Lucas Pope’s Playdate Game Is Utterly Bizarre And Impossible To Put Down

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Of all the big exciting games I got to see at PAX West this past weekend, the one I was looking forward to the most was a 1-bit alien support group sim on the ultra-niche Playdate handheld. Yes, this is what being a peak gamer looks like. You can keep your Starfields and Spider-men, I’m here for Mars After Midnight.


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Even if you don’t know Lucas Pope by name, there’s a good chance you know his games. Return of the Obra Dinn and Papers, Please are two of the most celebrated and influential indie games of the last decade. If you haven’t played them, you’re missing out on two of the most deeply affecting, mind-shattering experiences in gaming. But I’m not here to sell you on Obra Dinn or Papers, Please, I’m here to tell you what it’s like to manage the snack bar at a cyclops anger management meeting on Mars.

Mars After Midnight is even weirder than it sounds. It begins with a slow, methodical tour through the mean industrial streets of a Martian colony, before settling on a dingy, off-colony community support center. Tonight’s session, according to the crooked sign outside the building, is cyclops anger management. We then move inside the building and are introduced to the player character, a bird-faced martian with octopus tentacles. Trust me, I’m just as confused as you are.

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There are several phases to the game, which starts in a very Papers, Please style with you, the chickenpus, deciding which Martians should be allowed into the meeting, and which one s don’t qualify. The rules are pretty simple: they must be a cyclops (so, one eye only) and they have to look sad. No smiling cyclops or sad multiclops allowed at the cyclops anger management meeting.

You can open and close a small window on the door by turning the Playdate crank, then peer outside to see what kind of Martian has come knocking. The window has a nice one-to-one movement with the crank, which made judging the relative sadness and eyefullness of each Martian pretty satisfying. The narrow window doesn’t give you much room to look around, so you’ll have to tilt the camera a bit to see exactly how many eyes they have (some of them have eyes in strange places). There’s a great parallax effect that gives you a nice view of the city behind each Martian as you look around, which is a great reminder of how unique Playdate games can look.

mars after midnight

Once you decide to let someone in, the next phase of the game begins. The Martian will head over to the snack table where they’ll grab a piece of pie and make a whole mess of the table. It’s then your job, using your tentacle arms, to clean and reset the snack table before the next patron comes in.

The table has a bunch of items – a stack of plates, a pie, a serving utensil, and a sign – that each need to be placed in the correct spot. You have to figure out how to stack them all on two piles so you can lift everything up, then use the crank to run the automatic cleaner over the table, before setting everything back down and separating it into the correct piles. It’s a simple space management puzzle, but sorting the items can get a little stressful once more Martians show up and start knocking on the door.

It goes back and forth like this for a while. You decide which Martian to let in, they destroy the snack table, then you go and reset it. Each one leaves a tip after, but it’s unclear whether this is somehow connected to your performance as a table cleaner or doorman. I understood the assignment after the first loop, and nothing at all had changed by the time I let in the fifth Martian, but I still kept cleaning the table, setting everything back in its place just right, and going back to the door to let in more cyclopes.

When the final slice of pie is claimed, the night ends, and the Martians all go home, I have no idea what I’ve accomplished. Before the demo ends, there’s a suggestion that things open up. The next night I get to use the funds I acquired to set up the next support group meeting, decide what clientele is allowed in, and what kind of malady they’re suffering from. It’s unclear if my job will continue to be resetting the snack table, but it seems likely. I can’t explain why, but I would have stood there all day organizing plates for abusive aliens if they had let me.

Mars After Midnight is a small game, as Playdate titles tend to be, and I don’t expect it to be a transformative experience the way Obra Dinn and Papers, Please were for me. It’s a weird little game on a weird little handheld, but if it gets me closer to the mind of Lucas Pope, I’m in – even if I have to clean the same table at a Martian support group a hundred times.

Next: Mourning The Playdate Dream That Never Came To Be

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