Mars sucks. It's a dead planet that failed to deliver on even one of H.G. Wells' wildest dreams. No civilizations built amongst the Martian canals. No blood-red plants covering the landscape. No alien life, malevolent or otherwise, to greet—or conquer—humanity. Just rust, dust, and intense radiation. People talk about colonizing Mars, but I feel like we'd be colonizing a corpse that has nothing left to offer.
I believe the juiciest fruits of space exploration aren't found on our solar system's planets, but rather its moons. There is great potential there, and I perk up any time I hear "Titan," "Enceladus," or "Ganymede." But the moon that's captured the bulk of my attention and imagination is Europa, one of Jupiter's satellites. Scientists believe there's an ocean beneath its thick, icy crust, and said ocean might be teeming with alien life. Warm vents might provide the chemicals necessary to kick off a food chain. Europa's oceans are likely pitch-dark, as its ice blocks out light. (It also handily blocks out the solar radiation that bombards Mars.) But as the fascinating horrors of our own briny depths prove, life, uh, finds a way, even in black waters where eyes are useless. That's so, so cool.
NASA and the European Space Agency are planning expeditions to examine Europa in greater detail, but it'll take a long time for the crafts to arrive. It'll take even longer until we can finally drill into Europa and peek at what's hiding down there. If there is life on Europa, I hope I'm alive to see it confirmed.
In the meantime, what's to be done except wait while waving around a foam finger that says "EUROPA #1?" As I recently discovered, I can feed my dreams of studying alien oceans with In Other Waters, an adventure game from Fellow Traveller and Jump Over the Age. Its minimalistic presentation forces you to picture your alien discoveries in your mind—much like how our speculation about Europa's potential indigenous life is powered by a little science and a lot of imagination. It's a relaxing game that has a lot to offer people who wonder about the oceans that slosh beyond our atmosphere. It's also great exercise for your brain, which isn't a bad thing if the COVID-19 quarantine is making you feel stagnant.
In Other Waters puts you in the scuba suit of Dr. Ellery Vas, a xenobiologist who finds herself in the depths of an ocean that's supposed to be dead but is actually rich with aquatic alien life. When I say you're "in the suit" of Dr. Vas, I mean it literally: You're cast as an AI program that helps the good doctor monitor her life support functions while also scanning the terrain and collecting samples of the strange new world surrounding you.
Since you're a half-busted AI with limited functionality, In Other Waters cleverly forces you to "see" the alien ocean in a limited capacity. Your optics capture the ocean as a blue-and-yellow map where clusters of life are represented by nodes you can travel to. To get a picture of your surroundings, you must scan each new life form and picture its coloration, movements, and habits through the detailed descriptions Dr. Vas offers you. With enough research and scanning, Dr. Vas might reward you with sketches of the critters you're studying—even if, by then, your imagination has probably already decided on what the alien you're chasing looks like.
In Other Waters is slow and methodical. You travel from node to node, scanning, learning, and collecting samples as you go. Dr. Vas has personal reasons for visiting the planet, as she's received a call from a beloved colleague who vanished some years prior. What's the stranger's connection to the doctor? Why is this lonely planet on Scorpio's tail registered as "dead" by corporate/scientific conglomerates when it clearly has highly developed life forms? You need to trawl the sea floor and find out.
I generally like text-heavy adventure games, but I'll bounce quickly if there's nothing interesting about the exposition fed to me. In Other Waters' information comes at you in little mouthfuls, which makes it very digestible. It also avoids heavy scientific jargon, which keeps you from overthinking your journey. You find a node, you scan it, and you let your imagination wander as Dr. Vas explains what she's seeing. You gradually form an interesting symbiotic relationship with Dr. Vas, and she poses questions that make it obvious you're not a typical machine-minded AI program. You're curious. You enjoy learning. But why? That's another mystery to solve.
In Other Waters' unorthodox presentation and UI take some getting used to. I found myself frustrated early on until I started again and really listened to Dr. Vas when she explained each of the suit's functions. The more I play it, the more I appreciate its spartan graphics. (There's nothing spartan about its gorgeous soundtrack, however.) It might seem strange, but In Other Waters has also re-kindled my excitement for future expeditions to Europa. Mind, my excitement is always present in some capacity, but reading Dr. Vas' descriptions of how In Other Waters' bioforms interact with each other has me jazzed all over again.
That's why we need to cancel whatever science we're doing on Mars and start the long journey to the outer planets' moons as soon as possible. Let's go! Let's go! Come on NASA! I failed every attempt to learn long division in grade school, but I know exactly how you should be conducting complex interplanetary exploration. Listen to me!
I don't think they're going to listen to me. Well, that's why I'm glad In Other Waters fills me with dreams of seeing xenobiologists plunge their scopes deep under Europa's crust some day.
By the way, I know some of you are going to do the Watchmen Dr. Manhattan thing and wax poetic about how Mars is beautiful because of its stark landscape. Don't bother trying. It didn't move me then, and it won't move me now. "Oooh, look at me, I'm Mars. I have a big mountain that's the size of France on my dry, boring surface!" Whoopie.