Today I’m going to mostly wax lyrical about Alto’s Odyssey and its predecessor, Alto’s Adventure because, despite being “only” mobile games, they are two of my all time favourite games. And I’m a guy who loves games. They are to mobile gaming what Command & Conquer was for me discovering PC gaming back in the 90s. They are the first experience of a game in the medium where I forget what I’m playing on and enter a state of blissful flow.
At first glance, the Alto games are just what you’d call an “infinite runner”; a game in which your character continually travels through an endless procedurally generated world, navigating puzzles and traps, picking up new abilities and seeing some interesting stuff. Even with that reductive impression, they’re still a particularly beautiful example of the genre. The visuals are stylised, simple but vibrant, and very pretty. Vistas roll past with smooth confidence and your character’s animation always feels satisfying and intuitively linked to your input. In addition to that beauty, however, these games are just something else. Alto’s Adventure has had me playing compulsively for a couple of years, and the only thing which put a stop to that was the release of Alto’s Odyssey. Your progression feels reasonably paced, your uptake of new tricks is logical and organic to the rest of the gameplay. New world elements are a continual genuine delight and the whole thing is sprinkled with a friendly whimsy which routinely makes me smile. And the sound is just perfect. The music behind the whole game is Brian Eno level ambient genius. Listened to through headphones, it’s spectacularly great at luring you into a happy meditative state. And there are llamas, and old men who chase after you with sticks, and you can smash rocks and you get a wingsuit and one of the characters has rockets on their skis and you get to disturb birds. Alto’s Adventure is a 10/10 mobile game, and a 10/10 game in general.
At least it was, because somehow Alto’s Odyssey is better. 11/10? The team have taken everything which was wonderful about Alto’s Adventure and furthered it. They’re resisted the urge to amp everything up and make it an extreme version of the original game. They’ve simply created more world, which feels naturally connected to the first game while being different enough to have you spellbound all over again. There’s a familiarity, in that the core gameplay is based on the exact same principles and the contours of the world follow the same logic, but now you’re in a sandy environment with temples and vines and balloons (hot air balloons! Guaranteed to make any environment more amazing). There are lemurs and birds of paradise too. Oh and you can get a wall-riding snowboard (fun doesn’t have to make sense) which allows you to grind along the side of giant rocks. It’s just magical. The musical brilliance is back too. Visually, the team have really achieved something very special. The visual language of the first game remains intact but the things they’ve done with it are enough to make you emotional. The first time you’re in a sandstorm or a thunderstorm and seeing your character in silhouette against the sky is way more scintillating than you could ever reasonably expect from a mobile game. It’s stunning on a phone screen but I’ve been absolutely loving playing on my iPad. It’s a work of genuine art.
I’ve been getting some really nice results regarding detailed drawings and backgrounds in Photoshop, but good grief I’m finding it hard to create cartoon lines without looking like I’m drawing in an earthquake. Example A: The former, drawn in Photoshop and the latter drawn in my old friend, Illustrator, which I will stick with for line drawing in future because my hands are apparently the shakiest?
In August my family and I spent a week in beautiful Croatia. After moving house, it was a much needed week of relaxation in one of my favourite places in the world. Croatia is sublime mountains encroaching on a placid sea with lovely people in between. In some moments it almost feels like the boundaries of time have fallen away and you are no longer suspended in the modern bubble. I often feel that way on the Mediterranean, like you can almost hear the conversations of thousands of years and ancient footsteps. The knowledge of that continuity there, despite technology and politics; I find it extremely comforting.
After a summer of moving house and exploding computers, I am back to DRAWING CARTOONS ON THE COMPUTER. To celebrate this WONDERFUL EVENT, here is my exhaustive walk-through of HOW TO DRAW A DOG. I guarantee that when you have read this, you will indeed have read it.
I’ve finished it! I’ve been reading this trilogy on and off for the past year and today I reached the end of Blue Mars, and I’m genuinely sad to be leaving those characters and that world behind. Through the three books, Robinson has created not just a exhaustively and emotively detailed Mars, but, surprisingly, a cast of well fleshed out characters whose stories work to create human realities in and around what could have been a fairly dry future history. The characters are not always sympathetically drawn, and in fact many of them spend a lot of the time being jerks, but that’s part of their strength. As is observed in either Green Mars or Blue Mars, heroics are not the matter of a lifestyle, they’re defined by a few single acts which intersperse a regular life.
Part of what struck me is how patient Robinson is throughout this grand story in his description of events, intermingling motivations and agendas, even the descriptions of the changing planet. He shows great understanding of the motivating power of personal flaws, and the human predisposition toward focusing on the wrong parts of themselves. He manages to merge this into sweeping political narrative, with historic decisions echoing the neuroses of the people behind them in a very honest way. Nothing seems inevitable. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars is not a world of destiny; it is a product of willpower and the law of unintended consequence.
The characterisation throughout is complex and very thoughtful; surprisingly fluid in approach to how good a light in which people are shown. Some characters who initially come across as cold or unfeeling turn out to be lucid and sympathetic, some who initially seem sympathetic, fun and worth chasing turn out to essentially be rotten, and some who should be heroes are riven with flaws that actually accentuate or cause their heroic acts. There is a feeling that those who try to live as heroes are destined to fail by comparison to those who tried to live well and occasionally acted heroically. People who are convinced of destiny are weaker than those who shape it.
And the descriptions of Mars: Often wonderful, sometimes a little tedious, always utterly convincing. Such is the power of KSR’s descriptions here, it sometimes comes as a fun sort of a shock when you put the book down and remember that none of it is like that in reality. Doubtless, the landscape of Mars will bear strong resemblances to what is written here; KSR clearly does his homework. But it is someone frustrating that Mars doesn’t exist as it does by the end of Blue Mars, with its integrating biosphere and beautiful locales that I will most likely never see. Through his characters, Robinson takes us on huge, sweeping journeys throughout Mars (and at points, various other parts of the solar system), to the extent you really feel you know the place. To my amusement, I was reading an article on some new discovery on Mars recently, only to find that I recognised the name of one of the places described. It had been turned into a small sea across which two of the characters had recently sailed in Blue Mars! Such was the clarity of the image Robinson created, the first thing I thought of was a coastal bay, rather than the bone-dry world-desert of reality.
One of the truly inspired touches across these three books is the way in which the planet reflects, and is reflected by, characters. The passion of life through Hiroko, the relentless scientific charge and its consequent universal transformation (perhaps transcendence) through Sax, the stark beauty of the world without Man in Ann and the inexorable productions of humankind in Nadia. Michel brings with him all the yearning and pain of home, Nirgal the spirit of Mars, wandering from event to event across the planet’s surface, lost in the infinite. The most arresting of these contrasts, however, is between Sax and Ann, a world apart, walking the same Martian earth, or Terran Mars, depending on whose perspective you are shown. They possess rival visions of paradise; one untouched, one perfected, and their conflict throughout the three books is often almost musical in its symmetry. Sure, Ann becomes a little tiresome in Green Mars, but overall, these two characters as voice-pieces for the two directions in time, both stemming from John Boone’s first steps on Mars, are fascinating to observe.
The environment also extends into the politics and psychology of the characters and the new Martian society (and later the greater civilisation throughout the solar system), as does a longevity treatment capable of letting people live well into their third century. I won’t get into all that here, as I found it very rewarding exploring these themes personally, and much of it was treated in surprising, and surprisingly intricate and innovative ways.
Overall, I came away extremely impressed by the Mars trilogy. As I’ve said, parts of it did get a little frustrating; out of the whole thing (around 2200 pages I suspect), I reckon a couple of hundred are a little aimless, but even then, this is by design. The parts that feel aimless are in fact due to the character the story is focusing on being aimless at that time. These characters are human. There is no hero’s journey here; at least not a traditional one. They falter. They get lost. They get confused. They get things wrong. They get themselves wrong.
The colonisation and terraforming of Mars throughout these books is a human process, meaning it is messy, only vaguely guided by fractious and capricious humans, who occasionally utterly lose control and find, through momentary lack of control, new ways of reacting and planning and sometimes they reach a sanguine realisation that life is not control and wisdom is not knowledge (or memory); it is experience and a will to peace tempered by the ultimate acceptance of its lack of likelihood. It is the awareness that the moment, if it is good, must be savoured, and if it is bad, it will not abide. It is coming to peace with the truth that, whatever you construct, however much willpower you put into the world, the process of the world will take the briefest glance, if any at all, and construct itself in an unrecognisable image anyway. And so, the human Mars is made, through the fractal guided chaos of humanity.
Frankly, I never expected to see these sorts of themes and messages coming from the pages of a heavily technical trilogy of books ultimately about the terraforming and colonisation of the red, freezing dustball next door. The further into the books I got, the more engrossed I became, and the process of exploration of this world Robinson creates became immersive, engaging and fascinating in a very immediate way.
These books are an achievement. In years to come, when human feet walk Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson deserves a place in the pantheon of those whose imaginations helped us get there, alongside Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov and HG Wells. Magnificent.