The Price of Utopia

Haemimont Games/Paradox Interactive

Haemimont Games/Paradox Interactive

Mars is hot right now: nations are attempting to start a second space race, the team at SpaceX is designing colony ships, satellites are discovering Martian water. There is even a project attempting to send real colonists on a real rocket, just to film it all as a reality show. That’s without counting the growing number of fictional depictions extrapolating the first days on the Red Planet.

Surviving Mars—a game by Tropico developer Haemimont—seizes on this trend. In short: it’s a plate-spinning, city-building game. You build pipes, power lines, and facilities to generate and amass resources. When you think you’re ready, you construct giant glass-covered 1970s-style biomes to house your first batch of colonists. Most tasks are automated by an army of drones that travel between resource depots and the places that require a cube of concrete or food.

On the surface, Surviving Mars is, mechanically, simple. It’s a good podcast game. Or it was. Then people started committing suicide.

Most city-builders, and even to an extent Surviving Mars, treat your population as a number. Sure, people have names and meters for happiness and comfort. In my game, I have three mostly self-sufficient biomes. There are homes, infirmaries, factories, and grocery stores. The difference between Surviving Mars and, let’s say, City: Skylines is a matter of scale. There were 69 humans on the surface of Mars. Which means each death, each person with the trait “Lazy”, each Space Bar work shift that isn’t filled, drastically impacts the colony. Three suicides in as many in-game days had wider consequences than I expected.

A lot of fiction about space travel focuses on the hypothetical mechanical failure. You forget to throttle down in time, the AI goes rogue, or a bacteria begins to kill all your food. Sometimes, like The Martian, it’s a story of man vs. nature. But few stories focus on the struggle of being an everyday, boring human that’s only in need of the mundanities of everyday life. I gave my colonists everything they could ask for: an opportunity for meaningful work, new homes, and access to medical attention, recreational activities, and higher education. But that wasn’t enough.

Mars is brutal. Dust coats the life-giving systems, causing them to malfunction. Factories lose power and cause a cascade of failures. Add in the knock-on effects of a world so foreign, so easily thrown into a tailspin of destruction by the slightest change in weather, and you have a recipe for disaster that effects more than critical systems. This is just a game for me, but for Lei Lau—one of the deceased—it was everyday life.

I like video games because they allow me to experience something I never could. Sometimes power fantasy, sometimes surrealism, and sometimes escapism. Surviving Mars was escapism at first. Now I’m realizing this game means more to me than a way to avoid the day’s headlines and the grizzly cold of the North East with. It’s about making this little corner of Olympus Mons a better place.

Haemimont Games/Paradox Interactive

Haemimont Games/Paradox Interactive

I still don’t know the names of all 66 remaining colonists. I know a few, but I’m trying to do better. I’ve gone back and done my best to assign each colonist a job that they will find fulfilling. I’ve leveled buildings that only help me achieve my video game goal and replaced them with more parks and spaces for relaxation. My factories’ production has suffered. I’ve failed a major mission milestone. My ambitions to create a game map covered in colonies have been dulled a bit. The human cost isn’t worth it. I just want my 66 colonists to live.

Before the suicides, I finished building a fourth biome; it’s fully outfitted and ready to accept colonists. Although, watching my utopian dream fail so fully, I don’t know if it’s worth it. What right do I have to seal the fates of more travelers, when those already living on Mars have decided there is no recourse but to take their own lives?

When we do inevitably go to Mars, the first colonists will triumphantly walk to their capsules waving goodbye to earthly problems, carried to a new home on the hopes of starting anew. There will be triumphs and there will be struggles. And while you can’t take it with you when you’re gone, our daily woes never really leave us. That’s okay so long as you try to be better. If not for you, do it for them.

Haemimont Games/Paradox Interactive

Haemimont Games/Paradox Interactive