Come for the control of a rover on an alien planet, stay for the [REDACTED]
When I was talking to one of the developers of Extrasolar on the show floor at PAX East, I said something that I now regret. "This looks like something I would really like, but might not appeal to a ton of other people." He responded gracefully, simply saying that they have a healthy number of players, and a good percentage of players see it through to the end.
To be fair, the presentation of Extrasolar in the Indie MEGABOOTH was intentionally muted. There, it was shown as a simple exploration game on an extrasolar planet. The player tells the rover where to go, and after a set amount of time it sends back a photo. The intrinsic value of that alone was enough to get me started, and I urge others to sign up for it now to experience it as intended. If you need further convincing, then keep reading. Prepare for minor spoilers.
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Extrasolar (Android, iOS, Linux, Mac, PC)
Developer: Lazy 8 Studios
Released: February 18, 2014
One of the draws of Extrasolar is its attention to scientific detail. It takes place on a world that could plausibly exist, orbiting Epsilon Eridani, the closest star with a known planet orbiting it. The development team consists of several science advisers in addition to traditional game designers.
The world itself is fictional, but it behaves as a real planet would. It has a set day/night cycle that does not match our own. It has two moons, each with its own orbit and resulting phases. It has water and islands, and our rover's journey begins on one particular island called Artocos.
On the surface, Extrasolar is as advertised. Most of the active playing involves scheduling a path for a rover, choosing its direction and basic lighting options, and taking a photo. The servers take in all of the variables (position, direction, time of day, et cetera) and produce a high resolution image. Indeed, every picture in this post is taken from my profile, and no photos taken by other players are identical.
However, right from the beginning, Extrasolar makes it clear that it is not as cut and dried as it outwardly admits. Upon activating an account, the player is initially denied access, with the head of the fictional space exploration company XRI citing a large volume of volunteers and a shortage of available rovers. Shortly afterward, an email shows up from an unknown hacker who gets you into the program.
This hacker's motivations are unclear at the outset, but it sets the stage for Extrasolar being something more than just a browser-based photo simulator. There is a narrative coursing through the entire experience, and it is divided into two threads: what they want you to know and what they do not want you to know.
What is really special about the narrative is that it transcends the browser, presenting information via live action video, audio files, PDF, and email. The result is an experience that facilitates the suspension of disbelief. Rather than pretending to physically be on another planet, the player only has to pretend that he is sitting at his computer, directing a rover and uncovering secrets as the story unfolds. It feels more real than almost anything else out there.
One thing that some players might not be able to get over is the pricing structure. Extrasolar is free to play, but it does not exploit that as severely as many other games in that space. For free, the player can schedule two photos ahead, has to wait four hours for each photo, and has limited uses for the panorama and infrared options. For a one-time purchase at ten dollars, the wait for each picture is reduced to one hour and the player is given unlimited uses of the options.
Even more money can go toward a type of season pass, which covers future missions off Artocos Island. Outside of those payment options, there are no microtransactions or other sinister money-grubbing tactics. It makes sense to treat the free version as a sort of demo (though one could technically play through the story entirely without paying), and to buy it if the demo pleases.
For me, it has been an immensely cool experience. Of all the games I got to see at PAX East, Extrasolar is one of the few that has invaded my psyche so completely. I make sure to schedule photos before I go to sleep, and I check them right when I wake up. Heck, I am playing the game right now, eagerly looking forward to what my next photo will turn up, and what revelations will arise from that within its hidden narrative.