Lucas Pope’s new Playdate puzzler is a lovely, silly game about community

March 24, 2024
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Not to brag, but I’m pretty sure I know what Mars After Midnight smells like. I reckon Mars After Midnight smells of church halls and community centres, which means it smells like warm dust, floor polish and feet. These are the kinds of places that cater to many different parts of the community, altering and reorganising themselves as the hour dictates. The line dancers are in at seven, and then the book club comes at nine. Will the model railway enthusiasts remember to switch off and lock up?

All of which should tell you that, while Mars After Midnight is a Lucas Pope game, it’s a very different kind of Lucas Pope game, as different – if such a thing is possible – as it is familiar. This makes sense, I guess. Mars After Midnight is a game made specifically for the Playdate, that funny little handheld with no backlighting to the screen and a crank on one side. If there was ever an invitation for the mind behind brilliantly sinister games like Return of the Obra Dinn and Papers, Please, to mix stuff up, it’s this device.

On the surface, at least, there’s a little of Papers, Please, Pope’s totalitarian passport-checking mega hit. For quite a bit of Mars After Midnight you’re guarding a doorway, making sure only certain people come through. But context is everything, and the context here is, well, warm dust, floor polish and feet. You’re guarding the entrance to a community centre – a shipping and receiving centre by day, and a community support centre by night. Each night you run a different support group, and you make sure only the correct people attend.

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