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!

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