I didn’t know it was a port. After playing it for over an hour in my first session, I didn’t know Waking Mars originally started as an iOS game before making its way to Steam via the Greenlight service. That’s how good the PC version is. It wasn’t until I needed to stop for the night that I noticed the “Exit App” message on the menu. Before that, I was convinced it was a sleeper hit that had made its way onto Steam with very few places other Kotaku and Rock Paper Shotgun paying attention at all.
I don’t use the term “sleeper hit” lightly either. Every time I thought it might be playing its few notes a little too much, the game would switch up the pattern, give out just a little bit more of the story, or expect me to figure out how to backtrack, collect what I needed, and solve a new puzzle. Often, at just the right moment, it would stop holding my hand and wait for me to figure out the solution. For a game fundamentally about gardening, it manages to remix two genres I didn’t think could be put together: exploration and simulation.
More than once I was reminded of the Metroid series. From the surprising deep backgrounds to the often ominous tone, Waking Mars achieves with environments what very few games other than the Metroid series have done: I was both amazed and just a little bit scared of what was around the next corner. With numerous plants, each with their own small amount of intelligence, I could believe that evolution could have cooked up this combination of predators and prey. I found myself awed at the small details that might be overlooked but absolutely made the difference between just-another-level and a unified biosphere. This was another world.
What really sold me on the game though was so simple that that it took me several hours worth of playing to figure out its beauty. There are no weapons whatsoever. In what could have easily been another game about shooting your way through an alien landscape, Waking Mars sticks to its story and premise of exploration. This is a scientist exploring the tunnels, planting things, and helping to discover what might be hidden underneath the barren plains of Mars. This is no marine and there is no place for guns. This is about life, growth, and what it means to communicate, both with each other and an alien intelligence.
Expecting players to associate and then remember seeds and plants with all their various interactions, Waking Mars isn’t afraid of sneaking in terms like acidic and alkaline to explain the reactions. This is a story about scientists and they would naturally use the correct terminology. Even with the occasional silly artificial intelligence response and scanning abilities that might smack of incongruity, the game takes time to analyze reproduction patterns of all the various organisms and supply information, when possible, on how such an ecosystem could have arisen on another world.
After 8 hours of playing, I came away from it highly impressed. Using nothing more than the ability to toss a half-dozen types of seeds, Waking Mars creates and maintains a consistent world of a small team of scientists exploring Mars and learning they are not alone in the galaxy. Without bullets of any kind and with more racial diversity than a handful of AAA games put together, Waking Mars uses a small vocabulary of few actions to tell a vast and meaningful story. It tries and succeeds at more than most game ever dare. It is worth your time.