The Martian Question: The Weight of Expectation under Martian Gravity, and Other Tales for Children

“You have to have Martians.” my girlfriend says. “People want to fight Martians! On Mars!”

I originally posted this over on The Martian Question site, but thought I’d better mirror it here. The project is on hold until Byron can again spare the time to work on it. As writer and designer, my role is very much minimal compared to the programmers and artists.

“You have to have Martians.” my girlfriend says. “People want to fight Martians! On Mars!”

I sigh. We’re going for scientific accuracy on this project, partly from a sense of wanting to explore several thought experiments, partly because our funding from the Wellcome Trust is predicated on it. The only Martians we hope to encounter during this adventure will be microscopic. But it’s so hard to disappoint the game-playing public who, we’re regularly assured by marketing departments, just want to shoot aliens to save mankind. And then maybe talk to them and Audrey from Little Shop of Horrors in the sequel.

And this is an adventure. Making a prototype for an open world game in a month, then presenting it live, on-stage? That’s sort of the mad adventure we didn’t really realise we were signing up to when I first mentioned the idea. Here’s our Wellcome pitch, for those who are interested – you can see an explanation of the pitch and the original, much more fun, pitch script here.

I’ve been mulling over the idea behind our game for many years. Around the beginning of 2013, various books I’d read had crystallised a vague idea into something more specific – a story-driven hard science open world Mars exploration game. I never thought I’d actually get to make it. Until I happened to be sharing a room with Unity whiz Byron Atkinson-Jones at GDC.

He asked me, one night when his own snoring kept him awake – and Byron’s snoring, by the way, is infamous. I was in an earthquake in San Francisco during the previous GDC which nearly tipped me out of a 6th storey window and even that was quieter than Byron’s babbling bronchi. Anyway, he asked me, what game I’d make if I could make one. I gave him the spiel. Exploring Mars, first-person perspective, compelling morally-compromising divergent story, and so on. The sort of stuff that games journalists babble to each other all the time.

He said he wanted to make it. I was… stunned.

Y’see, I’ve never made a game. I’ve not programmed any code since the BBC Micro era and I’ve bounced off the increasingly friendly game-making tools, the same way I bounced off learning other languages as an adult. It’s hard to maintain an attention span for the improper conjugation of pluperfect participles when there’s all that SF to be read and games to be played and survival funds to be scraped together.

But even I know that programmers are kind of magicians. During my years as a journalist, I’ve watched good ones at work and been amazed at how fast they can throw out a working game.

(And I loathe the UK governments of my childhood who thought that the programming I was learning on the BBC Micro wasn’t as important as learning how to use Excel and Word. Those Luddite politicians killed our nascent culture of computational creativity before it really got started, the same way they’d killed computing in the 50s when they dismantled Colossus and lost us thirty years of programming progress. They made secretaries and data-entry clerks out of artists and wizards. So I am in utter awe of anyone of that generation who managed to come through it able to program, as they have to be mostly self-taught.)

So, to me, Byron saying he wanted to make my game was a bit like a Wizard coming up to me, a smelly halfling, and saying that I could get the treasure and fight the dragon and win the boy/girl / pie, and not even have to leave my hobbit hole.

Anyway, that’s how we started. When I found about the Wellcome Trust development grants (at an Evolve day I happened to be taking photos of) it seemed obvious to apply, to get the project off the ground. I just poured all the things that had been into my head into the submission form, Byron guestimated a budget, and we were away. We never actually expected to get the funding, I think.

So here we are. Making a game about exploring Mars, from the perspective of a cyborg, making it as hard science as we can. You can read about the team we’ve got working on the game here, a bit about the inspiration behind the game here, and take a look at our initial research here (and, yes, all those tags are going to have more stuff behind them as the weeks go by). Hopefully, soon, we’ll have something slightly more gamey to show you.

But, I’m happy to disappoint you, it won’t involve shooting Martians.

Argue with me