’m still collecting my thoughts on Infinite so am holding off reading your words on it, but I did read this and thoroughly agree that Waking Mars is a lovely game. I really need to get around to finishing it. I think I’ve explored all areas now – just got to pursue those last few objectives. (I could just head to base camp, but… nah.)

    • I’ve been in such a grazing place lately–I’ve been firehosing games for a good 2-3 days and then moving on to another one. Waking Mars is one such one–I’m gonna get out of this with a huge backlog, I’m afraid.

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