Waking Mars, and Gameplay-Narrative Balance

When it comes to playing games for recreation, a lot of us don’t really think about all the parts that put them together, unless you’ve been doing that kind of thing for so long that you can’t even play something like FIFA without thinking about how EA pushes forward its particular brand of micro-transactions onto unsuspecting consumers. That’s when you get yourself a paper bag, breathe deeply into it for a few minutes and consider your life and your choices. I try to think of games as a finished machine, rather than all of these particular components that come together in harmony to form something that I can play and analyze, rather than eyeing one particular bolt that doesn’t quite screw in anywhere, a bolt that gives me restless nights until I figure out why it’s even there, or if I made some sort of crucial mistake in my analysis.


With that particular existential crisis out of the way, Waking Mars is a game that I take umbridge against, the reason being what you read in the opening paragraph. In this extraterrestrial outing, you are a scientist in a game where you take the living seeds of Mars’s ancient ecosystem and put it back together piece by piece. It is a game that endeavors to make scientific discovery fun and engaging. Not to sound like Aaron Paul, but I can dig this science stuff. What really bothers me is the game’s insistence on this ‘balance’ – a motif that repeats itself both within its mechanics and its loose story. Despite its best intentions, it smacks of good ideas and poor execution, and can’t quite practice what it preaches.

The game relies on an ‘ecosystem’ of sorts – you are forced to plant seeds that both help and hinder your progress. This includes bringing about an initial change that can seem to doom you at first, while simultaneously producing the seeds that ensure your survival. It doesn’t help that the game relies on a numeric progress bar to allow you to move on, and the more dangerous the plant, the more points you bag. It is a conundrum I don’t usually find myself in, and not so much a moral one as a practical one. Do I plant the seeds that harm early so I can be rid of them and know where they are, or do I use them last in the hope that I can proceed well enough without their assistance?

mars-468x288“So I can just put this-WHOA NOPE”

These are the kinds of questions that make Waking Mars a puzzle game down to its core. At the same time, however, there is a question of what the game’s story actually is setting out to accomplish. Is it a game about science? Is it a survival objective? A hippie feel-good tale about the checks and balances of nature? I can’t put my finger on any of them and say that they are the narrative focus of the game. Not that the game helps any, mind – the game seems to flit between exploratory spelunking and exposition dumping cutscenes at the drop of a hat. The game cannot maintain a sense of flow, which is jarring to say the least. Shifting from story to gameplay without any real warning can be annoying when you are lining up the last seed with your David Attenborough-esque precision.

This particular balance – both of the gameplay-narrative variety and the moral-science tangent that Waking Mars sets up – is something particularly slapdash. It is a game about keeping nature in check for one’s own progression, but it is also a game where a half-hearted story and half-hearted mechanics seem to collide. Those of a scientific bent can appreciate the way Dr. Liang’s need for discovery, but I simply couldn’t get into the mindset of seeing what seeds grew in which soil at which particular contact with acid or water or miscellaneous viscous fluid because even the game seems to see it as a chore in order to progress the story. The gameplay does not lend itself to the same scientific glee that the story delights in, making it hard for me to sympathize with the more crucial themes that Waking Mars presents.


It may be a lack of focus. Waking Mars could have been an intensely narrative experience, following the trials of Dr. Liang as he struggles in alien ecosystems. It could have also been a puzzle game focused on careful analysis of one’s surroundings before planting, causing a slower but ultimately more rewarding gameplay experience. Waking Mars does neither, and is somehow trapped in limbo, having aspects of both but without capturing their respective essences. Alas, struggling with what a game could be is a tad fruitless, or dedicated to people thinking their game is a ten-out-of-ten when it maybe isn’t. Waking Mars, then, becomes a game that got me to interrogate one particular aspect of its construct. It is a part of game critique I enjoy, but not when the thing I’m nitpicking is the lynch pin for the entire game’s purpose of existing.

A good game synthesizes its parts into a greater being, allowing a player to be swept along by all of its major factors even if they are implicit in nature. A weaker game will have something that cannot be ignored. For Waking Mars, it was this disjuncture between what the game is trying to do and what the game actually is. It seems pedantic. It’s the kind of thing that lovers of the game would gloss over without much thought, a la “well, it may be slighty buggy, but the mechanics are fucntional’. Being one of those people that can’t let something like that slide, it made playing a game like Waking Mars more of a chore than a joy. That, or I was never cut out to be a scientist. Either or.


Next time, I will be playing:


If I make any quotes from The Running Man, shoot me.

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