Posted by: Ben | October 10, 2008

if: A Martian Odyssey

(videogame. Glulx. Horatio. Interactive Fiction Competition 2008)

Time to fire up the old Glulx interpreter, then. Haven’t used this thing for about, oh, a year, I’d say. The favoured platform of ten-hour epics that usually collapse under the weight of their own vaulting ambition, if I’m any judge. Spoilers after the cut.

Without knowing Stanley G. Weinbaum from Edward G. Robinson I played this under the impression that it was some sort of super-clever alternate-history science fiction setup. (The author of the original short story is credited in-game, but it isn’t obvious.)

Prior to reading the story:
It’s fascinating but flawed. The opening moments proudly trumpet high production values, from the music (and I’d much rather play an IF game with music than one with graphics) to the confident rocket-crashing introduction. But the interactivity, until very late on, consists simply of going from a to b. The descriptions of the alien flora and fauna are long on colour but short on detail. And it’s impossible to solve without reading the walkthrough. But how can you not love a game in which you crash a nuclear powered rocket while wearing a hydrogen-fuelled, methane-burning space suit?

After reading the story, I rubbed my injured member ruefully as I contemplated how to reassess the game.

It’s natural, when adapting a published work into a work of interactive fiction, to utilise the words of the original author. After all, if there were better words to use to describe the identical situation, the author would have used them, right?

If I was making a movie of the story, I’d want to concentrate on the elements that worked well on the cinema screen. If I was making a radio play I’d concentrate on the bits that sounded good. Somewhat hubristically, the author would appear to have concentrated mainly on simulating the one thing that even the very best IF games do really, really badly.

The theme of the story, as far as I can tell, is communication. A pilot crash-lands on Mars and meets a friendly Martian (called Tweel, even in the game, where you’re the player character so you should be able to call him anything you like). They journey across the plains of the Red Planet together, encountering obstacles and discovering some common ground without ever coming to a complete understanding. The multinational crew of astronauts (pre-War) make it more explicit that it’s a parable about the importance of communication, however halting, between human beings. Horatio seems to see it the same way, which is why the game is billed as “a science fiction text adventure of space exploration and interpersonal communication.”

Here’s the thing, though. Tweel represents more than just every stranger you meet every day of your life. He’s also every single NPC in every IF game ever. He exists in the simulated world in the same way that the player-character does, he seems like an individual with a personality of his own, but you can never quite understand him or make him understand you. He’s Gandalf, Galatea and God (a finalist for the Xyzzy Best Individual NPC award back in 2006, believe it or not). He’s the Platonic ideal of the NPC, and therefore entirely redundant in this medium.

In fact, forget Gandalf. He’s Thorin, except instead of singing about gold, he communicates by farting and tap dancing.

>ask tweel about astronomy

You draw a circle for the sun, pointing first at it, and then at the last glow of the sun.
Then you sketch Mercury, and Venus, and Mother Earth, and Mars, and finally, pointing to Mars, you sweep your hand around in a sort of inclusive gesture.
The Martian points its beak at it, and with a great deal of trilling and clucking, he adds Deimos and Phobos to Mars, and then sketches in the earth’s moon!

(There is no reason to ask the Martian about astronomy in the context of the game.)

So if all you had to do was hike across the wastes of Mars, tolerating your companion, this game might just work, at least as satire. But sadly, the game is somewhat let down by its most conventional section, the final act. Following the story, the PC ends up wandering into a sort of mining complex run by sort of barrel shaped creatures, loses his way and needs to escape. The thing is, players of the game are not going to react to this situation in the same sort of way as characters in the story, and actions that seem logical when you read them on the page are impossible to deduce from whatever clues the game chooses to offer. Especially when your quest finds you repeatedly typing “wait” in the hope that your scheduled rescue ship will land before the barrel-people finish using you as a dartboard.

So no, A Martian Odyssey doesn’t do quite enough to stand alone as a successful game, neither does it add much to the source text. A shame.

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