Posted on January 22, 2014, Phil Hornshaw Storytime: Extrasolar Gets ‘Immersion’ by Leveraging Reality
Storytime is a recurring series in which we analyze the storytelling found in video games by looking at the elements that form those stories, the messages they deliver, and the people who create them.
Read about Extrasolar developer Lazy 8′s commitment to science and storytelling in our companion feature, “Extrasolar Channels the Explorer in All of Us.”
I didn’t get into the Extrasolar beta when I first applied.
Instead, I received a form email from XRI, the fictional research company responsible for the program, letting me know that I didn’t fit the criteria to be one of the people who would issue orders to a rover on a distant, extrasolar planet, which would then take computer-generated photos of that place and send them back to me. XRI’s crowd-sourced research of the distant planet had limited space, and most of those slots were going to people like astronomers and biologists. Sorry.
That’s that, I figure, and go on about my life, a bit bummed I won’t be able to try Extrasolar.
Not long after, however, I receive another email. A strange one, from some unidentified person who claims they’ve hacked me into the program in order to enlist my help in investigating XRI. There’s more going on with Epsilon Eridani, that distant planet now covered with rovers, than we’ve been led to believe.
And with that, developer Lazy 8 establishes a game narrative that’s already drawing me in. Ultimately the “game” part of Extrasolar is somewhat simple: you issue commands to the rover on a map, it moves to where you clicked and it takes a photo, and then you look at that photo and draw a box around anything interesting. There’s downtime in all of this; it takes time for the rover to arrive at the designated location, snap the photo and send it back to you (presumably over vast distances of space).
But the underlying power of Extrasolar isn’t in its mechanics, they’re in the level to which the game brings you into its world; or maybe more aptly, in how it merges its world with yours to create something believable. Of course, all those elements mentioned above — the research company, the rovers, the crowd-sourced exploration program — are fictional. And yet, they come to be believable. While lots of game developers talk seriously about immersion, the idea of helping players lose themselves in the games they’re playing, Extrasolar achieves its immersion not by drawing players into some other world, but by overlaying itself onto theirs.
Extrasolar achieves its immersion not by drawing players into some other world, but by overlaying itself onto theirs.
The game does this by telling you its story and interacting with you in the ways you already interact with the world. Most of the story is delivered in email messages and videos; pictures you get from your rover are sent off for “analysis” by XRI’s fictional team of scientists, and you receive reports about what was discovered in them, or what the analysts are extrapolating about the world as you explore it. Blog posts authored by different characters pop up on the official XRI website and lend realistic, credible science to the fictional alien lifeforms of Epsilon Eridani b. Hacked phone calls and documents add bits of information to flesh out classified material you’re not supposed to know about.
Taken together, Extrasolar manages to tell two very interesting stories that unfold in parallel and often intersect. The first is the story of exploring an alien planet and uncovering the strange things that live there — as you might expect, they’re more than they appear. The second is the more terrestrial story of intrigue, a mystery of detective work done by hacking and uncovering hidden information. And it comes together almost solely through the mechanics of clicking a map and tagging photos.
And yet, Extrasolar can have a serious hold. I found myself completely addicted to the game and played it about as intensely as one can, over the course of roughly 10 days (at the time, Extrasolar’s developers told me I might have set the record for speeding through the content of what could be considered their current closed beta; usually it takes a month or more). It’s the perfect game for playing at work, since it takes only a minute or two to issue rover commands, and you only need to pay attention to the game once every hour, or few hours, depending on whether you upgrade with a paid account or not.
It’s hard to quantify just what makes it so addictive, but I think there’s a rare mix of interests met by Extrasolar that very few games really ever even attempt, much less achieve. It’s a game that scratches the exploration itch — it feels real, in terms of its science and its details. Anyone who’s ever looked at Mars rover photos with awe and excitement knows the feeling Extrasolar can create.
And it tells a pretty compelling story in a pretty compelling way. The tale of XRI and Epsilon Eridani b is shrouded in mystery, but its delivery method makes it feel not only like something that jives with our world, but something that you’re helping to uncover as you play.
For a browser game that uses mechanics such as wait times and photo analysis, Extrasolar was high on the short list of games that grabbed me in 2013. Its blend of alternate reality game ideas and scientific veracity makes it like nothing else available in games right now, be they indie or triple-A. It makes you feel like a scientist and a detective at the same time, and it manages to create more immersion than most games with millions more in their budgets.
You can sign up for Extrasolar’s mailing list at extrasolar.com, which is the best way to get notified about when new beta slots open up.