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Lucas Pope's new Playdate exclusive is a delightful riff on Papers, Please, but for farty Martians and sad cyclops

 Mars After Midnight.
Mars After Midnight.

It took Mars After Midnight six seconds to make me laugh. Before starting a new save file I checked the settings menu—always check the settings menu—to find only a single option with a check box: "Mirth." Uncheck it, and Mars After Midnight's playful squiggly text stops shaking about so much. I wouldn't dare, to be clear. Mirth is what I'm here for in Lucas Pope's new game, which has the air of Ryan Gosling doing Serious Actor roles for years before embracing his inner Kenergy.

Mars After Midnight, a new Playdate exclusive (alas!) that costs $6, is a clear descendant of Pope's breakout game Papers, Please, a work of striking political commentary conveyed through the simple simulation of manning an immigration checkpoint. The simulation of Mars After Midnight is much the same, but with different stakes: I'm a goofy looking three-eyed alien minding the door for a late-night support group, and it's up to me to invite the right people into the party. My first night on the job, a crude drawing taped to the back of the door gives me clear instructions: only one-eyed Martians are allowed tonight, and they better be sad. No smiley cyclops allowed.

A flick of the Playdate's crank opens up the peephole in the door, where some absolutely delightful freakazoid of a Martian will be waiting to enter. These characters are the reason to play Mars After Midnight, as each one is good for at least a chuckle—you can see how much work went into the procedural generator Pope designed. Four-eyed Furbies, duck-lipped pig men, and fish-faced fang faces will all come knocking. The tiny handheld's d-pad lets you peer around the edges of the peephole, checking the Martian for some telltale characteristics that will determine if they fit the clientele for later events.

Pope has said he made Mars After Midnight for his kids, calling it "my usual repetitive isn't-this-just-work bs, only more carefree." I can see why his kids would love it: there's an exaggerated cartoony sense of life in every animation, and the events are all primed for mirth regardless of that check box in the options menu. The second night I was after farty Martians: some would let a big wet one rip the second I opened the peephole, while others would sheepishly stand at the door for a few seconds before squeezing out a little squeaker. I slammed the peephole shut on any Martians who couldn't prove themselves properly flatulent.

Events quickly start giving you extra tools to use in your bouncer duties, like a magnifying glass for zooming in on the patrons for Gnat Knife Handling night (unarmed gnats strictly forbidden) or a blowhorn for the Flinching Fellowship (only those who cower when I blast a noise in their face make it in the door). There's a surprising amount of depth here even in the early events, like having to open the peephole just a sliver to check if a patron's nervous smile will disappear when we make eye contact.

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But it all feels very low stakes and fun, without the grim trappings of sending refugees away to their deaths a la Papers, Please, or the sense of never being able to do enough in a day. There's no time limit that I've run into, but Mars After Midnight still applies some light pressure by having you arrange food for the guests in between door knocks as a way to earn some extra cash. When a knock comes and I have a stack of plates in one tentacle and a tray of dune bug pie in the other, I feel the slight panic of needing to hurry to the door.

A light strategy layer begins to emerge after a couple nights, asking you to advertise meetings to the proper communities of Martians and opening up new mechanics, like a tool called the Blab-o-Dex that deciphers Martian speech (an entire sound system Pope developed for the hell of it).

I feel like there's probably a bit more depth to Mars After Midnight I haven't uncovered yet, like events that demand more scrutiny of each Martian's appearance and behavior at the same time. But it's already a very pleasant videogame. Like Pope's masterpiece Return of the Obra Dinn, you can just somehow tell the art and design and music all came from a single mind—a mind now a bit more indulgent of fart jokes, to all our benefit.

Mars After Midnight is sadly a Playdate exclusive, though I reckon its crank mechanic would've worked quite well with a mouse scroll wheel. Maybe it'll get a port someday, but in the meantime keep an eye on the Itch.io page. If it's released there, you can play it on PC via the Playdate Simulator.