Wednesday, July 7, 2010

“Moonbase Alpha” Successfully Simulates the Tedium Of Living On the Moon

In space, no one can hear you whistle while you work. And work. And work. I was pretty certain I’d work on a moon colony someday. I was five, granted, but I’d seen Space Camp and I could spin around in zero-gravity just as well as young Joaquin Phoenix, given the chance. An eighth-grade science project neatly sketched out my plans for living quarters, a landing pad, power plant and greenhouse. My astronauts bounded happily across the pitted surface, scraping some lunar utopia out of the gray dust.

Of course, I was ignoring the isolation, monotony and tedium that would inevitably come with la vida luna. Get up. Put on space suit. Fix thing. Walk around in gray dust in slow, parabolic steps. Gray dirt, black space, and that blue orb sitting right there, near enough to touch, holding everything you know and love.

Clearly, I’d be the first to sabotage the air tanks. But now, with a little help from the National Aeronautics and Space Association, I know for certain lunar colonization isn’t my dish. I can only thank Moonbase Alpha, a free education/PR game that lets you do chores in space.

Developed by the same people behind free-to-play propaganda engine America’s Army, Moonbase Alpha puts you in the puffy white boots of an astronaut. In 2025, Moonbase optimistically posits, NASA has enough federal funding and public support to establish a permanent base on the moon. There’s the warren of tubes they call the living quarters; the power converter-things that look like industrial air conditioners; the snakelike power cables; and the solar arrays, which I initially mistook for Direct TV dishes. The solar dishes capture energy, shoot it through the snakes to the air conditioners, which make air and keep everyone in the tubes alive.

Still with me? Okay. Meteor strike. Your panels are tattered, your snakes disconnected, you air conditioning busted. If you don’t fix everything in 25 minutes, your coworkers die. Assuming this isn’t the realization of sick fantasy, you’ll want to save the day with all that handyman stuff you learned in grad school. Grab yer toolbag.

I downloaded Moonbase for free via Steam. Expectations were low, but curiosity piqued. Flash games and iPhone apps have shown that fun and innovation didn’t necessarily need a $60 price tag. I was ready to be surprised, and sure, I was prepared to learn something.

While the polish on Moonbase Alpha is surprisingly high, I can’t say my time as a NASA fixer-upper stoked the long-dead embers of moonlust. Who wants to go to the moon and fix crap?

With the clock ticking, I retrieved my torch from the equipment shed and bounded over to the power couplings. Moving my mouse over the busted couplings, I selected the “repair” option and my little astronaut set to work. A mini-game popped on-screen: if I soldered these circuits (read: spray-paint lines, like in Microsoft Paint), I could shave precious seconds off my welding job. If not, no big. I’d just be one minute closer to killing my colleagues.

I welded the couplings, reconnected a cable and, with my torch, fixed the solar arrays (still not sure how that works – magic-welding? Accio clean energy?). I had already lost fifteen minutes; some lady was blabbing about alarms going off in the living quarters. Proceeding to my next repairs, Moonbase told me I had to use a wrench.

A wrench. On the moon. It’s 2050, I’m living and working thousands of miles from Planet Fucking Earth, and I’m using a wrench? I suppose Moonbase did teach me something – no technology is so complicated that can’t be solved with a big ’ol lug of steel.

Coolant leakage kept me from fixing the air conditioners myself. I need to use a remote-controlled robot. Back at the shed shed – it’s also a robot factory, apparently – I must choose between a robot with a torch and a robot with a claw. I choose torch.

The robot scurried over to the air conditioners, getting stuck a few times along the way. He fixed a few whatsits with his torch-hand, fumbling through the same minigames as I. But when he encountered a problem that can only be repaired by claw-bot, I realized I’d have to lope back to the shed and build another one.

A researcher helpfully told me another master alarm just went off. I’m sure history will remember her sacrifice; I hopped in the rover and went joyriding.

As it turns out, driving is faster than walking but just as boring. Ramping off of bumps gives you a little not-air, but the landing is too sure to be convincing. Driving over to the de facto spaceport, I was disappointed to find that I couldn’t hijack the lander. Too bad, really – a full-thrust collision would have been better than the “Try Again” message I got when time ran up.

Dozens of people just suffocated inside those tubes, and some voiceover droned: “Productivity has ground to a halt.” I suppose that’s one way of putting it. At least I was able to strand the rover in a moon-ditch before the pinheads slumped over their Excel spreadsheets.

Moonbase is boring, bland and tiresome – I’ve been more entertained running through powers on a TI-83. But to its credit, it looks and feels good. An Unreal graphics engine pumps out respectable visuals and the smart, intuitive interface feels surprisingly sophisticated for freeware. Even more impressive, Moonbase lets you weld couplings with up to five friends, and the fruits of your labor get posted to a leaderboard. Surely this is some NASA nerd’s fantasy.

But when considering the game’s larger goal – to, as the mission statement reads, “inspire younger players to consider technical careers while engaging in a fun and challenging mission based on NASA’s lunar exploration architecture” – I can safely call Moonbase a failure to launch. I’ll show you inspiration – just let me gun the engines on that lander.