If an angry Martian walked up to you in the street, cocked his ray-gun and told you to name a Mars-based video-game, what would you say? Red Faction is what I’d say, the Mars game for me. But the heyday of Red Faction has now passed, and is a sad and familiar story of a series bleeding into the dust due to dwindling sales. The recent release of a Red Faction: Guerilla remaster doesn’t feel like new life to me, so much as the final nail in the coffin (as remasters often do). The bell tolls for Red Faction.
The red planet, on the other hand, is both distinct from any one interpretation, and in what looks like rude health. There is a bonanza of possible answers to our threatening Martian, not least because games have taken such direct inspiration from science fiction and coded their words into some new form of life. Guerilla's concept was never original: the premise of oppressed humans wanting to leave a doomed and declining earth to find new life on Mars is a familiar setup, exemplified by Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles story, The Taxpayer:
‘He and thousands of others like him, if they had any sense, would go to Mars. See if they wouldn’t! To get away from wars and censorship and statism and conscription and the government control of this and that, of art and science! You could have earth! He was offering his good right hand, his heart, his head, for the opportunity to go to Mars!’
The promise of Mars is, here, the promise of utopia. The perspectives of Mars we find in video games almost never originate from video games themselves. Dozens of science fiction authors lie behind video game visions of the red planet and, from the tiniest details of daily life in such an atmosphere to the possibility of alien life, to this day our industry is channelling and reinventing those old perspectives.
39 Days to Mars — The Speedy Journey
‘The longer the world exists, my dear Tactus, the more discoveries of Nature’s never-ceasing wonders will be made, and the children of mankind will ever strive to imitate them with their inventions.’
These are the words spoken by Fama in E.C. Kindermann’s story The Speedy Journey, just before five intrepid explorers launch their balloon ship on an expedition to Mars’s first moon. Published in 1744, it is often regarded as one of the first pieces of science fiction, and harks back to a time when the sky seemed the limit in terms of scientific imagination. A time when adventurers might fire themselves at the moon from a cannon (as in Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon), or in this case build balloon ships to float through space. It’s easy to read with modern eyes and laugh at the silliness of The Speedy Journey, such as when Fama assures our heroes that "Your hunger will pass as soon as you leave the corrosive air" or that "You will suffocate without wet sponges" — but to do so would be to misunderstand such a pioneering imaginative exercise. Around 270 years ago a man observed Mars, and then wrote a story about travelling there in a ship.
It is something of the spirit of this era that indie co-op adventure 39 Days to Mars tries to capture. You play as inventors Sir Albert Wickes and The Right Honourable Clarence Baxter, who spontaneously decide to take a trip to Mars. In the HMS Fearful you solve puzzles and undertake mini-games to repair the homemade ship, which is constantly falling apart. 39 Days to Mars derives humour from pseudo-scientific silliness, but also, with the help of a beautiful piano soundtrack, channels the wholesome spirit of adventure that underlies almost all early sci-fi.
I said above some ideas may seem silly to modern eyes. But the power of such imaginations can never be underestimated. Kindermann's story represents balloon flight forty years before it became a reality. Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon allegedly inspired Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, one of the fathers of astronautics, in his pursuit of the theory of spaceflight. To keep forging ahead, humanity sometimes needs dreams as much as science.
ROKH — Alien Dust
‘Why should young blood be wasted on this arid world? Why should we spend a generation on this one planet when there are so many others? He smiled at her. You are an idealist. You think of Mars in terms of romance. There is no romance. What have we to offer? A few weeks of free-fall, then desolation. Work, more work, and then still more work. And at the end — death.’
For many Mars is a symbol of hope, of colonisation and, with that, the future of all humanity. But in E.C Tubb’s Alien Dust series, we see a different perspective. History shows us that colonisation has always been a grim affair: fraught with sickness, hunger, crime, disaster, setbacks, and greedy home nations that demand economic returns. So why should Mars be any different? Tubb represents all of these aspects in the series, juxtaposing the ideas of hope and new life with the harsh and desolate Martian landscape which is, as he unforgettably describes it, ‘A murdered world.’
ROKH is also undoubtedly grim; The Long Dark of Mars games. But while The Long Dark demonstrates a bittersweet beauty with its art style and setting, ROKH’s realism and desolate landscape, dotted with colony ruins, make it relentlessly depressing. Taking place in a colony that has already failed, you are part of a second wave but have crashed on the planet by yourself. You must build, salvage supplies and investigate ruins to piece together the previous colony’s downfall. ROKH’s true grimness lies in its lack of sustainability so, as in The Long Dark, you exist as part of a downward cycle. This fills the atmosphere with futility such that, while difficult to play sometimes, it feels like a worthy representation of Tubb’s ‘murdered world’ and all the bureaucratic, colonial, inhuman choices that get us there.
MarZ Rising — The Time Tombs
‘Each night he came, stealing into the tomb where she had lain for ten thousand years, unable to bring himself to interrupt her. The long copper hair streamed behind her like an entrained time-wind, her angled body in flight between two infinitely distant universes, where archetypal beings of superhuman stature glimmered fitfully in their own spontaneously generated light’
How many times have you been told to go a research station, only to find the scientists have killed each other after becoming obsessed with a piece of ancient technology? It’s a setup beloved by games and science-fiction both, but few stories sum up the allure of ancient technology on Mars better than J.G Ballard’s The Time Tombs. Here we follow Shepley, a prospector on Mars illegally robbing time tombs: caches in which ancient beings have stored themselves in the form of light and code, with the hope of resurrection. But the modern day inhabitants of Mars are far more cynical and, seeing a profit to be made, break down the ancient tombs for scrap. One day, Shepley finds the tomb of an ancient woman, and his obsession with her leads to his downfall...
So many games pick up the basic premise of stories like this, but a few go further in creating environments that reflect such themes, and root themselves in unknown structures. MarZ Rising is also about obsession with ancient technology. If you had to give it a genre you'd say tower defence, but here you play as a team investigating a colony attack by zombified Russian cosmonauts, and the series of ancient alien monoliths that seem to have transformed them. Each level you hold off wave after wave as you continue to investigate the alien structures. The premise of the monoliths instantly brings to mind Arthur C. Clarke’s story, The Sentinel, about a pyramid on the moon, left by ancient aliens with an unknown purpose. MarZ Rising uses the premise of these monoliths to draw the gamer deeper down the rabbit hole. It relates an ancient and mysterious Mars, and our obsession with origins, before the dangers of delving too far beyond our conception become clear.
Surviving Mars — Barsoom
‘About noon I passed low over a great dead city of ancient Mars, and as I skimmed out across the plain beyond I came full upon several thousand green warriors engaged in a terrific battle.’
Did you know that people used to think there were canals on Mars? This was due to a mistranslation of Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877, who observed a series of areas which he referred to as ‘canali’. But the word was incorrectly translated as canal, which implies they were constructed. This sparked the imagination of many sci-fi authors, who began picturing Martian civilisations, with huge cities and waterways stretching for hundreds of miles. Edgar Rice Burroughs was one such author and we see that influence in his Barsoom series, where the great city states of Mars wage war over a limited supply of water, which is transported by grand canals. The Barsoom series is a grand romantic vision of Mars, typical of Burroughs, where a brave and righteous hero fights an obnoxious villain (in order to save a beautiful and virtuous princess) all within the confines of a 'typical' adventure arc.
So how does this influence a game about colonisation? While mechanically Surviving Mars represents the difficulties of managing a colony, it is effectively the polar opposite of E.C Tubb’s grim perspective of what such an enterprise might entail. Surviving Mars owes Barsoom little in terms of subject matter, but what it does share is this romantic vision of humans placing down roots somewhere far, far away. Surviving Mars is focused on the successful realisation of an old-fashioned ideal — hope for humanity — and in this sense it is a torch-bearer for Barsoom and this more optimistic vision of the red planet. All you have to do is listen to the epic soundtrack, observe the quirky and cute art style, and note that even the rocket has a smiley face on it. This vision of Mars brims with positivity, it is a planet of possibilities where, though the struggle may be real, the good will in the end triumph.
Mars is dead. Long live Mars!
Mars is a contradiction. It is a planet of life and hope, but also a planet of death; a murdered world. It is a planet that represents so much to so many, yet we know comparatively little about it and the potential secrets that lurk beneath its surface.
As we see SpaceX planning their Mars colony mission and NASA launching InSight, those of us who grew up with science fiction remain hopeful that some of these ideas may yet become a reality in our lifetimes. But there is also a possibility we may never see it. We live in an age where the American president would rather talk about the tabloid pipe-dream of a military 'Space Force' than long-term projects for the betterment of humankind, and the political atmosphere feels far removed from the days of John F. Kennedy:
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
The distance to Mars has not increased nor lessened over the years. What these games show us is that, even after many hundreds of years of dreaming about our solar system, the red planet retains a special capacity to inspire. Mediums may change, and science progress beyond measure, but the possibilities of Mars remain irresistible to the human imagination.