Ian MacLarty is one of my favorite independent game designers working today. His games range from twitchy action titles like Boson X to works which are more like playful, fascinating experiences than games, such as The Catacombs of Solaris. And so, when I heard he was making an open-world simulation game called Mars First Logistics, I was immediately interested. I don’t typically play these kinds of games — I like watching others break them more than I enjoy experiencing them myself — but Mars First Logistics’s eye-catching style and the game’s pedigree made me want to know more. First, what drew him to such an apparent divergence from his previous work?
“I’ve been keenly following the recent trend in simulation games and I find it exciting that games where you do a job like mow the lawn, clean windows or drive a truck can be commercially viable,” MacLarty tells me over email. “Sometimes it’s nice to just do a job well and these games let you do that.”
He’s right, of course, as the massive success of games about apparently mundane subjects illustrates. Titles simulating farming, trucking, woodworking, and more proliferate on Steam these days. What draws people to these games? There are countless reasons, from fascination with the topic — e.g. trains — to the desire to play something slower or less violent than most big budget titles. And, as MacLarty points out, there’s a kind of satisfaction in carrying out simple tasks effectively, even if they’re simulated.
This all ties into the game’s aesthetic, which draws inspiration from LEGO instruction manuals. It’s a clean, stark look that coincidentally resembles another upcoming game, Sable (which in turn can be compared to Arcane Kids’ 2012 title Zineth). A big part of the draw of building with LEGO is their tactile quality — the satisfying way they snap into place to form new shapes. Mars First Logistics looks to draw on that feeling by asking players to build robots from parts like servo motors, hydraulic cylinders, and rocket engines to haul materials across the planet’s surface.
“I grew up with classic space LEGO and I always liked how the space LEGO people were always happily going about their space jobs, being industrious,” MacLarty says. “It was never about fighting aliens or saving the galaxy.”
In addition to LEGO, Mars First Logistics obviously recalls the Mars rovers, launched by NASA to great fanfare in the early 2000s. The image of these little robots running around the surface of the red planet so far from home captured my imagination back then, and MacLarty notes that the Spirit and Opportunity rovers were also an influence: “They were real work horses, just getting on with their jobs, never complaining. [And] in Mars First Logistics you’re getting on with your job of delivering important cargo, helping out a burgeoning Mars colony, being the work horse.”
Mars First Logistics‘ focus on making deliveries across vast landscapes draws comparison to the high-profile Death Stranding, which MacLarty notes was an influence. But his game has more of a focus on physics and engineering. For instance, players must build a claw to physically pick up their cargo, rather than it being automatically strapped to their robot. As a result, MacLarty says, “it makes it much harder to ensure things always behave predictably, but I find that exciting. I’m really looking forward to seeing what wild contraptions players come up with.”
Mars First Logistics releases in 2022 on Steam.