The distress signal is a time-worn MacGuffin of sci-fi gaming. That cry for help from the far reaches of the solar system which brings our hero planetside, and incites a journey full of aliens and explosions. In Mayday! Deep Space, however, the distress signal is something altogether different. Something full of tension, fear, and genuine excitement. You see, in Mayday! Deep Space, the distress signal isn’t what starts your adventure. It is your adventure.
Written by author Daniel Wilson and developed by Mountain Machine Studios, Mayday! is a wholly unique experience that takes place entirely within the confines of a radio call made from the USS Appaloosa — a spacecraft set adrift after an unknown incident leaves the crew massacred, save for one lone survivor. Having answered their communiqué entirely by chance, it’s your job to use your view of their onboard radar to guide the poor soul to safety using only a stable of rudimentary voice commands (“go left,” “run forward,” “faster,” etc.), all the while uncovering the realities of what happened on the doomed vessel in the first place.
In the modern mobile landscape where truly novel concepts are far and few between, Mayday! will have you hooked, from the first “Affirmative” til’ the closing credits. Perhaps its biggest triumph is the brilliant simplicity of its premise; its commitment to eking a satisfying experience out of what would have otherwise been a passing moment in any other game in the genre.
Mayday! is a testament to the value of questioning assumptions in design, and exploring in granularity the things that others might overlook or dismiss out of hand as a gimmick. Guiding the game’s survivor through corridors, past red blinking threats, and to narrowly earned safety all with your device’s microphone will have you constantly wondering why someone hasn’t done this before, all the while gleefully experiencing it for the first time.
Of course, a premise like this only as good as its ability to build atmosphere, and it’s in this regard that the game’s principle voice actor Osric Chau (of Supernatural fame) emerges as Mayday!’s crown jewel. From the moment he reaches out to you, Chau consummately embodies the game’s terrified, determined survivor, delivering the best voice acting I’ve seen in a mobile game to date. He brings a genuine air of curiousness and awe to even the most observational of lines, imbuing the plot with a sense of discovery that helps you feel as if you’re truly exploring a derelict ship, not simply staring at a radar screen. From the early stages of the game onward, I had stopped saying things like “go back” in tenser moments, and was instead frantically yelling it at my iPad, as if my tone of voice would help the situation at all. I cared about about Chau’s survivor as a living, breathing person.
Not to be overlooked, either, is author Daniel Wilson’s clipped story, which turns from a survivor’s chronicle to a compelling little sci-fi mystery on a dime, making deft use of every line. The game’s approximate one-hour running time belies how dense with lore and world-building Wilson’s tale is, and the several branching story points that exist are far from a time-extending gimmick. You owe it to yourself to explore Mayday! more than once, hearing everything it has to offer.
When you first boot up Mayday! Deep Space, it tells you to find somewhere quiet to play it, presumably out of practical concern for interference with your voice commands. I couldn’t second this recommendation any more enthusiastically, however, and for entirely different reasons. The year may be young yet, but I can’t think of much better use for an hour of your day than to steal away quietly and experience what will no doubt remain one of its best mobile releases.
Now “go forward” and download this thing.