Sunday, August 19, 2018

Martian Dreams: Sweet Dreams Are Made of These

When last I left off, I'd just been granted access to the remains of the destroyed Dream Machine in Olympus. But Legrande had demonstrated a certain degree of trepidation about the matter - it was off-limits by Segal's order, after all. I'd have to make sure I got the most out of whatever time I was able to get with the machine, and in order to ensure that, I thought it best to find out everything I could about the Machines before examining the destroyed one in Olympus. Knowledge was power, and it suited me to arm myself well before venturing too far forward.

To that end, I decided to head for Hellas. Word on the street (er, so to speak) was that a man there knew a good deal about the Machines. What sort of state this had left him in seemed to vary depending on who I talked to, but it seemed that the man was my best lead for getting a decent sense of what I might be getting into with the Machines. Fortunately it was a very quick trip to the settlement. With the power on the planet restored, the transport tubes just outside Olympus were active once more, and after some fiddling about figuring out which tube led where by means of coordinates I'd been previously given, I found myself standing on the outskirts of Hellas itself.

I really want to know what a Martian orchestra sounded like.
Hellas stood in rather stark contrast to the bustling Olympus that I had just left. Whereas Olympus had been a Martian settlement now taken over and made suitable for a sizeable human population, Hellas - a hub of sorts for the canal system, it looked like - seemed to be mostly abanadoned and untouched by human hands. There were remnants of the Martian population everywhere. Musical instruments that still wheezed when anyone attempted to make use of them. Gardening tools were stored near a greenhouse. A room where the Martians could kick off their footbags (what I surmised passed for shoes among their kind) and soak their... roots? Feet? What *do* you call the extremities of sentient plants? Wherever I turned, there were new facets of Martian culture to take in. Jewelery, money, scrolls and writing implements - here was the best sense I could yet get of what Martian day to day life had been like. Yet it took brought up new questions. What had happened? Why had the settlement apparently been abandoned? It did not seem like answers were going to be swiftly forthcoming.

In my explorations of the city, I came across a Dream Machine, which I left alone until I had a chance to find and talk with Marcus. I eventually found him in the greenhouse, and he seemed very glad for the company. Indeed, he was the only resident of the empty colony, and he was evidently starved for human interaction. Emphasis on human - according to Marcus, there were berries in the gardens that allowed him to talk with some of the Martian machines, though he could not fetch them very easily due to the fact the gardens were overrun with jumping beans. He had much to tell us of the Machines - the long and short of it were that they pulled you into a dream world ruled by imagination. There was a substance there, dreamstuff Marcus called it, that could be shaped by force of will into whatever could be imagined. He claimed to have seen Lowell and others in the Dream World as well - he theorized that the Elysium crew had been trapped in nightmares while Martians already in the Dream World took over their bodies. A chilling prospect indeed, if true - but it made sense, based on what we had heard. According to Marcus, visiting the Dream World left your body vulnerable, and if someone made it back to it before you did... well, possession didn't seem like such a far-fetched idea in light of that.

He informed us that the machine there in Hellas wasn't working, but perhaps we could ask it what it needed, using the berries he'd mentioned earlier. So it was off to the gardens to do some weed-pulling (in the form of culling jumping beans) and berry collecting. Along the way, we passed a building we could not enter due to a rusted door. Upon using a flask of oil we had on hand, we managed to work our way inside and were rewarded with what appeared to be live Martian seeds, as opposed to the dead ones we'd seen in the power plant. This seemed like a valuable find indeed, and we took them with us.

I love how different the "machine" dialogue feels compared to the rest.
It took some experimenting, but eventually we found the green berries allowed us a certain sensitivity to the Martian machinery. It wasn't communication, exactly, but even so, after partaking of the berry, Aric was able to read certain sensations that came from the Dream Machine. It felt... blocked, somehow, dead, even. A vision of a glowing rock came to mind, and we quickly installed the block of radium that we had found in the Olympus mines (using all due precautions, of course). This restored power, but the machine gave off a sense of a missing connection and a lack of direction. Direction was easy to provide, we simply installed the repaired control panel Edison had given us. A missing connection, however... that suggested further missing parts. Perhaps the remains of the machine in Olympus would prove useful after all.

With a machine in Hellas freely accessible, it felt less important to be cautious about spending our time with the machine in Olympus so judiciously. So we headed back to examine the wreckage, and sure enough, found a part that the Hellas machine appeared to be lacking, a headset of some sort. Maybe that would provide the connection the Hellas machine was missing. Yet there was one other thing we felt we had to do before returning to it. We had gone to Hellas in the first place in search of information, and we had found some. There were still questions, though, and suspicions that demanded investigation. There was one place we might be able to find some answers to them, a place we had been warned about several time already.

It was time to head to Elysium.

***

...talk about the fern calling the shrub green.
Hellas had stood in stark contrast to Olympus due to its emptiness, its sense of abandonment, its lack of residents. Upon reaching Elysium, it quickly became evident that it too stood in stark contrast to Olympus, not due to the quantity of its denizens, but the quality. The people we found in Elysium were ragged, rumpled, as if they weren't taking care of themselves properly. And it soon became clear as to the reasoning why - Marcus' suspicions about the Elysium expedition proved to be entirely on point. Speaking with them, they always gave two names upon introducing themselves - a Martian name first, the name of the body they inhabited second. They were, in fact, Martians that had taken advantage of the workings of the Dream World to inhabit the hapless crew that had scouted out the settlement in the first place.

Though rattled by this discovery, we did learn a lot. The Martians of Elysium were often dismissive, elitist, and haughty, derisive even, of "worms," as they called us, but even so, we learned a fair amount of the workings of their society. Fazek and Chesef spoke at length on the process of growing a new Martian, though they didn't know the mixture of the fertilizer used. They did mention that their chemicals often came from Hellas' Gatherer Pukchep, and their Cultivator had a chemical lab. We'd already explored it, but it was heartening to know we likely already had what we might need on hand. Xichak told us of his search for water, and suspected that the icecaps may be the best solution.

Well fine then!
But it was Tekapesh, Bikchiz, and Chaktsaf that gave us the clearest picture of what exactly had happened here in Elysium, and indeed Mars as a whole. Each of the three of them gave us different pieces of the story, but the long and short of it was that Raxachk, leader of the settlement at Argyre, essentially wished to bring the entire planet under his control. When the other leaders failed to cooperate, he released a plague into the air which ravaged the population. The only survivors were those who had fled into the Dream World to escape it, and those in Elysium had taken the chance presented to them when Lowell and his entourage had arrived. They had stolen the bodies of our Earthling compatriots, using their plague-immune bodies to find a way to grow "proper" Martian bodies once again. Tekapesh refused to abandon the bodies to their proper owners until they had a way to get more "suitable" ones, as he put it.

Though Pashesh, Bikchiz's assistant, claimed that Elysium was the most advanced of the groves, it seemed they had thus far been unable to recreate their growth process. I must admit I wondered at the accuracy of Pashesh's statement as a result.

From what they told me, I had a general sense of what would be needed to grow a new Martian body, but I was still lacking the proper mixture for the fertilizer used. I resolved to follow up on this thread later, and returned to Hellas in order to venture into the Dream World for myself.

***

I don't think we're in Kansas anymore.
It was a fairly quick trip via pneumatic tube back to Hellas, and after several deep breaths and steeling himself for what was to come, Aric took a seat in the Dream Machine, Spector threw the switch, and slowly but surely his consciousness faded from the physical to the metaphysical. In the Dream World, five obelisks stood tall, each engraved with a different image - a sickle, a lamp, tracks, a Martian. Approaching the first of them led to an oddly lush landscape, in which the trees moved and often obstructed the way along a narrow path. Weaving through them led to none other than George Washington Carver, who wanted help with an experiment - he needed to ensure a plant grew to full maturity, and wanted assistance repelling the oncoming worms. It took some doing, but careful use of seeds which sprouted plants that kept the worms away long enough for me to kill them eventually allowed the pod to grow, and slicing it open revealed none other than Carver himself. Content that he had now experienced the full Martian life cycle, he was released from his nightmare.

The second obelisk led to a long, twisting passageway, businessman enjoying themselves and laborers hard at work visible just off of it. This, then, was likely Lenin's dream, and sure enough, at the end of the passageway the man himself was present, along with money littering the floor. He demanded assistance in distributing the present wealth equally, so after gathering all the money and separating it out into 25 equal piles (and relinquishing the extra 3 rubles and an azurite stone "to the state" for "the benefit of the masses"), Lenin was satisfied and he too was released from his nightmare. Two obelisks explored, three more to go.

The third was full of dreamstuff, and was very disorienting to walk through - every so often my controls would flip around, so it was rather difficult to discern which way was up sometimes! Using the dreamstuff led to a large variety of materials - a broken robot, an adding machine, various weaponry. These proved to be useful once Aric finally found his way out of the passageways to a distraught H. G. Wells, surrounded by invisible creatures! Figuring out where they were was simply a matter of examining which directions the footprints in the dirt were heading, and after dispatching the invisible beasts, Wells too was freed from his nightmare.

This seems like a bad idea.
Tiffany's dream was an odd beast, as Aric found himself attacked by his own mother, and in the process of fleeing for his safety ended up falling off a very large cliff! The fall apparently did no lasting damage, however, and exploring his new surroundings (interrupted every so often by crashing noises and shaking) revealed a book on bullfighting, of all things. I was rather amused by the fact bullfighting, according to the book, worked on three principles. The Courage to master your fear, The Love that was compassion for the bull and the audience, and the Truth that the bull was easily distracted and could be led by waving a red item. There was even opportunity to put these three principles into practice, as the crashing noises proved to be a literal bull in a china shop, complete with a very frazzled Tiffany. Luring the bull into a side passage by waving around a red throw rug proved enough to save the fragile merchandise, and thus saw Tiffany freed from his own nightmare as well.

Dream-Hellas seems like it's falling apart a little.
The fifth obelisk, however, was not the dream of an Earthling. Instead, it was the dream of the remnants of the Hellas grove. Hellas was not, it turned out, the empty and abandoned settlement it had appeared to be. They had only moved into the Dream World, a version of the grove that was hazy and fragmented as the realm it resided in. In fact, I found myself reminded of the Gargoyle Lands of Ultima VI, replete with various portions of it falling away into starry void. Conversing with the residents told much the same story as that I found in Elysium. The main difference was that the Martians of Hellas were much more congenial and friendly, and wished to work alongside the humans of Earth in finding a solution to the problem of the plague, instead of merely using them as the grove of Elysium did. Prektesh in particular, leader of the Elysium grove, condemned the "theft," as he called it, though there was little he could do about it from the Dream World. He did say that they would surely keep their word about exchanging the bodies of our compatriots for aid, though - it seemed growing a new Martian would prove necessary after all. Plashef helpfully expounded upon the missing pieces of that particular puzzle - how to tend the seed, and the proper blend of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium needed to nourish it. Xaktsesh also informed us of a second plan her podmate had formed. He had a laboratory in the polar regions, hoping that the cold would slow the progress of the plague while he worked toward finding a new type of body immune to the plague. Perhaps if a new Martian could not be grown, this would be worth investigating, but I needed to free the Earthlings in Elysium. I would need to follow Tekapesh's plan for now.

It was time to grow a Martian.

***

I didn't notice this until pulling this post together,
but even the interface changes in the dream realm:
note the grey rather than gold background.
That was where I ended the session, and it struck me just how varied a session it was. I absolutely loved the dream sequences, all of them stretching the engine and mechanics to their limits to accomplish a large breadth of things. Equipping the throw rug to distract the bull, dealing with the mixed up controls, figuring out how to properly use the items I'd been given, there were so many different things going on in the dreams and each of them felt unique. It felt like it really stepped up the interactivity from Ultima VI, what with the large variety of things I could use and mess around with (some of the stuff I got from dreamstuff in Wells' dream was enjoyable to play with, even if it proved utterly useless), but did so in a more approachable manner than Savage Empire, which felt like it overcomplicated the process a bit, especially with the rifles and bombs one could make in that game.

Then too do I find the aesthetic of this game much more appealing than Savage Empire, and not just because the genre as a whole clicks better with me. Though it's a very different take for the series, there's a lot of elements that put me in mind of the main series, much more so than Savage Empire did. I already mentioned the parellel between dream-Hellas and the Gargoyle lands as far as aesthetic went, but the story of Hellas also put me in mind of Magincia: a beautiful and renowned settlement fallen to decay and abandonment, chatting with the spectral remnants of its population to figure out what happened to it and why it fell. I could even make the argument that Martain Dreams' story is essentially just a steampunk reimagining of Ultima VI's story - but I think I'll save that for my closing post, that's where I generally do my dissecting of Overarching Story in the first place.

So on that perhaps tantalizing note, back into the game I go to find out just how green my thumb is - I suppose it's a good thing my mom had me spend a lot of time helping out in the garden growing up, huh?

Don't mind me, just standing here thinking at the edge of the Dream World...

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Martian Dreams: Making a Power Play

Forget all roads leading to Rome. Now that I had an affidavit certifying my mental stability - signed in triplicate - in hand, all my leads seemed to point me in the direction of Olympus. There were at least three threads I could recall to follow up on within the community's walls. Dibbs had suggested a man named Trippet there could assist with repairing the broken conveyor belt in the power station. Edison might be able to help figure out how to get said station providing power once more. I'd also been told Carnegie had been working on building another cannon to make the return trip to Earth. Though he had run out of iron for the necessary steel, seeking him out could still be beneficial, and he too was purportedly to be found in Olympus.

Appreciating the bounty of Martian vegetation.
And so, with my course decided, I set out once more to deliver my affidavit to Nathaniel and gain entrance to the gated community. Sticking near the canals had been both easy to navigate and relatively safe in the past, so I stuck to the pattern. It indeed proved to be an uneventful journey, and we spent some time marveling at the Martian vegetation - the forests, the wriggling worm grass, the berry bushes. The glut of levels I experienced in my last session seemed to be dwindling back to what felt like "normal" levels as well. No longer was I seeing at least half my party get stronger when I rested - granted, that was partly because the recent addition of Sherman to the group had increased its size, but I was, at least, beginning to catch up to all the experience I'd been gaining.

Nathaniel was quick to open the gates and welcome us to Olympus once he had verified the three signatures. I suspect we were also helped in no small part by the fact that one of the signers was indeed now traveling as part of our number. Olympus proved to be a relatively bustling community, and we spent a good while exploring its nooks and crannies, and talking to its citizenry. We learned much from the many notable figures we found there. Marie Curie, for example, told us of her research into radium, how the Martians may have used it to power some of their machines, and the affinity the Martian worms seemed to have for the substance. Apparently the creatures grew quite rapidly when exposed to it, and so the physicist hypothesized we might be able to conclude the presence of radium wherever we found abnormally large worms. She invited us to take the lead box in her laboratory with us so we could collect our own samples should we find any.

Taking in the Olympian sights
Several others in the community talked with us about potentially useful things - Teddy Roosevelt told us of the value of fingerprint evidence and how it led him to suspect Rasputin to be the culprit of the cannon's early fire. Sarah Bernhardt (fascinating woman, incidentally, I did some further reading about her out of curiosity, since I didn't know much about her, and man is she an interesting figure!) mused about her more artistic pursuits and how beautiful she found Martian culture, lamenting its loss and wishing there were a way to preserve their race. Trippet talked with us about the canals, positing that the Martians may have melted part of the ice caps for water - Peary seemed to agree, telling us how the ice there seemed irregularly formed when we chatted about his explorations of the planet.

But more than anything else, talk in Olympus seemed to revolve around the Dream Machines. Segal, the leader of the colony, insisted on us avoiding the machines, talking about the madness that had afflicted those who had used it at Elysium, and a dangerous man in Hellas with a working Machine. He had ordered the one there in Olympus destroyed and guarded, and that seemed to be that. Edison, however, still seemed to be interested in its workings - he had had a chance to study its control panel before the Machine was destroyed, and thought he'd be able to rewire another control panel for its use. Perhaps there would be opportunity to take advantage of that fact, too. Legrande Couillard, the man guarding the ruined apparatus, suggested he'd be willing to let us see it if we could find his missing brother Jean, who had been sent to the Olympus mines and had not been heard of since.

...yeah, I'd believe this guy reads Machiavelli.
As an aside, I also liked the various touches each character we met had in their domiciles, especially the books. Personally, I think you can tell a lot about a person by what they've got on their bookshelves, and it seemed an applicable precept within Olympus. My two particular favorites - a copy of The Three Musketeers in the building where Peary and Roosevelt were rooming together, and Machiavelli's The Prince displayed proudly in Segal's quarters. Both seemed rather fitting choices for the personages who were apparently reading them, and it made for that nice little extra bit of characterization. Well done, Martian Dreams.

There were a couple things I could follow up on after chatting up the residents of Olympus, and the first one I decided to pursue was getting the power going. It seemed like it would be an important part of my own explorations of the Red Planet, and besides, I'd already been to the power station, so I at least knew where I was going and at least some degree of what to expect. Unfortunately, I hadn't thought to take the damaged conveyor belt with me when I was there, so I had to go back and fetch it to bring back to Trippet so he could repair it. (Yes, there was a lot of back and forth in this session.) Along the way I had my first brush with the dreaded oxy leeches, who stole oxium from me whenever they managed to land a blow. That just reinforced my decision to get the power running again - I'd need to do so in order to track down Cooter's oxium motherlode, and with my supplies dwindling thanks to leeches, it seemed all the more urgent to find a way to replenish them!

Let there be light!
After some running around, I managed to get the belt fixed and replaced, and once I had, Coker immediately got to work, mining a large chunk of coal and placing it on the newly repaired conveyor. But as the power wasn't running, it didn't go anywhere. There was plenty of smaller pieces of coal lying around, though, so I stoked the fires long enough to move one of the larger chunks far enough down the line for Stoker to take over. Once he'd done his job, the entire place sprang to life - the furnaces were hot and getting things moving. And with the power restored - at least for the facility, I still had to make sure the broadcast towers were active - I beelined for the doors I couldn't get past in my previous visit here. Sure enough, there were bins absolutely *full* of oxium, and I quickly replenished my nearly exhausted stash with as much as I could. And thus was the problem of oxium as both currency and means of keeping characters in fighting shape turned from a supply issue to a logistics one - these bins seemed inexhaustible, and so it became less a matter of finding enough and more a matter of making the trek back to gather some and ensuring I had the carrying capacity for it when I needed it. And I think this works well enough the way the game is set up, it still makes me work for my cash by making me return here, but alleviates not knowing where to find a supply when I actually need one.

Next it was back to the surface through the other exit in the tunnels to check on the broadcast towers. Sure enough, they were in a state of disrepair, and making use of a spool of cable I'd found near the oxium bins, the pair of pliers in the toolkit we had brought with us, and Spector's pair of rubber gloves, Aric made short work of getting the entire planet crackling with power once more. That taken care of, I decided I'd need to make a pit stop at Calamity Jane's to restock on ammo, both Nellie and Spector were getting dangerously low. But I couldn't go back the way I'd come. Going back through the tunnels proved not to be an option, as steam vents were blocking the way. I'd have to take the overland route from where the towers were located.

Navigating from there wasn't too much trouble, although it did lead to a bit of a crisis once Spector ran out of bullets completely. It was therefore very much a relief once I made it to Arsia, and could exchange a fair portion of my newly obtained oxium for some sorely-needed supplies. Once I was reorganized and restocked, I next made my way back to Olympus. It was high time to explore the tunnels there and seek out what happened to Legrande's brother in the mines. On the way, I stopped by a small room I hadn't been able to enter previously due to the power being out. Peary had pointed it out as some sort of transport system, and turning the power back on had seemed to activate the system once more. That would certainly come in handy when I wished to explore further, but for now, my steps led me to stick close.

You tell 'im, Nellie!
On my way to the Olympus mines proper, I bumped into Hearst, who wasn't much of a fan of Nellie's on all, on account of her employer. After a slightly tense introductory conversation, he talked to us of his collection of Martian artifacts, including a stone known as "azurite" that was apparently yet another kind of power source. He said he would be willing to trade it for photographs of the cannon from the top of Mount Olympus - he'd already sent one man to get some, but he had yet to hear from him. It seemed I had somebody else to look out for in the vicinity, and exploration of the mountain quickly revealed his fate. Past a large number of proto-Martians we fended off, we found his body with his camera lying close by. After taking a moment to pay our respects, we fetched the camera and delivered it back to Hearst, who then told us Méliès at Elysium could probably retrieve the photograph itself from the camera plate. Of course, we remembered what we had been told about those in Elysium... doing so may not be as simple a task as it first appeared.

That was for later, however. We still had Legrande's brother to find. In the mines, we found Carnegie himself, who told us once again of his need for iron, as the Olympus mines had run dry. Jean had ventured deeper in the hopes of finding more, but had never returned. Duprey had found another source where we'd rescued him at Syrtis, but there was no way to transport it to Olympus. Perhaps, the steel magnate suggested, refilling the canals might provide a solution to the problem. In the meantime, we continued our search for Jean, and found worms in the process. Large worms... but we could muse on what that meant later. Fighting our way past the beasts, we did indeed find Jean, but too late. He was clearly taking his last breaths, and his final thoughts were of his brother, insisting we take his Masonic symbol back to Legrande. The poor man died moments later.

Yup, those are some big worms all right.
We pressed onward, remembering what Curie had told us about the effect of radium on worms. Sure enough, their size was indeed indicative of the element's presence, and we gathered several chips and a large block of the substance before leaving the mines once more. We returned to Olympus, picking up a control panel from the tunnels leading toward the mountain proper in the process, and gave Legrande his brother's symbol. The news clearly hit him hard, and he asked for a moment to himself in order to properly grieve. He assured us he would hold to his promise when we returned. We understood completely, and let him alone.

While Legrande attended to his sorrows, we brought the control panel to Edison, who made quick work of rewiring it for use in a Dream Machine. Which left us with a few options - clearly the Machine itself was our next object of investigation, but what was the ideal means of going about it? Hearsay around Olympus suggested Marcus in Hellas knew a thing or two about the Machines, and with the transport system up and running again, we'd have quick and easy access. Then there was Elysium. Was it possible we could learn something from those affected by the machine previously? Or should we just take our chance to examine the one here at Olympus while the opportunity presented itself?

That was a decision I left for my next session, as I closed this one there.

~~~

This was clearly necessary, but felt like it happened on my terms.
I find myself musing on the differences in how Martian Dreams' plot is unfolding compared to the rest of the series. I think it's rather more linear than any of its predecessors, but it's doing so in a manner that still allows me to decide what's truly important. I always feel like I have several potential plot threads to follow up on, but several of them dovetail together in order to lead toward a particular point. Like how I started this post off - I didn't feel like I had to make my way to Olympus before at least attempting to follow up on, say, what I'd heard about Elysium, but I had multiple reasons for going there. Same could be said of restoring the power, many I talked to implied only after doing so could I fully explore what other potential threads they mentioned. And indeed, it's exactly the position I find myself in now - clearly the Dream Machines are involved in my next objective, but I have at least three ways to figure out just how. There's clearly an order of operations at play in the game, or at least a stronger one than in previous games, but I'm finding I quite like its means of doing so. Rather than giving me one clear path, it drops a lot of bread crumbs in several directions, and gives me indications several of them cross at certain points, thus increasing its importance. Why follow one thread at one location, when visiting another allows me to follow up on three or four? It feels like the choice is still mine as to where to go and when to do things, even if, in some sense, it's also clear the game wants me to follow a more strictly defined path than the rest of the series has done. I think it's proof that linearity isn't necessarily a bad thing in and of itself - it's how it's approached that makes a difference. I certainly wouldn't call Martian Dreams a less enjoyable game just because it's not quite as "open" as, say, Ultima VI was. It's just a matter of approach.

Of course, I still need to decide which thread to pursue now. But that's a subject that can wait until I fire up the game again. 'Til then!

Friday, May 4, 2018

Martian Dreams: Prickly Situations

After a quick jaunt back to the 1895 landing site - I'd bumped into one too many sextellegers and was in dire need of Dr. Blood's services, not to mention I'd forgotten to take down the coordinates the last time I was there - I followed Buffalo Bill's directions toward Cooter's place. It was a slightly roundabout route to take an accessible bridge across the canal and then into the entrance of the labyrinthine canyons that Cooter called home, and I found myself swarmed by a good-sized... herd? pod? cluster? of creeping cacti. Poking around the canyons themselves was occasionally punctuated by the bounding of jumping beans, and between them and the cacti, it was a nice refresher on Ultima VI's combat engine and a very nice source of experience.

Interesting descriptor of telekinesis.
Buffalo Bill had stated a few of the Martian berries might prove necessary to get into Cooter's place before supplying us with some, and his statement proved true. Eating one of the berries bestowed temporary telekinetic powers, and this allowed us to move a board and cross a small chasm at the entrance of the McGee abode. Nobody was home, but some rummaging around provided swift answers - we found a note from an "R" demanding Cooter reveal his oxium sources and bring his map to Coprates Chasma, and another from Cooter himself (with rather poor spelling) saying that he hid his map from Rasputin. This was enough for us to piece together what had happened, but before we headed off to the Chasma itself, we poked around to see whether there was anything else of use in the caverns. We certainly did, too. There proved to be a hefty amount of oxium in the caverns, some of which was guarded by ammonoids, but when all was said and done, all four of my little band of adventurers had enough oxium to last them a good long while on the surface of the red planet.

With our oxygen needs now seen to, at least for the foreseeable future, we wound our way through the canyons to what we surmised was the designated meeting place in the Chasma. And sure enough, we found Cooter himself, hidden behind a narrow passageway blocked off by a large trunk. He was quite relieved to be rescued, saying that he'd been captured by Rasputin and his "varmints" at Argyre, over his knowledge of the oxium stores on the planet. He mentioned one in particular, a motherlode of the stuff beneath the station at McLaughlin - the only problem was that it was behind an electric-powered door, which would not open unless power could be restored. Mr. McGee suggested that Edison, one of the expedition members holed up in Olympus, would probably be able to figure out what needed to happen there, and in the meantime, told use where he'd buried his map to the motherlode, just outside the entrance to the Chasma. It was an easy effort to find said map (and I was rather amused that I needed room to 'move' the dirt I was digging up in order to do so, a nice touch), and from the looks of it, the motherlode was east of the Xanthe Terra, nestled in a corner by some canals just to the northeast. I made a note to look into it when I passed by the area, but for now, it seemed clear Olympus was my next destination.

So. Many. Cacti!
We picked our way back out of the maze of canyons, aiming for the settlement - and once again found ourselves facing a veritable wall of creeping cacti standing in our way. Aric and Dibbs bravely flung themselves onto the front lines, with Nellie Bly and Spector taking potshots from the sidelines. All was a flurry of sap and sabers and shells and needles, but they just kept coming! I think when all was said and done we'd somehow managed to beat back upwards of thirty cacti, and the sap we'd spilled there on the edge of a canal might have gone a decent way toward filling it. We were mostly unscathed, save for a few scratches, but weary, and by the time we came to the gates of Olympus, we were aching for a safe refuge and a friendly community to catch our breath.

Unfortunately, we would not find it at Olympus. Nathaniel Peters, the gatekeeper, expressed a good deal of skepticism, saying nobody could be let in unless they held proof of their soundness of mind. After an incident at Elysium that drove the denizens there mad, the occupants of Olympus were taking what they saw as all necessary precautions. It was just as Dibbs had suspected, and sure enough, he too had been away for long enough that his assurances were worth little to Mr. Peters. He informed us we'd need to seek out three men known to be of sound mind at Syrtis Major, giving us an affidavit for them to sign. If they could vouch for our character and our sanity, then we would be allowed in to Olympus.

So off we went to find a way to Syrtis Major. This took a fair amount of wandering, on account of the fact we had to find some way over the canals, and since the power was off, we could only make use of the bridges that had already been lowered. We also desperately needed to resupply, and so we made another trip to Calamity Jane's using a considerable portion of the oxium we'd found in Cooter's place to replenish ammunition. After this particular adventure, I find myself less worried about the economic balance, using oxium as both currency and means of keeping the party in tip-top fighting condition. What supplies I had depleted at what I felt was a very reasonable rate, meaning that by the time I needed to actually spend it, I had at least a decent sense of what a "reasonable" stock was, and thus how much I could afford to spend. I'm still a little concerned about how quickly I'm going through bullets, but that feels like a much more manageable situation in my mind now - now that I had a couple levels under the gang's collective belts (more on this later), I feel more confident sending them into melee range now that they don't seem quite so squishy.

It's interesting to see snippets of Martian history.
In my wanderings trying to find a way to Syrtis, I stumbled across the station I suspected Cooter's motherlode might lie beneath. It turned out there was a whole network of caves there, and some complicated-looking equipment connected to a conveyor belt and a large furnace. There were also two mechanical men present! Talking with Coker and Stoker, as they called themselves, we learned that this was the place that powered Mars. Coker dug out coal and placed it on the conveyor belt, and Stoker took the coal off the conveyor belt and moved it into the furnace. The power produced by burning the coal was sent to broadcast towers on the eastern end of the mine tunnels, and from there sent across the planet. The process had come to standstill because one of the conveyor belts was in need of repair - Dibbs chimed in to suggest that Trippet at Olympus might be able to do something about that. Further exploration of the caverns revealed some closed doors (Stoker had confirmed there were large stashes of oxium behind one), a scroll detailing the Martian Industrial Revolution, and a bag containing a seed and pod knife. That last one seemed somewhat important, so I took it with me.

Eventually I made my way back out and finally found a bridge to cross the canals, just behind Olympus itself. D'oh! Oh well, the exploration would surely come in handy in getting my bearings. After a long trek and a night's rest, we finally made it to Syrtis Major, where we found David Yellin, one of the three men Nathaniel had told us to find, in a panic. He and his two companions had been searching for more iron to use for Carnegie's cannon to return to Earth, and the others had been trapped within the mine they had found by a cave-in! He directed us to a repair drill, but it needed to be put together and placed on a cart to be used properly and dig Sherman and Duprey out. Mr. Yellin lacked the tools in order to do so.

Gee, I wonder why!
However, we did not! Spector was carrying the tool kit we'd taken with us from Tesla's own cannon, and so he made quick work of putting the drill together. We pushed it into the mines, and after a fair amount of drilling past large rockfalls, we found two rather familiar-looking and very grateful men. Sherman in particular was thankful enough to join with us, citing his familiarity with several places on Mars. Another pair of hands was very welcome, so we were glad to have him with us. (Although I'll admit I'm a bit confused why he was carrying a copy of Dante's Inferno - and doubting how accurate the translation was, judging from the typo in the Italian title.) Anyway, the three of them took the incident as evidence of our sound minds, and were more than happy to sign Nathaniel's affidavit stating so. With the three of their signatures, we had everything we needed to enter the community of Olympus, and from what we had heard on our adventures thus far, we had plenty of business to see to there. It was time to get to work.

~~~

In my wrap-up for Savage Empire, I said that I never had a good sense of character progression, most of the choices for party members already being near max level already and any actual improvement coming sporadically and only for specific characters. I find that I'm having what's basically the opposite problem here in Martian Dreams. I'm absolutely drowning in experience, and that was even before the Shootout at the Cactus Canal! Every time I rested, I had at least three party members ready to level up. The Avatar's already hit level seven, and Nellie, who started at level one at the game's beginning, is ready to hit level six the next time I rest. The levels are coming very fast and furious, which means I expect it to taper off considerably, and probably in the not so distant future. Still, I think this feels like the better situation - I definitely feel like my characters are getting better this way! Even if I hit the level cap for these guys somewhat early on, at least I can say I've had some input as to how they develop, which is, I think, a preferable situation in what's at least ostensibly an RPG. I've even managed to avoid the die-hard need for strength I encountered in Savage Empire, and while most of the levels my group's achieved thus far have been spent improving strength, I've felt I have enough room to give Spector a bit of a boost to dexterity as well. All in all, I like how Martian Dreams is handling the experience a lot better than its predecessor.

Of course, all those levels need to be used on something - hopefully the denizens of Olympus will give me plenty of leads to do exactly that!

Found this outside Olympus... iiiinteresting.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Martin Dreams: One Small Step

Weren't you like level 7 in Savage Empire?
My adventure on Mars began the same way most of my travels through the Ultima series begin: wrapping my brain around the control scheme and figuring out what the heck I have to work with. That was a relatively simple affair as far as Martian Dreams was concerned. It didn't take very long at all to slip back into the groove of the Ultima VI engine (though it did take me a while to remember that it's B and not C that switches in and out of combat mode). There wasn't that much in my inventory to take stock of either, mainly clothing that was already equipped, a pocketwatch, and Nellie Bly's pistol. I also took a moment to take a peek at my little band's stats, and already found myself with one improvement over Savage Empire: Aric was my most highly experienced character, and even he had some room for growth. One of my complaints about Savage Empire was how little development it felt my characters were experiencing over the course of the game - here in Martian Dreams, there's lots of space for improvement. I'm still a little wary over carrying capacity and inventory concerns perhaps making the actual stat growth choices... less of one (does intelligence even have a use in this game, since there's no magic?) but that's a bridge I'll cross when I get to it. In any case, I suspect the possibility of more frequent levels, even if it just ends up being extra HP and a point of strength, will help alleviate the problems I had in the previous game of that nature.

Now that I had an idea of the characters I'd be bringing along with me on this excursion, it was time to... well, get an idea of the characters I'd be bringing along with me. (Ah, language. Gotta love the multiple ways certain turns of phrase can be interpreted.) I had a sense of what I might be able to expect from them gameplay-wise, so I next took a moment to get a sense of who they were. Spector assured me of his desire and ability to assist - and asserted it was his job to keep the Avatar out of trouble - before remarking once more upon the differences between what modern science said of Mars compared to their current experience of the Red Planet. Nellie Bly told me a little bit about herself, speaking of her experience as a journalist, her chosen pen name, and the notes she would take about the expedition. It seems she'll fulfill a similar role to Jimmy in Savage Empire, in effect functioning as a walking, talking quest log. This is something I do appreciate about the Worlds of Ultima games, in essence keeping track of at least the highlights of important plot points right there in game. Makes it easy for a quick reminder of what the player maybe should be doing right about now without drowning them in detail. I feel like with the sheer amount of content and sidequests and detail in modern games, it can be a bit difficult to parse a quest log for the immediately important bits, and the simple approach used here feels like a good way to go about it - keep track of the Big Relevant Plot Things, and leave whatever else the player chooses to pursue to their own recollections.

What's steampunk without Jules Verne?
I also took some time to talk with the rest of the crew, such as it was. Freud discusses his research into dreams and his theories on the construction of personality, and also expressed his interest in how everyone was going to react to the situation on Mars - such would prove valuable data for his research, he suspected. Dr. Blood talked about his research into oxygenated air and his concerns about the lower oxygen content in the atmosphere on Mars. It was Tesla who perhaps has the most helpful direction. He gave us the coordinates for the 1893 landing site and pointed us in the right direction. He also noted the door had apparently jammed closed, and that Garrett was the man to see about that. Garrett did indeed have a prybar on hand, though he suggested we go through the cargo hold to gear up before heading out. Both Tesla and Garrett also stressed the importance of having a sextant on hand in order to navigate the surface of the planet. Seeing the wisdom in this course of action, we moved on to raid the capsule's stores of supplies. Apart from a few things like dinnerware and reading material (I love the fact someone brought a copy of Journey to the Center of the Earth along), Aric and his team found plenty of useful things. Tools, weapons, warm clothing, a tent, lanterns and oil - we took them all. After arming Spector with a rifle and Nellie with a pistol, Aric took a saber and machete for himself, then prepared to take one small step for an Avatar and a giant leap for Victorian science--

--only to be stopped by Tesla and the copy protection question.

The structure of this entire opening put me very much in mind of Ultima VI, in a good way - an enclosed space to take stock of the situation, prepare for the trip ahead, and get a sense of what direction to head first. It's all even locked off the rest of the game world until you obtain a certain item within the designated area and pass the copy protection. The main difference is that the space capsule here is a lot smaller than Lord British's castle!

One other detail I enjoyed about this first little area: the crew will readily give their opinions on everyone else, and they're varied. For instance, Tesla is eager to speak with Freud about his dreams, interested in what the psychologist has to say, whereas Garrett is skeptical of Freud and things he asks too many questions. Characterization is as much defined by relationships as it is to an individual's character traits, so it's nice to see the "crew" of the expedition taking the time to say what they think about each other. Really helps get a sense of what sort of team this is.

Gotta include the drama shot!
Anyway, after another admonition from Blood to find some way to deal with the oxygen situation, we set forth to find the landing site from the mishap in 1893 that necessitated this whole rescue in the first place. It was a rather uneventful journey, being a fairly easy walk to the east. We only encountered a couple creepers along the way, which were swiftly dispatched without difficulty. Upon reaching the site, we met with one Lieutenant Dibbs, who had been working security for the capsule when it fired. He had been waiting for the rescue party, and had much to tell us of what had happened in the intervening time. It seemed that the previous group had been working on building a capsule to make the return trip, but needed to find more iron for the steel necessary to build it. They split into four groups, each seeming to take their own tack on the situation. Rasputin took a group to Argyre to research the Martian technology there, and they became secretive and reclusive. It was clear Dibbs did not trust them much. Lowell took a group north to Elysium, experimenting with the Dream Machine they found there. According to Dibbs, there were several around Mars, though only Elysium's seemed to work - and Lowell's group went mad as a result, now believing themselves Maritans. This led the group led by Jack Segal to become skeptical of those potentially "contaminated" by the machines. They remained at Olympus to work on the shuttle, and effectively closed themselves off from anyone who may have come into contact with the active Dream Machine. 

Dibbs suggested we visit the fourth group, the traders Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane, at Arsia Mons for further equipment and supplies, including, he mentioned, a potential source of an oxygen-rich rock that they had discovered on the planet. This sounded like a capital idea, so after rummaging through the supplies left in the capsule (including a copy of Le Morte D'Arthur, as if I needed another reminder of where the series could have gone!) we headed east once more, heading for the coordinates Dibbs had given us. Once again it was a fairly uneventful trip, only stumbling across a small band of bushrats (what would the proper collective term be for plantimals?) that were quickly dealt with. We were, however, beginning to see traces of civilization - the remnants of a road that we were indeed following toward Arsia Mons, at least in part. Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane were willing to trade a wide variety of things for oxium. Though we didn't have much on us at the moment (Dibbs only had a little), it was good to know if we were ever short on supplies or ammunition, they'd set us up for the right price. They also mentioned various varieties of berries they'd trade for, with mysterious effects. Calamity Jane would even give us oxium, for enough of the right kind of berry.

Dagnabit, do you have to rub it in my face like that?
Or would, at least, once her supply lines were back in order. It seemed her supplier, a man named Cooter McGee, had gone missing. Dibbs had mentioned this as well, it seemed he had fallen afoul of some raiders from Argyre. Yet another reason to be suspicious of the group that had holed up there. We promised we'd look into what happened to him, and at Jane's instruction, Bill gave us directions to Cooter's place and a stock of oxium to help us deal with the atmospheric conditions during the journey.

Rather, he did once I reloaded a save. I'd somehow managed to skirt past a pair of sextellegers just outside the outpost, and one had snuck through the open door and smacked Bill dead in one shot. Whoops! I made sure to get the drop on the sextellegers first the next time around, and for added safety I shut the door behind me once I was inside. C'mon Bill, you can't die yet, this is how universe-shattering paradoxes are made!

~~~

I called it a session there, as I'd spent a good deal of time in the game at this point. It may not reflect a whole lot of things actually happening, but I think this opening bit of Martian Dreams works really well, a nice and tight means of getting the player into the game. There's a good sense of what's happened in the game world and what I might be able to expect moving forward, several plot threads to follow up on - there are, after all, four groups from the previous expedition to chase after - and one prominent one that gives me a clear direction for at least my immediate steps. The game does a good job of streamlining the open world so it doesn't feel overwhelming in these initial stages, which I feel is necessary when you're still getting the hang of things. I feel like I have options, and even though it's clear to me where the game wants me to go, it manages to do so in a way where it feels like I, the player, am still the one calling the shots as to where to go and what to do next.

I do, however, find myself with a bit of trepidation over the oxium mechanics. On paper, I find the concept an interesting one. It's necessary to keep the party in tip-top fighting condition, but it also doubles as currency, which means as the game goes on and I accumulate a larger stash, I may have to make decisions about how much I can afford to use on buying supplies and how much I need to keep on hand. The fact my currency stash will dwindle as I travel as well means I can't just hoard and use it whenever. There's the possibility of needing to be a bit more judicious about when I take my shopping trips.

I'm sure this is just flavor and won't be of any importance.
In practice, though... I feel like this could be a tough thing to balance properly, economically. Considering a lack of oxium lowers my stats - and by proxy, carrying capacity, ouch! - it'll be important to keep it on hand, but since a lot of the weapons require ammunition, I'll constantly be in need of replenishing bullets, which means spending "money." I don't know how much oxium I'll be able to find (or berries to exchange for it in if I can't find enough), nor do I yet have a good sense of how quickly one goes through a stash of it in travels, and depending on both those factors, it could mean I'm constantly in want of more of it not just to buy things, but to maintain enough of a supply of it to make it to where I want to buy them. And that's assuming I don't care about keeping any on hand to keep my stats up. I suspect I'm just overthinking things and it'll turn out just fine, but I'm seeing some potential for the mechanic to end up a bit frustrating if it's not fine-tuned well. I suppose we'll see as the game goes on.

Finding out what happened to Cooter is my plan for the next session, maybe wandering over to Olympus once that's taken care of. An entire planet's worth of adventure awaits - time to get back to it!

Monday, April 23, 2018

Martian Dreams: Opening Thoughts

I think the best way to encapsulate my initial thoughts on Martian Dreams is via a remark from a conversation I had during the UDIC 25th Anniversary Bash. Unfortuantely I don't remember who said it, so I'm unable to attribute it properly, but it went something along the lines of "Just describing the premise of that game makes me happy."

That's a pretty fair assessment for me as well, all things considered.

Released in 1991, Martian Dreams was the third game to make use of the Ultima VI engine and the second entry in the Worlds of Ultima spin-off series. Or at least it ostensibly was, as the series itself had been renamed to the "Ultima Worlds of Adventure" series, putting the prestigious name of Ultima first. Not that it mattered all that much in the end, on account of the fact it was also the last entry in the series, much to my personal dismay. See, the planned third entry in the series was intended to take an Arthurian bent - how awesome would colliding Britannias have been? Iolo and Merlin swapping stories, Dupre and the Knights of the Round Table questing together, King Arthur and Lord British... so many great opportunities there. But alas, it never came to be.

Ahem, right. I was talking about Martian Dreams.

I like the fact the Avatar has a poster of Ultima VI on the wall.
Once again the game took the tack of throwing the Avatar into an adventure apart from Britannia, via the Orb of the Moons. While Savage Empire took him into a lost world, Martian Dreams sent him on a steampunk adventure on the Red Planet. Considering time travel is involved, it's a little difficult to properly decide where the story truly begins (or a least when), but perhaps the best way to approach it is the Avatar's own perspective - when Dr. Spector shows up on his doorstep one night, ostensibly at the Avatar's own bequest, the two are visited by a mysterious stranger with a package for them. This package contains a photograph of the two of them with several Victorian-era figures, a note signed by Nikola Tesla, and a book on time travel and the Orb of the Moons written by Dr. Spector himself - dated a century earlier. Following the instructions laid out in the book, the two venture to an abandoned laboratory in Colorado, use the Orb, and find themselves in the year 1895. They discover that two years prior, the astronomer Percival Lowell had developed a "space cannon" designed for a trip to Mars, unveiling the project at the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Unfortunately, the cannon discharged a day early - with several prominent figures of the era on board for a tour. And so the Avatar and Dr. Spector join Tesla's rescue mission, for whatever adventures might await them on the next planet over.

Much like Savage Empire, I don't have a lot of previous experience with Martian Dreams. This was largely in part due to the interface issues I had with Ultima VI, which I've previously stated that I had several problems adjusting to at first. However, the premise reminiscent of a Jules Verne novel (adaptations of which I read voraciously as a kid) intrigued me far more than Savage Empire's, and so I was a bit more willing to stick it out just to see what the game had to offer. I've never managed to get very far in the game, but I loved its aesthetic and the ideas behind it. It's one of those games that I quite readily praise even if I'm not entirely sure it's one that ends up clicking with me personally. Although considering how I've managed to get over my initial problems with the Ultima VI interface back during my playthrough of that game, I suspect I'm going to have a much better time of it this attempt around. I'm excited to experience the story firsthand in its entirety, because from what I've seen of it in Let's Plays, it's going to be an excellent adventure.

Well if we knew, we wouldn't have a game, now would we?
But of course I can't get started without delving into the game manuals - yes that has to be plural, as Martian Dreams came with two! The first is Dr. Spector's treatise on time travel and the Orb of the Moons referenced in the game's intro. It does indeed explain how the Orb of the Moons can be used for such a thing, and they are indeed followed properly in the intro. It also features a few descriptions of the various people in the ill-fated 1893 journey, along with those taking part in the 1895 rescue expedition. The second manual describes more of the planet itself, from its geographical features to the wildlife encountered there to what they have managed to figure out of the Martian civilization. It's clear that the team put a fair amount of research into the historical figures they chose to include, there's even a "Further Reading" section for more material on these people. That sort of thing is something I highly appreciate in games that reference historical peoples and places - part of what I love about the Civilization series is trawling through the in-game Civilopedia to learn more about the people and nations I'm playing as. Being able to latch on to some little-known facet of history and having resources at hand to investigate further, provided to me by the game itself - that's the sort of infectious passion for a particular topic that I love to see infused into any form of media.

The manuals also help set the proper tone for the game to follow here. There's no such thing as a perfect reflection of reality when it comes to fiction - what matters is either being able to sufficiently distract the audience from those discrepancies, or putting them in a state of mind where those discrepancies and inaccuracies simply don't matter to them. Martian Dreams is of the latter type, I think. It definitely plays fast and loose with the science involved (when it doesn't outright defy it!), but the lighthearted tone of the manuals and intro sequence help put the player in the right mindset, that this isn't going to be a story about hard science and survival on Mars, but a jovial adventure that happens to be set there. Spector himself even points out some of the strange and extraordinary discrepancies between the modern understanding of Mars and the game's presentation of it! By presenting them in an almost jaunty sort of manner, it helps set the player's expectations of what's to come and make those nonsensical moments easier to accept and meet the game on its own terms.

Origin did "create worlds," after all.
Even the detail work in the manual and opening sequence makes me grin. The illustrations that supplement the descriptions of Martian "plantimals" really help bring the idea of plant-based fauna to life, and the added detail that it's George Washington Carver who does the research into Martian society and its life cycle makes just drives it home all the more - of course he would, he's the botanist! All in all the manuals go a long way to getting the player in the right mood for the game to come, which is exactly what they should be doing. The fact the Origin FX sequence at the beginning uses an image of Mars made me smile, too.

Thus prepared, I popped into the game to create my character proper, chatting with Sigmund Freud in order to define the Avatar's presence on Mars. Even this is a nice touch - who else would be the one to determine how the Avatar would be fleshed out on this particular adventure? Freud began by asking whether the Avatar was closer to his mother or father - I didn't realize this was the 'art thou male or female' question of the game when I first gave Martian Dreams a whirl, which caught me off guard when I answered honestly and ended up female once I fired up the game proper. Freud then stated he did not think the Avatar belonged with them on the trip, and asked how that made him feel. From there came a few more questions: were the Avatar a child again, what would he do when his mother calls him away from playing with his friends? Should they send one out as a scout or stick together as a group when they land on Mars? Were he an animal, would he rather be a fish or a bird? Once again it was interesting to see the traditional "virtue test" framed in a completely different context, and as always, I answered based on the Avatar's previous experiences as best I could.

All that remains now is to dive into the game proper and get to exploring the Martian landscape. Tally ho!