Mars, Melons, and Mashed Potatoes

In the book and now movie, The Martian, the astronaut Mark Watney must survive alone on Mars for what could be up to three years. In an incredible stroke of luck, it turns out he’s a botanist. And that knowledge really comes in handy because it keeps him alive.


I’m also a botanist. And I’m an indie game developer. And this is the story of my sci-fi game about plants, Solarium. (‘Mars, Melons and Mashed Potatoes’ was an alternative title, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Let me ask you a question… are you plant blind? In all likelihood the answer is yes. Plant blindness is defined as the inability of people to notice plants in their environment. From a botanist’s point of view this is very unfortunate. It leads to a sense of apathy and detachment from the plant world and is a primary reason for the lack of appreciation of the importance of plants to life on earth. And I can tell you with absolute certainty that our survival on Earth is as dependent on plants as was Mark’s survival on Mars.

So, what to do about plant blindness? The obvious answer is to make plants interesting. This I did in my visits to primary schools – the sheer joy on the faces of first-graders when plants and their associated fauna (insects, fungi, worms) are presented in a fun and interactive way is amazing. But with adults, it’s a harder sell, and not easy to do when things like sports, travel, movies, and video games seem so much more fun. Hmm… video games.

About 2007 I came across a pretty cool game called WolfQuest developed by the Minnesota Zoo, where the player learns about wolf ecology in a simulated wolf-world. It was built with the Unity3D game engine. So I decided that would be how I would make my game about plants. I knew VB, but not C# or javascript. So I set out to learn C# along with the Unity3D engine.

In Solarium, you’re in a distant future in a distant galaxy. A race of aliens has cooperated with earthlings to explore the galaxies and document all forms of life for preservation, just in case their home worlds are destroyed. It’s called the Solarium Initiative. The DNA is taken to an intergalactic botanical study centre where each environment is painstakingly reconstructed. You are a botanist-in-training from earth, and you must visit the Earth environments to learn about their plants before setting out on an actual expedition. You answer skill-testing questions, earn points, overcome challenges, and then build your own custom garden of beautiful and strange plants. And in the process, hopefully reduce your plant blindness.

Some points about the game:

  • A sci-fi setting was chosen to attract maximum attention. After all, who can resist sci-fi?
  • The player is not given a tutorial or a massive set of instructions. This is quite deliberate. Rather, players must explore the Botanical Study Centre and accompanying modules to gain an understanding of why they are there and what they must do.
  • Every effort is made to be gender- and race-inclusive. There is also CC for the hearing impaired.
  • The game has a unique and original music score.
  • Humour has been sprinkled throughout.
  • Voice-overs in the form of student narration are used here and there to help the story along.
  • We have made every effort to be botanically-correct in terms of environment, knowledge-testing questions, and plant models. However, with respect to the latter, a limited budget precluded the hiring of a graphic artist to custom-build 3D models.

And some points of general interest…

  • This game is a family affair. I worked with the game engine and wrote the code, my son did the 2d artwork and helped with the story line, and my brother composed most of the music score (the rest was bought).
  • Although some 3d models came from TurboSquid, most are from the Unity Asset Store. What a godsend. Textures were from wherever I could get them.
  • In 2013, I attended the Unite conference in Vancouver. I learned in pretty short order that this was no botanical conference. It was a blast and it encouraged me to keep going on the game.

So there you have it, the story of Solarium. I’d be grateful if you gave it a go. You might be too – perhaps you’ll end up stranded on Mars some day with only a few potatoes on hand.

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