Gameranx Interviews: Tyler Owen (Lacuna Passage)

Lacuna Passage lead developer Tyler Owen talks space exploration, creating a realistic world, and surviving against the odds.

After several years in development, open-world exploration game Lacuna Passage is almost ready to usher players through Mars’ dusty gates. The fourth planet from the Sun. The Red Planet. This tiny sphere has spawned countless works of fiction – Ridley Scott’s The Martian is perhaps the most notable entry in recent years, but the fascination doesn’t end there. Tyler Owen, the lead developer of Lacuna Passage, is a man with a vision, too. He wants players to explore realistic Martian landscapes, scavenge resources in a world reluctant to part with them, and push the boundaries of human knowledge. The Earth, as he sees it, is a pleasant prison; it might be our home, but we are stuck here should any calamity strike. In an era where Stephen Hawking is effectively issuing ultimatums about our future safety on Earth, advancing our collective intelligence seems less dangerous an idea than ever before – even if it means charting the unknown.  
 
Gameranx: Lacuna Passage was inspired by games like Dear Esther and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but why Mars? What do you think keeps drawing humanity to its rocky landscapes?
 
Tyler Owen: I think we are all explorers in some fashion, but we’ve exhausted almost every corner of our own world. We’ve even landed on the moon, but Mars is still there and we know so little about it. The few images that have been sent back by our rovers are barely a glimpse of what there is to see and discover about the red planet. I think Mars reminds us of how lucky we are to even exist. Scientists believe that Mars might have had the components to support life a long time ago, but obviously something went terribly wrong and it became the desolate landscape we know today.
 
Gameranx: Can you reveal the time-frame for Lacuna Passage? Is it set in the near future?
 
Owen: It is. Yes, the story mode will be set in the mid 2030s around the time that today’s aerospace engineers and scientists say we might put forth our first manned missions to Mars.
 
Gameranx: Protagonist Jessica Rainer is the last remaining survivor of the failed ‘Heracles’ mission – who is in fact following up another mission (Hermes) which disappeared. What else can you tell us about her? How was she chosen for the mission, and did she choose to go willingly?
 
Owen: Being an astronaut requires a very special kind of bravery. You have to be willing to sacrifice your safety for the pure goal of advancing human knowledge. Jessica is the kind of person willing to make that sacrifice. And if these missions are happening in the 2030s that means she would probably be around 18 years old right now.
“We are all explorers in some fashion…(but) being an astronaut requires sacrificing your safety for the pure goal of advancing human knowledge”
She would have been dismayed by the end of the space shuttle era and she would have longed to keep pushing the boundaries of space exploration like we did back in the Apollo days. Getting chosen to be on one of those first Mars missions would have required a little bit of luck and good timing, like being born in the right generation, but to even be among the considered candidates definitely demanded a lifetime of preparation.
 
Gameranx: A large part of Lacuna Passage’s appeal is its incredible level of realism – from the planet terrain to the technologies players will use. What motivated you to include such details in a fictional environment? 
 
Owen: Some of the most memorable gaming experiences I have had all have an incredible attention to small details. I think that goes a long way towards making the player feel grounded when you are expecting them to follow a fictional narrative. I knew I wanted to make a game set on Mars when the curiosity rover first sent back photos of the Martian surface.
I wanted to explore that place and I thought, well, that’s going to take a lot of work to faithfully recreate an environment of that scale. Then I realized, maybe I don’t have to recreate it, maybe I could create it as it actually is using 3D scans of the planet’s surface. So I found someone who could help me convert those scans into heightmaps for our terrain and that’s when I knew we had something special. In Lacuna Passage you are actually walking around on real Martian features.
 
Gameranx: Sandbox survival games have surged in popularity over recent years, arguably saturating the market. How does Lacuna Passage stand out in this regard? What gameplay structures will players be occupied by? 
 
Owen: There certainly has been a surge in popularity, but I think that’s for good reason. I think it’s a genre that has instinctive appeal and I don’t think previous generations of games have properly explored that space. There is something very special about feeling like you are coming upon some discovery that no one else has seen, or narrowly scrambling back from the edge of death.
 
When you take a genre like that and put it on Mars I think it combines that instinctive appeal of survival games and marries it with our collective infatuation with space.
“The most incredible gaming experiences I’ve had all have incredible attention to small details. Lacuna Passage provides players with an experience that makes them feel like a true astronaut”
The majority of our survival sandbox in Lacuna Passage provides the player with an experience that is meant to make them feel like a true astronaut. Instead of managing ammunition and a health bar, you are managing oxygen, batteries, solar panels, food, water, and more. You have to keep your equipment in good working order, because your life literally depends on it, just like a real astronaut. Of course, in Lacuna Passage you are presented with an astronaut’s worst nightmare. Being stranded and with limited resources.
 
Gameranx: Physicist Stephen Hawking recently claimed humans have 100 years to find a new planet to inhabit – citing population growth, climate change and overdue asteroid strikes as key factors that will make Earth increasingly inhospitable. What are your thoughts? Could Mars be humanity’s safe haven?
 
Owen: I think that Mars can hardly be described as a safe place for humans, but it does represent a “backup plan” of sorts. I don’t think that colonizing Mars will solve all the problems we face here on Earth, but it may be necessary if we want to avoid total annihilation from some unknown calamity. The Earth might be a pleasant place to live right now, but it’s also effectively a prison. We’re trapped here until we prioritize more space exploration.
 
Gameranx: At the heart of Lacuna Passage lies a tough dilemma – survive and hope you’ll be rescued, or discover what happened to the Hermes and risk your life doing so. Will you have alternate endings based on player choices? What questions and emotions do you hope to raise/evoke?
 
Owen: The eventual story mode will definitely have non-linear aspects. I want players to evaluate all the possible options and set out on their decided course of action. Though obviously, without perfect knowledge of what challenges they might face they may find themselves at a dead end of sorts, but I think that adds to the role-playing aspect of being an astronaut. Imagine how many things could have gone wrong with the crew of the Apollo 13 which might have ended in disaster. Disaster could certainly be in store for Jessica, but players will have to own that outcome and hopefully they won’t feel like the game cheated them of their goal. And yes, it’s possible that there may be more than one end goal that can be achieved, but you’ll have to wait until our story mode is complete to find out.
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Gameranx thanks Tyler Owen for his time and making this interview possible. We recently took a dive into Lacuna Passage and thought it was a decent simulation and exploration title. Interested players will be able to access Lacuna Passage on Steam (PC, Mac) from May 17.