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!

Friday, April 20, 2018

Savage Empire: Closing Thoughts

It's taken me some time to figure out how to pull all my thoughts on Savage Empire in something resemebling a cohesive manner. Some of that probably has to do with the fact my playthrough of the game has been rather... extended, compared to the rest of the series I've played thus far. The game isn't quite as fresh in my head as others when compiling these closing thoughts, especially the early parts of the game. But I think more of it stems from the fact I have very mixed feelings about Savage Empire in general, which is making it a little difficult to figure out how to approach a final post on the topic.

Figuring out where the heck I was - one of my favorite parts of the game
Maybe the best place to start is to say that I did enjoy the game a lot - considerably more than I was expecting to going in. I mentioned in my opening post that "Lost World" type things generally aren't my cup of tea, but even in spite of my lukewarm feelings toward the genre as a whole, I had a wonderful time roaming the valley of Eodon. Especially when I wasn't entirely sure of where I was! The memory of exploring where the teleporters all took me and trying to match that to the features of the game map is still my starkest of Savage Empire, and I honestly don't think I'll be able to replicate that feeling in many other games. Sure, games still come with maps, but I feel like the game worlds they depict are, at least these days, too large to properly capture the level of detail that allows me to pinpoint exactly where I am on it. Savage Empire allowed me to figure out where I was on the map based on geographic features like a particular confluence of rivers or a series of cliffs - all of which were replicated on the map. There was something enriching to me about being able to have that experience with material that wasn't necessarily inside the game itself. I'm hoping I can find similar moments when it comes to Martian Dreams - I know the general layout of Britannia a bit too well to expect the same out of Ultima VII!

Design-wise, I think it's interesting to see how Savage Empire iterated on Ultima VI. As the first entry in the series to re-use the same engine as another, there's a lot to be said on how it took existing material and improved upon it. For example, I think moving the conversation text to where the "game" window is, rather than keeping it where the command input appeared, was a good call. There's no need to be staring at the game world during a conversation, and the larger window helped follow the lengthier conversations a bit better. It was nice to see how other things were improved upon as well - character portraits, for example. The background on each of them changed based on locale and time of day, and even in other circumstances (such as Tuomaxx throwing a skin over the Avatar's head). Talking with Jimmy outside at twilight showed him against a background of a starry sky, while conversing with him in a cave showed him in front of stone. It was a lovely touch that brought a lot of life to the world. So too was the fact each tribe felt distinct - the villages, the character design, every visual aspect of the tribes helped distinguish it from the other tribes in the valley, helping to nail down just how varied they were.

It was nice I could make and use these, but the process was complex.
There was also an increased degree of interactivity with the world itself, it felt like, although part of me feels like it was perhaps too much in some circumstances. While it was nice to see more uses for objects, more ways of combining them, and multiple means of obtaining certain items, I think it might have been a little more than was strictly necessary in some cases. The makeshift rifles and bombs swiftly come to mind - there were so many steps in the process, made a bit more complicated by the limited amount of inventory space available to me, that it felt more like busy work than anything else. I ended up never making a homemade rifle simply on account of that fact. While nice in theory, I think making more complicated interactions between objects didn't work very well in practice.

Then, too, is the fact that the re-use of the engine made some problems even more stark in comparison. Ultima VI let me scroll through inventories, effectively letting me have infinite inventory slots on each individual character, so long as they had the strength to carry it all. Not so in Savage Empire, and I was sorely missing it. Bags and containers because all more precious not just because it helped keep everything organized, but because they effectively expanded the number of items I could carry. This was more a mild nuisance than a serious problem, but it was all the more noticeable because it was clear the engine was capable of handling it in Ultima VI.

The bear. Always the bear.
One other thing stands out to me in terms of mechanics as well, and that's how the game handled character progression. I've seen a few comments elsewhere about how the game feels more like an adventure game with light RPG elements rather than a true RPG. I don't call this a "criticism" because it's not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but for me personally, it did somewhat hamper my enjoyment of the game. Out of all the characters I took with me on my journey, only Jimmy felt like he ever really got better in terms of leveling and the lack. Most of the other characters were already as far advanced were likely to get over the course of the game without large amounts of dedicated grinding - the Avatar himself included. It never felt like this was a detriment to actually getting anywhere in the game itself, but I found myself missing that sense of my characters improving in their capabilities as the game went on. Even on those occasions when I did get to level up a character (and the rarer occasion when that character was someone other than Jimmy), it felt somewhat lackluster, on account of the fact I never picked anything to improve except strength. I was almost always in need of an increased carrying capacity, and the only way for me to cope with that was with more strength. It all felt rather one-dimensional to me - not that this is unusual territory for Ultima, really, intelligence was useless for practically everybody but the Avatar in Ultima VI for instance, and Ultima II's stat increases were entirely random. I think what stands out to me about Savage Empire in this respect, though, is that it was a choice that didn't really feel like one - sure I could improve dexterity or intelligence, but what point was there to either? (That's another thing,
too - I kept forgetting I even had the option of magic, on account of only one character having the capability, and it wasn't the Avatar.) Strength felt like the absolute right choice every time, and thus I didn't see the need to actually choose one of the three at all. And if I have no reason to choose any option except one, then why give me a choice at all?

In which Sahree sums up the plot.
Since it's my own particular point of interest, and at least part of the point of this blog in the first place, I can't get away from Savage Empire without discussing its story, and I have mixed feelings on that particular subject too. Structurally speaking, it's pretty much the same as the rest of the series up to this: there are a set number of tasks you need to accomplish before you're allowed to enter the endgame, and so long as you accomplish them all, how you go about it doesn't matter. Ultima IV doesn't care if you gather the stones of virtue before achieving Partial Avatarhood in Humility, for instance, so long as it's all done before you dive into the Abyss. Ultima V didn't care when you got the Shard of Falsehood or the Crown of Lord British first, so long as it all happened before you went into Dungeon Doom. Similarly, Savage Empire doesn't care if you help the Disquiqui before the Sakkhra, or the Nahuatla before the Pindiro, so long as you've united all the tribes. And on paper, it's an interesting plot - finding ways to convince each individual tribe to join an alliance, each in their own way, finding a means to meet each tribe on its own terms.

In practice, however... well, it falls into the same problem I have with Mass Effect 2. By making "getting X character to join your team" into not just a significant part of the game's story arc, but the bulk of it, it feels too much like reducing the characters to plot coupons, and that doesn't sit well with me in terms of video games. It's the sort of story I feel works better in a book or movie, and I still can't quite put my finger on why. In whatever medium, it does make the characters in question into a plot device, but somehow that feels more... reductive to me when it happens in a video game. Maybe that's because since I'm actively a part of the story of a video game, it makes me more aware of mechanics and function, and thus easier for my brain to perceive characters used in such a manner as a "mechanic" themselves. Or maybe that's because it feels more like the game is telling me how I'm supposed to think about these people rather than letting me come to my own conclusions, made all the more stark on account of the fact I have a more direct role in the story and the main character as a player of a video game. I don't know - I've mused on it a lot and I still don't have a concrete conclusion.

Even though this made some sense, it felt too easy.
I would have also liked to see a bit more interaction between the tribes. There are some very clear rivalries in the valley, but all the resolution between them happens off screen. It would have been nice, for instance, to see members of other tribes appearing in the villages as you united more of them. Some of the tribal quests felt a bit phoned in, too - one just joins right off, without having to even do anything! I understood the sentiment behind it, as far as the chieftain's motivations went, but even so, it would have felt a bit more fulfilling if she had instead required me to, say, convince half the tribes in the valley to join, just as evidence of my ability or commitment to doing so. Everybody else needed some proof that their needs would be seen to, as is understandable from a leader of a tribe. Why not her, then? I could have done with a little more backstory in a few more places, too. The pacing of a story as open as this is a hard thing to balance when you can't be sure what a player is going to go after when, but having done the Nahuatla quest last, where the bulk of the history of the Valley can be found, a lot of that information was something I would have liked to see hinted at a bit more directly. There were touches of this with the Sakkhra tribe, but practically zilch elsewhere, and I definitely felt its lack when I finally made my way into the underground city of the Kotl and learned just how much went into the background of Eodon and the Myrmidex. Of course, some of these complaints are probably the result of a game world that does feel like it truly breathes, and thus makes minor things like this stand out a little more in contrast - it wasn't a bad story by any means, and those parts of it I enjoyed made me all the more starved for those extra bits of polish.

It's good to see these lessons of virtue framed in a different context.
As far as how the game fits into the story of Ultima as a whole, that's another complicated question. I've heard it said that the game might have received better - indeed, might have been a better game, period - if it didn't try to tie itself to the Ultima series. I can understand the reasoning behind such a statement, and in truth I'm not entirely sure whether I even disagree with it. But I'd like to turn that idea the other way around - would Ultima's story have been better without Savage Empire? I'm inclined to say no. Thematically, this is a chance to see how the Avatar has learned the lessons of virtue Britannia, how he applies them outside the purview of the land that taught these lessons to him. It has the potential to touch upon the idea that the quest of the Avatar really is forever, and the lightly mentioned theme at the end of Ultima V that it's not just Britannia that has a need for an example of virtue. Does Savage Empire accomplish such a thing? I think the case can be made for it, when viewed from the right angle. There aren't really dilemmas of virtue in the same way the Age of Enlightment trilogy presented, but there are moments - the questions during character creation, how the Avatar deals with figures like Darden and Spector, how the player feels in the aftermath, even if there's no direct choice involved. It's not something addressed clearly in the game itself, but I said back during my playthrough of Ultima IV that that particular game is as much the player's story as the Avatar's. In that sense, this is their first chance in the series to explore the lessons of virtue in a context that doesn't necessarily care about those lessons one way or another - is it something that they've taken to heart so well that they hold to them even when they don't see a concrete need to? Maybe it's just me, but I think that, at least from the story of the player, it's an interesting direction to take, and I'm glad the series has something like Savage Empire to do that.

All in all, I think I've come out of this game with a newfound appreciation for it. It's still not going to rank up there with my favorites in the series, I'm not going to be as eager for a reply of it as I am the Age of Enlightenment games. But I think there's something quintessentially Ultima about it. One of the hallmarks of the series, in my mind, is its willingness to experiment, to try new things and go in different directions. It doesn't just take what worked and make more of it - it tries to iterate, find new things that work, ways to improve on what's already working. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but it does, at the very least, end up interesting, and that's part of what's enjoyable about the series for me. And that's exactly what Savage Empire did - it took something that worked, it built on it, it went a different direction, and it tried new things. Some of it I enjoyed, some of it I didn't. And I'm expecting all of that will be improved and experimented on and taken in new directions come Martian Dreams. I have a feeling I'm going to end up seeing Savage Empire the same way I see Ultima II - a transitionary stage, between a spark that served as its source material and the eventual refinement of those ideas to a fine point. There's bound to be some awkward growing pains in the transition - Savage Empire certainly has them. But like Ultima II, despite its flaws, I have a great appreciation for its part in the development of the series as a whole, and an even greater one now that I've played it to completion. Whatever else, I think that's my biggest takeaway, and I'm all the more eager to see how Martian Dreams goes as a result.