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Mars Horizon’s space exploration is more than ‘seeking new life and blowing it to bits’

Getting around space requires more than a little strategy

Tomas Rawlings had gotten cheese everywhere. At a lunch with some of the best and brightest minds of the European Space Agency, he dropped a roll that exploded “like a cheese grenade.” Melted goo fused with the wirey carpet. Those brilliant scientists and researchers he’d hoped to impress were now treading it all over.

“I had this nightmare scenario of a future thing where like, the ExoMars mission would crash because they found a piece of cheese wedged in some critical solar panel,” Rawlings says.

Rawlings isn’t just a menace to clean carpets; he’s also CEO of Auroch Digital and a game designer. Together with ESA, the team at Auroch has been working to create a strategy simulation that feels true to how agencies operate. In Mars Horizon — available for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch today — the goal is to complete a crewed mission to Mars. But first, players will have to secure the funding and do proper research to get there.

Mars Horizon kicks off in 1956, at the dawn of the space race, but extends into the not-so-distant future. It offers players an “alternative history” to explore, rather than restricting players to the past, by giving them the freedom to choose what agency they’ll act as. Players can pursue joint missions and cooperate or advance more competitively.

The game is about reducing risk. Each mission offers different support that will prepare their agency for Mars. Certain tasks will increase your chances of a successful landing, but it’s also important to calculate potential losses. Failing a crewed mission, for example, might lead to lost resources or even dead astronauts. Being an agency with a high mortality rate won’t shut you down; it will make rebuilding funds hard, meaning you may lose your chance to be first.

For developers working on games about space exploration, agencies like ESA can be an invaluable educational resource. “If somebody mails you and says ‘I don’t think you’ve got that satellite right,’ you’re like, ‘Well I think we have. We did our research,’” Rawlings says. “But if somebody mails you and says, ‘I don’t think you’ve got that satellite right because I designed that satellite,’ I guess I’ll go with you on that.”

But getting their approval, let alone cooperation, is another matter. ESA doesn’t work with just anyone. “We are approached quite often by game companies who want to create a game of going out, seeking new life, and blowing it to bits,” says Emmet Fletcher, head of partnerships for ESA. “But that’s not what we’re about.”

ESA’s goal is to answer the big questions, Fletcher says: where did the Universe come from? Why are we here? Is there life on other planets? Destruction may serve an important narrative purpose in a video game, but the realities of Earth’s space agencies are far tamer. It’s a peaceful agenda pursued by thinkers who are more interested in studying than growing a military arm. “How does that reflect into video games? It’s tough,” Fletcher says. “Blowing things up is spectacular. Launching stuff is pretty spectacular — hopefully it’s not too spectacular. We like to keep the spectacular level in our launches to a specific level. But looking at the things that we’ve found in our Universe so far, far outweigh going out and developing a new weapon.”

During Mars Horizon’s development, ESA and Auroch worked together to hammer out the details of how agencies run. Development team members went to events, saw mission control at the European Space Operations Center, and spoke with, in some cases, rocket scientists to create an experience that feels authentic. Sometimes that means incorporating actual prototypes from missions as players combine research and resources to build their vehicles. Sometimes it boils down to the relationship between agencies across the globe. In the real world, cooperation is fundamental to success.

“While governments have competed a lot, space is one of the areas where cooperation has proceeded, even at some of the darkest moments of the Cold War,” says Rawlings. “I think that speaks to actually a quite positive thing of humanity, where we can make these things work when we try. Ultimately, there’s too much to be gained by cooperation and too much to be lost by conflict.” Mars Horizon doesn’t simulate the politics of the world around it, but it does, inevitably, butt against it — whether players choose to manage their agency as a solo operation or use diplomacy.

There’s a bigger philosophical argument as to how and why this all matters, even when it’s contained within a video game. “The exploration of space puts a huge perspective onto what we’re doing on Earth,” Fletcher says. “Critical disputes, ideological disputes, when you look at just how many things are out there that are completely mind-boggling. The more we travel away from our planet, the more we realize how important the planet is to us.” The ratio of what we know about space versus what we don’t is staggering. One horrifying example: some astronauts living in zero-g find that, upon returning to Earth, their vision is altered because the shape of their eyeballs has changed. “Not everybody,” Fletcher says. “We don’t know why.” (Mercifully, that is not part of Mars Horizon.)

The point, then, is not to definitively understand the how and why of space travel. It’s that every inch of progress made in space travel has come from incremental steps, Fletcher says. No one can jump in immediately and declare they’re ready for a Mars mission. “This is something that Mars Horizon does reflect,” Fletcher says. “You’re developing all this [knowledge and tech] to reduce the risk in order to make your chances of success higher. There’s no guarantee because everything we do is the first time we’ve done it. There’s always something unknown there.”