From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random games back into the light. This week, the Avatar gets his ass to Mars, in an engine that's not exactly aced the test of time, but which still provides one of the most inspired spin-offs ever.
Richard "Lord British" Garriott's Ultima is, was, and always shall be one of the western world's great RPG series. They were the games that brought a sense of morality to a genre that's so often simply about killing anything that's green or has gold, where each new game was both a new quest, and a return to a familiar world whose dawn featured space travel and TIE Fighters and in its golden era waseth stilleth ableth to get away with talketh liketh thiseth.
Also, at one point all your long-term friends from previous games got turned into evil chaos demons and you got to compensate by dressing automatons up in their clothes and leading a robot army against them. This was Ultima. Ultima was very special. Still is.
Then there was Worlds of Ultima, a short-lived experiment that asked "But what if we did something else instead?" A fine question, and two fine answers. The first, The Savage Empire, sending the Avatar to a Doc Savage-type world for a change. And Martian Dreams? It's Victorian. It's sci-fi. And its character creation system is run by Sigmund Freud. Then things really start to get interesting.
The year is... well, that's a bit of a funny one. As with the other Ultima games, the hero is the Avatar—a hero from our world who regularly heads into the land of Britannia to solve its problems, from giving the people a symbol to look up to, to preventing justice being perverted and turned to evil, to ending a race war, to finding each and every person responsible for the iOS game Ultima Forever and kicking them hard in the nearest available genitals. (It's one thing to know a classic series you once loved is dead, quite another to see its corpse being used as a piñata. To play it is to wish they'd taken the license and done something more respectful with it. Like make Ultima Kart.)
Worlds of Ultima also has the Avatar heading into adventure from the modern world, only this time it's via time travel rather than jumping between dimensions. It's also a rare chance to see what he (you can have a lady Avatar, but he's a he for the intro) gets up to during downtime, which turns out to be hanging with Deus Ex producer Warren Spector. Technically, he's actually 'Johann' Spector, but we'll be having none of that nonsense, thank you very much. The two are sitting by his PC, decorated with an Ultima VI poster, when a strange woman shows up with a package containing a photo of them both recreating their favourite scene from Back to the Future 3, and a warning that "The greatest minds of your world and my own depend on you." So, no pressure. Needless to say, the Avatar has no questions about this. That might sound like he's been spending a little too much time tripping through magic moongates, but six and a bit games in, he probably just shrugs it all off as "Wednesday."
What's going on is that back at the Columbian Exposition of 1893, shortly before Rosalind Lutece attached the hot air balloons and it went sailing on its merry racist way, just about every celebrity of the era was having a tour of Percival Lowell's new Space Cannon. This turned out to be exactly as bad an idea as it sounds, with the whole lot of them being shot to Mars. It's now two years later, and in what's unofficially dubbed Operation: Really Bad Idea, Sigmund Freud and Nikola Tesla have teamed up with a cowboy, a doctor, and lady journalist Nellie Bly to head to Mars and find out what the hell happened.
I shall repeat that. Sigmund Freud and Nikola Tesla have teamed up with a cowboy, a doctor, and Nellie Bly to go to Mars. And via time-travel and a signed note from Tesla to himself, the Avatar and Warren Spector have a seat. "Suck on my Epic Mickey, Mike Dawson," mutters Spector to himself, as he belts himself in for one of the greatest game premises of all goddamn time.
Before the adventure though, the Avatar needs a personality. Not much of one, the main criteria being the ability to say "Name", "Job" and "Bye" to people, but a personality. The normal Ultima character creation system involved talking to a fortune teller in a fairground, who asked questions like "A thief steals your wallet but explains when caught that he needed the money. Do you show Compassion by letting him go, or Honesty by telling him you don't care and turning his skin into a nice new leather purse?" That kind of thing. Martian Dreams is similar, only with Sigmund Freud instead.
At this point, the capsule lands on Mars, and it's adventuring time. The awesomeness is unfortunately deflated a bit by two of Martian Dreams' biggest problems: the Ultima VI engine, which is clunky and horrible, and the fact that Mars isn't the most exciting location.
Actually, there's a third. Ultima II was set in our world and solar system, so while there's a bit of a lore-question over whether the Avatar and the Stranger From Another World who appeared in those games is the same guy/gal, there's at least a good chance that everyone else is staring out in wonder at their impossible surroundings while he's sitting back with a magazine and going "Yeah. Yeah, it's pretty cool. Did I tell you about the time I became a Space Ace so a princess would help me time-travel? Like I said, Wednesday."
Martian Dreams makes up for it by going full-bore ahead with its premise. There are expies of the usual Ultima companions, Shamino, Dupre and Iolo, among the survivors, but most are historical names. Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Carnegie, Wyatt Earp, Samuel Clemens... at least they probably haven't been short of stories during their years exiled on Mars. They've even got H.G. Wells, before she got frozen by Warehouse 12 and had it off with Dexter.
And the villain? Rasputin. The mad monk Rasputin. More or less, anyway. He's got his camp, the others have their own, and the two sides are quietly feuding over Mars' surprisingly convenient technology. Oxium for example, which is used as currency, but is essentially oxygen in bubblegum form. You chew it, you get to breathe properly. You blow a bubble with it, everyone shoots a Look. There is air on Mars, so running out isn't as bad as it sounds, but it does mean taking a heavy stat hit while gasping and thrashing around at the inevitable monsters. This is an RPG after all.
Much of what follows is about conducting repairs and the survivors, many of whom seem to have gone completely insane and now claim to be Martians. They're not—insane, that is—and it's soon revealed that something quite clever is going on. Mars is deserted because of a plague long ago, with its proud civilisation of plant people escaping by using their advanced technology to leave their bodies and enter a dreamworld—a self-inflicted Matrix, if you will.
Now that Earth finally has space-travel technology, it's time for them to return to the real world. Most of the Martians are friendly, essentially borrowing the space castaways' bodies so that they can repair the machines that will produce new bodies, with every intention of giving their loaners back the second that they're done. Unfortunately, the Martian who created the plague, Raxachk, has a different plan in mind. He used psychic powers to make Rasputin sabotage the cannon and get everyone to Mars, with his long-term goal being to find all those scientists who sang that the chances of anything coming from Mars were a million to one and shout "Nope!" into their bespectacled faces. Raxachk is a bit of a jerk.
The Avatar of course eats jerks as part of a nutritious breakfast, so an overgrown plant with a Russian accent isn't exactly his greatest challenge. He wastes little time repairing the systems, exploring the ruins, filling up the canals, entering alien nightmares, fighting with the less friendly aliens, and most importantly, fixing the Martians' fabled Fanservice Machine.
Okay. So, what's actually going on here is that the friendly Martians need to get off the planet ASAP, with a mind to immigrate to Earth rather than invade it, while trying not to start the Pale Wars or an underwhelming MMOFPS. The solution is to give them robot bodies with fake skin, with Chsheket there the first trial run. (Sharp observers will also recognise her as the mysterious woman from the intro who got the Avatar involved in this mess by finding the predestination paradox and slapping it around the face and neck until it yielded. Hopefully her nickname doesn't turn out to be "Skynet".)
So far, so good. And despite the change of setting, a fantastic premise for an Ultima game. The Martians have solid cause for what they're doing, and while their methods are a little questionable at times—holding the humans' bodies hostage until they get what they need—it's completely understandable. Certainly, 'wise' Lord British has done much worse, including knocking up his chamber maid and keeping it a secret, having to be forced into a peaceful relationship with a whole race of people whose home was destroyed by his obsession with finding a hero, and of course, making Ultima IX.
Raxachk though isn't in the mood for this touchy-feely crap, if only on the grounds that if you're going to take over Grigori Rasputin, paint him green and give him evil-eyes, you may as well get your money's worth. Hard to argue. He's also the master of the dreamworld, able to do tricks like bringing the demonic Shadowlords (the morality warping baddies of Ultima V: Wow, Did This Virtue Thing Not Work Out) from the Avatar's subconscious. Admittedly, "Behold! The... uh... baddies you already defeated!" isn't the greatest of tactics, but Raxachk has a tendency to rax chks his plans can't cash.
Here though is where Martian Dreams gives its players a big sloppy kiss.
The final battle takes place in the dreamworld, where Raxachk sits smugly behind a magic barrier and taunts the Avatar. This never goes well. Ask Big Red from Ultima VII. Specifically, he points out that while using 'dreamstuff', literally, the stuff that dreams are made of, the Avatar can create any weapon he can imagine, his pathetic world's pathetic technology is no match for his own. A pistol? Doesn't graze it. Elephant gun? In the words of the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom, in which all knowledge is presented for the eyes for those who are worthy to access it: Bitches, please.
Raxachk is pleased about this, settling back for a deep, deep gloat. "Your race will be unable to imagine a weapon powerful enough to harm me for a hundred years or more!" he taunts the Avatar.
Ultimate awesomeness follows in exactly one line's time. Get ready. This genuinely happens.
Raxachk doesn't know that the Avatar is a time-traveller.
SO THE AVATAR SUMMONS AN M60 MACHINE GUN.
Have I mentioned yet how much I love the Ultima series? And this is Raxachk getting off lightly. If he'd pulled this shit one sequel later, the ruler of Mars' illustrious career would have ended with his face in the dirt and his arse being spanked into submission by the Hoe of Destruction. After all, if the dreamstuff can summon the Shadowlords, it can surely whip up Britannia's third-greatest weapon.
(For reference, the top two are a demon-infused blade called the Black Sword capable of killing just about everything if it amuses the demon inside, and he's very amused by killing things, and nappies. Yes, really. In Ultima VII, a soiled nappy was powerful enough to make even dragons flee for their lives.)
With Raxachk defeated, Rasputin is freed from his control and ready to continue living a no doubt long and prosperous life back in Russia. The Avatar then uses Raxachk's supply of unobtanium—phlogiston—to get both the Victorians and the Martians back to Earth, where the robot Martians quietly slip unnoticed into the population and the humans quietly decide that an era with places like Bedlam in it is probably not the best era to start telling this story. On Mars, all civilisation sinks beneath the sands to confuse and annoy astronomers for the next hundred years. The Avatar meanwhile goes home to get ready for his greatest adventure ever: Ultima VII. Ah, sweet, sweet Ultima VII.
Martian Dreams wasn't the only game to tackle this kind of setting, though steampunk and similar never really hit its stride on PC. The closest was Space 1889, based on a pen-and-paper game and much wider in scope. Sadly, it marked the end of the Worlds of Ultima series, with very few games trying a similar approach of taking their franchise and giving it a big spin.
The full story is a little more complicated than all this, but there's no better way to see the whole thing than in one of Nakar's Let's Plays. He's the creator of Steve the Avatar, a sociopathic druid whose genre savviness rarely works out well for those around her. Needless to say, the text isn't exactly a straight transcript, though the details are accurate (and if you want a transcript, there's one here). His LPs of Ultima VI through Serpent Isle are fantastic, going into terrific amounts of detail and breaking the games in just about every possible way. Well worth checking out, especially if you can't handle the fiddly Ultima VI engine. It was hugely advanced for its day, but its day was back in 1990.
If you're in the mood to give it a shot though, both the Worlds of Ultima games are freely available over on GOG.COM. Martian Dreams here and Savage Empire here, complete with booby box art. They're not bad ways to dip into the Ultima series, not least because the settings don't rely on any knowledge of plot points from the main series. Like Ultima fans back in the day, you're stepping into a whole new world and learning the rules on the way in finest RPG tradition. And best of all, there's no way accidentally screw up the personality questions at the start and have to do it as a Bard. Shudder. Bards.