Origin Systems (developer and publisher)
Released in 1991 for DOS
Date Started: 18 October 2015
Date Ended: 2 March 2017
Date Ended: 2 March 2017
Total Hours: 35Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
I realized why no one was getting my objections to the plot of Martian Dreams during an exchange with commenter Jakub Majewski. I was trying to explain why the game had destroyed the "avatar" concept. "I don't know a guy named Spector in real life," I said. Mr. Majewski responded that, "there is no difference between him and Iolo or Lord British."
Not to pick on you in particular, Jakub--I really have enjoyed your contributions to my entries--but yes there is. There is a huge difference. The difference is that Iolo and Lord British are on the other side of the moongate. If you don't get that distinction, you can't possibly understand my problems with the game.
|Dr. Spector isn't just an NPC. He's in my house!|
The moongate between the "real" world and Britannia served a vital narrative purpose from its first appearance in Ultima IV (prior moongates were not between the real world and Britannia). It is the transition point at which the player enters the game; a metaphor for the computer screen and the act of booting up the executable. The player is on one side of the moongate. His avatar--in a quite literal sense--is acting on the other side.
The concept of the avatar is the most important part of Ultima IV. The icon that you move about the screen is literally your avatar in Britannia. But you are also trying to become the Avatar of Virtue--the physical embodiment of what it means to act rightly in a chaotic world. When you have achieved the quest, the game challenges you to return to your own world and adhere to the same principles--to maintain the role of Avatar of Virtue in a place where you are no longer an avatar. This is an important and meaningful thematic message, and one that I took closely to my heart when I first was exposed to Ultima IV at the impressionable age of 12.
Getting players to internalize this theme means not screwing up the thematic illusion. The illusion works brilliantly in Ultima IV because what happens on the player's side of the moongate is limited and abstracted. The game presupposes only that you've gone for a walk in the countryside--certainly, such an activity is not beyond the realm of possibility for most players. It doesn't even say that the countryside is nearby. I suppose if you're in prison, the game requires a certain suspension of disbelief from the outset, but barring that, anyone--young, old, male, female, black, white, gay, straight, poor, rich--can put himself or herself into the role of the avatar and carry that role through the moongate and into Britannia.
|Nothing implausible so far...|
Again, I emphasize that the first game works so well--it allows the player to feel so personally-invested in the character and quest--because very little happens, and none of it implausible, on the "real" side of the moongate.
|That doesn't look like me or my bedroom, but I guess I can just go with it.|
Alas, this does not remain true for subsequent games. Ultima V's opening starts you in a single-family house of a particular configuration with a wilderness area right outdoors. It's not so much that you can't suspend disbelief, but it's a step down the wrong path. In Ultima VI, you now see what "your" living room looks like--complete with the painting of a pole-dancing centaur woman--and "you" are clearly a young white male with brown hair. Again, you can suck it up and take this introduction as an abstraction, go through the moongate, and still enjoy the game and keep pretending that the Avatar is your avatar, but it's getting harder.
|Wait. Whose house is this supposed to be?|
The Savage Empire and Martian Dreams make this suspension of disbelief impossible. Too much happens on the "real" side of the moongate. In The Savage Empire, you live in a city, you have a friend named Dr. Rafkin, you write stories for a magazine, and you can only play as a white male (though this time with blonde hair). You ultimately go through a moongate to the game proper, but by then so much has happened on this side that you can't possibly pretend that this is you.
And, finally, we reach Martian Dreams, where the entire game takes place on "this" side of the moongate. Yes, technically you go through a "time gate," but you're clearly meant to still be in the "real" world. After all, before you enter the gate, you've met a Martian and seen a photograph of yourself and "your" friend Dr. Spector posing with the most famous dignitaries of the age.
So, by the end of the game, the Avatar has not returned to "your" home in the real world but to some freaky alternate reality in which he, Dr. Spector, Theodore Roosevelt, Emma Goldman, Buffalo Bill Cody, Nellie Bly, Vladimir Lenin, and a host of other real-world individuals have, historically, been to Mars in a capsule shot from a cannon, found intelligent life there, and returned. It's not like the trip was covered up or something. There was a parade when you got back.
|Did they erase the memories of the 3 dozen famous people who were there?|
I suppose the degree to which any of this bothers you is related to when you played Ultima IV. If it hadn't occupied such a central role in my life when I was young--if I'd only first encountered it as part of this project--I suppose I wouldn't care. But I spent too long invested in the "avatar" concept to react with aplomb when its creators start treating it this way. I would also maintain that the plot is pretty stupid even divorced from the avatar, especially when we got to the point of coating the Martian mechanical bodies with realistic skin.
A few other notes and questions on the game before the GIMLET:
- What would have happened if you'd just picked up the phlogistonite barrels from the crashed capsule at the beginning of the game?
- Is there any time limit at the end of the game when the ground is shaking? I rested in my tent a few times and nothing happened, but perhaps I needed to rest more.
- If you kill the NPCs lining the corridor on the way back to the space cannon, Andrew Carnegie refuses to do business with you.
|Historically, I'm not sure this is true.|
- When Jack Segal smashed the Dream Machine in Olympus, did he kill a bunch of Martians whose consciousnesses were residing there?
- Did I collect all the possible NPCs in the game? It feels like I always had one extra slot open.
- There's a place in the south pole where you can dig to find a pair of ruby shoes, use them, and automatically go right to the endgame credits. I found them--they're in the middle of a rock formation that just invites you to search--but I totally forgot to comment on them or even keep a screenshot from the experience.
|Image courtesy of Nakar's hilarious LP.|
- I spent a long time picking berries that were hardly used at all. There are two times that you have to use telekinesis and one time that you have to talk to a machine.
- I missed the famous face on Mars.
|Image courtesy of Dino's Ultima Page.|
- I never returned to my capsule after leaving it the first time. Would Freud, Tesla, Blood, or Dallas have had more interesting things to say about the plot developments?
- It's worth noting that by Ultima canon, the Avatar has already been to Mars--in Ultima II. It's unclear where in the timeline that game falls.
I already know this is going to rate better than my posts have suggested. Sometimes my most negative-sounding reviews are reserved for games with good mechanics that (in my eyes) under-perform their potential.
1. Game World. Stupid, as I've argued, but holds together within its own universe and hits most of the points of my GIMLET. You can't say it isn't original, nor endowed with history and lore, nor notably changed by the player's actions. If it wasn't supposed to be Mars, it might score a bit higher. Score: 6.
2. Character Creation and Development. The Freudian psychoanalysis is fun and original, although it doesn't really affect very much in terms of the character. The Ultima characters continue to have only 3 attributes and continue to only really "develop" a little when leveling up. The effects are even more blunted here because there are no spells to acquire. Since the role of combat is so minimized, there is no strong sense of increasing power associated with leveling. Score: 3.
3. NPC Interaction. As always, NPC dialogues are a key part of the Ultima experience, and this is the last title, I think, to feature typed keywords. Dialogue is absolutely necessary to learn about the world and solve the games quests, but it falls short of allowing for dialogue options and role-playing. The NPCs who join the party are less interesting than in previous games: I felt no sense of kinship with them, and the developers wasted a romance potential with Nellie Bly (or, I suppose, Dibbs). You don't even really have choices about which NPCs join the party. Score: 5.
|Since there are no rioters, streets, or stores in the vicinity, I think we're okay.|
4. Encounters and Foes. I can't say that the plant-based monsters aren't at least original, and the documentation describes them well, but there's no "soul" to them. They just appear as you walk around, and you feel no particular animosity towards them. You kill them because they're in your way. It feels slightly wrong to be killing Martian life in the first place--much like the dinosaurs in The Savage Empire--except in this game, that's all there is. Not one single enemy that you slay in combat has anything to do with the game's plot. None of them are willfully acting on the part of the opposition.
I've taken to use this category to also offer bonuses for the puzzles, but I can't say I particularly enjoyed them. They were mostly of the "do you have the right inventory item?" and "if not, go and get it" variety, not really anything to do with logic or intuition. Too much depended on fiddling with controls. Score: 4.
5. Magic and combat. As with Buck Rogers, we see that combat systems designed with magic in mind tend to fall short when the magic is removed. All that's left is the ability to target foes and set some basic action defaults for other members of the party. There are very few tactics, and too often characters don't do what they're supposed to do. The outcomes of combat are too arbitrary--a party of enemies that slaughters my characters might inflict no damage at all on a reload--and in general, combat isn't an important part of gameplay. Score: 3.
6. Equipment. The engine's approach to equipment remains strong. It was designed for a sandbox game in which all kinds of items--food, cooking utensils, tools, and treasures--populated the world, and many of them have interesting interactions with each other. The systems for assessing and equipping weapons, armor, and accessories remain strong. I found less actually-useful stuff in Martian Dreams, however; characters end the game with most of the same weapons and "armor" that they started with. Score: 4.
7. Economy. There really isn't one. Oxium serves as a currency, but early in the game you can get an unlimited supply of that. There isn't much to buy at the trading posts that you can't find on your own in the game world. Disappointing. Score: 2.
8. Quests. The series still offers virtually nothing for side-quests, and here even the main quest is far more linear and less mutable than in previous games. And, of course--not to keep beating this horse--it's just kind of dumb. Score: 2.
9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. All quite good. No ambient sound yet, but very serviceable sound effects. Music is top-notch if you like that kind of thing; I don't, and I was glad to finally be able to turn it off without turning off the rest of the sound. The graphics are fine for the era, and I didn't have the same color issue that I had with The Savage Empire where everything seemed literally camouflaged. The ability to set an "active character" is still rare and welcome, and overall the redundant mouse/keyboard interface works very well. Score: 6.
10. Gameplay. Martian Dreams is a rare Ultima title that is almost completely linear and entirely non-replayable. I found it a tad too long, but just a tad. Score: 4.
That gives is a final score of 39, fairly far below the 48 I gave to The Savage Empire and the 68 I gave to Ultima VI. But I understand why. Ultima VI was a sandbox game with a nonlinear approach in which combat, magic, exploration, and economy all played vital roles. These things are less true of The Savage Empire and not true at all of Martian Dreams, and thus the same engine does not work well for all purposes.
In the September 1991 Computer Gaming World, Scorpia agreed with most of my points, particularly the tediousness of walking around and the number of objectives that require you to walk back and forth between locations. "It's really an adventure game with a thin veneer of CRPG," she says, noting in particular that "combat is mostly gratuitous," thus blunting the importance of character development. On the other hand, she liked the story and thought that watching it unfold was the best part of the game.
Someone must have received an angry phone call after the September issue was published, because the next month's issue features a wet, sloppy kiss of a review from Roger Stewart. (It was common in the era to see Scorpia's reviews duplicated by someone else, but it was usually in the same issue.) "An epic adventure of rescue and resurrection that has all the depth and complexity of the Ultima series," he glows, but I'll save my ridicule for a little background info that he gives: Richard Garriott approved Warren Spector's plot, but with the restriction that "the outcome of the game could not contradict history as we know it." I can't tell you how glad I am that Lord British constrained the developers so; the outcome might have been ridiculous otherwise.
|Nothing contradicting history as we know it here!|
The Worlds of Ultima / Ultima: Worlds of Adventure mini-series came to an end with Martian Dreams, which reportedly sold poorly. The Internet tells of a third planned entry, Arthurian Legends, which would have used the Ultima VII engine. Accounts differ as to whether Arthurian Legends was, in fact, ever considered as an Ultima title or whether it was always a standalone title. Whatever the case, it died as the latter. Even though I haven't really enjoyed this side-series, I would have been interested to see how Origin handled the Arthurian source material.
Any criticisms I have about the direction Origin has gone with Ultima in these "worlds" titles is about to be obviated by what they do next: 1992 brings both Ultima Underworld and Ultima VII: The Black Gate, easily two of the best CRPGs ever created. We just have to get out of 1991 first.