Sunday, June 30, 2013

Mines of Titan, Ship of Theseus

Dumping off a dead body in a nightclub.

Mines of Titan has a perhaps unique approach to the idea of a "party" and associated character development, though I don't necessarily mean in a good way. You get so much experience from combat, and combat is so plentiful, that it's relatively easy to train each character to the max in skills and attributes in short order. At the same time, combat is so lethal that you're bound to lose even the most experienced characters occasionally, requiring you to recruit and train another if you want to avoid too much reloading. The game seems specifically designed for this dynamic, as without it, your characters spend most of the game not undergoing any development.

Quaid is eager to learn; there's just not much I need him to learn.

Oddly, the existence of the "party" seems to continue despite the replacement of the original members. If a previous character broke into a computer terminal and saved $5,000 by hacking the transport reservations system, the party will still have the reservations even if none of the same party members are with you when you arrive at the speeder terminal. The same goes for access to the "war room" (the only place to train on automatic weapons, arc weapons, and battle armor). Quest points that you've already experienced remain experienced. It's very odd.

Sneaking into the war room.
I've rotated through about 9 characters since the first posting. Gideon is still going strong, and is trained to the max in everything I would possibly want to train him in. Everyone else has been replaced a couple of times. I've found it impossible to keep all six characters alive at any given time. Eventually, I settled on four as the optimal number; there's less distribution of experience that way, and it cuts down on the length of combat (I'm 95% certain that the number of enemies that appear is based on the number of members in the party).
Increasing stamina at a "personal development institute."

Even from the beginning, I allowed myself to reload if my entire party was slaughtered--you lose all your money if that happens, and money is a precious resource for training and equipment. Also, towards the end of this session, I started playing a part of the game that takes place far away from the cities, and I decided to allow myself to reload during character deaths in this area; it would simply take too long to walk back to a city every time I want to replace a character.

Plot-wise, a lot has happened since my first posting. I've been to three of the four cities on the moon and I've solved (I think) most of the quests. Here are the higlights:

1. Computer hacking. I got Gideon's "Programming" skill up high enough that I was able to hack into a computer terminal and accomplish a bunch of things, including:

  • Access to the "war room" for training.
  • A bunch of classified documents that suggest intelligent alien life forms have attacked the city of Procenium and have infiltrated the mines; hence, the loss of contact with the city and the announced shut-down of the mines. This attack might have been provoked by an agent's killing of one of the creatures. The creature itself is reported to be a "small reddish-brown sack that resembles a partially-filled rubber balloon."

  • Information about how to reprogram "golum armor," which is normally customized for each individual. I haven't found any golum armor yet, though.
  • The ability to modify police records to remove fines and warrants.
  • A back door into the "speeder reservation system" where I can make reservations without having to pay the $5,000 it normally costs.
  • E-mail exchanges between systems operators at different cities, arguing about one's hoarding of an "interface card."

2. The missing specimen. I traced some pink footprints in one part of Primus and found a group of dirty cops who had stolen the specimen from the library.

They fail to kill the witnesses.

In a long combat that left Benny dead, I defeated them and recovered the specimen, which had fallen from its bottle during the fight. The specimen--clearly one of the sentient creatures, or at least a part of it--absorbed itself into my hand and gave me a vision of what had befallen it, with a group of "incompetent scientists" vivisecting it. I recognized the leader as the Surgeon General of Primus.

3. Cybil Graves. The owner of the munitions shop, Cybil Graves, had asked me to go to the surface and find a group of Nomads who were supposed to give her a box. The Nomads, you may recall, are ex-convicts from the cities who have somehow found a way to survive on the surface. I found them with only a few minutes of wandering around.

The Nomads gave me a device that directed me to Cybil's box, as well as the entrance to some underground caves. I explored them a little but found the monsters fairly tough, so I returned to Cybil and got my $4,000 reward.

That seems ominous.

She soon appeared among the police bounties, "wanted dead or alive," for having "aided the outlaw nomads by running guns and ammunition" and "attempting to release a toxic gas into the Parallax air ducts."

Much later, I found Cybil in an armor shop in Parallax, trying to buy armor for her Nomad friends. I got annoyed with the game in this section. There was a scripted set of screens in which Cybil offered me $4,000 to let her go and I weighed the offer in comparison to her $3,000 bounty. See what the screen says:

Would it have been that hard for the developers to allow me to decide whether to accept her offer, turn her in, or "do both"?  This seems like a role-playing choice that shouldn't have been taken away from me. In any event, I shot her, turned her in, and got $7,000 from the whole deal.

4. Warring SysAdmins. Okay, the game calls them "SysOps," but that was before it knew any better. In accordance with the e-mail exchanges I hacked, I got a quest from the Progeny SysOp to steal a prototype interface card "devised to crack any computer system" from the Primus SysOp.

A rare role-playing choice in the game.

I went to the Primus office, and I had three choices: try to buy the plans, take them forcefully, or talk him into giving it to me. I suspect the first option would have worked with more administration skill and the third with more charisma, but I didn't have either, so I just robbed the guy. It got me wanted by the police, but I hacked a computer terminal and removed the bounty. When I returned the card to the SysOp in Progeny, he gave me a "prototype terminal," but I'm not sure what that did for me. Perhaps it would have allowed me to hack stuff if my hacking skill wasn't already so high.

5. Miscellaneous Progeny Quests. There were two quests on Progeny: helping an armor shop owner named Herb figure out who'd been breaking into his shop, and finding a wanted criminal who was hiding in the mines. Neither required any role-playing choices; I just wandered into the right places and watched as a series of narration and cut scenes left me victorious. I did get some good money and a couple nice sets of battle armor for my troubles, though.

6. The Alien Conspiracy. A few events came together to depict what I assume is the main quest. When I visited a hospital, a grotesquely burned man somehow divined that I knew of the aliens' existence and shouted at me to "stop these fools before it's too late!" He said that someone named Clinton Cain knew how to find the entrance to their home.

I found Cain by accident in the university in Progeny. He related that while collecting specimens on the surface, he came across a creature that had been wounded by laser fire. The creature "touched his mind" and revealed itself as a "member of an ancient race that does not have any written language or tools," using mental powers for everything. He further said that humanity's actions had "caused them to think of our race as a hostile force that must be eliminated."

Getting the main quest.

He suggested that if I find out what happened to Proscenium, I might be able to stop it at the other colonies and "save Titan." He set my "finder" (I guess the box I got from the Nomads) to direct me to the relevant caves and bade me good luck. I suspect it's pretty obvious what happened at Proscenium, so I don't know how going there is going to help, but whatever wins the game.

Solving these various quests involved visiting all three primary cities: Primus, Progeny, and Parallax. They were relatively indistinguishable from each other, all having the same look, services, and enemies.

I have no idea why the game felt it was necessary to put so many computer terminals near each other. You have to use them basically once in the game to get the hacking information, plus maybe a few other times to get speeder reservations. One per city would have been fine.

I moved between them on speeders, which normally cost $5,000 per trip but are free with my hacking abilities. When you go from one city to another, you have the option to take a "window seat" and see the terrain fly by as you zoom along.

All cities delivered up plenty of opportunities for combat, though later as I developed my "administration" skill, I was able to avoid a lot of them. Choosing between tactical combat and computer-controlled combat is tough. 95% of the time, the computer does fine and all my characters survive, but that means 1 in 20 times, someone dies. To ensure survival, I viscerally want to be in control of the battle, but to be honest, I lose characters at a greater frequency than the computer does. Thus, I either have to watch my guys die with no control over it, or I have to take control and more thoroughly ensure their deaths.

Here, I'm trying to use the terrain to bring them to me one by one, but it never really works. I keep getting into situations where they can shoot me from around the corner, but I can't hit them.

More random notes:

  • It appears that your skill level with weapons and medical equipment defines what you're allowed to buy. As my skill with handguns, rifles, and automatic weapons rose, so did the available choices in the stores. More important, as my skill in medicine rose, so did the medical devices I could buy. Characters with a high enough skill can by "Medkits" and automatically heal the entire party after each combat. Very handy.
  • The game has an infrequent "copy protect" mechanism. When you try to train in advanced weapons in the war room, it occasionally asks you a question that you can only answer by looking at diagrams in the manual.

I like to imagine my party members frantically paging through their notes at times like this.

  • I couldn't role-play any of the quest-related stuff, as above, but this is apparently the game's idea of a "role-playing choice."

What kind of deviant says "yes" here?

  • The caves are full of steam and lava traps, but it's mostly just a waste of time, since my characters with medical skill immediately and automatically heal everyone anyway.

Basically, this does nothing but slow my progress through the caves as I have to pause and read the message.

  • The screens in which your party moves as a unit are essentially identical to BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk's Inception, the previous Westwood/Infocom offering. In fact, many of the interface elements of this game are identical to BattleTech.

As I close this posting, I'm stuck in the caves. Every few steps, I have a tough combat with a series of alien creatures capable of inflicting mass damage.

My party bathes in a sea of chemicals shot by the creatures in the lower left.

Throughout the caves, I've encountered those red balloon creatures. Some of them have granted me a vision of unlocking a door. Others grant me a "mental ability" but these manifest themselves in items that I can pick up, including a "Render," a "Synapse Beam," a "Mind Melt," and a "Reaver Rifle." I assume some of these are weapons, but other than the rifle, I'm not sure what classes. I'll have to experiment.

I was playing part of this game in an airport. You don't want to know what "small, reddish brown, partially inflated rubber balloon" made me think about.

But I'm stuck. The only way out of the caves, other than the way I came in, is a passage surrounded by four chemical vents that he game won't let me pass. I've tried all of my items here to see if any of them will work, but none of them do.

It's possible that I missed something in the cities or I need to be wearing some special kind of armor to pass. Either way, it's a long trek back to the cities, and I'm not looking forward to it. I wouldn't mind a little hint here if there's some way to move forward without returning to civilization first.

As you may have noticed, there are plot elements here that are similar to Total Recall (the REAL Total Recall), especially given that the original game, Mars Saga, was set on Mars. We have a shadowy, profit-motivated corporation running things through corrupt "agents"; an outcast class (mutants in the film, Nomads here); a hostile exterior environment; and rumors of ancient civilizations. But the game precedes the film by a couple of years. It's possible that the developers were influenced by Philip K. Dick's We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, on which Total Recall was based, but the story doesn't really have all of these elements. It's much more focused on the "hidden memory" aspect. It may all just be a coincidence.

I'm looking forward to seeing what I find in Proscenium, if I ever get there.


  1. It's been over a decade since I last played this, but I believe you can pick up golum armor by killing police officers (the highest ranked ones) in the third city, possibly in the other two cities too. It's the best armor in the game and there is no real consequence that I recall, other than officers being one of the hardest enemies in the cities. And if you don't have Medkit Cs yet, they are capable of healing party members completely.

    I never did beat the game however, so I'm afraid I don't recall how to get past that part. I think you may be able to enter one of those vents, or be able to rearrange your party formation somehow (might be thinking of magic candle though). I'm looking forward to you beating this game though :)

    1. I have a bit of a role-playing objection to killing police officers. Fortunately, I got through the game without the armor.

    2. In Deus Ex, I had a role-playing objection to killing the typical soldiers on either side of the conflict.

    3. Luckily Deus Ex gives you lots of non-leathal combat options. Can't you do the whole game without killing anyone?

    4. I have the same objection to killing police officers in video games (I like being a good guy). I remember a few years back, I was playing GTA 4 with a friend and he literally grabbed the controller out of my hands in a fit of nerd rage because I refused to shoot the police!

  2. "I have no idea why the game felt it was necessary to put so many computer terminals near each other."

    If nothing else, it's probably realistic.

    Bizarre that the game forces you to stab Cybil in the back.

    Apparently it's a real pain to find what you're looking for in the vents.

    1. While I was about to write you to ask you to be more explicit, I just tried screwing around, and I finally found a way to get bumped around by the "trap" vents until it put me on top of the access vent. What a dumb mechanic.

    2. You'd think there would have been ways to implement that 'puzzle' that weren't so immersion breaking.

    3. Pretty sure you got through via a bug. You never found the remote detector, right?

    4. After I won, I looked at a walkthrough, and it looks like the "remote detector" is the same thing as the "prototype terminal" that I got in Quest #4 above.

    5. The Cybil scenario seems prime for choice, but drops the ball. Do you have the option to remove her bounty and warrant, or is that skill only for yourself? If you can remove it then I wonder how the later scenario plays out.

    6. Unfortunately, I didn't check, but I'm 99% sure the option only works for the party. Being able to remove bounties for NPCs would be a level of roleplaying and choice this game just isn't capable of.

  3. 'Oddly, the existence of the "party" seems to continue despite the replacement of the original members.'

    - Not really, lots of games do this. Key inventory items and quest flags are stored centrally to prevent players losing them or repeating quests for addition rewards. Some of the Gold box\M&M titles allow you to replace the entire roster, it's just more apparent in Mines of titan due to permadeath.

    A lot of older titles worked on very strict memory requirements, so it made sense to store quest flags centrally rather than 4-6 times.

    1. The quest flags make sense. After all, SOMEONE completed them, even if it wasn't any of the current party members. And frankly, they're still spending the reward money. I have more of a problem with things that should have been specific to the characters somehow applied to the whole party. The same is true in, say, Curse of the Azure Bonds, when you can replace everyone after the game has started, but they still have the bonds.

    2. Maybe they just found the dead guys wallet\diary\ID\reservations\severed hand or something and figured they'd play along. - I quess the designer could include an explanation, but would you really want to sit through that more than once?

      If you're replacing a character chances are it's because you've made a mistake (or were unlucky), the designer has to weigh up if it's worth punishing the player further for the sake of realism.

      It's kinda like playing a PnP game with a reasonable DM. He'll let a few things slide to keep the game flowing.

  4. That "role-playing" picture comment makes me think about how Richard Garriott included hostile children in just about every game starting from Ultima IV, knowing that people would go to great lengths to avoid killing them even though the game itself would make no judgement (or in Ultima IV, it would even ding you points for valor for fleeing the battle!)

    He was clearly some kind of RPG Nietzche.

    1. "What kind of deviant says 'yes' here?"

      I'm reminded of people on the GOG forums complaining that GOG sells the censored version of Fallout where you can't attack the children.

      What kind of deviants? Sadly, a significant percentage of gamers. :^/

    2. In their defense, the children steal from your inventory whenever you walk past them...

      Now, you would think "Doesn't that make the censored version better then?"... except that the censorship job was extremely lazy. They removed the children models... but the scripts are still there. In the original version, you could at least steal back your items. In the censored version, you have invisible children, "talk" and that take your items that you can't interact with, thus making the player wonder if it's some kind of bug that makes their inventory items disappear at random.

      Plus it's not like killing children is without consequence in Fallout. According to the game it's about one of the worst things you can do, making everyone hostile against you.

    3. The 'Child killer' trait was awesome. - Well, not for the player, but it's a good example of a gameplay deterrent and a developer handing the concept in a mature fashion.

      As for the censorship, I thought they just used the patched UK version*? A bunch of quests are screwed up - Anna's bones, and the Mr Nixon doll one due to the missing characters, but I've never seen items go missing in over 20 plays.

      * I'm not sure about the rest of europe (GOG is Polish), but the UK is pretty sensitive about the idea of killing kids in video games. They banned handguns over a school shooting in the mid 90s, so no-one's going to risk getting a game banned for the sake of virtual kiddie murder.

    4. I'm not sure whether it's strange that you can't kill kids or strange that you can kill people you gain nothing from killing.

      It seems like you should be able to kill everyone, or only those it makes sense to kill. ie If we're gonna have senseless violence, might as well go the whole hog.

  5. "If a previous character broke into a computer terminal and saved $5,000 by hacking the transport reservations system, the party will still have the reservations even if none of the same party members are with you when you arrive at the speeder terminal. The same goes for access to the "war room" (the only place to train on automatic weapons, arc weapons, and battle armor). Quest points that you've already experienced remain experienced. It's very odd."

    How's it odd? If the game made you do everything again, you'd be bitching about it. It's a computer game, you're "the party".

    1. "Adventurers, party of five, your table is ready...Adventurers, party of five..."

    2. I imagine this is what the "Ship of Theseus" in the post title is referring to.

    3. First of all, the CRPG Addict does not "bitch." He points out glaring flaws in games. In this case, the flaw is that the game specifically says that the war room program downloads data on your CHARACTERS, so it doesn't make sense that I can wander in later with completely different ones.

      Also, this renders the programming skill somewhat useless after you've already hacked the computers once.

  6. "5. Miscellaneous Progeny Quests."

    "5. The Alien Conspiracy."

    Clearly The Quest to Solve Chester's Problem with Counting was not one of the games you completed.

    1. The problem is, I insert things later and forget to re-number. I need to remember to add the numbers only when I'm finished with the items.

    2. This is why LaTeX rocks:
      \item Miscellaneous Progeny Quests.
      \item The Alien Conspiracy

      and then it does the counting for me.

      While we are on this topic: 'Characters with a high enough skill can by "Medkits" and'

  7. Not sure if you've done this yet (just going by your screen grabs) but you can, and will have to, rearrange your party positions when wandering around caverns in order to get past rocks in your path. It always annoyed me - not sure why they didn't go with the single icon representing the team in these situations.

    I literally just commented on the previous post before this one appeared, but it looks like you're strolling through the game so won't need any help. I'm especially amazed how far you've got without golum armour, I always found that essential before venturing too far out of the cities.

    1. Another quick thing. You've already started limiting your party to 4, and I think that's the optimum. We always used to play with a full party when we were kids, and I think that's another reason why we never got very far.

      Also, I don't remember those gas vents being such an issue - either there's another exit, or I just blundered through it. (It's not mining skill related, is it? A decent mining skill helps avoid some of those evil cave-ins.)

    2. Ben, I wish I'd read your comment a few hours earlier. It would have saved a lot of frustration. I agree with the difficulty navigating the caves, and I didn't figure out how to rearrange the party until very late (the option is unhelpfully called "combat order"), but it was one of those otherwise-unpassable rocks that made me hunt until I could find it. I agree that a single icon would have been a lot nicer.

  8. For that hacking example it would help a lot if someone noticed the disappearance of your bounty (the guys that was robbed for example) and a day later it would reappear with a much high bounty.

  9. The party replacement methods cinches what I thought earlier. Not only are they using the Traveller RPG rules as their basis, but they are running it like it was a table-top campaign.

    There are ways to cheat death/ressurect those who died, but they are made expensive to keep people from just playing recklessly. There needs to be some consequences to big risks or completely stupid actions (I tell him just because you're a dragon doesn't mean you get to push me around). Or sometimes combat just goes badly. A player whose character is dead is stuck unable to play (usually), so the next best thing to resurrection is letting them create a new character and just jump back in.

    It comes down to gameplay convenience trumping narrative:

    Secondly, the system is definitely Traveller. I think I yammered about it for a while back with Star Command; the most obvious reason is Education as a major statistic, plus your health being the combination of the 3 physical statistics.

    And then character creation is starting with 18 year old blank slates and running them through 4 year segments of careers. It gets them a backstory and skills, and can provide a starting place for characterization.

    The system is normally designed to allow 2 ways of skill improvement- either training by spending game-months learning on a skill, or from bonus points at the end of campaign sessions. Skill points can only be applied to skills that were used during the campaign session. But any computer version tends to end up focused more on combat (which computers can simulate easily) than skill checks/diplomacy interactions.

    Since they aren't doing the long-term training (which would be pretty boring), and they used a lot of combat, it ends up back like most other DOS rpg's, where combat ability has to trump everything else in priority.

    1. There were not many SF RPGs back in the day, and considering everyone stole from D&D, including stupid, stupid things like AC going down, I'm not really suprised that steal from whatever was around, even terrible, terrible systems like Traveller.

  10. Just a quick comment to show everyone that, unlike AmyK, I am still alive here.

  11. Theseus, eh?
    I just completed The Aethra Chronicles (a game you can look forward to when you reach 1994), and as I checked on Wikipedia if there was an article about it (there isn't) I found another article about an Aethra from Greek mythology, who was the mother of - you guessed (or knew?) it - Theseus.
    Small world.

  12. The "personal development institute" where you can train up your stamina reminds me of the gym and aerobics room in Sentinel Worlds I. I wonder if you'll like this game any more than that one. I know you've finished the game by now, so I'll keep reading...

  13. Yay, commenting on a 7 year old article! But... describing an alien as a "small, reddish brown, partially inflated rubber balloon"? I guess someone in the Dev team must've been a fan of John Carpenter's "Dark Star" ;)

    1. I was just about to comment on the same thing, but wanted to make sure I wasn't repeating what someone (i.e., you) had already said.

  14. Interesting that the number of fists is itemised as 2 in your inventory. Makes me curious about whether this ever varies, e.g. due to mutation or disability. I suspect not.

    1. Unlikely but we've seen games where "number of fingers" is a variable stat with gameplay implications


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