Game Pile: Waking Mars

The terms we use to describe games seem at times to be meaningless; adventure, for example, describes nothing. The crossover between Darksiders and Day of The Tentacle is a narrow one, yet both are described as ‘adventures.’ The Dig is a cerebral narrative of human drama and the challenges of encountering alien intellects, which puts it somehow directly alongside Kings Quest 7, which is about finding ways to turn a princess into a pumpkin.

Some of the terms, however, tell more than you might expect. For example, Waking Mars is an iOS-platform game – and it shows.

I wasn’t going into this experience expecting its origin to ever come to my notice. From what I knew, it was an inoffensive, exploratory platform videogame with mechanics about interdependent life-forms. Play it for half an hour, though, and you’ll see what I mean – for good or for ill. The characters are a bit like paper cutouts, the objects slightly larger than the sprites you see on screen. Movement is forgiving and doughy, hazards give you a lot of reaction time to move around, and generally speaking, the controls respond just that little bit late. Tight controls are a major part in how a game allows for skill; the predictable input/output reaction between the player and the game mean the player can plan their reactions to the stimulus the game gives them. Without the snap decision of precise controls, the game instead focuses on a nonviolent exploration/puzzle style.

Now, the exploration is pretty impressive; the game is quite large, and I still don’t think I’ve found everything, even with a fast-travel map. The puzzles, on the other hand, are a little bit weak. In most puzzle games, puzzle complexity works on a curve. You solve a puzzle, then you solve a more complex puzzle, etcetera, and most puzzle games, you’ll find, are really good at this. Part of this is because puzzles are usually crafted in such a way that ranking them in order is pretty easy, and the slower, thoughtful procession between them makes that curve easier to see and design. Or maybe I’m just experiencing a sort of Spotlight Fallacy, where the majority of the puzzle games I’ve played have been good examples, and they’re good in part because they’re paced well. Either way, Waking Mars doesn’t really have a curve, because of the crucial element of time to solve puzzles.

You can’t rush some puzzles. You have to wait for puzzles to grow together, feeding one another. It’s interesting, no lies, but it’s not interesting in the same way that, say, slowly planning an attack in Fallout: New Vegas, or stalking templars are in Dishonored. It’s more like watching the game playing itself, rather than watching for your opportunities. You will spend time in this game waiting, and there really isn’t any way around it.

Now, while all of this reveals itself in half an hour, it becomes a problem when you’ve played eight hours of the game and still haven’t found yourself near the end. There’s a thoughtful approach to puzzle games, where you can take all the time you want to solve problems, and often the framing device about a game can frame this need. I am what I suspect is about half-way through Waking Mars though, and I cannot tell you what I’ve done in the twelve hours I’ve played it that I can call fun. This may seem to contravene what I’ve said about Fallout New Vegas, where the time I spent playing the game indicated it clearly couldn’t be bad. Thing is, the time I spent playing New Vegas was actually spent playing New Vegas.

It’s a bit of a shame, to me, because Waking Mars does things right that I really wish other games would. The cast are small but diverse; the story lacks for handholding, and while it’s not the hardest sci-fi in the world, it doesn’t lie to you about what science it does hold to, and it’s a literally nonviolent game. It’s a puzzle game with a story, and it doesn’t use a basic, combative narrative as part of its story. It has good character voice and builds itself around biology and ecology, two things that seem rich for conflict mechanics without being conventionally violent. Despite all these good points, though, I can’t help but feel that Waking Mars isn’t very fun.

The nadir of the game came when I realised that there was one room where just by walking in and leaving the game alone, it would just naturally finish itself. That’s not a puzzle game, that’s just observation.


Buy it if:

  • You’re looking for something forgiving to play on your iPad.
  • You want to explore a big world, and earn a lot of time for your small investment.
  • You’re interested in seeing very different approaches to game design.

Avoid it if:

  • You like to feel in control of your own success
  • You want a game to pace itself, rather than for you to determine its pace for it
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