Sunday, April 16, 2023

Terraforming Mars

Colonizing mars is a fantasy. It's an ideological project being driven by people who want a last-ditch effort to save humanity from extinction because they think earth is doomed. That's important context for the recent swell of "terraforming (and colonizing) mars" games. 

These games run the gamut from highly scientific to mostly abstract. They can acknowledge ideology and nationality or they can obscure it. They all take, without a single question, the premise that Mars must be terraformed.  Even the most scientific game, Per Aspera, handwaves away the problem of Mars' distance with a handy ultra-fast space travel technology and plenty of made-up terraforming technology. In other games, such as Terraformers, or Terraforming Mars, terraforming is the only path to victory and no other reasonable option exists. Yes, it's literally the name of the game - can we come back to this after a brief survey of these games?

Farlanders puts a person-centric face on its puzzley-terraforming scenes. There's a story that's primarily about training new terraforming techs, and the mechanics are about using your limited terraforming tetris pieces to make room for your level objectives as you chat with your friends. Apparently the story does eventually question the politics of terraforming as you go on, but frankly I didn't get that far because it's a quite challenging game!

Terraformers is more of a traditional city/civilization-builder where you choose a leader and establish colonies, set up mines, and aggressively chase after establishing new plant life to make your human population happy so you can expand so you can repeat the cycle. You can use bots to increase your reach across the planet's surface but it makes it harder to reach the victory condition, which is determined by human happiness. There's a race against the clock to achieve victory before your humans demand too much of you, get upset and leave.  

Per Aspera has you inhabit an intelligent AI. Humans are a minor resource used to obtain research for new techs. This game is the most deliberate about the process of terraforming, which is presented as a series of painstaking stages undertaken one step at a time. Raise the temperature, then harvest the water, then start seeding lichen to increase moisture levels, then finally start pushing plant life across the entire planet's surface. All the work is done by a network of autonomous drones, conveyed across the planet by Hyperloops. The AI muses about how humans destroyed the Earth and Mars is a second chance for humanity. There's a story beat where an antagonist questions terraforming Mars but the antagonist is written as an irrational extremist. Although I enjoyed the process of terraforming most in this game, it was one of the most unquestioning games about ideology despite the premise of a naive AI coming into consciousness.

Surviving Mars has a fog of war around its mechanics. Choices are a shot in the dark whose effects you will not encounter for hours. It is full of backpack problems: given $10m, how full will you stuff this rocket, and using which supplies? Surrounded by no strategic direction except your pre-existing knowledge. "What if I don't have any pre-existing knowledge?" You can consult one of three guides, which all have contradicting information and are written with incomplete or outdated information and terminology. The most useful guide I found says "Do not aim to be self-sufficient. Aim instead to be profitable.": This is all a capitalistic enterprise about reclaiming your cash. There's a faction selection screen, which at least gestures at recognizing ideology and motivation! That's a small relief, at least. 

Finally, there is Terraforming Mars, a board game which mostly takes us back to an abstract puzzle. There are corporation personas which veer between "environmental corporate" (get more plant life because you own a proporietary strain of plant life biohacked for adaptability) and "extremely corporate" (get more money every time you play an event because you are livestreaming this for cash). You are in more explicit competition with your rivals, and you can sabotage them and steal their resources as you compete for victory points, but terraforming mars is the name of the game. 

Is it fair to lean on these games for wanting to terraform mars? The prospect of terraforming Mars is an ideological project, and a fantasy. The premise is not value-neutral because the people pushing the premise are billionaires who believe we need to leave earth and own space companies to further that goal: Surviving Mars has a faction called "SpaceY", a reference to Musk's SpaceX. Mars is a blank slate, Terra Nullus, a playground for us to do what we want. What would it even look like to consider the issue of terraforming planets for human habitation from a different angle?

Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri also posits a ruined Earth, fleeing ideologues, and the colonization of a distant planet directed by you as the embodiment of one of those ideologues. However, Alpha Centauri's planet Chiron is not a blank slate. The ideologues are not silent and blank slates for you to form. Chiron is alive in the most literal representation of Gaia theory, and the ideologues are fated to conflict about how this must be handled. You can terraform Chiron in SMAC if you wish, but the native life has something to say about it -- and so will Deidre, the head of the Gaiaist faction. You can also live in harmony with the planet, and that has some tradeoffs as well. This is all in contrast to Mars, despite the similar "doomed people and differing ideologies" setup. Mars is devoid of life and must be transformed; Chiron is alive and you need to actively choose if you want to support that life or replace it. Mars is a blank slate upon which new ideology can be seamlessly imported; Chiron is a new battleground for existing ideology. Above all, Mars is "real", and gets treated with pseudo-scientific rigor; Chiron is outside the realm of possibility and not to be taken seriously.

SMAC was released in 1999. What happens when we look to a more recent game for a different view on terraforming? Terra Nil is a terraforming game about reclaiming wastelands. It looks like a game about fixing human damage to human ecosystems, with levels about reclaiming skyscrapers and turning them into bamboo forests. In practice, it is another abstract puzzle game with fake technology and an unreal setting. Humans are mysteriously absent from the world. Ecosystems don't exist as a delicate balance between parameters as they do in Per Aspera's terraforming. The purpose of Terra Nil is to paint as much green as you can using as little resources as possible, and that sometimes means blasting the land to pieces and erupting magma streams out. If you tweak parameters enough, you can solve a small puzzle to make animals magically appear. Wasteland restored! It's not a serious consideration of terraforming, it's a puzzle game about lining up shapes efficiently. Furthermore, the title has an unmistakable connection to the doctrine of "Terra Nullus", the legal principle that considered land vacant "if it had not yet been occupied by Christians. Such vacant lands could be defined as 'discovered' and as a result sovereignty, title and jurisdiction could be claimed" ( This principle was used in Canada, Australia, and the Americas, none of which were "vacant". Assuming the best intention this is an unwitting reference and sign of complete thoughtlessness; assuming the worst, a clear sign that even cheerful environmentalism is a new form of colonialism.

Ideology is not a dial that gets turned during the production process while developers look back at the audience like a contestant on the price is right. The construction of a video game has many considerations, and things may be removed or added for reasons as mundane as "this is too hard to localize" or "We ran out of time". "We didn't think of that" is another reason, though, and that's where ideology comes into play. I'm not sure the developers of these games currently conceive of Mars as anything other than a playground for our technology. We don't see Mars as a beautiful planet in its own right. We don't see Mars as something that has existed alongside our planet for longer than life has existed. We don't see Mars as worthy of preserving. Red Mars, the book that is the blueprint for a lot of this generation of terraforming talk just as Snow Crash and Ready Player One is the blueprint for lots of the Metaverse talk, was very careful to establish Mars preservationists as a faction who were relatively sympathetic. The way we think of Mars today is as a replacement Earth. It's worth asking why we think we can handle that when we are having trouble with our current Earth as it is.