GAME NAME: Extrasolar
GENRE(S): Alternate Reality Game
RELEASE DATE(S): February 18th, 2014
Extrasolar is not really a traditional game in the sense that you pop a disk into your console and tap X a lot. It’s a slow, methodical look at a series of Digital Blasphemy-style photographs while unravelling a bland conspiracy plot. It’s loosely considered an alternate reality game, and even that is a generous designation.
Alternate Reality Games (acronymed down to ARGs) are buzzword-infused “transmedia stories” that deliver a “networked narrative” to a group of “players” – although readers is a more applicable term – who then go through the delivered story. These games are generally done at the individual player’s pace, and usually require email or one-sided phone calls to advance the story. EA did it first with Majestic, Halo did it biggest with I Love Bees, and Nine Inch Nails did it with the terrible Year Zero album. These games are generally delivered in alternative ways, such as emailing the player, going to certain websites, and in Majestic’s case (which was released in 2001), receiving a fax.
Extrasolar gets you involved with the crowdsourced XRI project, which sent lunar-style rovers to another planet to investigate. These rovers are equipped with cameras and microphones so you can look and hear what’s going on. Only one action can be taken every four hours, which creates a slow, methodical look at the planet you’re exploring. This is explained in-game as the time it takes for the data sent to you from the extrasolar planet to reach you, and then for your instructions to reach the rover. You can pay to unlock the ability to move your rover once per hour, but this is almost too fast for this style of game – and ramps up the pacing of the story to a speed too quick to make sense. Plus, the four-hour window is good for your average 8-hour workday, since you can plot a couple points in advance, and then go to work. Paying $10 gives you a one-hour turnaround time, but only being able to plot 3 moves in advance leaves 5 hours of downtime.
The layout of extrasolar gives us the eponymous website, which loads to an entirely self-contained user interface. This section works well and is pretty slick, which keeps your in-game emails separate from the chain letters your aunt sends you about marines slapping college professors. The interface also holds the photos your little rover has taken, allows you to plot its next moves, and tag plants and other things in photos for the science team to look at. Certain “other” things will eventually be seen as well, but the neat animal organisms are probably the most interesting things to see. Just think – what would animals on a completely different planet look like? Would they still use eyes like we have? Do they breathe oxygen, move on jointed knees, taste things?
Although it starts as a space exploration game, it morphs slowly (or quickly, if you’ve paid the $10) into a rote murder mystery acted by hammy ex-theatre majors. Which is really disappointing. If the game had stayed more true to its introductory “take pictures of this weird planet” stuff and brought in more bizarre alien life forms, then it would probably be more interesting. The first time you see something truly weird on your screen is absolutely jarring, and it’ll happen more than once if you check out the entire island. Shame about the storyline, though.
The audio is generally delivered through one-way phone calls and videos with a short list of characters, each worse then the last. The third-act finale, silly twist ending, and open-ended hints at “more to come for only $19.95” deaden the interest as well. The entire plot devolves into going to a spot, taking a picture of something that looks boring, and waiting for the results. Then you get to watch someone FaceTime you. It’s not compelling in the slightest, and all attempts at drama come out wrong. It’s like watching a terrible middle school version of Hamlet – overacted by people who don’t understand the material.
If you’re bored and you need more things to occupy your time sitting in front of a computer, the slight diversion of extrasolar can occupy you for a bit. The game starts out as free, but paying a little extra speeds up the gameplay and adds a few additional options. However, the game actually feels better at a slower pace. When people start asking you to activate things, I definitely recommend ignoring them and exploring the place on your own. Try it out, but caveat emptor on paying anything for this timesink.