Posted on January 22, 2014, Phil Hornshaw Extrasolar Channels the Explorer in All of Us
Read about how Extrasolar became an addictive tale of exploratory intrigue for Deputy Editor Phil Hornshaw in our companion piece to this story, “Extrasolar Gets ‘Immersion’ by Leveraging Real Life,” a part of our Storytime series.
You don’t really drive a rover exploring a distant planet in Extrasolar, sending it signals to explore the landscape and relay pictures back to Earth for analysis.
But to the credit of developer Lazy 8 Studios, it feels like you might actually be vicariously wandering a new world, uncovering a place no human eyes have ever seen.
Extrasolar is a browser title that has more in common with augmented reality games than it does with traditional video games. Players sign on as volunteers to work with a fictional space exploration company called XRI, which has dispatched a ship and hundreds of robotic rovers to a far-off planet called Epsilon Prime (orbiting the real Sun-like star Epsilon Eridani). The company chooses to crowd-source rover driving to certain members of the public — including you.
So almost in your spare time, you send commands to your rover, exploring a small island on Epsilon Prime that you start to piece together in a series of photographs. Like watching images arrive from NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars, it can be thrilling in a sense-of-discovery kind of way. As the player’s rover starts picking up information from the planet, it’s not long before various forms of life are found on the planet — all of which are remarkably strange and alien.
What really sells the exploration of Epsilon Prime is Lazy 8′s commitment to making the planet feel realistic. That’s possible through a deep dedication to science, said Rob Jagnow, producer and graphics coordinator at Lazy 8, as well as its founder.
“Extrasolar is built on science to the core,” Jagnow said. “From the very beginning, we committed to keeping the science content as accurate as possible. Not only does this help the fiction feel solid, but it also makes for a more educational experience.
“One of the characters that you’ll interact with in the game is Jane Van Susteren. What you may not know is that Jane is a real biologist and the messages that you receive from her are almost entirely written by her based on actual analysis of images,” Jagnow said. “To shape the game content, we would ask Jane questions like, ‘What would be your first steps in learning about life on an alien planet? What tools would you want available for your use?’ The science missions that we give to the players are based on Jane’s feedback.”
It’s clear that Lazy 8 has done its research, as well. As players discover different forms of life, what on Earth might be described as “plants” and “animals,” Van Susteren’s character explains how they fit into the apparent ecosystem of Epsilon Prime. Those concerns — the evolutionary forces of an alien planet — inform the creatures created by Concept and Design Artist Haley Friedmann, and the sounds created to go with them by Audio Engineer Uriah Findley, Jagnow said.
The sense of exploration and realism presented in Extrasolar pulls players in, but it’s not a game most would immediately think would be especially engaging. In fact, most of the “game” part of Extrasolar is just clicking around a map of the area your rover is wandering, sending it to a certain location and directing which way it should aim its camera.