As video games become an increasingly popular form of art and storytelling, we begin to encounter more and more games that push the boundaries of the genre, especially from indie developers who aren’t afraid to try something different. There is no shortage of that creativity at IndieCade 2020, where featured games included board games, art programs, and other such game-adjacent content. One of these experimental experiences is Mars Raiders.
Staff members Kate and Elizabeth were invited to participate in Janet Howe’s Mars Raiders, a combination interactive theater and game in a space opera setting. The players are people of the general public selected to participate in a Q&A with scientist Dr. Jamie Val, a scientist sent to Mars in 2030 to retrieve a sample of a newly-discovered enzyme that can dissolve plastic. If retrieved, it could be synthesized and used to significantly reduce the plastic waste problem on Earth.
However, there are multiple forces at play—scientists, the military, greedy mega-corporations, and even space pirates—and they all have their own agendas regarding Jamie’s mission, unbeknownst to the scientist. Jamie is accompanied by ASANI, an AI in charge of flying the spaceship. But, when ASANI loses control of the ship’s steering and communications with base, Jamie is left stranded in space with no connection to Earth except through the few members of the public picked for the Q&A. As threats draw closer and closer to the stranded spaceship, it’s up to the audience to help Dr. Val solve problems and puzzles, and make difficult—and potentially life-altering—decisions to ensure their survival, all in the span of an hour! The game has multiple endings and, as an interactive experience, is guaranteed to be different every time!
I was initially hesitant to join, as I am someone rather awkward with little acting prowess. In the end, I am so glad I decided to participate! While this is an interactive experience, no acting experience is needed thanks to a wonderfully-done and incredibly well-thought out overarching narrative (and the support of other players).
While no acting skills are required, a sharp mind is—the game has players solving multiple logic puzzles, ciphers, and other puzzles in the span of an hour. The whole set-up, between being an interactive and in-person story with puzzle-solving elements, reminded me of an escape room, something that I had been sorely missing since the start of the pandemic.
The thing that stood out to me the most about this experience was the amount of work put into the storytelling and immersion. The day before the event, participants are sent a 5-page PDF that explains the background of the story and the motives of the major organizations involved in the story. This document was even in-character—it was set up as a themed newsletter! The newsletter was quick and interesting read, hinting to players the motivations of each of the forces involved without ‘meta-gaming’, and also provided a great basis for me, as someone who is not good at improv, attending an in-game, in-character Q&A session. Also, as someone who adores lore and backstory in the media I consume (especially video games), I loved the opportunity to dive deeper into the hypothetical future imagined by the game designers. To top it all off, we even got an email the day after the event—a follow-up message from Dr. Val themselves that offered closure to the decision that our group ended up making!
Going into Mars Raiders, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. It had been described to me as a sort of "immersive theater" experience for Zoom, which I would be playing alongside ten strangers and my coworker Elizabeth. A few hours prior, I had received an official-looking email informing me that the event would take the form of a Q&A with an astronaut currently in space. I read the documents attached to said e-mail. I wrote down a list of questions to ask the astronaut, one Dr. Jamie Val.
And then, about five minutes into the event, I destroyed all the notes I had just taken as things swerved in a completely unexpected direction.
Mars Raiders felt half like playing a video game, half like attending a play, and half like solving an escape room - not with your best friends, but rather with a group of co-workers you've just met as part of a "team-building" exercise. (And yes, I know that's three halves. It was a lot, okay?) The closest comparison I can make is that Mars Raiders was like attending a murder mystery dinner (a beloved hobby of mine from the pre-COVID days) except that nobody was dead, and instead we had to prevent any deaths from occurring within the time limit of a single hour.
The story of Mars Raiders is a simple one with a lot of much deeper lore hidden just below the surface. The story really features only two characters: the intrepid, ever-cheery Dr. Val and their assistant ASANI - an AI that's part Alexa and part HAL-9000 with the melodic, calming voice of a professional ASMR streamer. Multiple factions are struggling for control of Dr. Val's ship and the precious enzymes it carries, ranging from greedy corporations to trigger-happy military interests to literal, actual space pirates. The players must decide which faction Dr. Val will throw their lot in with, and they only have an hour to do so.
Sounds easy, doesn't it?
The story of the game was so compelling that I genuinely felt like another person's life was in my hands. At first, I tried to avoid the discussion by focusing on solving the puzzles (which were extremely well-designed - the ones we got to solve included a Caesar cipher and one inspired by the board game Mastermind) but, as the end of the hour approached with no decision made, I found my usually indecisive self eagerly and passionately participating in the debate to determine Dr. Val's future. (If you're curious, I voted that they should side with the space pirates. Because space pirates are inherently cool.)
I won't spoil what ending our group received, and what it meant for Dr. Val and ASANI's future, but I will say that Mars Raiders offers multiple paths and endings for excellent replay-ability. I strongly encourage all people reading this to play or watch a game of Mars Raiders if you have the opportunity. Creators Janet Howe (Dr. Val) and Joolz Stroop (ASANI and every other voice - seriously, they are a rare talent and I am beyond impressed) have created the perfect game/entertainment/experience for the social isolation era. It made me nostalgic for escape rooms and mystery dinners, got me emotionally invested in a high-tension story, and left me feeling a genuine connection with these strangers I had interacted with for a single hour.
Both Kate and I highly enjoyed our time in the Mars Raiders experience, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys heavily story-focused media, puzzle-solving, and/or interactive experiences! If you’re interested in playing, Janet Howe told us that they’re planning on rerunning the Mars Raiders story/event sometime in November, with games run monthly or bi-monthly after that. You can check out Mars Raiders and Janet Howe’s other projects on their website!
Kate Mitchell Jewett contributed to this review.