Waking Mars is, well, basically what it says. It’s inventive and original in a way that’s actually fairly heartening. The problem is that it fails to live up to the most significant sense of its title.
Quick political rant: the current Mars exploration fad is a bunch of horseshit. The sheer scale of the endeavor is being vastly underplayed; we’re not getting to Mars, and there wouldn’t be anything to fucking do there if we did. The only people saying otherwise are a) actual hoaxers and b) rich fucks fantasizing about abandoning their responsibility towards the planet they’ve destroyed and ascending to techno-heaven. Whereas all of us without tickets to Magical Space Paradise are going to have to live and die here, regardless.
There’s a reason this is a hot topic, though: we’re starved for glory. Getting to Mars is a goal we can look to for proof that humanity is still capable of greatness. The problem is that the current, greatness-less situation is justified. Our past “greatness” was built on a mountain of corpses, and those ghosts are coming back to haunt us. The kind of greatness we need now is not the kind that involves monuments and Manhattan Projects, it’s the kind that involves responsibility and small, quiet triumphs.
Which should be where Waking Mars comes in, because this isn’t actually a game about Mars exploration. It’s a game about managing an ecosystem.
The idea is that you’re the first person on Mars, and as you explore the caves you encounter these weird alien plantanimalthings, and you need to grow and reproduce them in order to open up each new area. There are multiple different organisms with different attributes and different reproductive strategies, and you have to “research” them yourself in order to find out how each one works.
This aspect of investigation and discovery is what the game really has going for it. You start with no information other than “you’re exploring Mars,” and the situation gradually reveals itself to you as you do so. Rather than being given a set of puzzles with well-defined rules, the majority of the gameplay is figuring out the rules yourself. Furthermore, the explicit objective you’re given is to find your way back to base camp, but this is not the goal of the game. You actually have to ignore this objective entirely and search around in order to find out what’s really going on and what there actually is for you to do on Mars (obvious spoiler alert: it’s aliens).
The combination of exploring the caves and encountering and investigating each new life form gives the game a real sense of vibrancy that’s sadly uncommon. You genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen next, not in the banal “shocking twist” sense but in the simple everyday sense of encountering the unknown. The actual gameplay mostly involves figuring out how the different types of plants work together, which heightens the effect. For example, one plant type will start to produce seeds when you water it, which can then be fed to a different type of creature to get it to reproduce, and that creature can then be eaten by a third type of plant, which will then produce seeds of its own.
The problem is that that sentence I just wrote is about as far as it goes. Once you’ve discovered how everything works, you find that there’s very little going on other than spawning as many plants as possible. As a result, the game relies on a major crutch: each plant has an associated “biomass” value, and the goal of each area is nothing more than getting the total biomass above a given threshold. There are no unusual conditions to deal with or specific behaviors that you have to trigger, you just have to stock up on seeds and get them plants in the ground.
Defining each challenge as a mere number kills much of the potential gameplay. For example, one type of plant produces water seeds, which can be used to hydrate other plant types. But the water plants themselves provide the smallest amount of biomass, so there’s no reason to ever actually plant them. When you need water seeds you can just go get them from one of the existing plants. This is precisely the problem with framing your game in terms of which number is bigger than the other number: there’s no dynamism. The only worthwhile option is the one with the biggest number attached to it, which means it’s not really an option at all.
This is boring, but the real problem is that it kills the theme. The game is supposedly about ecosystems, but there’s no sense of balance. For example, you can spawn as many of those seed-eating creatures as you want by just continually feeding them seeds, so in some areas the “solution” is to just spawn as many of this one type of creature as possible, which is the exact opposite of how ecosystems work. Early in the game, the player character expresses concern that recklessly growing as many plants as possible could have an adverse impact on the ecosystem. Turns out that doesn’t matter; apparently care is for suckers and ecosystems are just about making bio-numbers as big as possible. What should be an exploration of give and take is instead an exercise in making numbers go up.
The game’s overall framework also has a coherence problem. Each area is supposed to be self-contained, the conceit being that the plants seal themselves off for self-protection until the surrounding areas have rejuvenated sufficiently. But the way you progress is by collecting seeds from one area and taking them to another area. Managing the reproduction of each plant type is supposed to be part of the gameplay, but you never have to actually worry about this. If you run out of seeds you can just go get them from somewhere else.
The problem is that there are two different types of gameplay being represented here: resource management and puzzle solving. You can’t just hybridize these by mashing them together, because they directly contradict each other.
Part of what defines a puzzle is its resource constraints. If you think of puzzle games like Lemmings or The Incredible Machine, each level in these games gives you a certain number of each potentially available tool, and the challenge is figuring out how to achieve the goal given what you’ve got. If you always had access to everything, there would be no point: you could just do whatever you felt like every time. On the other hand, if you don’t have enough resources, the puzzle is unsolvable. Good design means giving the player enough resources to solve the puzzle without a major headache, but few enough that they actually have to come up with something meaningful.
Waking Mars falls into both traps. If there’s a specific type of seed you need for a certain area, and you don’t have it, your only option is to backtrack and wander around until you find one. In other areas, being well-stocked with seeds trivializes the challenge. You don’t have to think about what you’re doing when you can just throw down as many high-value plants as possible in order to get over the threshold.
In a resource management game like Civilization, on the other hand, you have to take a big-picture view. You know what your current “income” is, what the costs of your various options are, and where your future resources can potentially come from. You can then make long-term decisions based on what you know, while trying to account for what you don’t know.
Waking Mars fails to deliver on this front as well. Since you can always get whatever seeds you need, your resources aren’t actually limited, so there’s nothing to decide. This makes the whole reproductive aspect of the gameplay fall flat. There’s supposed to be a give and take involved in reproducing each plant; for example, some plants have to eat other plants. But because everything is actually unlimited, managing this never actually becomes a decision, it’s always just a task. As it is, Waking Mars gets the worst of both worlds: both the boringness of having to manually collect resources and the blandness of not having any real constraints to deal with.
And this is why these two types of gameplay don’t work together. A puzzle has to be locked down; the ability to bring in outside resources destroys it. Whereas the presence of puzzles in a resource management game is pointless friction that gets in the way of the actual gameplay (imagine trying to play Civilization if you had to solve a puzzle every turn to get your towns to harvest their resources). Certainly, it’s possible to combine these genres, in the sense that anything is possible, but design is a real thing and you really do have to know what you’re doing.
The thing is, either of these approaches by itself would have been thematically significant. Focusing on resource management would have added to the sense that you’re struggling to restore life to a dying planet, while focusing on the puzzles would have emphasized the relationships between the different plants and the complexity of the ecosystem. The game should have picked a gun and stuck to it. Instead, it tries to walk in two directions are once, and ends up stumbling over its own feet.
In the end, the key that really locks away the game’s potential experience is manual interaction. Pretty much everything in the game requires you to be there poking at it for it to actually work. You have to pick up all the seeds and carry them around yourself. Reproducing plants requires you to sit there and collect the seeds before they roll down into a lava pit or something. One type of creature won’t move unless you chase it, which means it won’t feed itself and its predators will never be able to eat it unless you’re there to bottle-feed them.
Since the setup is that you’re on a mostly-dead planet and it needs some intervention to get going again, it’s appropriate for the game to start by requiring you to jury-rig everything. But if we’re talking about reviving an ecosystem, the goal should obviously be to set things up so that they start working on their own. And this just doesn’t happen. The most blatant example is the water plants again. Clearly, the idea is that these plants have a function in the ecosystem: they hydrate the other plants. So it would make sense if you could arrange the plants such that each water plant can reach as many other plants as possible.
But you can’t really do this; the water plants basically just squirt about randomly, and they may occasionally hit another plant, but the possibility of precision just isn’t there. Furthermore, since you can carry the water seeds around and use them yourself, there’s no reason to even care about this (this is exacerbated by the aforementioned fact that you never actually want to plant the water plants. Design is a system; the parts affect each other). It would make a lot more sense if you just couldn’t use the water seeds to hydrate other plants yourself. That way, you would actually have to organize the environment in an intelligent way instead of just stocking up and then poking everything.
And again, this is not just about gameplay: the real problem is that this doesn’t work for the theme. Nature is very much not about manual intervention being required for every little task to succeed. It would have been quite provocative for the game to ultimately reveal that it’s bigger than you, that once you’ve restored the planet’s functions, the majesty of nature takes over and leaves you as just another insignificant individual creature.
If we add all this up, we get to the heart of the matter: Waking Mars thinks it’s a video game. There’s actually a lot of other evidence that makes this even more painfully obvious.
You’ve got a life bar and you can technically “die,” although this will almost never happen and it doesn’t actually do anything regardless, since this isn’t an action game. Despite this, there are a couple of pointless “action sequences” that you have to slog through. There’s even selectable difficulty levels, which aren’t prominent, but still: selectable difficulty levels in general are a sign that you don’t know what you’re doing, and it’s particularly bad when they have nothing to do with what the game is actually about.
You get an achievement for “fully researching” each life form, which is exactly how actual discovery does not work. The essence of discovery is not knowing what’s still out there to find. Crossing items off of a checklist is the opposite of a revelation.
The story is established through tons of bland dialog between two talking heads. This is unnecessary, because, as mentioned, the point of the game is that you’re gradually discovering things for yourself. Pretty much none of the dialogue is at all helpful or interesting (as much as I hate to be snide, the fact that the game credits Wikipedia pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the discourse level, science-wise). Also, a very large amount of the dialogue is from an A.I. with the “joke” that it talks like a poorly coded chatbot, which gets old after about four lines and is also an obvious excuse to avoid having to do any real writing. I will mention that the two human characters in the game are a Chinese man and an African woman, which is nice, except that the former is wooden and pensive while the latter is gabby and emotional. You don’t really get points for diversity when your characters are just flat stereotypes.
Finally, there are “multiple endings” in the usual trivial sense, meaning you can choose between two different cutscenes to view at the end. Oh, you clicked on the right button and got Ending #1? Good job. Here’s your achievement. Now click on the left button so you can get Ending #2. Now you’re done.
Once again, the game had somewhere significant to go here: it could have done its part in correcting the most common misconception about evolution. As no one on the internet is aware, evolution is not a straight line from amoebas to spaceships. It’s convenient to think of things this way, because it means everything just keeps getting better automatically. All we have to do is watch the numbers go up.
But that ain’t how it am. Evolution is about mutual adaption, which means both that different things happen under different conditions and that lots of different things can happen even under the same condition. And since we’ve got a game here that is about restoring an ecosystem based on the interactions between different types of organisms, there should have been different ways for this to happen. There should have been different ways to grow the ecosystems in different areas, resulting in different evolutionary paths which would cause different forms of life to ultimately awaken in each of the endings. Instead, the ending to this game is that you activate an alien artifact and it causes a magical crystal spaceship to shoot up from out of the ground (not exaggerating).
This would have been a significant achievement in gameplay as well. The thing that games are supposed to be good at is modeling rule-based interactions, so evolution is hell of fertile territory to make some games about (in fact, this type of thing was the inspiration for one of the original meaningful games). Games have no right to exist if we can’t create meaning out of a set of rules. Evolution is one of the reasons we know this is possible: we exist because of a specific set of rules that operated under specific conditions. If we can’t make that meaningful, we’re fucked.
And we will continue to be fucked as long as video games continue to rest on their shoddy, decaying laurels. Waking Mars is based on a good idea that could have translated into a truly significant experience. Instead, despite its originality, it degenerates into convention. And while it has its share of design problems, what it ultimately needs is not “better design.” It needs to get woke.