Mars Horizon is one of the most unsettling horror games you’ll ever play.
Oh sure, developer Auroch Digital would have you believe that it’s a light-hearted space-sim that sees you reaching for the stars. And yes, for a while, you’re merrily launching satellites into space, grumbling when one explodes mid-flight, but picking yourself up and trying again. Maybe you’ll have better luck if you research a stronger booster, build a rocket testing lab or train up your mission control team?
But, sooner or later, you’ve got to take the next step, sending people into space. Sure, you could mess around repeating missions, but don’t expect your ESA paymasters to look kindly upon that – not when competing agencies are heading to the moon. Mars Horizon isn’t the prettiest game around, but it does sport one gorgeous graphical trick: illuminating the paths of any space vehicles and satellites that head into orbit.
Earth starts to resemble some otherworldy Christmas ornament; a blue and green globe surrounded by strands of white. Knowing that you’re not making your own mark nags at you, urging you to take the next step.
And that’s when the horror kicks in. A few months of research and construction later, you’re watching your craft on the launchpad, one solitary astronaut strapped into the top of what is basically a glorified missile. It doesn’t really help that you’ve renamed your astronaut; if things go badly chunks of Elon Musk will be raining down on the assembled crowd. Let’s see your PR office put a positive spin on that.
You hold your breath as the rocket soars, waiting for the explosion that resulted from your original test flight. But it doesn’t happen, and your first manned space launch is a success. Once you’re in space it isn’t quite as stressful; there’s still work to be done, but the chances of a tragic accident are dialled down to a less stress-inducing level. Finally, the nightmare is over.
Except it isn’t. Beyond the underlying horror or risking people’s lives, Mars Horizon has other ways of making you the monster, such as decisions that need to be made on your rocket’s upkeep and safety. You’re advised it’ll cost £150,000 to replace a faulty component – and leaving it in will reduce the rocket’s reliability by 10%. The choice should be obvious, right? Right? But then you start running the probabilities in your head, reducing those lives to a number in your mental spreadsheet. After all, what’s the worst that could happen? 10% is nothing, surely, and that £150,000 could be better used elsewhere…
It’s probably a mercy that Mars Horizon only has you take space exploration as far as Mars; the more I played, the more mercenary I could feel myself becoming. Just how many Matt Damons can you get for £200,000 anyway? But then something bad does happen, and the guilt hits you like a tsunami.
Mars Horizon isn’t out yet, but there’s a free demo available to download on Steam if you fancy making some morally questionable decisions yourself. There’s, of course, a lot more to the game than putting your astronauts’ lives at risk, and being created with support from the actual European Space Agency and the UK Space Agency means there’s an edge of realism to the scenarios you’re faced with. Perhaps that’s what makes it feel all the more harrowing when something does go wrong.
If you fancy taking control of your own space agency, Mars Horizon is set to release on Steam later this year.