On the morning of August 6 2012, the Curiosity rover touched down on Mars, and with it landed the hopes and dreams of millions. The little science lab inside a robot was a technological marvel that showed humans could push the frontier scores of million of miles from Earth. We could put a robot on another planet, so what next?
For Tyler Owen however, the landing was something else: it was the inspiration for his very own video game set on the planet, Lacuna Passage.
“The Curiosity rover was the moment when I knew I wanted the game set on Mars,” he tells Red Bull UK. The software developer from Kansas got to work, and eleven months later, he had a prototype he was ready to show the world.
The game, an eery first person open world explorer set on the red planet, is a cross between Dead Space, lo-fi adventure games like Myst and even the seminal sci-fi flick 2001: A Space Odyssey. You play as Jessica Rainer, the sole survivor of the crashed Heracles mission, sent to explore what happened to the vanished crew of the first ever manned mission to Mars.
Armed with little more than a camera, it’s up to you to piece together the puzzle of what happened, from the wreckage and the barren landscape around you, by finding clues, mission logs, audio files and other clues, all while making sure you keep your own vital steady (by monitoring your blood and even your urine) and avoid your predecessors’ fate.
What makes Lacuna Passage stand out though, long before its release, is its painstaking attention to detail: the game recreates the surface of the planet with astonishing accuracy. Owen and his team have rendered twenty-five square miles of the planet from sweeping deserts and ancient sea beds to crumbling mountains, courtesy of publicly available NASA satellite data. Talk about an authentic experience - though there was a more practical reason behind the move, Owen explains.
“Part of the thinking behind using satellite data for the terrain was to lessen the burden on us to create every inch by hand. If NASA provides this data freely then why not use it? When we started seeing what we could do with it we realized that it really makes you feel like you are there - just knowing that the features are real adds a level of credibility to everything you encounter.”
NASA’s data let Owen and his team of a dozen or so volunteer artists quickly popular a massive, convincing game world, but working on this sort of scale has its drawbacks: striking a balance between an epic scope and keeping a gamer’s fickle attention is a tough challenge.
“It's difficult to measure the time to traverse [the game world] right now with it being this early in development, but we are trying to find a balance between scale and fun,” he says. “Walking for an hour in the game just to get to a new area is exactly the experience we want to have, so we try to find interesting landmarks to populate that space with. Little pit stops on your journey.”
Should you ever tire of the stunning vistas though, you can always jump to speed things up. “Gravity is about a third of what Earth's gravity is so yes, you can jump quite a bit higher than you normally would be able to.”
Owen’s taken a few liberties with the landscape, of course, to better suit the plot as it unfolds. “Occasionally we have to tweak the terrain data a little to suit the needs of the story also,” he says. Intriguingly, it appears the story won’t confine you to the surface.
“We have a few subterranean elements that we are taking liberties with along with of course the various habitats and other human-made modules for you to explore.” To keep with the authentic atmosphere, all the capsules, vehicles and man-made structures have been drawn from real life proposals of manned missions to Mars.
Of course, a trip to Mars wouldn’t be the same without a Curiosity style rover. Owen won’t confirm or deny you’ll be able to pilot the robot, but does drop a heavy hint. “I can say that we want the player to be able to interact with anything in the game that they might reasonably assume they can interact with,” he teases.
As director, programmer and writer of Lucana Passage, Owen is keeping the story very much under wraps, a tricky challenge when he has 1,830 investors to appease in run up to the game’s launch in December 2014 (The game will retail for between $15-$20, he estimates, or £10-£13), who expect plenty of transparency. In July, Owen raised $54,295 (£35,000) on crowdfunding site Kickstarter, smashing his target of $40,000 (£26,000).
“As the creator of the game I'm responsible for the story, but I've been writing all my life. Nothing professionally, but I think a lot of what a good game designer does is tells stories through complex systems. It's going to be a challenge to live up to our backer's expectations for the story, but I am confident that the themes and plot lines in Lacuna Passage will resonate with a wide audience.”
Lacuna Passage isn’t Owen’s first game, but it is his most ambitious. Owen teaches computer class at an elementary school for a living, and for the last four years has dabbled in small Flash and iPhone games as a hobby. “My goal has always been to eventually work on indie games full-time. The Kickstarter funding for Lacuna Passage will allow me to do that now,” he says.
The funding also comes with new commitments, however: one of the campaign’s stretch goals was to provide support for the incredible Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, a target the team hit. The headset makes good on the VR dreams of the 90s, using smartphone screens and goggles to create a level of immersion in games we’ve only ever dreamed of, and Lacuna Passage’s first person, stuck inside a helmet viewpoints is perfect for it. Owen has been getting stuck in, figuring out what’s possible.
“We have our Oculus Rift development kit and it's been a lot of fun to play around with. Thankfully we just reached our stretch goal for Rift support so I think we can safely say that the challenges involved with Rift implementation can be tackled with that extra funding.” Surprisingly, the hardest part is making text work when it’s inches from your eyeballs. “The difficult parts are optimizing menus and interactive elements for the different field of view,” he explains.
Lacuna Passage is currently being developed for PC, Mac and Linux, but even though Owen missed out on his $125,000 (£80,600) target to explore porting the game to other consoles, it seems Owen is still toying with the idea: he reckons the dual-screen set-up of Nintendo’s latest console would prove perfect for the game, which relies heavily on a tablet computer you carry around with you at all times to progress the story.
“As far as other platforms are concerned we think that it would be really cool to see Lacuna Passage on the Wii U with the controller touch screen acting as your datapad,” he says.
After that? The galaxy is the limit, or perhaps not. Would Owen consider other planets for future projects?
“It depends on if I think there is a story worth telling on those planets. The universe is a pretty big place, so who knows? Europa [Jupiter’s moon with an oxygen atmosphere] has always been another very intriguing location.”
As the interview ends, we have to ask one final question. Come on. Tell us. Should we expect aliens in Lacuna Passage? Or would that be spoiling it?
If Owen knows yet, he’s keeping his cards very close to his chest. “I'll just say that 2001: A Space Odyssey is a huge influence on us thematically.”