Sunday, April 28, 2019

Martian Dreams: Growing Pains

Irregular as my sessions have been lately, it seems like every one of them needs to begin with a few moments spent reorienting myself not just to the controls and what I was doing in my last play session, but just where the heck everything IS on the map.

Plenty of ice to be found up north.
Of course, this particular session afforded me with a convenient means of doing so. A quick check of my inventory revealed I was low on both oxium and ammunition, and a brief search of my notes (man making my game notes an actual searchable document is very convenient for such things!) reminded me of the coordinates of both the oxium motherlode and Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane's place. I'll admit my experience of the game is a lot more sporadic than previous entries in the series, but it's nice having a Google doc with my notes instead of trying to hunt down handwritten ones!

There was a good deal of note-scouring and map-examining as I made my rounds of the planet once more to gather my supplies, and I was reminded again of just how enjoyable meandering around in Martian Dreams is. It's a small game world by modern comparisons, to be sure, but I think less is more in some instances - I always had a goal to progress toward, whether that was Bill and Jane's or the power station, and it never felt too far away, like I'd be spending most of my time trying to just deal with everything the game might throw at me in-between points A and B. So too was I not horribly distracted by a dozen other points of interest along the way to either sidetrack me from my immediate goal or to get filed away against dozens of other things to explore later. It strikes a nice balance, enough nooks and crannies to poke into if one wants to, but not so much that it starts to overwhelm the rest of the experience. Fast travel does alleviate some of this potential tedium and/or pacing problems in modern games, but that presents other sorts of issues - there's something very satisfying about how tight the game world of Martian Dreams is.

Time to find out how green my thumb is.
Once I was better equipped to deal with the harsh climate of Mars (along with its more aggressive denizens), my next task was to recreate the process of growing new Martian bodies, in order to give the residents of Elysium something to dwell in rather than my fellow Earthlings! To do that I would need water and fertilizer to nourish the growing plant. I had the chemicals necessary for the fertilizer from previous explorations, but I needed the water. So after snagging a bucket from Olympus, I headed north to follow up on a suggestion for doing so - chipping a piece of the ice caps and letting it melt. It took some finagling, but I got myself a hefty chunk, placed it in the bucket, and by the time I made my way back to Hellas, I had a full bucket of water. I planted the seed in the local greenhouse, watered it, fertilized it with the proper mix of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, and then I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

I'd be more inclined to put the "flesh" in quotes...
This sequence was definitely the most tedious I'd experienced in the game thus far, and I think it's a mix of a pacing problem and trying to reflect realism via game mechanics a bit too strongly. It takes a minimum of nine in-game days in order for the seed to sprout and grow, more if the seed is not interacted with three times during the process. I can understand the need for some time to let a seed grow - nine days is awful fast for a plant, but even so, having it happen instantaneously is pretty nonsensical too, and with a day/night mechanic and a means of advancing time, it's a good use of the engine. The problem is that there is very little to do in-game at this point while you wait it out. Had I further things to follow up on, I could have explored those threads instead of just waiting in my tent for time after time after time, but the game was pretty clearly herding me toward the Earthlings of Elysium by this point. Every lead I had pointed me to one of them, and I needed to get the Martians of Elysium to release them in order to proceed on just about any plot thread I had. It might not have felt so tedious if I had at least the option of something meaningful to do (game-wise, at least, I could have putzed around for interesting places and monsters to slay, but I personally tend to find that a less compelling gameplay motive), but that desire for realism coupled with the particular game mechanics and the pacing of the story thus far compounded into something I was more trying to get through than particularly enjoying.

Once I had the body itself, though, I was off to the races again, and hoo boy was it hard to stop afterward. Having grown the body in Hellas, it was just a short jaunt to the Dream Machine to tell Prektesh the new body was ready for him. As the designated leader of the Hellas community, he took the responsibility of attempting the transfer himself. He would prepare himself to transfer his consciousness into the new body - all I need to was place the sapling into the machine and throw the switch. Back in the real world, I did exactly that, and after a few moments, our efforts were rewarded - Prektesh stirred in his new body, hale and hearty, and all seemed well for both him and the Martians as a whole.

I do like the altered portrait for the ailing Prektesh.
But alas, the solution would not prove so simple. Within moments, Prektesh began to cough and tremble. He felt like he was rotting from the inside, and concluded that the plague that had sent the Martians fleeing into the Dream World had settled into the soil itself - any solution that made use of the soil would remain tainted by the plague, and lead to failure. Even as he began to wither and die, he sought another solution, if not for himself, for the rest of his people. He mentioned Xakatesh's mate had been working on an alternative - we had already spoken of it, but it seemed a much more important lead to follow up on now. In the meantime, he stressed the need to gain Tekapesh's trust and cooperation, and that the failed body should be enough to do so.

So saying, Prektesh breathed (photosynthesized?) his last.

We spent a moment in mourning for his brave actions, and hoped what we had learned in the process would be enough to ensure they had not been in vain.

The trek to Elysium was swift thanks to the transport tubes, and Tekapesh finally relented upon seeing the fruition of our efforts to grow another Martian body. He conceded access to the Elysium Dream Machine, and agreed to give the Earthlings their bodies back - though with a warning not to make them wait too long for an alternative.

It's a nice touch that dream-me has the same inventory
as real-me here.
Thus it was once more into the Dream World to rescue the minds of the rest of the previous expedition. First up was an obelisk marked with a badge and pistol. Clearly this was the dream of a cowboy. Except it was difficult to mark it as a dream at first - it began in the same chamber as the one I'd just left behind in the real world, only to find myself attacked by proto-Martians! The only thing I had to hand was some dreamstuff, so after imagining a saber, I fended them off, only to find they were truly my traveling companions!

Reminding myself this was indeed only a dream, hoping I wouldn't be proven wrong in mere moments, I looked them over, and found myself with a grand total of $60. (Only one thing to do if they're all dead, go through their pockets and look for loose change...)

Leaving the room led me to a horse auction, with three up for sale, one of which was a familiar (if equine) face, Smith the talking horse! Considering how unhelpful his clues had been in the past, however, I opted instead to bid on an ornery gray horse that seemed to have a bee in his bonnet about something. Winning the auction revealed why - he was no horse, but Wyatt Earp! So freed from his dream, I moved on to the next one.

I hope he doesn't ask me to whitewash a fence next.
A steamboat could indicate none other than Mark Twain, and the obelisk bearing its mark proved the conclusion a correct one. I found myself on a riverboat in the stars with the famous author, who needed assistance in fetching the pages of his manuscript so he could mail it off. This sequence was a bit tedious but not terribly difficult - dreamstuff along the way provided berries that revealed obstacles, there were more pages than needed, the path was fairly easy to follow, and didn't feel like it stretched on for quite too long. His manuscript mailed via the postbox at the end of the universe (there's a story title in there somewhere), Twain thanked me and readied himself for his return to the waking world.

Melies was next, through an obelisk depicting one of his more famous pictures. He was trapped in a room with the walls closing in on him, and it took some clever maneuvering to make my way to a can of oil to de-rust the hinges on the door out - remembering I could move diagonally went a long way toward a successful excursion!

It was brief, though, so it wasn't long before I moved on to the last dream, that of Lowell. And oh, what a dream it was.

Even dreams may hold some truth to them...
I found myself on a hot surface and imbued with the power of telekinesis - a pair of winged sandals were nearby, so I fetched those with my power while I still could, and began to explore. Cupid's bow, a mirror... it soon became clear I was in some sort of representation of the solar system, staring on the sun, obtaining objects associated with the deities the planets had been named for. "Earth" presented me with the office of who I presumed to be Lowell himself, with notes about his attempts to find a ninth planet out there somewhwere. It was Mars that held the real interest, though - dead Martians and a metal woman, who called the place one of hope and despair. Despair for the old that would fade away, and hope that there would be a new beginning. The known was ending - the unknown beginning. Would she be the new form we would find for the Martians?

I navigated past the asteroid belt to Jupiter, using the bow to keep the red spot from moving to where it would cause some serious trouble, past Saturn (littered in farming tools), and found Lowell on Uranus. He needed help in getting past the monster on Neptune and finding Pluto beyond, so off I went to shoot it down with my (or rather Cupid's) bow, then sought out a direction to go with a telescope. Southwest seemed promising from what I saw, and sure enough, there was an icy spot where Lowell presumed it might be. After using the mirror to signal him with my findings, he too was released from his dream.

Back in the real world, Tekapesh made good on his promise. There was much use of the Dream Machine as the proper minds made their way back to their proper bodies, but even though I had finally rescued all of the Elysian Earthlings, that still left the Martians. Perhaps these new rescuees would have some insight - but that would have to wait for the next time.


Earthlings saved... but still more to do.
At the time it didn't feel like I was getting much done in this session - a lot of it was spent just running around for supplies and waiting around for a seed to sprout. But dang writing it all out like this make it feel like a lot happened regardless. I suppose it goes back to the matter of pacing I mentioned earlier - there's a lot of dead space while waiting for the seed, but once it's grown and you have something to do with it, the game starts rapid-firing things at you - go back to Prektesh and get him to inhabit the body, take the results to Tekapesh, get his permission to use the Dream Machine, go rescue another set of Earthlings from dream sequences, and even further on. I can't help but wonder if there's a way to even out that pacing somewhat, even if it's a bit of a moot point for the game itself. It certainly hasn't diminished my enjoyment of the game, and the fact the rest of it has felt pretty good in terms of pacing is probably what makes this one example of a snag that much more glaring.

We'll see how the rest of the game pans out!

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