We’re Going To Mars!

I actually can’t believe this story is from four days ago and I haven’t heard anyone talking about it yet: NASA recently unveiled its timeline for the (actual) human exploration of Mars. A permenant human presence on the Red Planet! How is that not awesome?

Here’s the basic timeline: It begins with phasing out the Earth Reliant aspect of space travel, which is where we are now. The International Space Station mission will be winding down in the next few years, which is somewhat sad, but the installation is certainly getting old (it was originally launched in 1998!) and ending the ISS mission will free up NASA’s resources to focus on Mars.

After the Earth Reliant phase ends, NASA will transition to the Deep Space, and, quote, “NASA will send a robotic mission to capture and redirect an asteroid to orbit the moon. Astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft will explore the asteroid in the 2020s, returning to Earth with samples.” Redirecting an asteroid is perhaps the most metal thing I’ve read all month.

And finally, in the 2030s, NASA should be ready to send humans to Mars. We’re really going. The Orion program will take us back to the stars. (Well, figuratively speaking; the actual stars are still a long ways away).

I’m excited. This news is exciting to me and not just because, holy shit, The Martian will only be science-fiction for a few more decades (and then it will just be regular fiction). I’m excited that I’ll (hopefully) be around to see the next great achievements in human exploration. I’m excited because this feels like a real investment in spreading human life beyond our planet, a mission which will hopefully provide us with the means to spread to the rest of our solar system. In short, it’s the future that science fiction has been tantalizing us with. We’re finally going there.

A lot could happen, of course. A complete conservative takeover of the government could see NASA’s budget gutted, which would scrub the mission. But my hope is that the desire to explore the stars transcends ideological barriers. Space exploration has produced some of the country’s greatest heroes. What conservative doesn’t respect the sheer bad-ass-itude of the astronauts of the Apollo program? What progressive doesn’t savor the idea of pushing our scientific understanding to a new limit? There’s so much for us to learn out there!

I hope people start talking about this more. I hope folks get excited. Because the technology is within our reach and will only get closer, so long as we maintain the desire and the collective willpower. In 1969, we went to the moon. Let’s do something cool like that again, and let’s do it together.

Personal aside: I am 100% certain that it’s not an accident this announcement was timed to come after the success of The Martian and the announcement of water being discovered on Mars. Space is cool again!

Exploring Forgotten Lands

When I worked at GameStop, once or twice I managed to get a free copy of a game. They were usually promotional copies that were given out at manager’s conferences, the idea being that if you play and enjoy a free game, you’ll generate more sales through the enthusiasm you pass off to customers. I should note that this plan didn’t always work out if the game happened to be terrible.

I acquired several games like this during my few years there but there were a couple that I never got around to playing: Vanguard: Saga of Heroes and EverQuest II. The reason I never installed or played either game was twofold: first, both games came out during the darkest days of my World of WarCraft addiction, so the idea of playing another fantasy-themed MMO was neither appealing nor necessary. Second, both of these games required subscription fees. Even though the discs were free, I’d still have to pay to play; it wasn’t like getting a free Xbox 360 game where I could try it out at no cost to myself beyond time invested. For those reasons, my copies of Vanguard and EQII sat on my game shelf for several years, unopened and gathering dust.

Although I’m cured of my WoW addiction, every so often, I still get this strange, random urge to play an MMO for a little while. When this urge happens, I’ve found that the best way to satiate it, rather than reinstalling WoW is to try out one of the many, many MMOs that I ignored during their release due to the WoW addiction. Sometimes, this doesn’t end well: my brief time with Lord of the Rings: Online was uneventful and plain to the extent that even the promise of being a wizard loremaster wielding a sword and a staff together couldn’t hold my interest. I played for a few hours and then uninstalled the game.

Yesterday, the Vanguard box on my game shelf caught my eye. I’d read somewhere that the game had gone free to play, which meant I could try it out without having to pay anything. What the hell, I figured. I installed the game and made a Dark Elf Sorcerer.

Generally speaking, Vanguard is one of the many casualties that tried to compete with the WoW juggernaut and lost. I’m honestly surprised that there’s still support for it, when better loved MMOs like City of Heroes have been shut down. Maybe that’s the secret to Vanguard’s life-span. It’s not so popular that its maintenance costs outweigh the benefits of keeping it online. Or maybe Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) is just that determined to keep it going.

Coming into an MMO like this years after the fact is a somewhat surreal experience. Unlike returning to WoW, there is no nostalgia filter that colors your every experience. Things feel both new and old at the same time; familiar due to the mechanics that all MMOs now use and yet alien because you’ve never seen this class or this world. There’s also the feeling of stumbling upon something hidden, something that’s been passed over by the rest of the world. There are still people here having fun and enjoying their game. It’s their own little world in a way that the WoW juggernaut can’t be. Everybody knows WoW. Everybody has their Horde or their Alliance experience; you’re not unique or special there.

Playing Vanguard feels like being a virtual-world archaeologist. The mechanics are pure WoW: push button, kill stuff, talk to guy, kill more stuff. The fact that I can play a dark elf is a large draw for me, even though I realize, mechanically speaking, this isn’t really a big game play alteration. I’m a little bit curious to try out some of their other classes, particularly the Necromancer and the Blood Mage. The Blood Mage sounds especially cool: a vampiric sort of healer that restores her party members by siphoning life away from others.

Will I stick with Vanguard for long? Probably not. The reality is that I quit WoW because I was bored of WoW. I was tired of quests, tired of reputation grinds, tired of push-button, kill stuff mechanics. The MMO genre has stagnated into a Pavlovian treadmill: kill stuff to get better stuff that helps you kill more stuff. That was a fun cycle the first three times I ran it, but now I want something else. I want to do more in a virtual world than just kill things. I think back to my time with Ultima Online and how much fun I had playing interior decorator with my own house. I want gameplay that moves in that direction: world simulation instead of just theme-park experiences.

In the meantime, however, exploring Vanguard is an interesting experience. It feels like a forgotten land, not by virtue of its world design, but by the fact that this is a place that few gamers have wandered. There are 10 million+ gamers who know the world of Azeroth. I’ve spent more than my fair share of time there. I know all its lore. I know its conflicts. I know it and I’m bored because I know.

I don’t even know what the world in Vanguard is called and for a person whose two basic motivations in a game are exploration and the story, that’s a strong draw. So I’ll play and I’ll wander and I’ll find my way through a virtual world that few have known or likely ever will know.