TerraGenesis: transforming failure into success

Building a world or just passing through?

The immersiveness of TerraGenesis comes from the striking change that can be observed from transforming a world through gameplay.  The first moment you notice clouds after building an atmosphere for an entire day in real time.  Spotting water on the planet’s surface, carving out continents after a week of cloud seeding.  Finally, after a couple weeks of steady progress, seeing biomass begin to sprawl across the surface of the planet, completing its transformation from barren to habitable.

(Comparison of sea levels and the sprawl of biomass)

TerraGenesis achieves a delicate balance between allowing the player freedom to create the world that they want, and still placing harsh restrictions as to what conditions will produce success or failure. From the beginning, the player is presented with 4 factions which inform their roleplaying mentality as they begin terraforming of the planet Mars.  I decided to side with the Daughters of Gaia and focus on transforming Mars from a barren wasteland of a planet, to a thriving, democratic, Earth 2.0.   However, I could have just as easily conserved the planet as it was when I arrived, building a plutocratic culture with habitats for the colonists, and purely focusing on mining resources for financial gain under the banner of the Horizon Corporation.

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(Culture page in TerraGenesis)

Struggling with order of operations

Eager to see a luscious green planet spring before my eyes out of the desolate landscape of Mars, I quickly began to research tech that would allow me to produce biomass, or plant life.  Little did I realize the complex nature of terraforming, and that that achievement was the literal icing on the cake when it came to world building. I first had to raise the temperature, and then increase the atmospheric pressure, then produce liquid water, and the list went on and on.  As I made progress I began to run out of funds; against my desire to sprint towards the goal of completing my natural world, I had to first focus on my economy.

(Planetary progression of the terraforming)

My income would arise from the outposts I placed around the world to obtain and sell  resources.  Yet, establishing and managing outposts were the least interesting mechanics at first, since they tethered me to the real world struggles of being financially sound. It made me focus on solving the problem of having enough funds to afford the technological advancements and infrastructure to maintain and expand my colonies. Eventually, I matured in my appreciation for a solid economic base because I realized it afforded me the luxury of embarking on the large scale social and terraforming projects I envisioned.

Serendipity providing lucky breaks

The gameplay of TerraGenesis can feel like a slow burn at first, with goals set at achieving temperatures of 287,000 mK with the starting tech to produce +4/min, for example.  Yet the beauty of this model of progression is that it highlights the immense amount of effort required to terraform a planet.  After a couple of weeks of playing, 952 years of the terraforming mission had passed.  I was on my way to my dream victory but it had been a long and hard road.

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(A lucky engineering break event in TerraGenesis)

One ingenious way the developer has sidestepped this impossibly long progression model is the inclusion of serendipitous story elements, such as a prodigious engineer upgrading a structure to an unachievable level, producing far more than it could naturally through player upgrades.  Other such events include meteors which can release gas and increase atmospheric pressure if allowed to crash land, or water and oxygen if burned up in the atmosphere, allowing the player a lucky break from having to produce these resources themselves.

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(A lucky natural break event in TerraGenesis)

Lead me not into temptation

The game will often tempt the player into altering their culture by changing their stance, or adopting a stance for political or financial gain.  Roleplaying as an enlightened culture with the goal of reviving a dead planet, I wanted my economy to be based off of ecological growth.  Still, multiple times throughout my playthrough I was presented with donations for free upgrades and credit infusions, were I to change my economic policy from ecological to industrial.  The struggle of foregoing something I needed to maintain the integrity of my culture’s ideals made me consider how these types of decisions are made in the real world, and how cultures are defined by their societal values.

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(Moral event which can shape the culture of Mars)

Culture building: what makes a world a world

Throughout the player’s time in TerraGenesis the game delivers a rich, modular story experience in the form of unique events that add character to the player’s colonies and their populations.  This compilation of lore is reflected in chronological order in the Local Culture section of each colony.  This history, along with the global changes the player can enact with Culture Points earned during their playthrough, teaches the player how culture is created, preserved, and changed over time by the people and their leaders.

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(The Local Culture of my booming metropolis; perched atop Olympus Mons to always avoid the threat of rising sea levels)

The unachievable goal of sustainability

As I finally began to reach the threshold for success, the game began to show me that the challenge was never actually in the growth periods of the game, but in safeguarding success from the threat of total collapse.

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(A shift from Knowledge to Wealth that requires an investment in order to retain a Knowledge focused culture)

As my populations boomed, so too did the rise of crime within my utopian metropolis. I faced political dissidents that attacked the foundation of my culture, vowing to alter it.  I invested heavily in new technology, but found myself in a financial crisis when a meteor threatened to destroy a habitation and kill my people unless I could afford the defensive mission.  After achieving ecological balance, unforeseen disruptions set off climate change events which produced rising sea and oxygen levels, threatening to wash away my outposts and make the air toxic.

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(A disastrous event in TerraGenesis)

The terrifying truth, which this game so elegantly presents the player, is that one cannot be afraid to take action when faced with making a difficult decision; for resigning oneself to inaction commits them to complete failure. TerraGenesis shows us that dreams require thought, planning, flexibility, and persistence to achieve.  That it is not a matter of never failing, but that failure is inevitable; and success is the state of mind of those who find a way to survive.

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(A healthy, thriving, terraformed Mars)

If you enjoyed this article please checkout my other articles on overcoming failure and fear; Experimentation: gaining freedom from failure, The little AI probe that could: persistence in the face of failure, and Minesweeper: smiling in the face of fear. Have you been playing TerraGenesis?  Have you ever had to make the choice between staying the course or changing tack after a difficult setback?  I welcome discussion on this topic and if you have experiences of your own you wish to share please do so in the comments below, or write in to playprofessor@gmail.com. I

Play Professor is the blog of ludologist and video game journalist Andrew Mantilla. You can check out more of his content on FacebookTwitterInstagramand Youtube.

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