Random Seed Games
What would it be like to die on Mars? Investigating the Martian wastes in Lacuna Passage
Mars is an inhospitable wasteland. No matter how many decades we've spent dreaming otherwise, that certainly seems to be the case. Everywhere you look on the surface of our sibling planet you find rocks, sand, minerals, sometimes ice, but nothing that lives.
That might be what makes Mars such a powerful setting for stories. We can't accept the idea of a dead, empty planet so we superimpose our own wishes onto its vacant canvas. It's a mirage world.
That's what makes Lacuna Passage such an interesting project. It's a “realistic” open world game set on Mars, in which you play as a sort of astronaut-detective sent to investigate the disappearance of the previous Mars landing crew. But where most game worlds are rife with activities and things to interact with, Lacuna Passage is intentionally barren.
“Mars has been the subject of some incredible science fiction since the day it was discovered,” Tyler Owen, project lead on Lacuna Passage at Random Seed Games, told the Report. “The more we learn about Mars the more we reign in our expectations of what we might find, but it's still absolutely rife with storytelling possibility.”
This is a game that is both set on Mars and inspired by Mars, and painful realism is the goal here. The game's world is even being built from actual maps of the Martian surface collected by the HiRISE project.
The game warps your preconceptions about how games are supposed to work. Games have always taught us that effort is worth a reward, and that long journeys lead to a conclusion. But the first time I wandered off to see what was over the horizon in this game, I ran out of oxygen in the middle of a bland rock prarie that seemed to stretch for hundreds of miles. I died in the middle of nowhere without a faint hint that I was getting anywhere special. Just more rock.
I've only played a prototype build of the game, but it's enough to get a feel for the ideas behind it's structure. Lacuna Passage isn't a typical sci-fi title that's interested in action, drama, and suspense. It's much more interested in feelings of loneliness.
“I want to know what it would feel like to have millions of miles between me and the next closest human being,” said Owen. “How hard would I work to get back to home? Maybe I would find it peaceful and just want to stay there. I think different players will have different reactions. We don't want to color the experience too much by using scary music or depressing themes. We just want to try to replicate the experience of being alone and see how players choose to respond.”
Something about Mars
For Owen, the trip to Mars has been on his mind for a very long time. Since a third grade class presentation opened his eyes to the wonders of the red planet.
“I learned all about Valles Marineris and how it was 5 times deeper than the grand canyon and as wide as the continental US,” he said. “My first thought was 'I want to go there,' but unfortunately that's never going to happen.”
There's a certain sadness to being a science enthusiast with an interest in outer space. There's a faint hope that you'll see at least a few wonderful discoveries or journeys within your lifetime, but there will be decades between them and they may never happen at all. The Apollo generation knows all too well the disappointment of waiting to go to Mars.
“The Curiosity rover was what finally spurred me to work on Lacuna Passage,” he said. “The rover missions are incredible, but the part that I always find lacking is that they don't do a very good job of telling a story, at least not one that's very human and interesting. I might stop short of going to Mars myself due to the risks involved, but I think the risks of manned space exploration make for great stories. It came to me pretty quickly that if I wanted to experience these places I would just have to make them myself.”
Open space claustrophobia
There's a unique sort of claustrophobia to Lacuna Passage, even at this early stage of the game. It doesn't leave the first-person perspective, so you're stuck in your space suit, staring out of a dusty visor at all times. You can run, but not very far. You can jump, but not very high. Both of those activities will drain your oxygen faster.
It's never frustrating, but these restrictions force you to move with purpose. You can't wander around the environment, jumping on top of everything, goofing off. What's neat is that this forces you to be far more aware of your environment. The need to move with purpose forces you to analyze your surroundings and figure out what you need to do.
The first time I played, I didn't do that. I listened to an audio log from the team I was searching for, and noticed they listed a set of coordinates. So I sprinted off to those coordinates without a second thought. That's how video games work, right?
I was probably a mile away from the camp before I realized I had no chance of making it anywhere close to my goal, and I'd wasted too much oxygen to make it back. Suddenly the wide open Martian landscape started to feel claustrophobic. Being surrounded by unforgiving open space is basically the same as being unable to move.