January 21, 2013 by khrisgolder
Khris Golder: A lot of fans don’t know that Waking Mars originally ran off a different title: Lost Mars.
Randy Smith: Yes. For Fantastic Arcade in 2011 the game was just barely ready to be shown to the world, but we hadn’t settled on the title yet. There was a spirited internal debate about what to name the game. We went with Lost Mars for Fantastic Arcade but later refined it to Waking Mars, which we felt better captured the spirit of bringing an alien planet back to life, stirring it from its slumber.
KG: One of the game’s most notable intrigues is the glamorization of education, something Tiger Style seems to exercise in your titles. You have emphasized in the past how much time goes into researching facts to make the fiction feel as real as possible. How much time goes into the implementation of these facts into gameplay?
Randy Smith: We work from a highly credible foundation of facts, a fairly deep understanding of our subject material. From an artistic perspective, it’s very dubious to start communicating about anything until you have a thorough familiarity with it, because otherwise your guesses will contaminate the honesty of your work, which does a disservice to your audience. For example, early on in Waking Mars I needed to start building example levels to prototype our game mechanics, but I felt really stuck picking out the shapes of the caves.
Randy Smith (Continued): I knew there were real caves on Mars, but what shape did they have, what material were they composed of? Could stalactites exist on Mars? Would they be different due to the lower gravity? Thinking it through, I realized I didn’t really know what conditions were required for stalactites to form, and for that matter I didn’t know enough about how caves form in general, or how life evolves, or enough about any of a dozen topics to depict the subject of “life evolving in caves under Mars” in a way that would be more than just speculation and garbage. So I spent many weeks researching those topics in the course of designing and building out our world and game systems. Some of this winds up surfacing not at all, but quite a bit of it helps give the game credible texture and even impacts the gameplay. When you play Waking Mars, you aren’t just goofing off with silly game mechanics, you’re also interacting with a credible depiction of real ecosystems, and that’s crucial to us. Just by being as honest as it is, the gameplay gives you a chance to explore our ideas about what makes ecosystems fascinating, functional, and important.
KG: What inspired the nonviolent gameplay in Waking Mars?
Randy Smith: Waking Mars started as a caving survival game set on present day Earth, but when we had a hard time populating that environment with casual-appropriate content, we migrated the game to sci-fi so we could incorporate more exploration, more powerful player tools, and, most relevantly, alien creatures.
Randy Smith (Continued): Eventually the caving all but disappeared from the gameplay, and the focus was very much on encountering and manipulating an elaborate alien ecosystem. In a way, creating life is the obvious alternative to violent conflict, and the game was also influenced by the National Geographic book Our Universe, which had a couple pages speculating on very believable creatures that might exist on other planets in our Solar System.
KG: Waking Mars was great, but the ending left a gaping hole in Liang’s tale (figuratively and literally). When can we expect to see the sequel?
Randy Smith: The ending you see for Waking Mars depends on how thoroughly you play and the choices you make, but none of them provide tidy closure to Liang’s tale, and all of them ask the audience to put imagination into interpreting what happens next. The same is true of Spider – although all of the clues add up, the player is still responsible for interpreting them and deciding what actually went down in Bryce Manor. I think I’m drawn to this type of storytelling because ultimately the game belongs to the player, not to me, so I feel like when I tell a story, I’m building a boat and casting it into the pond, after which it’s hands off and the wind will blow it from there.
All that said, the very last, secret, ultimate ending of Waking Mars I feel is the most appropriate one for Liang, given everything you learn about him, his feelings for Earth and the Martian ecosystem, and the ancient fate of the red planet. We don’t know what he sees next, but we do know it’s what is most fitting for him. I’d like to think a sequel, should we ever make one, would start in the next moment of that branch of the story.
Interview Continued in Tiger Styles on Nonviolent Video Games.