Surviving Mars is, at its heart, a game about planning for the worst and overcoming a literal planet load of problems. But what happens to the player’s view on the value of life when you chose to turbo charge the game’s difficulty with alcoholic refugees from earth with very little practical skills?
JJ Robinson looks at a surprisingly meditative and sentimental story-driven survival city sim that reflects on the promise and tenuousness of the human condition.
It was a terrible choice. The meteor had struck the tunnel entrance, as if aimed by a malevolent orbital sniper seeking to inflict maximum damage to the tiny human colony on Mars. The 40-odd in-game colonists lived huddled under two small clear polymer domes, separated by a plateau and sustained by a trickle of air, water, food and electricity as they went about their business mining rare metals and making Martian babies.
A threadbare assortment of pipes, pumps and powerlines ran through a tunnel uphill from the lower colony to the habitation dome on the plateau. This had been a relatively expensive investment, not only allowing the robotic rovers to access resources on the higher terrain, but also efficiently ducting the ingredients of life between the two habitation bubbles. It was supposed to become a fall-back system once local air purifiers, solar cells and turbines were built to supply the new dome, but until then, a single life support link was a critical weak point in the colony’s design.
Expecting the worst
The meteor was bad luck. But Surviving Mars challenges you to expect the worst, to mitigate, forecast the weather and build redundancies into your critical systems. With its cold snaps, meteor showers and electrostatic dust storms, the planet of Mars in the game might feel out to get you at times, but bad luck is always beatable through good planning. What wasn’t bad luck was the sadistic decision to establish a colony in the highest, coldest, meteor-ist sector of Mars. Landing site selection at the start of the game mirrors the actual topography of the red planet: 41 degrees north, 111 degrees west is the meanest of the lot, with the fewest resources and intense susceptibility to disaster.
This was compounded by the ‘Last War’ scenario, one of the random story overlays on the city builder. Earth is ravaged by nuclear war soon after the first 12 Mars colonists depart; they land on the planet utterly on their own, with no further help from home. These pioneers – all alcoholic amateurs, due to additional difficulty checkboxes – were entrusted to begin a new civilisation from tenuous beginnings. The stakes were high: specifically the maximum score bonus of 1075 per cent .
The colonists on the plateau knew they were in trouble when the meteor hit, but a small oxygen tank, battery array, and a half-full water tower next to the dome was enough to buy them a few hours to ponder their fate while drones and rovers rushed to assemble an alternative life support network. Rebuilding the tunnel wasn’t an immediate option – it was expensive and the colonists would suffocate long before it was complete. Building a ramp up the plateau and running pipes and powerlines along it was a cheaper option, but the earthworks would also take time. The process was also logistically challenging.
Resources for building or maintenance in Surviving Mars don’t magically appear at the construction site: they need to be delivered from a depot by a robotic drone or manually-controlled cargo rover. Drones not only require frequent charging but are limited in range by expensive radio control towers.
Building the ramp was just the start: installing emergency life support lines meant using supply trucks to dump resource stockpiles along the route then manually juggling the mobile drone control rover to assemble the pipes and wires. This would take time the colonists didn’t have: prospective fatalities in the game include freezing, starving, dehydration, insanity, suicide and by far the quickest and most lethal: suffocation.
First it taketh – then it giveth…
With the battery and oxygen tanks draining, it was a race as to whether the plateau colonists would freeze or suffocate. Construction of local solar panels and oxygen purifiers was an urgent priority, but the required metals were in a depot at the other end of the collapsed tunnel. With no other option, the dome’s supply rover fatalistically trundled off into the unknown reaches of the Martian desert in search of surface metals, or a lost Curiosity rover to cannibalise.
It got lucky. While meteor showers taketh away, they also giveth: one of the larger rocks contained metal and had scattered it across the dust bowl. The dome’s lights flickered out and the inhabitants were plunged into freezing frightened darkness, just as the rover returned with half a cargo-hold of metal. A drone used the last of its battery charge to assemble a solar panel, narrowly averting the cold, lonely death of half the remaining human race.
A drone used the last of its battery charge to assemble a solar panel, narrowly averting the cold, lonely death of half the remaining human race.
This bought reprieve, sufficient to complete the ramp and connect the plateau dome to the main colony with power and water lines. The connection was still highly vulnerable – not to fiery death from above, but dust. If meteor showers are the boss battles of Surviving Mars, the fine, corrosive Martian soil that gets into everything is the mook. Sudden pipe cracks or shorting powerlines quickly drain your tanks and batteries, triggering a cascade of disaster as drone control systems lose power, stalling maintenance as turbines grind to a halt and production buildings clog up with sand. Big disasters might knock a colony down, but it’s dust that creeps up and finally slides in the knife.
Barely recovered from the meteor, the twin domes of 41°N, 111°W were about to face a terrible decision. A cold snap forced a spike in energy use as the colony strained to avoid freezing.
Weather forecasts meant there had been time to erect powerful heating towers, supplied with water from subsurface pumps near the lower dome. The colony could go about its chilly business, mildly inconvenienced – until a remote section of pipe linking the domes burst without warning, spilling precious water and oxygen into the Martian atmosphere. Without mains supply, the heating tower on the plateau swiftly drained its local water tanks, and perhaps ironically, froze over. Lights in both domes flickered out as the electricity cost of keeping the colony alive against the cold instantly doubled. Freezing colonists, running about in the panicking and dark, abandoned their jobs… including those at the hydroponic algae farm recycling the dome’s oxygen. The domes, once places of safety from the inhospitable Martian surface with brightly-lit bars, schools, diners and gardens, suddenly became suffocating, claustrophobic tombs. A choice had to be made, and it had to made in the span of one breath: there was only power for one dome. The other would die in the dark. One would survive, or none.
Surviving Mars explores vulnerability and human frailty. It does so not from the angle of overcoming despair and adversity, but from a sense of wonder, optimism, exploration and achievement. One of the final win objectives is placing 40 per cent of your population into workshops, creating art, robotics or VR landscapes: jobs that contribute nothing to the immediate survival of the colony, but rather explore the potential of the human condition. A recent expansion introduced terraforming; invest your scarce resources and over time the harsh environment slowly becomes friendlier. Pump smog to spur global warming and create an atmosphere, use rockets to seed the planet with lichen, set vast arrays of moisture vaporators to create lakes of liquid water, and nuke the polar ice-caps to alter the climate irreversibly. The real endgame achievements in Surviving Mars are the fruits of your environmental vandalism: the first shower of rain, trees sprouting in your greening colony, and the moment you open the domes to the atmosphere and need never worry about suffocation again.
Surviving Mar works surprisingly well as a learning tool, to excite players about the science and practicalities of space exploration. The dome colonies might be less inspired by the pragmatic take of The Martian than they are the sleek cities of 60s sci-fi, as depicted in NASA’s recent Visions of the Future poster campaign. This aside, much of the initial technology used to set up your colony is credible and grounded in present-day science, as is the tactic of using drones to establish the majority of a colony’s basic infrastructure before arrival of the first human. I initially thought the MOXIE oxygen production structures were a disposable sci-fi gizmo, but NASA’s ‘Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment’ is fully legitimate… as is harvesting the sulfur-rich Martian regolith to produce strong and durable concrete. Later techs such as cloning vats might be less convincing, but really, by that point, who knows what we’ll be able to do?
The game also very effectively embeds story threads in a genre of game that doesn’t tend to do such directed narrative.
Haemimont, the independent Bulgarian developer, has some experience of this with the Tropico series: semi-satirical city builders that put the player in charge of an ambitious banana republic, navigating scenarios ranging from British colonisation to the Cold War. Simulation of individual colonists in Surviving Mars is far less sophisticated than Tropico’s political layer, and is one of the weaker aspects of the game.
Terminal colony failures would feel more meaningful if the inhabitants were more than cute animations and a population number at the top of the screen. Competing colonies also feel under-developed, with interactions limited to begging for resources or meaningless sabotage. It’s fun to abduct colonists from the Elon Musk-esque ‘SpaceY’ or beg Europe to fly over some polymers, but the space is unengaging. Far better to turn this off and imagine yourself as the only souls out up there on the red rock.
The music is exceptional. The DJ’ed radio stations are quirky and original with hours of original music from real bands, ranging from Firefly-invoking western to the kooky multinational MarsVision song contest. The effect is to really enhance an already incredibly immersive and atmospheric game. My favourite was Quantum Sonics, with tracks ranging from riffs on Gustav Holt’s Mars to mournful sagas of parental separation and meditative reflections on the cosmos. If you need cheering up after half your colony suffocates in the cold dark, Rockets is your go-to. More games should seek out bands for original performances.
Life goes on at 41°N, 111°W
Hundreds of (in-game) years later, 41°N, 111°W is a thriving Martian city, green and open to the elements with a breathable, alpine climate. Thousands of people pursue long lives of exploration and pioneering potential, freed from labour by automation and abundance. The colony’s first dome remains empty, a monument to those who died so others could live, the space between the frozen homes, shops and restaurants filled with small concrete statues. I’m finally ready to finish the game, cursor approaching the menu.
Suddenly, an alert pops up. Survivors of the war on Earth contact the Martian colony, pleading for help. Mars sends rocket after rocket home, full of materials, food, people, and hope. One civilisation rebuilding another. ‘You did good kid,’ the game seems to say, sending me off to the universe with a little narrative pat on the back.