I can’t help but think of Matt Damon’s new movie The Martian inside the framework of Choice Provision’s new space game Laserlife. Inside that intersection is a paradox about life I can’t quite resolve.
Here’s an introductory note: this may container spoilers for The Martian and/or Laserlife. Though I don’t think that spoilers are a big deal in Laserlife, you may be disappointed by spoilers for The Martian. I actually don’t think either of these spoilers ruin either experience, but you’ve been warned.
Laserlife turned out to be something wholly unexpected, and it’s probably because I was thinking I’d get something more akin to Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien. That wasn’t an entirely unreasonable expectation: Choice Provisions rebranded in 2014 from Gaijin Games, a name carrying a bit of a slur-ish context (it’s used for racial outsiders in Japan). That studio was responsible for the Bit.Trip series of minimalist, 8-bit rhythm-based games, but Laserlife is an emotional departure from the one-dimensional adventures of Commander Video. To provide context, here’s the game’s opening screen:
According to the Choice Provisions website, Laserlife takes place long after the light of humanity has gone out. An extra-terrestrial intelligence encounters the remains of an astronaut floating in space and uses lasers to gather the pilot’s memories that are still surrounding the body. After gathering the memories, it harmonizes the memories on an astral plane and creates physical representations of the memories it discovers. If it sounds metaphysical and trippy, that’s because it is: it really feels like an hour and a half thought experiment. Though you gather happy memories of a happy childhood, a happy marriage, happy parenthood, and the space mission which starts the conclusion of his life, all of those physical representations of memories revolve around the center of the dead astronaut, a grinning skull through a shattered helmet. The actions we take here on our planet, the decisions we make, the world we create…it’s all seemingly for something, but we’re reminded we’re all mortal.
That said, gameplay in Laserlife can look like this:
It’s a combination of phenomenal visuals and mellow electronic music, an experience that just feels…beautiful many times. Though I don’t think the gameplay itself is particularly compelling, the sensual treat of Laserlife can’t be denied. And life itself often feels that way…sometimes we’re just going through the motions, pushing through something to get from one side to the other…but there are moments life can be truly beautiful.
That said, humanity’s mission seems to have failed. The astronaut is sent from Earth to explore a new planet, a place for the species to call a new home. Humanity, its struggles, its passions, its loves, its losses… they’re nothing more than fragments for a foreign being to cobble together, a being unable to fathom what these experiences really MEANT, what they represented. The reconstruction is beautiful…but it’s also inaccurate, confused. Like our attempts to divine what ancient civilizations right here on Earth did with their time, how they constructed their giant monuments that are mysteries to us, some pieces of the puzzle just don’t present themselves. In Laserlife’s case, the temporary blaze of beauty is framed by death and the eternal darkness of space, making the experience feel somehow moot. Perhaps that’s why it was so hard to see The Martian just a few hours after completing Laserlife.
I didn’t really know anything about The Martian before I watched it other than I knew it took place on Mars. But, in contrast to Laserlife, The Martian is a story of hope and resiliency in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Astronaut Mark Watney is part of the first manned space mission to Mars, and he’s abandoned there after a freak storm separates him from the crew and threatens to destroy the crew’s chances of escape. Shockingly alive after being impaled by a piece of shuttle equipment, Watney drags himself back to the now-empty Mars base, pulls out the metal from his body in a solo, unanesthetized surgery, and then comes to grips with the fact that he’s been left on Mars with no means of communicating with Earth, limited food, limited water, and the next Mars mission scheduled 4 years in the future. Even the rocket he missed won’t be back to Earth for a year, but it couldn’t just turn around even if it wanted to; the ship would run out of fuel and everyone would die.
After evaluating the situation in his video journal, he walks into a room in the base, looks around, and says out loud, “I’m not going to die here.” And then he gets to work to create the food, water, and other resources he’ll need to survive his time on Mars. (For those of you concerned about “realism,” most of his tactics are Neil deGrasse Tyson-approved). Watney systematically breaks the giant, overarching problem down into its component parts, and then he uses logic and knowledge to conquer every situation he can. When elements of chaos or randomness interfere with or sabotage his plans, he simply gets back up and continues working from a different angle. It’s the classic story of Man vs. Nature, the power of the mind and humanity’s attempts to master the world around it, along with some space rocks and missing atmosphere for additional effect.
Yes, I understand that I might be making this connection because both Laserlife and The Martian happen to deal with people in space and they came out near each other. But both offer perspectives on what it means to be human, and those perspectives differ significantly.
Laserlife is tender, emotional, evokes beautiful pictures summons images of most of the things we typically consider “what make life worth living.” But if his mission was critical for the species’ survival like it seems based on cutscenes, humanity is long past dead and gone.
The Martian is, by comparison is cold, clinical, scientific. Humanity is presented with a problem and just removes the depression, isolation, and thoughts of almost completely assured death from the equation. It focuses on survival, the task at hand. But humanity survives.
Technically, these two stories aren’t mutually exclusive. In my head, I kept visualizing scenes from The Martian bleeding in to Laserlife because, on the macro scale, the two stories can be one in the same. There’s no guarantee that humanity will be around forever in any capacity, particularly if we continue to kill each other and our planet as expediently as we have been over the past few years. Maybe some religion is right and an ethereal being will come in and hit the end-of-game buzzer, saving us all from the direct consequences of our irresponsibility by either sending us to eternal happiness, flame, extermination, or something entirely different.
Or maybe that being out there will sit and shake its head, marveling at the capacity our species has to create beauty and wonder, and shake its head at our seeming obsession with power and profit and ignorance and allow us to reap the harvest of our decisions.
Laserlife is hard to grapple with because it’s a reminder that we don’t always win. In fact, life’s standard-issue rule set guarantees that each and every one of us loses the game, and it’s just a matter of when and how we end up chalking up our final L. And that said, Laserlife as an experience can be beautiful, captivating (though I don’t think that you get that much more out of playing it as opposed to just watching it).
Admittedly, I loved The Martian. But I did think about how much NASA space junk was left on Mars after the movie was over. Turns out we can’t keep our trash habits contained to just one planet. Though it’s not feasible that the space crew take all the gear back to Earth, I can’t help but think about how many of our bad habits we’d take with us to Mars, should it end up colonized.
I prefaced that there aren’t any real “answers” in this post, and their really aren’t. Both Laserlife and The Martian are about what make humanity beautiful and heroic and ugly and tragic, revealing the inherent paradoxes in ourselves. We keep going because we keep going, a perpetual motion machine until we’re not. But whether it’s a life lived raising a family or trying to save the planet, we do what we do because it’s important to us right here, right now. That’s about all we can do; it’s our strength and our weakness, our rise and our downfall.