Eat your heart out, Mark Watney. No, literally.
Space fiction is filled with fantastical antagonists—aliens, robots, alien robots, you get the idea. But if recent blockbusters like The Martian or Gravity are any indication, a more rigorous form of space realism is emerging within the genre, in which the enemy is circumstance itself. Space is hard, so the saying goes, and writers are increasingly cognizant that the peril faced by real astronauts is inspiration enough for fictional narratives.
Enter Tharsis, a turn-based game by Choice Provisions set for release on PlayStation 4 and Steam this Tuesday. The story calls out this survivalist theme right up top when the lead character, who commands a Mars-bound spaceship called the Iktomi, comments that the crew "had prepared for any disaster, for every disaster—but not all of them at once." Talk about laying down Murphy's Law.
Tharsis delivers on this premise by tossing a wide range of disaster scenarios at players, which can be mitigated with dice rolls that repair damage to the crew and ship (though some throws can also make matters worse).
Tharsis trailer. Video: PlayStation/YouTube
This emphasis on chance can be frustrating because you are bound to cast a whole lot of crew-killing, ship-exploding sets. But on a story level, it's a satisfying way to highlight the probabilistic nature of human spaceflight, not to mention it punches that central "shit happens" angle extra hard.
And oh, how shit happens. Indeed, what sets Tharsis apart from other space survival stories is the meticulous attention to detail paid to its ever-worsening parade of disaster scenarios.
"All 250+ events (with the exception of a couple that are jokes) are all pulled from various space agencies scenarios and simulations," lead producer Matt Hickman told me over email. "So they are all real things that can or have happened to various spacecraft like the [International Space Station], space shuttles, MIR, etc."
For instance, the crew has to juggle fires, leaks, fails, explosions, ruptures, and all manner of other threats. "We did a lot of research on the sort of things that are possible and what are the most dangerous," Hickman said. "Obviously, fire is the most dangerous thing you can have in an oxygen-filled sealed tube in space so that's pretty dramatic when it happens in the game, but things like micrometeor storms are a very real and dangerous phenomenon!"
In addition to all these hyper-realistic scenarios of ship failures, your crew is constantly facing mental and physical breakdowns from stress, injuries, and hunger. Cannibalism crops up as survival tactic fairly quickly, and I, for one, did not hesitate to chow down on fellow astronauts.
Tharsis also has a fun retro aesthetic going for it, with influences ranging from 1970s television to children's glockenspiels, according to director Mike Roush. There is also a mysterious thread running through the story that ties in with a previous game, entitled Laserlife, and will be explored in a third game at some point in the future. I can't expound on that, however, because I blew up my ship too many times.
Above all, the game's focus on chance, plausible scenarios, and grim consequences makes it a welcome palette-cleanser for the boundless Martian optimism that has been in the air recently. Don't get me wrong; it's great that people queue up to volunteer for Martian missions, or that we dream of a terraformed Red Planet turned Blue. I share those aspirations, and hope to live to see the first humans leave footprints in Martian dirt.
That said, there's a reason I don't want to actually be one of the first humans sent to Mars, and Tharsis sums it up beautifully. The game is as pessimistic as organizations like Mars One are optimistic, and that is a surprisingly refreshing perspective. More power to those who have the admirable courage to make that trip in real life, but until there is an Earth-Mars commuter train, I'll be over here trying to put out virtual fires on the Iktomi.