Tiger Style Games’ recent iOS release, Waking Mars, is the rare adventure game that doesn’t require you to kill. Instead, your scientist character must cultivate a variety of strange plantlike lifeforms to progress through the subterranean passages of the Red Planet. We asked designer Randy Smith about the challenges and opportunities of having the player create life in his “action gardening” game.
Paste: Most “life”-themed games take the form of simulations of some type — Spore, SimEarth, etc. Why did you choose to make Waking Mars an adventure game?
Smith: Playing Waking Mars is a bit like reading a sci-fi novel. We wanted it to have a personal touch with real characters and a strong narrative that the player could control. We wanted to tell the story of alien life having evolved on our neighboring planet and cast you in the role as the scientist who makes first contact. What would it feel like? How would you interact? What decisions would you make? Given these goals, an adventure game is a better match than a simulation or god game, which tend to be remote and distant in feel.
Paste: Were there any particular challenges involved in working within this genre, given your theme and central mechanic?
Smith: Adventure games tend to have fairly fixed stories that support only a handful of branching decision points, or maybe the ability to play portions in different sequences. Most sci-fi video games have combat as the central mechanic, which means the stories tend to play out like action scenes from Aliens or Star Wars. As with our first game, Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, we made an explicit point of omitting combat. Fundamentally, we wanted the player to have a deeper experience with the ecosystem than a movie or book could provide, which required creating a functional simulation for the player to interact and experiment with. In Waking Mars, you really set yourself to learning how to build, grow, and manipulate an ecosystem to repair the cave and bring the planet back to life and learn its ancient secrets. To me, [this] feels significantly different than killing all the bad guys so you can get to the next room to watch the cutscene about what the bad guys are doing next.
Paste: But you also included some familiar genre conventions. For example, the gating mechanisms, the Cerebranes that block the exits to other rooms, are straight out of the Metroid playbook. But instead of finding a new weapon to destroy the gate, you have to create life (“raise Biomass”) in the current room to move on. What did you intend by tweaking this well-known mechanic?
Smith: The Cerebranes are another element of feedback to give the player clarity about whether they are succeeded or failing. It’s a pretty common type of mechanic for gating further exploration, almost a chestnut, but that was important to us. We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel when not necessary, and we felt leaving in some familiar structures would make an unconventional game easier to get into. I was a little concerned about it seeming like a contrivance, but if you’ve gotten far enough into the game you’ve probably seen that Cerebranes are tightly integrated into the fiction and themes of the game.
Paste: Playing Waking Mars, I was struck by the fact that I wasn’t destroying things; killing has become such an ingrained action in games that I only notice it when I’m not doing it.
Smith: Haha, that’s a great observation. That design grew out of our company mission to create innovative interactive experiences by making “games without guns,” meaning that we never use violent conflict as the central premise. When starting a new project, we actively spend time thinking, “what’s an engaging and fascinating activity other than destroying?” So “creating” is an obvious alternative.
Paste: Was Waking Mars intended as a comment on the use of violence in videogames?
Smith: I’m very frustrated by how violence is used by videogame makers as an excuse not to flex their creative muscles and by the impact this laziness has on our industry and our art form. Sure, if you’re making a game about terrorists or war, combat makes for a great mechanic, but don’t we have enough games about those subjects? Every mature medium that exists is capable of dealing effectively with a wide range of topics, but videogames have pigeonholed ourselves into a tiny range that we have actual mastery over, a trend which has only calcified more as the industry has grown larger and wealthier. This has created a positive feedback loop whereby the highest quality games are about violence and our other common subjects, so our audience has the expectation that games must always be about those things, which in turn makes it hard for a game to succeed when it’s about anything else.
It’s completely depressing to me whenever I get excited about a game that’s supposedly about traveling through time or being the new kid at school, and it turns out that once again the actions are about fighting your way through an endless stream of enemies. If the interactions are about violence, then the game is about violence, period. It doesn’t matter what the static narrative is about. It’s risky work, but Tiger Style aspires to be one of the studios innovating to discover gameplay about some of the topics video games haven’t mastered yet. My belief is that since it was possible to invent combat gameplay, it’s possible to invent any gameplay, and we just need to keep working at it until we discover those effective conventions and abstractions.
Paste: You worked on the Thief games, which are famous for making killing optional, if not even discouraged. Did your experience with those games inform Waking Mars at all? How so?
Smith: The designers who created the stealth gameplay of the Thief series [such as Doug Church, Marc LeBlanc, and Tim Stellmach] understood, at a high level, what makes gameplay work and interactions engaging, and they applied their theories to crafting a new interactive experience. For example, feedback to track your progress towards success or failure is an important ingredient to making gameplay comprehensible and satisfying. Combat gameplay lends itself naturally to this because it’s clear when encounters begin and end, and when someone falls down dead, it’s feedback about whether you won or lost. That’s why in Thief, the guards talk to themselves all the time, something that a real guard probably wouldn’t do. When they say, “Who’s there! I know I heard something!” they are giving you feedback that you’re in the middle of a stealth encounter that you haven’t lost yet. When they say, “Oh well, I guess it was just the wind,” they are giving you feedback that you’ve won the encounter. We applied this same kind of thinking to developing Waking Mars. We boiled down the concept of “creating life” to the Biomass mechanic, which is presented prominently in the UI, HUD, and story, and which gives you feedback about your progress towards the current ecosystem goals. You always know when you’re in a chamber that needs to be brought to life, and how much effort it’s going to take.
Paste: Waking Mars relies on the player cultivating an ecosystem. Yet you essentially just set it in motion, and making adjustments after the wheels have started turning provides the challenge. (You also have to let, or make, these lifeforms destroy and eat each other in order to progress.) What messages were you trying to get across with this structure?
Smith: It was important to us to depict a believable ecosystem, something that could represent our ideas and passions about real life ecosystems. Therefore, our ecosystem needed to be honest, and in real life ecosystems don’t require humans to exist and propagate; in fact, they’re typically better off without our intervention. We designed each lifeform to play its role and be believable individually, which led to lots of unexpected consequences when we put them all together. One was the fact that the ecosystem is perfectly capable of growing and evolving itself once you get it started. We observed that and decided it was appropriate to our goals, much more so than it would be to force the player to cultivate every lifeform themselves. Players often describe the calm appeal of watching the ecosystem they’ve set in motion take on a life of its own.
Paste: Exploration is a draw in Waking Mars — to me, more so than in other adventure games, mostly because you’re in this vaguely plausible scenario where you’re thrilled by the discovery of each new lifeform. The game then keeps up that excitement by making discovering how lifeforms interact a recurring objective. Yet I seldom felt as though I were merely checking off boxes, as I often do when playing games with a long list of objectives (e.g., Red Dead Redemption). How did you balance guiding the player with providing the opportunity for what felt like genuine discovery?
Smith: It’s pretty common when you’re designing a game like this that you know exactly when certain events will happen for the player, because they are prescribed in some way. They might be baked into the story, or they might be objectives that are enforced before the player can proceed. And there certainly is some of that, enough to keep the player on the main path, but we approached the design of Waking Mars with a more open-ended ideology. The Research System in the game is an encyclopedia that gets automatically filled out as the player discovers new lifeforms and observes each of their unique behaviors, and we programmed it to have few if any expectations about when those events would occur.
For example, there is nothing in the game that enforces you learn how to get Halid Zoa to heal you, nor that you learn how Cycots reproduce, how to enrich Hydrons so they grow larger, or what happens when you feed a certain secret item to a Phyte. Players all learn it at different times, depending on their level of interest and their investigative abilities. This provides a wonderful feeling of ownership when it finally happens: it feels more like you figured it out for yourself, not that the game forced you to understand it. You might stumble upon it accidentally, or pursue it deliberately, but either way it’s an example of the player authoring their own story within the context we’ve provided. Player ownership of this type is one of the amazing experiences that are unique to the medium of videogames, something that books and films just can’t do, so we strive to keep our games flexible enough for it to emerge.