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IFCOMP 2008 - A Martian Odyssey

Game #29: A Martian Odyssey
Author: Horatiu Romosan
(Based on a story by Stanley G. Weinbaum)
Played On: November 15th (1 hour 15 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Glulx)

F:1 + T:1 + P:1 + S:1 + W:1 + B:0 = SCORE: 5

     Game’s Blurb:
     A science fiction text adventure of space exploration and interpersonal communication

     You are D. Jarvis, chemist of the famous crew, the Ares expedition, first human beings to set foot on the mysterious neighbor of the earth, the planet Mars.

     Players without sound -- or with their computer’s volume turned down -- will wonder why this game’s primary file weighs in at fifty megabytes. Several strange melodies (ambient “soundscapes” by composer Thom Brennan) play throughout the game, apparently embedded in the glulx game file.

     After completing A Martian Odyssey, I intended to base my review around several observations. The story seems to take place in an alternate history, where somebody named “Doheny” invented atomic power, somebody named “Cardoza” was the first visitor to the moon, and decades of NASA studies are disputed by its very premise, which is that our neighbor in space, Mars, is teeming with alien life and structures that would be easily identifiable by today’s long-range observation. I was going to applaud the author’s statistical research (although I didn’t verify the numbers shown). I was going to mention that the series of encounters reminded me quite a bit of vintage sci-fi (Hal Clement, perhaps). I was going to point out, maybe, that this would have made a good story back when everything under the sun really hadn’t been written, and when humanity had a more shrouded and mysterious perception of our own solar system. I was even going to suggest that “Dick” and “Putz” are less than flattering names.

     However, A Martian Odyssey doesn’t just sound like something that should already exist. It does exist. Despite a collection of old sci-fi novels and anthologies numbering in the thousands, I was completely unfamiliar with Stanley G. Weinbaum. The story, originally published in an issue of Wonder Stories in 1934, is not protected by copyright and can be downloaded here. (Update: Ha! I do have this. It’s the first story in the 1970 Science Fiction Hall of Fame paperback, edited by Robert Silverberg.)

     So, this review shifts to different points: does this static-to-interactive conversion work here, and does it succeed as interactive fiction in its own right?

     I haven’t read the complete story (although it’s short enough, I probably will) -- I’ve merely skimmed it. But it’s clear that the events on Mars are related by Jarvis to the others after the adventure has ended. In his game, Romosan sticks with the traditional second-person imperative. This makes it more a typical exploration adventure, rather than the frequently interrupted telling to wide-eyed disbelievers that Weinbaum intended it to be.

     Romosan takes inspiration from the story for the game’s few puzzles, but they’re often so poorly clued that the walkthrough becomes a player’s only salvation.

     This, from the original story...

     “Anyway, I rigged up a harness from some seat straps, and put the water tank on my back, took a cartridge belt and revolver, and some iron rations, and started out.”

     ...becomes a puzzle in which I attempted, with increasing levels of frustration, to somehow disconnect and untie the tank from my suit, since the game was adamant that I could not leave with it “connected” or still “tied to” me. I had overlooked the straps in the seat, disregarding them as unnecessary scenery. Even when the thought occurred to me that I might leave with the tank, I found no good way to harness it to my suit. This could have worked, but it needed better clueing.

     And this...

     “...and then I noticed the smoke eddying and swirling past us, and sure enough, there was the entrance!”

     ...becomes an exercise in mind-reading, where a player must deduce that >follow smoke is a viable course of action. This may be solvable just by moving in the same direction as the smoke, but when I tried that at first, the smoke seemed to disappear from the room descriptions.

     Romosan allows players to stray from Weinbaum’s story in a few instances. It’s possible to kill Tweel as early as the first meeting, for instance. I did not play forward to see how that works out, but I suspect there are no circumstances that would force a no-win situation as a result. It’s even possible to die, which certainly wouldn’t have meshed with an after-the-fact telling. This justifies the leap to interactivity, sure -- but at the risk of becoming a different story. This is one of the many debatable points in static-to-interactive conversions. Even if it’s good to allow freedom and flexibility, the game probably should have taken steps to encourage more communication between Jarvis and Tweel earlier in the story. It wasn’t until much later that I even tried, and only then learning it had a name.

     A few implementation problems give the game a not-so-polished feel. Missing blank lines and extra blank lines throw off the layout in places. A “programming error” dealing with distance, when viewing the controls in the downed rocket, seemed the sort of thing that would have been noticed in beta-testing (and for that matter, some of the numbers keep changing). Guess-the-verb was problematic (an instance springing readily to mind is when >enter mine wasn’t the correct action but >down was). Going west from the mine links back to the wrong location (and incidentally, this allows the player to encounter a waving Putz again, even though it’s just painted onto the room text). Too few “things” in the game world (scenery, mainly) are implemented even for basic examination.

     As interactive fiction, A Martian Odyssey doesn’t succeed in the same way its source material does. Underclued puzzles and minor implementation problems aside, it just feels too sparse. Weinbaum got away with it because his Jarvis was skimming over the dull and focusing on the exciting. Told in a traditional text adventure way, though, a player needs more than just one-liners to describe the thrill and grandeur of standing on a different planet for the first time. Do the following passages inspire awe? Not really.

     Crash site
     A barren desert stretches as far as you can see. Only the crashed rocket breaks the surrounding monotony.

     You start cussing the fellows for not picking you up.

     Thyle II
     A desert of soft sand with nothing to see.

     You cuss Karl's cranky motor.

     On the edge of a canal on Thyle II
     Just a dry, green ditch about four hundred feet wide, and straight as a railroad on its own company map.

     As you step into the canal, the green lawn surrounding you moves out of the way!

     Okay, well, maybe that last line.

     Everything just comes across as too bland and rushed-through in the game. That’s not to say A Martian Odyssey the short story couldn’t work as interactive fiction. Only that, in this reviewer’s opinion, it didn’t here. I’ve given it a “1” (half-points) in every category, which scores it a “5” out of 10. I considered the bonus point as well (the ambient music, while not the author’s, was appropriately moody), but didn’t after noticing that my score distribution was pretty “6”-heavy already.

     A minor gripe, saved as an afterthought, is that it isn’t possible to bring Tweel along at the end. The game seemed to hint that it should be, so I spent some time replaying the last few moves hoping to accomplish something more. The end, however, plays out just like the Weinbaum original, so it stands to reason this wasn’t meant to be.

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