KeokeN Interactive's Deliver Us Mars—a sequel to the 2018 game Deliver Us The Moon—is a neat little space adventure that riffs on the five-minutes-into-the-future aesthetic of films like Interstellar, The Martian, or shows like For All Mankind.
Stories like these are mostly concerned about exploring near-future adventures in space travel—and don't benefit from more pulpy science fiction's use of interstellar alien threats. Without far-future interstellar travel or alien invasions, most of these stories have to draw or riff on conventional spacecraft. It's a challenging effort to make games standout.
And yet, developers who want to make disaster space experiences still need to chase a unique feeling. So what are some ways to do it? According to game director Koen Deetman, one of the team's core techniques was to look back to the surface of Earth—and contrast a dying world with the colorful but barren landscape of the fourth planet from the sun.
A dying Earth and a living Mars
Deetman and colleagues first managed to find success with Deliver Us The Moon, which stuck out in 2018 as the rare space game that chased a more realistic aesthetic. When making the sequel, he told Game Developer that the team wanted to tackle two major goals—improving the interactive puzzles that the players spends most of their time solving, and playing with the "versatile environments and color contrast" of the planet Mars.
Right away, building a digital version of Mars that resembles the real thing comes with some unique challenges. First, the only way to know what the planet looks like is to go up there, and landing rovers on the planet's surface is a relatively recent development.
But Deetman still said that Mars "provides a nicer setting to play with than the moon." "Many people will recognize Mars for its red surface, but are unlikely to know that the night sky is blue, or that the planet has dry ice on the polar caps," he explained.
Those fun facts would be great for an episode of The Magic School Bus—but the experience of selling them to the player takes a little more work. In the world of Deliver Us Mars, Earth is dying—a victim of the climate crisis, its doom somewhat blunted after the events of the first game but for dramatic reasons the planet's only hope now lies with a group of scientists who fled to Mars.
Player character Kathy Johnston doesn't start the game in Mars' orbit—rather the game begins with flashbacks to her life on Earth and briefly the Moon. From Kathy's childhood to adulthood, we watch the life slowly drain from the planet, giving it these somber washed out tones that would normally be used for an alien world.
The game then takes its time getting Kathy to the surface of Mars—and there, it unleashes its color palette. "These were elements we really wanted to bring through to the game, so we interspersed this setting with moments on Earth," Deetman said. "The result was [...] a more diverse palette of colorful environments to create a realistic picture of Mars, and that helped our art direction massively."
It's a neat direction that developers from backgrounds big or small can make the most of—and it gives some narrative weight to when the story flashes back to Terra Firma.