If you haven't played Lazy 8 Studios' award-winning Extrasolar, a deceptively simple planetary exploration game, now's a great time to start. It only takes a few minutes a day, it's browser-based and free (though you can pay to speed up your moves), and a Kickstarter to support Season 2 just went live today. Brb pledging...
So here's the idea. A rich private researcher has funded the Exoplanetary Research Institute -- XRI -- and developed technology that's made possible an unmanned flight to a recently discovered faraway planet, Epsilon Prime. They've dropped a bunch of rovers onto the surface so we can find out what's down there. Is there any sign of life? Possibly even visible life? How would a completely alien biology work?
You're a volunteer citizen scientist remote-controlling one of these rovers and exploring an island with varied terrain. The moves themselves are simple: you drag crosshairs on the map (which is actually made from "satellite photos" of the planet) to schedule rover stops.
If you're wondering whether there might be more to the story -- how did we develop this space travel technology so quickly? Does XRI have a hidden agenda? Are we sure this planet's unoccupied? -- you're thinking along the right lines. In parallel to the pursuit of scientific discovery, you'll also be unraveling a story of the kind of conspiracy and ruthlessness to be expected in a case of government funding.
Updates come in the form of emails, recorded video calls, and "encrypted documents" in your game inbox. (This is all in the game's browser interface -- though Extrasolar mimics an ARG in form, you won't actually be sifting these messages out of your real-life email and voice mail.)
The whole thing happens in real time, so you can't sit and play all at once -- you schedule a few stops, leave for the day, check your progress, schedule a few more when you get home that night, and so on. Orrrr you could keep checking on your rover's progress every hour. Season 1 of the game is supposed to take a month to play, though I finished it in two weeks. I'm a little obsessive? The time delays sound frustrating, but I found they contributed to the illusion of controlling a rover far away in space, and they mean this is a game you can play while busy with other things.
Despite the minimal time investment, maybe this tweet gives some idea of the hold the game can get on your imagination:
Lying awake at night, knowing my Extrasolar rover is climbing a slope in the dark, taking panoramic pics of bioluminescence. @ExoResearch
-- Kelsey Adams (@pages_and_pages) July 16, 2014
Nerdishly exciting seasons 2 and 3 are planned -- including topographical maps showing your rover's elevation levels -- but the company needs some financial support to get them delivered, so now's a good time to check out the game, and the Kickstarter for Season 2. Upgrading your Season 1 rover is a perk of the lower level of pledges, and if you go into the really high numbers you get to do things like name a species in S2 or even appear as a character in the game.
Even I'm not that obsessive, but again, Season 1 is free, and -- to repeat what I said on ourin August -- I'd recommend Extrasolar to anyone who likes space, maps, remote-control toys, pretty pictures, conspiracy theories, epistolatory narratives, speculative biology, and anything that lets you feel smart while still being kind of lazy with a short attention span. You may find yourself walking down the street mentally tagging squirrels.