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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