Saturday, June 29, 2013

Game 102: Mines of Titan (1989)

The game takes place in 2261. I'd like to hear from my science-oriented readers on the chances that humanity will be able to colonize Titan in 250 years.
Mines of Titan
United States
Westwood Associates (developer); Infocom (publisher)
Released as Mars Saga for the Commodore 64 in 1988; re-released for DOS and Apple II in 1989
Date Started: 29 June 2013
Here's one thing about playing certain games that might be peculiar to my own personality: I don't like being told who I am. Not defining your own character seems contrary to the whole idea of a role-playing game. Paradoxically contrary, I suppose, as the ultimate test of "playing a role" is to take a character over whom you have no control and successfully internalize his or her background, motivations, and approaches. But most role-playing games are as much about role-creating as role-playing, and I'd prefer to at least have the illusion of creation conferred by the ability to name my character. If I did, I wouldn't name  him "Tom Jetland."

Jetland is a down-on-his luck cargo ship captain, stuck on Titan after a disastrous mission forced him to jettison his cargo. His company made him sell his ship to cover the cost of the goods, and he's left waiting for his insurance adjuster to arrive in a couple of years.

Rejecting the offer of the Controller of Primus (one of Titan's cities) to work in the mines, Jetland is given a mission to find out what happened to the city of Proscenium, with whom the Controllers have lost contact. But the job doesn't come with any advance funds, so Jetland is cast into Primus to look for work to buy weapons, supplies, and passage to Proscenium.

The odd thing is that after all this setup, you're perfectly free to dump Jetland. He starts in a bar where you recruit and dismiss other characters. Once you have at least one other character, you can send Jetland packing. I didn't do that, but I did decline to reload the game when my party was killed by muggers, and "I" was sent back to the bar to find new characters. Adding characters to the party is a matter of "interviewing" them in the bars, at which point you can hear about their histories and view their attributes. It feels a little like recruiting party members who have already gone through Space.

Interviewing potential party members.

Characters have six attributes--might, agility, stamina, wisdom, education, and charisma--that do about what you'd expect. Health is an average of might, agility, and stamina, and once it's depleted, you lose points in those categories. If they all go to 0, you die. Characters also have a selection of skills: administration, arc gun, automatic weapon, battle armor, blade, cudgel, gambling, golum armor, handgun, medical, melee, mining, programming, rifle, street (wisdom), and throwing. As with most games, I suspect that some of these skills will turn out to be useless. So far, I can't see any advantage to specializing in melee combat skills when you have guns, but perhaps there's a place later where they become important.

You can't control anything about the beginning statistics and skills of the characters you recruit, though you can just keep searching for recruits until you find one who has the stats you want. And you can assign their names. My new party leader is a 42-year-old ex cop named Gideon with skills in handguns, rifles, melee fighting, cudgels, and battle armor. He's strong in agility and stamina, though a little weak in might. In due course, I supplemented him with Richter, an ex-marine with skills in automatic weapons, melee combat, and rifles; Melina, a woman with skills in administration and "street knowledge"; and Cohaagen, an ex-miner with skills in gambling and mining. I wanted to start with someone with medical or programming skills, but I wasn't able to find someone at the outset.

As you adventure, you learn and improve skills at training academies, universities, and hospitals. I haven't found a way to improve weapons skills yet, but I suspect that's done in the "war room" once I find a way to get access.

To train, you have to spend both money and accumulated experience points, but the game hides the specific experience point figure. It just tells you that a character is "eager to learn" whenever he can train. Other than this occasional training, there doesn't seem to be any "leveling up." I suspect this makes it less painful to replace slain party members later.

Gideon's statistics and gear after a few hours of play. Nice dot-matrix printers they have in the 23rd century.

It soon became clear that characters get individual experience for combat, and since Gideon and Richter had weapons and Melina and Cohaagen had no skills to use weapons, they were never leveling up (which means I could never train them in weapons skills). I eventually dumped them and replaced them with two characters--Benny and Lori--with existing weapons skills, figuring it would be easier to train them in non-combat skills than for non-combat characters to get enough experience to train in weapons skills.

In fact, mining costs hardly anything to learn.

Titan is presented as a "frontier" world being developed by an oppressive corporation called Paramount Mining, Inc. The manual, presented as a Visitor's Guide to Titan, reveals that when humans first visited in 2042, they were overjoyed to find a diverse variety of life forms--joy that turned to horror when they were slaughtered by some of them. Paramount Mining established a colony on Titan to mine SOL-R-GARD, a hydrocarbon that absorbs radiation, and populated it largely with ex-convicts. Some of these have escaped to the surface, found some way to survive, and are known as Nomads.

So far, I've explored the surface only briefly.

In general, it's a good setup, and one that doesn't hand-wave the difficulties associated with living on a moon two years from earth, with an average temperature of -180 degrees and a nitrogen/methane atmosphere. There are hints of conspiracies and secrets to discover, and I look forward to seeing how the game's plot unfolds.

Several quests become available immediately in Primus. Someone has broken into the university and stolen  a "specimen" and the police are willing to pay 20,000 credits for anyone who can identify the culprits. An escaped convict named Phelos Fletcher has fled Primus to the surface. Cybil Graves, the owner of a munitions shop, is willing to pay 5,000 credits for me to deliver a "micro disk" to the leader of the Nomads and bring back a package. She gave me 1,000 up front, which helped me stock up on weapons. Computer terminals have other "classifieds" from other cities, but it costs at least 5,000 to get out of Primus.

My first quest.

Not that I'll have much trouble getting that 5,000.  Either we have another game with a broken gambling system, or I just got really lucky. There are gambling establishments in the city that offer "Cosmic Keno" and "Laser Slots." I haven't had a chance to experiment with keno yet, but when I walked into laser slots and dropped $17, I got three stars and won $8,500 on my first spin. I tried to work out the odds but the symbols seem randomly generated each spin, and in any event the player's "gambling" skill is supposed to come into play. Rather than keep testing things and risk ruining the game again, I decided to be thankful for my good fortune and spend the money on some decent armor. I bought vacuum suits so my characters could survive outside.

I wish I had the luck in real life that I have in CRPG casinos.

Navigation is through a 3D view. The city is abundant with shops, bars, gambling halls, computer terminals, hospitals, and other places to visit, though your options in each place of each type are limited to same selections, so there might as well have only been one of each.

Buying weapons in the munitions store.

As you wander around, there are random encounters with thugs, muggers, and hitmen, as well as police officers and regular citizens,  and for all of them you have the option to fight or decline. If you decline and the enemy is hostile, he might attack anyway.

Battle takes place on a top-down tactical map, and it's extremely similar to BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk's Inception, another Westwood/Infocom collaboration (more on that in a bit). You line up your attacks or item uses, execute, and watch as your party members duke it out with the enemies. You have the option to let the computer fight the battle, and if you do that, you can either watch or just find out the result. Weapons seem to have unlimited ammunition.

Watching the computer fight for me. My characters are on the right.

A few miscellaneous notes:

  • The game has a pretty good automap, both on the main screen and in a larger view that you can access from the main menu.

  • Characters with medical skills can heal themselves and each other in combat. In between combats, hospitals will heal for a charge.

  • The game avoids one of the ways that players often cheat by preventing you from distributing credits until party members have been with the party for a while. You can't just recruit party members, steal their credits, and dump them.

I found this out while legitimately trying to distribute credits among party members, incidentally.

  • Dead characters remain with the party until dropped off at a police station, bar, barracks, lounge, or restaurant. There is no resurrection, and combat is deadly enough that I suspect I'll go through a whole battalion of characters unless I relax my reloading standards.

Mines of Titan was originally published as Mars Saga for the Commodore 64 in 1988. Online documentation says that when it was released the following year for the Apple II and DOS, not only was the action moved to Titan, but it has more quests and creatures and slightly different details.

The game was developed by Westwood Associates and published by Infocom. Westwood has shown a spotty history with me so far. I thought Questron II and Hillsfar were mediocre, and BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk's Inception still makes me angry, especially having to type that misplaced apostrophe. Right now, Mines could go either way. By the next time I write, I expect I'll have solved some of the initial quests and I'll have a better sense of the game's quality.


  1. I haven't tested this extensively but I think the first bet in the slots always has a positive result? It's an interesting design choice.

    1. This is one casino that actually DOES let you win once to get you hooked.

    2. That was my first guess to, though I have even less to base it on. This is the first time I even heard of the game.

    3. Gambling in this game is a huge cheat. When I played it 'back in the day' I discovered the games random generator seed was included in the save game state. So I would save the game at the casino, start a game of Keno, record the winning numbers, restore the game, play Keno again and then select the winning numbers for maximum winnings. It's funny... after all these years I could not remember the title of the game, but I remembered how to 'earn' cash in it.

  2. Lokks interesting to start with at least.

    Regarding gambling: Why do so many RPG:s have them at all? Either you'll lose money on average and then it's useless or you'll win money on average and then it's broken. And if it's break even on average then it's still a bit pointless.

    1. Your second option is just bad game design.

      As for the first;- It's gambling. You could lose money (and should do on average), but you might not. The risk vs reward element is essential, and some people like that sort of thing.

      What breaks risk vs reward is zero accountability - Reloading for example, or a lack of in game consequences.

    2. I'm going to play Devil's Advocate (I'm morally opposed to Gambling in real life) as little and try to explain gambling... in videogames anyway.

      You said "on average" but the value of money isn't always consistent. After all, a common RPG design problem is "I'm at the end of the game, what do I do with all this money?" If time is a factor in the game (or in your playstyle), sometimes you need money, big money, and you need it fast.

      Consider this: A Wirt-like vendor (from Diablo 1) who shows you powerful magic items you can buy from him... but for a very short time only! You know that with the average, consistent money that enemies drop, you will never farm the money in time before the item is unavailable.

      So what to do? Gambling! Sure, maybe you'll just fail and never earn the money that way, but the small chance you'll make a fortune is worth the try and gambling is about luck.

      Even without "Wirt" mechanics, consider this: If you get lucky and earn a sizable cash infusion through gambling, you could buy something powerful, that powerful X (let's just say Sword) might start a snowball effect of time-saving convenience as you are able to tackle greater challenges, get better "rewards" faster from dungeons/quests and etc.

      But of course you need to have a good economy in your RPG in place to really take advantage of gambling mechanics.

      Also, there are RPGs where gambling doesn't earn you more "normal" money but instead uses its own separate "casino token" currency that usually gates very powerful items, such as Pokemon and Dragon Quest. In that case, unless you want to convert money->tokens at a usually ripoff trade rate, you're going to have to gamble.

    3. Ok, that is a couple of good examples, Davzz.

      But I still think it is in general as useless as in real life. Yes, you *could* get lucky and earn lots of money, but it's more likely you will lose money and have a set-back instead.

    4. That's gambling for ya. It's one of those things that really depends on the player's psychological makeup.

      Here's another example: Potions of Mutation in Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup.

      Mathematically speaking, it's not worth it to drink those potions. The good mutations are nice to have, sometimes even really strong, but the bad ones are killer.

      In practice, some people KNOW that, but they still can't help chugging them down. They love the tension that comes with not knowing what they're going to get next.

    5. I was playing a development build of DCSS the other day and I noticed that when I died, I was carrying an unidentified potion of beneficial mutation. Not seen one before or since, but it's an interesting development.

    6. I think Davzz has a good point, but in most games of this era that feature gambling, there ISN'T an ability to buy that one-of-a-kind artifact weapon. It's just a game-breaking mechanic.

      What I vastly prefer are gambling games that involve some skill. Might & Magic VII's Arcomage and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic's Pazaak are good examples.

    7. I too prefer gambling games of skill. Unfortunately, the AI is most often pretty poor so it either becomes too easy or they stack the game against you (in KotOR 1 by making you always go first in Pazaak, which is a drawback). And still, I wouldn't play pazaak if it weren't for the rewards if you beat the opponent enough times.

    8. Wouldn't the ability to buy a 'one of a kind artifact weapon' combined with gaming be more game breaking? (Writ never sold uniques irrc, just randoms) It potentially destroys one of the incentives to play \ explore and instead encourages you to just sit in the casino.

      There's a big difference between buying a magic sword and finding a magic sword in a dragons hoard.

    9. It's not that hard to make gambling useful, but fair in a CRPG. You can give the player an even or better edge if desired, but you need to "cap" the amount that can be won at a fixed amount after which the game is closed. In this way, it becomes no more unbalanced than a free giveaway of money, and it actually takes play time to get the money. Let's say that you can win no more than $100,000 at the Casino, and on average it takes 30 minutes of play to win that much. Would that be more unbalanced than 10 stashes of $10,000 each in hidden locations?

    10. Yes, but then I would prefer it if they shortened it to two steps: "Play at Casino", "You won $100,000" so I don't have to bother with the casino. Straight casino games are usually boring, imo.

    11. Davss the potions of mutation in DCSS are gambling but you have many ways to mitigate the negative effects, so you can turn bad odds into good odds through thoughtful gameplay.

      Of course I love to drink and play Xom worshipers just to see what happens. Now Xom is very much a low odds gambling situation.

    12. Games that have done it well:
      Mass Effect with space blackjack (A bit of skill, and fun, though I usually lose money in the long run as I abandon my strict rules of when to draw)

      The Witcher with dice poker (I'm told this is something called Yahtzee?)

      In these cases playing the gambling game is fun, and sometimes worth losing a little or making a little, but you'd have to play for a long time to make or lose noticeable amounts of money.

      The other thing I can think of is ...Golden Sun I think? You couldn't gamble money, but tokens you sometimes got in a fight. So you built up these tokens for a while, and then there were various games you could play. One was for money I think, and one was for items? It has been a few years.

      Or use gambling as a cash to item conversion, with some rewards being powerful items, and most being weak but useful ones. That way you may lose a ton of money, but it as if you spent it on healing potions or something, and stay roughly on the right place on the power curve.

    13. I don't remember the Mass Effect gambling (you are talking about the first game, right?).

      The dice poker in The Witcher (it's a slimmed version of Yahtzee, in real Yahtzee you are supposed to be the first to get all variants, in The Witcher you also get to hold dice from the first round) is not very good imo. Too random and to little strategy. Also it seemed to me that the "better" playrs cheated in that they have better odds at getting good results (I didn't do a statistical analysis so I really don't know).

    14. Fallout: New Vegas invented a new card game, Caravan. It was interesting, fun for a while and gave good but limited money.

  3. I skipped this game myself, but on my chronological play list I wrote:
    "Sounds boring (too much random encounters and weak combat engine)."

    It will be interesting to see if I was right.
    Being designed by Westwood I guess it is inevitable that the combat is simplistic and that the game looks nice. Later games from them include Eye of the Beholder 1 and 2 and the Lands of Lore games. Only played the first LoL game, but so far it's my favourite Westwood game.

    1. From what I've experienced so far, you were right.

  4. >> "doesn't hand-wave the difficulties associated with living in on a moon two years from earth, with an average temperature of -180 degrees and a nitrogen/methane atmosphere. "

    >> "Dead characters remain with the party until dropped off at a police station, BAR, barracks, LOUNGE, or RESTAURANT."

    [horrified look] Umm...

    >> "There are hints of conspiracies and secrets to discover"

    I think we just found one.

    1. Yeah, okay. It was the middle of the night and I wasn't thinking straight. For what it's worth, I don't think you're literally dumping the body at these locations; it's just that the game mechanics only allow party recruitment and changes at such locations.

    2. Oh, hush. I think having the Titan colony go all soylent green in desperation only make the setting more interesting. :P

  5. Is that one of those games that tell you to "investigate" something and then all you do is fight trash mobs? ;)

  6. Melina, Richter, Cohaagen... but... but... where's Douglas Quaid? :D

    Regarding the colonization of Titan, I'd say it wouldn't surprise me to know that in 250 years time there would be some human presence on Titan. Mines and cities, that's a different matter. I'm doubtful of that.

    "doesn't hand-wave the difficulties associated with living in on a moon two years from earth, with an average temperature of -180 degrees and a nitrogen/methane atmosphere." Titan has a gravity just 14% that of Earth. I wonder how they decided to deal with that (if at all) in this game.

    1. That may actually be the dumbest sentence I've ever written in a blog posting. Of COURSE the game hand-waves it. The lack of oxygen is "solved" by just magically moving everyone "underground." There's the gravity issue, as you say. I'm able to wander outside with nothing more than a "vacuum suit." Oh, and there are complex life forms. Seriously, what was I thinking?

    2. Ah, well... the science fiction fan in me was hoping that the game actually had a somewhat realistic approach to living on a remote freezing moon with low gravity.

      Of course, the idea of complex life forms, which you did mention in the article, would pretty much kill any pretence of realism. Perhaps it's possible that somewhere on Titan there are very primitive single-cell organisms; Titan certainly is rich in organic compounds, if nothing else. But complex life? Nah.

    3. Actually most of that makes sense: By being underground you could pump the city full of atmosphere, instead of having to build a giant domed city.

      There are plenty of hydrocarbons on Titan, so you can get lots of CO2, which algae tanks can turn into oxygen.

      Really the big question in if we could do it in 250 years is political will. If we decided to pour money on at it, I think we could have a round-trip mission there in oh, 30-50 years, and easily have a small colony there in 250. The real question is *why* we would do that, when there are so much better places to colonize.

  7. Regarding the colonization of Titan...

    At this point in time, we have the science and the technological ability to colonize most of the rocky planet-sized bodies in the solar system.

    Mercury and Venus are off-limits due to the heat (we're still slaves to the laws of thermodynamics) and there's a few places where there's just too much radiation, but everything else is reachable and survivable.

    Now, there's no political will to do so and it would be absurdly expensive, which means it's unlikely we'll do any of it in the next thirty years at least.

    1. Actually, there's some speculation about colonizing the cloud-tops of Venus. It's the only other place in the solar system where you can get Earthlike pressure and temperature at the same time.

      As for Titan, it was cited in Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars books as a possible source for nitrogen for the Martian ecosystem, but colonizing the planet itself seems unlikely. That said, it's certainly within the realm of possibility, whereas a human colony in other places is basically impossible, e.g. Io where the radiation levels would be lethal within minutes.

  8. Probably have the tech required to exist on titan inside 100 years if there were enough incentive to invest in R&D to that end. Only difficult barrier seems to be that prolonged existence in low gravity is a bit of a health hazard, not quite sure from which angle you'd tackle that.

    Very hard to gauge whether we'll be interested at some point in the next 250 years. It's got loads of energy resources but in 100 years we'll have ~100% renewables anyway.

  9. The most important skill to have in the beginning of the game: (pbzchgre unpxvat trgf lbh nyzbfg rirelguvat lbh arrq va gur tnzr, cyhf lbh jbhyqa'g rira unir gb cnl sbe gur gvpxrg vs V erzrzore evtug)

    Basically that skill opens up the whole game for you and makes it relatively easy. In fact I think a very high level is actually required to beat the game.

    1. I don't even have to translate this to know that you mean programming. Once I jacked Gideon up with this skill, I hacked the computer and got a huge dump of plot information.

  10. IIRC, as far as colonizing Titan or other planets goes (sci-fi style), we MIGHT be able to do it in 250 years time... but I believe it's impractical in a lot of ways (mostly cost/reward ratio). I believe having orbital space platforms to mine other planets for goodies is considered to be the more "doable" thing in order to benefit from space.

    1. Aye. I'm not an expert by any means, but hauling stuff out of gravity wells is an enormous pain in the neck (not to mention in manufacturing, in resource consumption, and for people living downrange). There's plenty of mineral wealth in space, but asteroids are your best bet for that.

      The only reasons I can think of for establishing a colony on Titan are some fantastically rare or valuable resource, as seems to have happened in the game, politics, or serious health problems with living in space. Pregnancy is a huge question mark there. I suppose we could also turn the start-up costs into a matter of firing off some self-replicating factories and a fusion reactor.

    2. With that said, I'd gladly accept the explanation that politics and economics just got screwy enough to allow colonization. Let me think up a few reasons to colonize Titan.

      - To get there before the Russians do.
      - To avoid accusations of claim-jumping from the nuclear-armed tyrant-kings of the Asteroid Belt.
      - A "use it or lose it" doctrine is brought into force after nations have already claimed the outer planet.
      - An asteroid destroys the Pacific Northwest, spurring a frenzy of space colonization.
      - An asteroid destroys the Pacific Northwest, spurring a frenzy of loud and expensive PR moves.
      - Ruggedness. Orbital space stations are just too vulnerable to one well-placed bomb.
      - Kickstarter really takes off.
      - People just get rich enough to buy space colonies. Fellows at the Reform Club who only have sea colonies seethe with envy.
      - Life is found on Mars; science stations pop up EVERYWHERE.
      - Clandestine missile silos. Sometimes second-strike capability is a real pain.
      - After the next World War, the winners find that they need a prison where the losers can't pull a Napoleon.
      - Reality television.
      - A spaceship crash-lands; those left in orbit can send supplies to the survivors, but can't retrieve them, and the conflicting claims on Titan's surface turn into a political charlie foxtrot as half a dozen parties blame each other for trying to use this as a pretext for a land grab. The half-hearted rescue mission is mounted years later and never really amounts to anything.

    3. There is in fact a reality TV show that ones to put up a 1 way trip to Mars...

  11. Colonize Titan in 250 years? The moon is closer, and I don't see any forthcoming lunar colonies for the obvious reasons - prohibitive transportation coasts, survival costs, and sustainability costs. No breathable atmosphere, the gravity is too low, no water. You'd need sufficient renewable resources to support a fairly sizeable group of colonists to avoid inbreeding, too.

    When we can solve the problems inherent in colonizing the most barren, inhospitable regions of Earth, then we might approach the technology required for extraterrestrial colonization. I'm not holding my breath.

    "There is no resurrection, and combat is deadly enough that I suspect I'll go through a whole battalion of characters unless I relax my reloading standards."

    So... until you relax your standards, you're essentially playing sci-fi Wizardry?

    Makes me wonder how those interviews go. "Well, we just lost the last 28 people who signed up, but you know how to use a box cutter to stab people, so I think you'll fit right in with our brand new team. Interested?"

    1. It does feel a lot like a sci-fi Wizardry. I don't even know what motivations these other characters have for joining my party. "Hey! I'm a broke ex-ship captain stuck on this moon unless I solve a nebulous mission that has already claimed the lives of 100% of the people who've already joined me! Oh, and I won't be paying you. Instead, I'll be adding the credits you already have to my pool."

      "Where do I sign!?"

    2. Mars would be the more obvious choice, if it is a 'because we can' colony. Looks to have ice, CO2 atmosphere we could use as an O2 source, not-insane temperature range we can use to make an O2 atmosphere, and it is close.

  12. Titan seems to be a lot easier to colonise than the moon. It has atmosphere, water and minerals.

    As you mention, can probably do a fair bit of geo-engineering on earth before Titan is relevant.

  13. Gideon? Cohaagen? Melina?

    These names seem totally familiar to me, but I just can't recall where I've heard them before...

    (...maybe "two weeks" ago?)

    1. If there's a "Gideon" in the film, I don't remember that, but of course you're right. There are actually more similarities with the film than I originally thought when I was choosing the character names.

    2. Perhaps both this game and the 1990 film have the same source of inspiration: Philip K. Dick's short story We'll Remember It for You Wholesale.

    3. Ugh, I meant to type Richter, not Gideon. Wires crossed there.

  14. An excellent book on space travel: "The Case for Mars"

    The author actually details out why and how to go to Mars, but even cooler is the approach he gives to terraforming the planet for human life. I don't know the feasibility of terraforming Titan, but that would be a great reason to go there.

    Technically it may be feasible to travel there by that time. Especially if projects like the ITER fusion reactor are successful.

    Private spaceflight has advanced leaps and bounds recently (SpaceX, Scaled Composites, etc). Hopefully rich people or political motivation will want to go the moon, Mars, or Titan someday so we can build on other worlds to call home.

    1. That's an exciting prospect. I may check out that book.

    2. You might also check out _The Millennial Project: Colonizing the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps_ by Marshall T. Savage.

    3. The Millennial Project looks great, I'll be buying that one. Thanks for the suggestion!

  15. I'm the same way about disliking having my main character's name assigned. But it's interesting that you don't mind (and generally even expect) that the role, mission, and/or purpose of the character is generally expected to be assigned, and that this doesn't disrupt your ability to internalize the character (as long as the role is internally consistent). It would seem that if we buy into the idea of role-playing someone that we should not object to that person having a name assigned. Yet the ability to name the character does assist with placing ourselves INTO that role.

    Taking that psychological analysis to the next level, I believe it has to do with the power of names as far as establishing individual identity. For example, take the extreme case where you are playing a character that has a defined set of attributes on a narrowly defined mission where there are no true opportunities to change the outcome. For some reason the ability to name that character Chester Bolingbroke makes him YOUR character, whereas having him be called John Shepherd makes him the GAME's character. (This was one of my few annoyances with the Mass Effect series.)

    Mass Effect's approach was made slightly better by allowing you to choose a gender and a first name. It still felt constraining, but they did it in order to allow the voice actors to call you by name: Shepherd or Commander Shepherd. And I acknowledge that over the course of the game, having the voice actors call say "my" name DID add to my internalization of the role, so ultimately I was persuaded that this was better.

    1. I don't have a lot else to contribute, but I think your overall analysis is spot-on.

    2. I think part of it is that you hate being told what to do, right? So being *given* a role to play is fine, but being *told* outright who you are isn't much fun for you.

    3. Actually I am bit annoyed when I have to come up with names myself. It ends up with a party full of silly names like JJ (fighter), Magnum (ranger/thief), C3PO (priest) and R2D2 (wizard).

    4. I almost always name my characters after Addams Family members ;)
      Though I'm quite fine with a preset name and personality as long as I have control over character development (and I have very little love for pre-3rd edition DnD, which does it the other way around).

    5. "I almost always name my characters after Addams Family members"

      I use a variety of naming schemes, some not fit for polite company. But along those lines, I enjoyed naming my AD&D Eye of the Beholder party, though it was constrained by a six-character limit in the port I was playing: DORTHY (human fighter), BLANCH (elven magic-user), ROSE (dwarf cleric), SOPHIA (gnome thief).

    6. That's awesome. I should have done that. I guess I can always go with a Mama's Family party.

    7. Man, you must hate the Witcher series.

    8. And now this post from Mike Mearls is making me feel pretty vindicated (if that's the right word for it, which it isn't):

    9. Haha yep, that was a good call PK.

  16. I, by contrast, recently beat Legend of Grimrock with a party of four characters all named "New Prisoner" because I hadn't noticed that I was supposed to name them at creation, and then I didn't care enough to restart the game.

    1. I use 'Player Character' as a name reasonably often.

      I suppose 'You behind the screen' would be pretty funny in games in which your character is referenced by NPCs

    2. My Characters in Fallout are always called None for much the same reason.

      Naming a whole party of characters in older games (particularly those with classless systems or no portraits ) drives me nuts. Sooner or later I forget who can do what and end up fluffing a skill check.

      I still amazes me that Intergalactic space-herpies spreader Captain Shepard manages to bed alien skanks without even getting to a first name basis...

    3. That reminds me of a bit confusingly named countries in Order of the Stick. There are three countries called Nowhere, Somewhere and Anywhere. Hilarity ensues.

  17. I played this about ten years ago, when it got too easy I stopped playing. I suppose I should have finished it.

  18. Th whole "Here's your character" thing is one reason I don't care for Jrpgs overall. I know that the point is the story they want to tell the story with certain characters a certain way...but I just don't identify.

    My ex-husband and I played this one almost twenty years ago. All the details I remember of it are the ones you've covered. We liked the recruiting aspect and character backgrounds because at the time, we were really into Traveller.

    1. And for me that is the reason I love Jrpgs. I play rpgs for the story and I find the story can be much better done in most cases when you are given a fully developed protagonist fallowing a specific storyline. Although there are exceptions such as Baldur's Gate 2.

      Compare Elder Scrolls Arena versus Final Fantasy VI, both of which released in 1994. Arena has a huge world with a million things to do, but little character interaction, not much of a story and little to no direction. Final Fantasy VI tells an emotional tale about a cast of interesting characters trying to save the world and dealing with the aftermath of failing. Both games are great, but I myself much prefer the driven narrative and focus on character personalities of FFVI.

      Playing yourself versus playing a fully developed character really does seem to be one of the main point in people who prefer western or japanese style rpgs.

    2. I can sort-of understand playing RPGs "for the story," though I've only ever played a few in which the story held a candle to a decent fantasy novel. In the few JRPGs I've played, I've found the story utterly baffling. Perhaps I've just had a bad sample.

    3. It really depends on the kind of story you enjoy. While I do enjoy a good mature fantasy novel, I have a special place in my heart that has never gone away for the trope of the heroic young hero that saves the world and gets the girl. A sort of fantasy balm that soothes the horrors of the real world.

      This is the kind of story that is often represented in jrpgs. Also there are some jrps that do a really good job of presenting a really solid sci-fi story because you get 40 or 50 hours to explain the setting, characters and technology as well as tell a story as opposed to a a few hundred pages.

      For most people though the story of a game won't compare to a novel, but I find the experience different. When I read a good novel I feel like I've read a good story, but when I play a game with a good story I feel like I've experienced it rather than just read it.

      With regards to the posting I would prefer to play the story of a Captain Tom Jetland, down on his luck space captain, then the 100th generic Jonathan Archer I've made over the years who only has whatever background I think up in my head and is never reflected in game. Not that in 1989 the space captain thing would be touched on much either I suppose.

      But in the end, that's just me and its the differences in why people play games and how they prefer to experience them that makes the medium so fascinating.

    4. The JRPG stereotype (Blame goes to Square-enix) features a story that revolves around the characters, whereas Western RPGs tended to focus on the game world (i.e. the adventure).

      The first approach falls apart if you don't like one or more of the characters. The character development is blunt force, and the player has to put up with it or quit playing.

      There is a lot of variety though, so it's not really fair to judge an RPG purely on it's geographical origin. For example BG2 is character focused (but at least you can slap Aerie about and bury Minsc under the promenade), whereas Skies of Arcadia is very laid back and world focused.

    5. @JayArcher

      The problems come when you aren't interested in the particular story or characters in games with such a static story. I very much like stories in games, but I prefer them to be dynamic and react to whatever happens around them rather than the game has a fixed story that never changes an inch.

    6. I like the story part of JRPGs, but can't stand the long hours of grinding needed.
      I recently played Final Fantasy VII and couldn't but feel that it's grinding+cut scenes. Probably because I don't really like their approach to combat

  19. Regarding gambling, one interesting example is Fallout: New Vegas. Being set in and around Las Vegas, they really couldn't avoid having gambling in the game. Since your character has a "luck" attribute, that obviously plays a huge factor, and when I got there (at a fairly high level) I trivially won the games. Or, at least, I won them up until the point that they told me I was no longer welcome to gamble at the casinos.

    So in essence the casinos in FNV become an encounter that you win with your luck attribute instead of your weapons, and provides a fixed maximum amount of money. Below that level you can play and win or lose as your luck score takes you, but you get capped and asked to leave, which neatly solves the unbalancing effects of gambling being too easy.

    Of course, FNV suffers the same high-level economy-completely-broken problems as all of the other Bethesda-based open-world games, but at least the gambling system isn't the cause. :)

  20. I and a group of friends played this to death back at school, but never completed it back then. I picked it up again last year and finally finished it. A bit rose-tinted, but I absolutely love the game.

    You've already recognised that programming is an important skill, and there are a couple more that are essential. One of those is medical - your level in this skill limits the med-kits you can use, and later in the game those high-level med-kits are absolutely essential (until the last level, but I won't give too much away). Another note on skills - the amount of skills you can learn is dependent on your education stat. Once you start levelling people up, you'll rapidly come to the point where you hit their skill ceiling - this is an issue because while there are a few skills that you only need one character to have, there are many others that you really need everyone to have (primarily in weapons and armour). I almost broke my last game because towards the end I didn't have anyone who could train in medical anymore and my party was getting wiped out because I couldn't heal well enough. I had to ditch a member and recruit someone cleverer then train them up in everything from scratch just so I could continue the game (oh, and keep a couple of save games - I always make a separate save before I leave town, because you can easily get stuck in impossible situations in the wilds).

    I totally disagree with the poster who said the game was too easy. Sure, once you've powered up your equipment then Primus is pretty easy, but there are always higher level hunters after you with the same level of equipment, and venturing out into the caverns can be lethal at any level.

    One other quick tip - watch out for area-effect weapons. They can be great, but the AI is not very clever with them. The AI will happily destroy you with a badly aimed blast or wander into an existing damage area. If you're going to use them then it's better to do so manually (which can get tedious after a while). My preference was to avoid those weapons in then end so I could use auto-combat to breeze through the easy fights without any worries. You can always drop back to manual control if things get tough.

    As I say, I hope you enjoy it, it was one of my favourite games as a kid. The actual story/quest part of it is really quite tiny in the end, but one of the reasons why we never finished it back then is because it's quite easy to lose track of what you're supposed to do next and to spend ages wandering round clueless.

    Oh, and one final thing, I really liked the ending...well, actually it's technically rubbish, but it makes you think "ooh, did that what...ah!"

    1. Back in the early 90s I loved to play computer games but rarely had the patience to stick with games that I could not easily win.
      But there where two games that I spent a lot of time on no matter how frustrating it was at times: The Legend of Blacksilver and Mars Saga (the C64 version of this game).
      I loved these games and when I sold my C64 I kept the games themselves, I still have them on shelf here. I doubt the floppies as still readable, though.

      Maybe I should install a C64 emulator and give them a go again...

  21. Just heard about your site from PC Gamer.
    I've loved Mars Saga since I first played it on a C64 that was passed down to me when the owner got a PC. I actually played it a bit recently on a c64 emulator just to hear the music. That's one thing I prefer on the C64 version over the Dos version. As for characters that don't start with weapon skills, just have your other characters knock the enemy down to a couple hit points and then have the character use fists.

  22. Hm, the slot machine combination with the second highest payout looks like the old Electronic Arts logo... The colors don't match (not that EA always used the same colors in their logo, but I don't know that they ever used that particular set), but it's the same shapes, in the same order.

    I mean, this game doesn't seem to have anything to do with EA, so it's almost certainly a coincidence, but I thought it was a bit funny.


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