Struggle futilely in a dysfunctional ant farm with a pulsing synth soundtrack. That seems to be the core of space survival game Tharsis, from Choice Provisions (formerly Gaijin Games, of Bit.Trip fame). Ten weeks out from landing on Mars, the crew of the Iktomi are hit by a micrometeoroid cloud, killing two crew members and causing a series of catastrophic malfunctions. The remaining four astronauts are then directed to repair the ship and cultivate supplies needed to finish the journey any way they can. With an obliterated pantry, food becomes especially troublesome: you can harvest what’s left in the greenhouse, but become desperate enough and cannibalism starts to look tempting.
At its headiest, Tharsis becomes a rumination on our lack of control in the universe. A series of quasi-animated cutscenes propose an anomaly which turns the game itself into a recurring, darkly Absurdist, cosmic joke existing somewhere between Europa Report and Groundhog Day. For the guts of the thing, Choice take the Titan Souls approach to indie development: pumping the weaponized frustration of triple-A titles like Alien: Isolation and Dark Souls to NES-era levels of punishment to keep players discomforted. Crises are randomly generated, the means to quell them powered by the roll of dice (gained or lost based on individual circumstances, such as length of time without food), standing in for any number of variables. Gains are incremental, hard-fought, and likely to be swiftly undone. It’s not uncommon, for instance, to have a crew store up food and fully repair the ship, only for a fire to break out (and deal injury to anyone who rolls a five or six) that takes multiple turns to fix, chipping away at all your progress. Chaos, beautifully abstracted.