Waking Mars is a game designed for touchscreen devices, such as the iPhone or iPad. I’m playing it myself on my Android phone. Those that have such devices could pick the game up right away, from Tiger Style Games, and try it. Those that don’t, could still buy it, but play it on the PC screen with slightly different controls. When I write about the game, keep in mind I am referring to the touchscreen controls, which are the way I’m experiencing the game.
The initial gameplay should be understandable even to a neophyte at video gaming. On screen, there is a spaceman. His name is Liang. The spaceman has a jetpack. He travels through Martian caverns, seen in cross-section. These caves are described with chunks of red-hued walls, jagged and natural as if they were torn from construction paper.
Touching the screen moves the spaceman, lightly, but not instantly, toward the source of the touch. He has a certain momentum in his arc. He floats up with a burst of fire, but slowly falls, if left unattended. The best way to move him across an open space is with light, sweeping motions in an upward arc.
The first and second time I played this, I thought, “I’ll never get the hang of this jetpack.” The third time, everything fell into place, and I was managing Liang’s momentum without too much difficulty, doing a graceful touchscreen ballet.
Liang travels, with his jetpack, through caverns under the surface of a digital Mars. There are a few hazards on Mars to trouble a player’s progress. Little pools of lava and acid sometimes lay across the path. Bits of cave debris fall from the ceiling. And, if the player should lose control of the finger-propelled spaceman, and let him drop too far, he’ll hit the ground too hard and take a bit of injury. This is to say nothing of the plants.
The plants are the purpose of Waking Mars. The game calls them “the Zoa,” and they are otherworldly tendril-bearing things. Interacting with these plants, watching them grow and die, is the real heart of the game. Liang will find different kinds of seeds on Mars: red, blue, green, each with their own properties, and each with a different type of plant that they will grow.
To open up new areas in the cavern, a player needs to achieve a certain score for each individual room. The score is represented by how many different plants, and other life forms, fill a cavern at once. When the score is high enough in one area, a door opens and Liang can move into another.
Life forms all interact with one another in different ways. Planting all of one type of plant may prove a bad choice, if that plant is preyed on by other things in the environment. A player is permitted to plant life that might end up harmful in the end, either by destroying life that’s already planted, or by harming Liang with bites or dangerous seeds.
Plants toss seeds in parabolic arcs, much like Liang does. To plant a seed, the player must, still using the touchscreen, aim to throw the seed into a plot of visible fertile ground. In comparison to Liang, seeds are about the size of a playground ball. Which is mostly to say that Waking Mars is a game of pickup basketball, on a touchscreen, with a jetpack. Plants toss balls. With a sweep of the player’s finger, Liang will move to catch it. With a click and drag, he will release it into generously sized, grassy nets. On-screen, it bounces a little on its way into the basket, and then a plant appears, writhing to life out of the space.
There is a little exploring and a bit of puzzle-solving and some dialog in the game. But this moment where one makes a basket, and a plant appears, is the real core of this game’s experience. Basketball gardening.
The creators of the game have said that they were inspired by a book called National Geographic’s Our Universe. I remember the book fondly from my own childhood. I had a copy so loved that I broke the binding and wore off the ink. The scattered pages of the book laid spilled out in full color across my bedroom floor, as I imagined what it might be like to take trips to the other planets in our solar system. All these fantastic worlds are so nearby, but so very far away that I felt a strange sort of homesickness knowing I could never visit them. I could only pretend to in books and in games.
A section of Our Universe was devoted to a scientific examination of what life might look like on the other planets in the solar system, if it really existed. The images of floating jellyblimps in the gases of Jupiter, or the ice-skating aliens of Europa, have never entirely left my mind. When I saw the Waking Mars creators cite the book, I realized what was so familiar about the game. Waking Mars immediately called those images back to me and reminded me of the places I once wanted to go. In a casual, a-few-clicks-at-a-time way, Liang and I are creating life in a place where life doesn’t exist… but, maybe, could.
The Android phone heats up in my hand if play the game too much at once. I open up a new cavern, then I let it rest for a while. Sure, shooting baskets favors fast action. But gardening favors patience. Waking Mars falls somewhere in between.