Thursday, March 9, 2017

Martian Dreams: A Man, a Plan, a Canal

And Giovanni Schiaparelli is vindicated!
When I last wrote, I had learned that a plague had wiped out the Martian race (a plant-based life form), but they preserved their consciousnesses in their Dream Machines. Some of those Martians had taken over human hosts when the humans arrived and started using the Dream Machines. Hoping that the plague was over, the next step seemed to be growing a new Martian body and seeing if anyone could transfer into it, thus freeing the humans. I needed one human in particular--Charles Lewis Tiffany--freed so he could repair a lens I needed to melt the polar ice caps and re-activate the canals.

Growing a Martian body wasn't hard but took a lot of time and steps. Various NPCs had basically given me the needed items and recipes. First, I had to get some Martian seedlings. This involved breaking into a building with a rusted-shut door. I was happy to figure out the solution: use oil on it. Fortunately, I had a large supply for my lamps.
If this was Sierra's Mars Quest, there would have been like one can of oil in the whole game.
I wasn't sure if could plant the seed just anywhere, so I tried just digging a patch of ground and dropping the seed into it, and it seemed to work. I suddenly realized I needed water. In the dream, I'd just found a bucket of it, but in the real world, all the planet's water was locked in the polar ice caps. I wondered if it was as easy as just walking up to one of the ice caps and using a pick on it. This worked--it broke away a chunk of ice--but I needed something to carry it in. It took me forever wandering around the various cities to find a bucket.
If all else fails, we can refill the canals the long way.
Back at my plant, it took a few tries to get the sequence right. I needed to put the shoveled dirt back on the seed, then water it, then fertilize it with phosphorous, nitrogen, and potash, all found in nearby buildings. I think that was it.
I suppose it was sexist to make the woman do the gardening.
The stupid plant took like 12 days to grow. It's not like I had a lot of other things to do during this time. I tried exploring, re-talking to everyone, and so forth, but every time I made it back to the plant, it had barely advanced. Finally, I just kept pitching a tent next to it and sleeping repeatedly until the seed eventually became a pod. Cutting open the pod revealed a Martian body.
I know he didn't grow up in the compost of his ancestors, but I'm not 100% sure why he still didn't have a mind and soul of his own.
I hauled it back to the Dream Machine and entered. I told the leader, Prektesh, about my success, and he told me he'd inhabit the body. Returning to the real world, I shoved the inert Martian body in the Dream Machine's chair. Prektesh soon entered it and thanked me for saving his people.
Then everything went to hell. He fell sick, withered, and died, realizing at the end that the plague is in the planet's very soil. As he died, he suggested that I seek out the laboratory of Kaxishek, who had been looking for a different solution. He also told me to take his body to Tekapesh in Elysium and convince him to help me, as the Elysium Martians' plans to grow new bodies must be similarly doomed.
Mars does, in fact, have two moons: Phobos and Deimos.
Tekapesh was inhabiting Percival Lowell's body. Fortunately, he saw reason. He said that if I could enter the Dream Machine and free the humans from their nightmares, he and his people would withdraw from their bodies, return to the dream world, and await the successful outcome of my quest--at least, for a while. There was an implied threat that we'd better not take too long. I'm not sure if there's a real time limit attached to the rest of the game or not. Part of me wants to find out, 'cause he was kind of a dick about it.
How would he "shorten my existence" from inside his little machine?
What followed were another series of dream-world missions that required me to solve puzzles and use inventory in interesting ways. The first was Wyatt Earp. He'd been turned into a horse in his nightmare, and I had to buy him from an auctioneer. The fun thing is that it if you buy one of the other horses instead, you find yourself talking to Smith, who--as is his custom--gives hints to solve Ultima VI and The Savage Empire rather than the current game. I'm guessing that in the game's canon, you're not really talking to Smith but rather your own subconscious projection of him. Either way, you have to buy a different horse if you want to free Earp.
He's a bit more verbose about those hints than in the previous game.
Next up: Mark Twain. He was adrift in a sea of stars with only a barge to navigate. Pages of his latest novel were strewn everywhere. I had to navigate the barge around and pick up at least 20 of the pages. It was good practice for my later barge travels in the Martian canals. It took me a long time to realize that once you set the direction on the control lever, you want to hold down SPACE to wait as the barge moves on its own.
Floating with Mark Twain in the firmament.
Georges Méliès was next, and I forgot to screenshot his puzzle, so I don't remember how it went. I think we were in a room that got smaller with every step I took on certain-colored tiles, and I had to cross the room, get an oil can, and return to the original location to oil and open a door, without the room getting so small it crushed us.

Last was Percival Lowell himself, lost within the solar system. I had to walk from planet to planet using a pair of winged shoes, fight some kind of serpent, make my way to Pluto, and signal Lowell with a mirror. It was something about finding Planet X. (I'm writing this a week later, and I took poor notes.) Whatever I did, it worked and everyone woke up.
Back in the real world, Tekapesh kept his promise, gathered his people, and returned to the Dream Machine, letting the humans reclaim their bodies.
Tiffany repaired the broken lens, and I installed both it and the motor that Edison had repaired in their respective polar stations. Back at the first station--the one where I had killed the weed overgrowth--I activated the system by entering the current time, something that Admiral Peary had told me to do even though I didn't really understand it. How is my pocketwatch even telling the correct time on Mars?

A cut scene showed the system coming to life and starting to melt the ice caps into cisterns. Of course, it couldn't be that easy. The canals remained dry. Sherman piped up that we should check a pumping station. He gave me the coordinates, and we went there. I couldn't figure out anything to do, but I also couldn't explore the entire station because there were deadly steam vents that I couldn't find any way to circumvent.
Job half done, at least.
In the meantime, I decided to search the polar region for the laboratory of Kaxishek. It only took a little walking before I found the entrance. I assume it wasn't available until I melted some of the ice. Inside, it became clear that Kaxishek's plan for new Martian bodies was mechanical. A robot in the lair, calling himself "Cutter," said that to activate the already-created mechanical body, I'd need a "heartstone," which is "capable of housing sentience," from a chunk of Azurite.
I had no idea where to find it, but I thought I'd check Buffalo Bill's trading post. Since I also needed ammunition, I returned to the power station and loaded up on Oxium first. The bins really do hold an infinite supply. Until you get access to these bins, Oxium is too precious to spend (you need it to breathe); afterwards, there is functionally no economy because you can gain an infinite amount for no effort. It's even worse because there's a bug by which Calamity Jane doesn't even take your Oxium when you use it to buy ammunition.
Dipping in to an unlimited supply of Oxium.
Anyway, I loaded up on rifle and revolver cartridges. Bill and Jane didn't have anything to say about Azurite, but they reminded me that at his own trading post, William Randolph Hearst had more esoteric Martian artifacts. I headed to his shop at the base of Olympus Mons. I had previously visited him before exploring the Olympus caves but forgot to mention it.

In exchange for the Azurite, Hearst wanted me to retrieve a camera from the top of Olympus. He'd sent a man up there to photograph "the new cannon being built," which isn't on the top of Olympus at all but rather in the caves. But whatever. I got his camera. I had to fight a bunch of "proto-Martians" on the top of the mountain.
Bringing the camera back to Hearst wasn't enough. Next, he wanted the film developed. It would have been a better quest if the game had let me figure out which NPC to ask myself--who has experience with cameras and film?--but Hearst himself told me to simply seek out Georges Méliès. I trekked back to Olympus, took the transport tube to Elysium, and spoke to Méliès. He developed the film immediately and gave it back to me. I returned to Hearst.

That paragraph encompasses everything I can't stand about this game that isn't plot-related. To solve that little side-quest, I had to walk from Olympus to Olympus Mons, speak to Hearst, walk from Olympus Mons to Olympus, transport to Elysium, talk to Méliès, transport back to Olympus, and walk back to Olympus Mons. If anything had happened along the way, if there had been any kind of puzzle to solve related to the camera, if there had been any other reason to go to Elysium--any of those things might have redeemed this little quest step. As it is, the developers are just wasting my time.

Not that the walking was done there. Having received the Azurite from Hearst, I then had to walk back to Olympus and take the transport tube to Elysium again to walk back to the laboratory.
I'm not sure how the android is distinguished as a "woman," or why plant-based life would even recognize genders.
Inside the lab, I had Cutter turn the Azurite into a heartstone, then put the heartstone in the android. I figured I needed to get the android to the Dream Machine in Elysium, so I had Dibbs pick it up, which involved clearing out almost all his inventory first. Back we went to Elysium. The Avatar entered the dream world and spoke to the Martians until one of them, Chsheket, seemed interested in entering the metal body. I exited the dream, placed the body in the machine in my place, and watched as Chsheket entered and animated it.
Immediately, Sherman said that his services were no longer needed, dumped his equipment on the ground, and bolted. I don't know why he felt he had to do that given that the party formation clearly accommodates 6 members. Meanwhile, Spector and Chsheket opined that we should stress-test the body a bit before downloading more Martians. That was fine with me, since I didn't have any more metal bodies or heartstones. I mean, that wasn't even on the table.
That's good, since I wasn't looking forward to repeating the process 18 times.
I figured an android could get past the steam vents in the pumping station, and I was right. Chsheket simply had to walk past them, turn a valve, and once again the Martian canali flooded with water.
Turning a wheel counter-clockwise definitely requires a Martian's touch.
Other notes:

  • Asking Mark Twain about Tom Sawyer caused his dialogue to crash.
This game is full of logical errors.
  • In a game that usually wastes such opportunities, Hearst did have a response to an obvious keyword, although I think the creators could have tried a bit harder.
  • Hearst said that the man he'd sent to photograph the cannon was named "Boringstoke." I thought he was making fun of my name before I remembered that the game doesn't know my name.
  • Chshket joined the party at Level 2 but already had 240 hit points. She leveled up a few times, quite rapidly, but never got more hit points from leveling.
During this session, Martian Dreams firmly cemented itself as an adventure game with incidental combats. As I look over my past entries, I see that there's been only one quest sequence in the entire game, and all my attempts to circumvent it by, say, investigating the cities before restoring power, or re-flooding the canals before solving the "Martian bodies" problem, have been met with the equivalent of impassable steam vents, forcing me along a predetermined route. This is an unwelcome change from the relative nonlinearity of the previous Ultima titles, including The Savage Empire. At least it will come to an end soon.

Time so far: 28 hours
Reload count: 5


  1. Love the blog (been following for a while) and for some reason, reading through you going through Martian Dreams is especially interesting. I didn't really have the desire to play it myself back in the day, but there was this nagging thought in the back of my mind ever since that maybe I should have. Now, I can just follow along and enjoy the good parts while not having to deal with the annoying parts.

    About the plants and gender (sex) thing, though, plants absolutely have different sexes. Depending on the species, sometimes they are on the same plant (both male and female on one individual), sometimes the same flower within a plants has both male and female, and sometimes different plants are male and female. So (assuming the biology is the same as Earth's plants, which why not) they definitely could be male and female plant Martian creatures (which is a sentence I never imagined I would write).

    1. The point he's making is why would plant-based Martians build a humanoid female android with mammaries? Although the first question is why would they build a humanoid android at all.

    2. About the only explanation that comes even remotely close, I guess, is that Kaxishek had reached out through the dream machine and saw that there are people on Earth. Assuming that the only way the Martians would be able to get out of the dream world is if the humans arrived to Mars and helped them, he designed the body for this purpose.

      Yeah, I know, it's an extreme stretch. But hey, at least it's something :P.

    3. Yeah, you are right. I just whiffed on seeing that because the biologist in me kicked in ("I MUST educate them all on plant sex!"). It is an oddly common weird thing of having human female looking features on obviously non-humans to make them sexay (DnD even did it with their dragonborn with breasts thing awhile back). Yeah, it is weird and doesn't make sense.

    4. Obviously they designed their robot to get in early for all the lucrative merchandising of the Metropolis movie!

      Seriously though the design is close enough that the devs probably just wanted to sneak it in as a reference.

  2. While this game doesn't seem to be entertaining you as a game, it is quite enjoyable to read and follow as a STORY. Perhaps this is an example of something sounding good on paper, but not translating well to a game?

    1. To be more precise, it seems to be an idea that doesn't work well as an ULTIMA game. Not only is the engine best suited for a non-linear game, but the player comes into it with a certain set of expectations the game does not fulfill.

  3. Very minor spoiler for Ultima 7: Part Two - Serpent Isle.

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  4. For some reason I didn't realize that the bins gave unlimited Oxium, so I didn't use any Oxium (or ranged weapons) until the very end. It didn't seem to change much. Lack of Oxium only degraded your attributes by a few points and melee weapons worked fine.

    All in all I enjoyed the game but then I usually like old SF that was more fiction than science. The story line felt comfortably "Jules Verne"y to me.

    As for picking up the pace, I can see short-changing games that you don't enjoy, but every game is going to be someone's favorite and you have no hope of ever catching up (I believe Steam reprted more that 1500 CRPGs were released last year).

    1. What? 1500 CRPGs last year? I can't believe it.

    2. That 1,500 figure can't be right unless it counts a lot of independent games or mods for existing games. Even MobyGames only has 234 RPGs listed for 2016, and that will include a lot of games from previous years that had re-releases in 2016, plus quite a few console-only games.

    3. Seems high to me also. The number given in the 2-8-17 article re GOTY at RPGCodex was 1810. I'm not sure what Steamspy is or what it was counting, but it does seem that there has been an explosion.

    4. Steam's requirements for "RPG" are incredibly loose. At least half of the full games (A lot of DLC and soundtracks have their own entry, and bloat the list) wouldn't make the cut, and I wouldn't be surprised if the figure was closer to three quarters.

      Among the "RPG"s on Steam are the River City Ransom remake (a beat-em-up with light RPG elements), Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation (an RTS with hero units), and Crusader Kings II (A Grand Strategy game with emphasis on the social and political interactions of the ruling families).

      That doesn't get into the sheer number of dust-in-the-wind f2p MMOs that bloat the count.

    5. Part of the problem is the state of Steam Greenlight, so many fly by night developers buy pre-made assets from the Unity store and cobble them together into some vague semblance of a game, stick a tiny price tag on it and hope to make a few bucks from the card sales, then set to churning out the next one, which is often little more than a palette swap of the last. The problem has become so bad that Steam's total library has more than doubled in the last three years and they have vowed to do away with the system altogether. As for the RPG tags, those are user defined so really, anything goes, if a game has any kind of an XP counter you can bet it is labeled RPG.

    6. River City Ransom has LIGHT RPG elements? Then why do i need to grind for more than 50 hours and STILL have not unlocked the full list of moves for every playable character?

  5. Looks like I was right when I said it would be two more entries before the end. You are very close to finished now, though. The bad news is, you're now approaching a part of the game that even I (who for the most part enjoyed walking on Mars) found tedious. Speaking of which, I'm surprised you didn't comment on that particular aspect of Twain's dream. I certainly found the manuscript rescue annoying.

    A quick comment regarding taking a photo of the canon from the top of Olympus. I don't remember if you can actually get to the top of Olympus in the game and look down on the canon (I vaguely recall that you can, but...), but the thing is that Olympus is not a mountain - it's a volcano. The canon is being built inside the crater.

    In regards to linearity, I think about the only time you can do anything in a non-linear fashion here is when you're saving the humans from their dreams - and even then, you're only choosing the order in which you will save them. It's really peculiar, because it is a Warren Spector game. I wonder if perhaps there weren't some large elements here that were cut from the game to reduce it to its current state. By the time they were midway through Martian Dreams, they would have known that Savage Empire wasn't a hit - did this awareness influence the production?

    More broadly, though, this problem of linearity is actually very much par for the course for an Ultima game. These games present an open world, but within that open world, you're always following a path. There's just no sidequests to speak of, and the main premise of the games - that you're an outsider who's just visiting to resolve a problem - basically means that there is never that sense of living out a life that modern open-world RPGs exude. The Ultimas, in the end, are a compromise between the open-world and the dungeon-crawler.

  6. "During this session, Martian Dreams firmly cemented itself as an adventure game with incidental combats."

    I find it interesting that you're so critical of this. That's my main complaint with every Ultima after V - they went from being a combat-heavy RPG to a adventure-RPG.

    1. I'd argue that U5 had too much combat in a not-so-good engine. U6 was just right.

    2. It's not the "adventure" part that I'm critical of so much as the minimization of the RPG part.

  7. If you think this is a "an adventure game with incidental combats.", I have to wonder what you think of the Torment games :D

    1. Same. In fact, I've just had something of an epiphany upon reading Chet's comment: I think those are a sub-genre of game that a LOT of people really love, but that I have a major problem getting into (despite *wanting* to like them). Games I can think of in particular include: Anachronox (actually I think I may have almost reached the end), Planescape: Torment (soooo much text, so little gameplay - at least in the first couple hours), and in some respects Final Fantasy 7.

      Part of the problem is that I'm a bit of a completionist - not in the respect of wanting to get all achievements, but in that I want to visit every notable location in a game, trigger all NPC dialogue, complete every quest, etc. These adventure-with-RPG-elements games tend to not reward exploration or combat, instead relying on volumes of text/dialogue/lore/charm to keep the player interested.

    2. On a related note, I really like FPS games with RPG elements (and have a hard time getting into standard FPS games): Deus Ex (the old ones - haven't got traction on the new ones yet), Elder Scrolls, System Shock, STALKER, etc. I draw the line at Bioshock, though - not enough RPG to keep me interested for whatever reason.

    3. I like RPGs. If the RPGs tell an interesting story, I like them more. If they offer adventure-style puzzles, I at least don't like them LESS.

      But if they use an RPG engine to offer a game in which character development, inventory, and combat are fundamentally unimportant, then yes, expect a lower rating.

    4. God, how I loathe this idea, fairly ubiquitous in RPG circles, that a game where all you do is click dialog options is an Adventure game. Torment has nothing to do with Adventures, Adventures should have puzzles to them, of which Torment has next to none. It's more of a visual novel or a CYOA.

    5. This is why I couldn't get through Torment. It was fairly well-written, but after a while, it just didn't feel like a game anymore.

      On the other hand, I seem to like Icewind Dale more than most (I like it better than BG). But I like it because it felt more like the sort of RPG I grew up with: you create the entire party, it was a bit hack-and-slashy, etc. It was still too linear, but at least it had elements of what I like in a CRPG.

    6. Icewind Dale was awesome. I got it for xmas back in the day, and stayed up half the night just making my party. The music is some of the best I'd heard in a PC game. It was a lot easier to bite off than Baldur's Gate, which I still haven't managed to completely beat to this day (let alone the sequel).

    7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    8. I've never been able to get into adventure games - QfG excluded. I don't think Torment (which had quite a lot of combat) or it's sequel (in which I have yet to raise my hand in anger) feel like adventure games.

      IWD games had great maps, but the lack of personalities or societies meant that there wasn't as much inducement to keep slogging through composite longbow driven combats.

    9. QfG was the game that turned me into RPGs. It was like good old KQ and SQ but hey! Stats! Combats! No insta-death!

      As for Torment games, PST used the wrong engine I think. RT combat and D&D was just wrong for it. Numenera is just... strange. Let me attack NPCs! Let me fight baddies!

    10. @Pedro interesting thought about engine. What do you think would have been a more fitting contemporary engine?

    11. A bit hard to escape the D&D aspect, given it's a D&D setting. I didn't hate the combat, even if it was pretty random, especially since the consequences of dying were minimal. The relative lack of ranged weapons also made it feel less like an exercise in kiting.

    12. @HunterZ I'm not familiar with engines in general, but I'd say a 2D adventure-based engine that didn't focus on statistics. For example, something like Sanitarium

  8. The screenshot captions in this post are an absolute delight.

  9. I assume the original title of this entry was "Martian Dreams: A man, a plan, a canal...Panama's ma er'd, na? I tram!"

    1. If this blog tallied reader bonus points, I'd say you just earned three.

    2. I nearly titled it, "Sram,lan,a canal: Mars!"

  10. Somehow, without noticing, we've started to enter one of my favourite era in computer art: That VGA-ish dithered look, where you have almost all the colours you needed, and dithered the rest. It gives everything a shaded look that I quite like. This game isn't the best with it, but I'm sure we'll see it put to good use in the coming years.

  11. > nging the camera back to Hearst wasn't enough. Next, he wanted the film developed. It would have been a better quest if the game had let me figure out which NPC to ask myself--who has experience with cameras and film?--but Hearst himself told me to simply seek out Georges Méliès.

    Unless he's clear about that when you talk to him earlier, that would be a very bad idea. Remember, this is pre-internet. Requiring that the player suspect that Méliès is a real person is probably okay, but requiring they know something about him to know what to do is not. Having to pull out an encyclopedia if you are lucky enough to have one, or take a trip to the library or some other source of knowledge if you don't is out of what should be expected in a game like this.

    Since you presumably talked to him for a dream puzzle, they could have forced the knowledge on you though, so it could have been appropriate in that case.

    Or I guess you could have just traveled around and talked to every character. I hated when I ended up having to do that in my youth because I didn't understand the clues given with the world knowledge I had at the time.

    A fairly simple example of this (sort of) is in the beginning of Prophecy of the Shadow, where one of the first quests is telling someone a password which is the name of their favorite wine, White Zinfandel. Unfortunately the font made the i after the Z look like it was a flourish on the Z, and 12 year old me had no idea there was a real wine named that. I tried for a few hours with different variations of casing and spacing, and restarted a few times, before finally calling my Mom and asking. Happens it was her favorite wine. This is probably something easily figured out for anyone a few years older than I was.
    I passed that part and played for another 20-30 minutes, and stopped for the night. I never played it again, likely because the experience was so frustrating, and so early in the game.

    Apparently I wasn't the only one this got, as others have noted the same situation:

    1. Repeatedly, in the Ultima games, including this one, players are expected to have talked to a particular NPC to get a particular clue, so I don't think it would be asking too much for them to have spoken with each NPC and gotten a sense of that person's contribution to history. If Méliès never mentioned anything to do with film in his dialogue, I agree it would be unfair, but he talks at length about how he makes movies.

      Even if they have to provide a few more clues, "find someone who can develop this film" is a better quest than "go to Méliès to get the film developed."

      There is no excuse, I agree, for passwords that rely on interpreting horrid fonts.


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