Published On: Wed, May 14th, 2014 on 1:47 pm

Games: Extrasolar is light years ahead of the game

Extrasolar Game

“Dream to worlds beyond” is the mantra of the Exoplanetary Research Institute. For people like me, that’s not a difficult task. The prospect of alien planets and what they may hold is easy to get excited about. Extrasolar is a game which taps directly into that feeling.

Set in an alternate universe, where faster-than-light communication was discovered in 1995, and interstellar travel is feasible in decades instead of millennia, yet all of this covered up from the public, Extrasolar invites you to be a part of the Exoplanetary Research Institute’s mission to explore Epsilon Prime. A fictional planet in the Epsilon Eridani system, often a popular science fiction target, holding until recently the closest known extrasolar planet, or exoplanet, to Earth.

Played entirely within any browser window, once you have signed up to the program, you will be given command of your own planetary rover. You will be able to direct it to drive around the surface of the planet and take pictures, which you will then be able to analyse for alien life. The twist is that you never get direct control, you’ll be able to tell the rover where you want it to go via an overhead map and then you’ll have to wait a few hours for it to do its thing in real time.

Extrasolar strives at every opportunity to blur the lines between game and reality. Every element of the project is delivered in complete seriousness. From telling you that you’re bound by NDA not to leak the top secret scientific advancements you’re working with, to the numerous scientist-run blogs detailing their findings, and even the one conspiracy nut convinced the organisation is hiding something all work together to build up an incredibly convincing picture.

The team at Lazy 8 who created Extrasolar have also worked with a number of real world scientists in order to strive for scientific accuracy. Jane Van Susteren, a Botanist from California was initially consulted about the plant life on Epsilon Prime. She would later star as herself as XRI’s Lead Exobiologist, and will frequently be in contact with you about her speculation and testing of the life you find on the planet. All of her content is written by the real Jane, approaching it from a genuine scientific perspective and her own brand of dry humour. It’s never dumbed-down to make it more palatable, the game wants you to be as scientifically curious and eager to learn as the scientists at XRI, so be prepared to look up terms you’ve never heard before. The world itself you’ll be photographing is also beautifully rendered. It doesn’t take much suspension of disbelief to tell yourself you’re genuinely helping out with cutting edge science on alien planets.

It quickly becomes apparent that the aforementioned conspiracy nut might not be entirely barking up the wrong tree, as it seems like XRI are keeping things from you in their communications. What starts life as an interesting approach to planetary exploration soon turns into espionage and intrigue, with all of the major clues on a planet 10 light-years away. It’s all very compelling, and even more so for the dedication to realism.

It’s not flawless, for example the realisation that your rover will always take exactly four hours to get to its next destination is a little jarring. Whether you command it to cross that big flat plain, scale a mountain or bypass a sheer rock face it’ll always get there without fail four hours later bang on the dot. There’s a few other moments like this that make you feel like you’ve just spotted the man behind the curtain, when otherwise it was all so convincing. But as long as you don’t dig too deep into the mechanics of the world it’s more enjoyable.

The nature of the game makes it extremely accessible to anyone, and can easily be played in small bites over a span of time, and it will run in any web browser. You plan out what you want your rover to do, and can come back several hours later to see what it has found. It never asks for more than a few minutes of your time, but you’ll keep coming back for more.

Extrasolar is developed by Lazy 8 Studios and can be played for free at www.extrasolar.com.

About the Author

Jon Biggin

- Founder and Co-ordinator of Bradford-based video gaming collective, Button Mash.

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