Novel Nostalgia: Space 1889

Discussion in 'General Gaming and Hardware Forum' started by Endocore, Jul 31, 2013.

  1. Endocore

    Endocore Look, Ma! Two Heads!

    Mar 14, 2010

    (NMA has readers all over the globe, as well as of all ages. In the Victorian spirit of self-improvement, hyperlinks in the text below are offered regarding potentially esoteric notions, largely as suggestions or opportunities of exploration for those who may be a bit foggy regarding, or perhaps have never at all known, some rather important details of modern Western civilization.)

    Space: 1889 is a science-fiction adventure game released in 1990 by Paragon Software, based on a pen-and-paper role-playing game of the same name by the defunct Game Developer's Workshop (GDW). Similar contemporary titles were Ultima: Savage Empire for desktop computers and the original Final Fantasy for NES, and in the era the game was developed and released it fell quite solidly within the CRPG genre as then understood. Only in light of later developments of the genre's depth (e.g., Fallout) do I tag the title with the moniker "adventure game."

    I recently played Space: 1889 for the first time, and I recommend the title to all with an interest in science-fiction gaming as well as to gamers with a general interest in 19th-century history, Victorian and Edwardian literature, Arcanum, or more broadly interest in what may be termed esoteric knowledge and fringe-science. Several years before anyone ever heard of Art Bell, the X-Files, or Tomb Raider, this game explored numerous topics in some detail (ancient astronauts, global conspiracies, sentient subterranean-dwelling lizards, etc) later extravagantly popularized in broader mass-media closer to our own time, but most of which in truth originated no later than in the Romantic literature of the 19th century. The game has a quite compelling plot certain to intrigue any player with such interests; if you enjoy the Indiana Jones or DaVinci Code films, you'll like Space: 1889.

    Space: 1889 system requirements:
    --If you have a working computer made in the last twenty years, you're fine.
    --For most players, using DOSBox will be the best way to play.

    Was Ludwig von Beethoven actually an alien lizard dude? Examine the evidence and decide for yourself.

    The game's setting offers an alternate history of Earth in the latter 19th-century. In accordance with the venerable science-fiction principle "change just one detail of the real world, then work out the consequences," in the reality of Space: 1889 space-travel has been developed in the later Victorian era by Thomas Edison and mankind has begun a rapid process of colonizing all the inner planets of our solar system. Presumably the high dramas of the HM Stanleys and General Gordons of this alternate world have already occurred, and colonial struggles amongst the Great Powers of Earth (primarily the British Empire of that stout Matron ever-clad in funeral attire and the Second German Reich of Otto von Bismarck) have already entered what may be termed the "Cecil Rhodes" phase of more subtle, if no less ruthless, machinations for dominance of the solar system. The game offers a charming mash-up of historical personages from the general era under consideration (from Jules Verne to PT Barnum to Heinrich Schliemann) with entertaining and thoughtful results, even if a few quibbling details are inaccurate (Mary Kingsley was not a blonde bombshell). In general, the authors of the game seem to have been rather refreshingly well-educated on the subject of history, to the considerable benefit of the pseudo-historical game universe and narrative they constructed. The player-characters, stipulated as intrepid British adventurers defending their stolid Empire against nefarious Continental European schemes, explore Earth's history (discovering King Tut's tomb in Egypt) as well as adventure into well-imagined outposts of extraterrestrial civilizations such as Mars (home to an imponderably ancient semi-feudal society of sand-ship riders) and Venus (home to a race of savage lizard-men).

    Though sometimes referred to as such, I don't believe Space: 1889 should be properly described as "Steampunk." Though it does offer zeppelins, ostentatious medals, and steam-power, the game features neither trains, nor clockwork gear devices, nor ray guns, nor corsets, nor pneumatic tubes. In my opinion most of what is lately considered Steampunk consists of little else, apart of course from an admirable work ethic and a committment to quality craftsmanship that sharply contrasts ephemeral consumer-materialist economics. In more profound iterations Steampunk art and literature may feature more rarefied themes (typically a muddled blend of HG Wells, Heart of Darnkess, and anomie), but we ought not be surprised to see Space: 1889 lacking entertainment of these notions either: Gibson and Sterling's seminal genre novel The Difference Engine was published in 1990, the same year Space: 1889 was released. Thus as what have evolved in recent years as Steampunk sensibilities simply were not yet congealed when the game was released, naturally the game does not explore such aesthetics. While in theory a prominent component of Steampunk narratives ought be retro-futuristism, in practice very few and only the best works among those with which I'm familiar even strive for this effect. Most Steampunk is instead unabashed mere anachronism-- thoroughly 21st century narratives, themes, and characterizations gilded with a quaint veneer of odd outfits and antiques, rather like Star Trek but with leather and brass. Perhaps what appealed to me most about Space: 1889, then, was its sincere effort to examine genuine Victorian-era themes; the game is rather like "Colonel Blimp in Space," and I found this approach quite refreshing. Space: 1889 is Jules Verne re-imagined, not HG Wells regurgitated. With its lack of "noble savage" delusions and absence of reflexive visceral contempt for Western history, I greatly enjoyed the game for precisely the reasons some other reviewers loathe it.

    On a relevant note for many readers of this forum, a direct comparison of Space: 1889 with Arcanum is a rather abstruse matter in my opinion. The games are from different eras, and in technical terms an electronic simulation with the scale and depth of Arcanum simply was not plausible in 1990. The games are furthermore concerned with quite different literary themes, and areas of confluence are largely mere coincidence. Arcanum is a sweeping setting, and offers a study in how the historically disruptive changes associated with technological and economic modernization during the Industrial Revolution might have affected a traditional high-fantasy culture. Space: 1889 is about the implications of 19th-century European colonialism and Victorian-era explorers probing the stars. As a game with a much larger scope and offering of content, naturally Arcanum offers a larger stage for role-playing; however this seems a tautology to me, hardly worth discussing. Furthermore as I noted initially, while Space: 1889 was quite solidly within the definition of and expectations associated with the term "crpg" in 1990, the current consensus (at least of anyone likely to be among NMA readers) dictates that if one hears the term crpg, then one expects something rather like Arcanum or Fallout. While I certainly found ample opportunities for role-playing in Space: 1889, in many cases this was because I supplemented the game with my own imagination and knowledge of history. By modern standards, Space: 1889 is as I noted likely to be more considered an adventure game (albeit a complex adventure game) than a role-playing game.

    Perhaps not Steampunk, but certainly Victorian

    In all, my total playing time from start to finish was somewhere between forty and fifty hours. This included, however, a nontrivial amount of time spent drawing maps of planets and towns on pencil and paper (since the game predates the era of handy html walkthroughs, you-tube graphic playing aids, and other accessible internet-based resources).

    As a DOS-era game, Space: 1889's interface is largely what one would expect from any title of that period. Though the game may be played almost entirely with mouse input, I found using my keyboard exclusively was far more efficient; hotkey notation is conveniently visible at all times in the displayed game area, so one need not commit keystrokes to memory. Though the graphics are hardly exciting in today's era of spontaneously-generated hyper-realistic full-motion video, again on this count we must consider the age of the game and if we do so we will find that the graphics were comparable to other first-rate titles of that era and in fact may still inspire a quaint fondness from modern players. A serious deficiency in the game is a complete lack of music, as well as a sparse and poor use of sound effects. Nonetheless in all fairness, though this defect would be intolerable in a game made in this century we should likely be gracious in our evaluation of Space: 1889 on that count-- in taking a few moments to research what exactly was "state of the art" in 1990, I found the following dismal comment:

    In other words, if a game dates from the time when people still typically referred (at least somewhat derisively) to personal computers as "clones" (as opposed to "bona-fide high-quality IBM wares"), allowances must be afforded. As a substitute for a formal soundtrack, one could hardly do wrong in simply listening to Bruckner or Wagner while the game is running to add an immersion-enhancing multimedia element.

    The game's focus is primarily on exploration of the gameworld; as was very common in games of that era, navigation puzzles and mazes are a common pastime. The other focus of gameplay is interaction with nonplayer characters, in both traditional sorts of "find and fetch me this for that" quests as well as several more interesting and subtle explorations of ethical questions. An example of the latter may be found in opportunities to influence Martian politics-- should we work to unite the Martian tribes under honest and effective home-rule in order to make trouble for the German Empire now, even if such a result may make later colonial expansion by the British Empire more difficult? If a rather fiendish apocalyptic cult mistakes us for their reincarnated deity, should we help civilize them by discouraging their strange beliefs or should we instead hand over control to a villain as eager to make use of the organization for her own rapacious purposes as she is willing to pay us handsomely for the reins? Should we prefer as an ally a stereo-typical bomb-tossing anarchist if he's "our anarchist" and willing to help us oppose the Germans, or is the ideal of law and order (shared by the British and Continental establishments) sufficiently more important that we ought aid our foes and assassinate this long-haired hippie miscreant?

    Some of the game's mechanics, as well as the implementation of those mechanics, are likely to frustrate modern players who are accustomed to streamlined content and self-evident or intuitive techniques of interactivity. The combat system very broadly resembles a "real time plus pause" system, and is rather idiosyncratic. In a party of up to five player-characters, the player at all times during combat directly controls one member of the party while the other pcs act according to assigned orders (move to destination tile, attack, parry, etc) that may be changed at any time by pausing the action. Though this form of interface then as now was inferior to a purely turn-based system, nonetheless Space: 1889 does not have the large scale of later games with which modern players are more accustomed. While "real time plus pause" quickly becomes incoherent when two dozen combatants are active on the screen at once, in this game one rarely encounters more than two opponents at a time in combat. The game does not feature any forced random encounters, and the combats required to advance the plot are relatively few and fast-paced. In fact, I believe one may quite accurately say that combat is but a minor component of gameplay.

    The atmosphere on Venus is corrosive to all metals, so one will likely want to resort to Fisticuffs for self-defense.

    In any game billed as a crpg, the character system will be of vital interest to any players. Space: 1889 has a "base attribute plus derived skill" system generally resembling Fallout or GURPS. The weakness of Space: 1889's particular system in my opinion is threefold: the system is overly complex with several skills that at least notionally duplicate the functionality of others; though the game's documentation is quite verbose on the subject of the character system, I felt the documentation was merely talking a lot without saying anything helpful in regard to the inscrutable merits or drawbacks of the numerous parameters; and finally, the player may waste some or all character points for his pcs on skills not actually used one single time during the course of play. Nonetheless, these shortcomings were quite common in games of the era (consider the similarly afflicted but otherwise outstanding crpg Hound of Shadow), so perhaps we ought not judge the matter too sternly.

    The character system, in summary, presents a fairly standard set of six fundamental attributes (strength, intelligence, etc) for each character, with each attribute ranging in value from one through six. The game presents these as sets of six randomly generated numbers with an option to regenerate a new set of values as many times as one desires-- thus practically encouraging players to persist in re-rolling until a truly heroic character is created (all my crew had 5 or 6 for each attribute). I've simply never liked these sorts of randomly generated systems, and feel that if one is to make an investment in roleplaying one ought be afforded considerable latitude in creating a character one wants to roleplay. Otherwise min-maxing and re-rolling for an omnicompetent hero who will indubitably endure and conquer all possible unknowns are the only inevitable results, as evidenced by what I in fact did in this case.

    Each character furthermore has four derived skills related to each attribute (i.e. practical means of expressing the attribute in the game world), each assigned a numerical proficiency value again typically ranging from 1 (inept) through 6 (top-notch). For example, the Charisma basic attribute influences four related skills called: Eloquence (persuasion), Theatrics (deception), Bargaining (with vendors), and Linguistics (understanding foreign languages). The initial value of each skill is derived by various formulae from the underlying attribute, and the player may then further increment these values with a few generic skill points however he likes. One other method to modify skill values is with a career, such as Detective, Foreign Office Diplomat, and so forth. There are numerous predefined careers (some exclusively for males or females), each of which contributes predefined skill point increases to relevant skills (for example, a Diplomat gets extra points in Linguistics, etc). When making a character, the player may either:

    --Choose one career and derive the associated benefits, as well as have six free skill points to spend as he chooses, or
    --Choose two careers and derive the associated benefits, as well as have two free skill points to spend as he chooses.

    The eccentricity of design logic on this count is that all the predefined careers offer a benefit of 5-7 skill point increases in skills notionally related to the career, but if the player creates a custom career he finds that any career may contribute up to 10 skill point increases in skills related to his own conception of the custom career. Therefore there is simply no reason, from a player's perspective, to choose two premade careers (and gain ~10-14 extra skill points, with skill points possibly raising skills the character will not use) rather than make and choose two custom careers for each character (and gain 20 points specifically invested in skills the character will use on a regular basis according to the player's imaginary biography for the character). Players ought also note that while any single career may only raise a skill value by a maximum of three points, the character's overall skill value adjustment is the sum of modifiers for both careers. If career 1 increases Marksmanship by 2 and career 2 increases Marksmanship by 2, then the character's Marksmanship modifier from careers is +4. In other words, good things always come to those who RTFM (or read my reviews).

    One of the fundamental character attributes is Social Class (quite appropriate for a game with a Victorian setting, though sadly not as oft-utilized as one might hope). Regarding the pool of free or discretionary skill points at each character's disposal, the manual makes two blatantly contradictory statements in separate places. The truth of the matter is, characters of high Social Class get more mileage for their discretionary skill points regardless of which fundamental attribute underlies the skill raised by spending these discretionary points. If a character is upper-class (Social 5-6), any skill value is incremented by one for each one-half discretionary point expended; if a character is middle-class (Social 3-4), any skill value is incremented by one for each discretionary point spent; and if a character is lower-class (Social 1-2), any skill value is incremented by one for each two discretionary points spent. In my opinion this rule, regardless of "realism" (reflecting educational opportunities for self-improvement), serves only to discourage a player from making lower-class characters-- which is unfortunate, and rather like arbitrarily saying role-playing Lord Wimsey must be rewarded while role-playing Jim Maitland must be punished. In any case, this is merely yet another reason to hit the "re-roll attributes" button as often as necessary to start off with uniformly high attribute scores.

    Quite what are Whitehall's diplomatic protocols for conferring with Fish Men?

    In practical terms for potential players having difficulty forming a notion of what sort of characters to create for a play of Space: 1889, I felt my own playthrough was successful and satisfying using five player-characters, each of whom specialized in one or more particular areas of expertise. I defined my two custom careers, and spent my generic or discretionary skill points, accordingly for each character. If a character was not meant to specialize in a particular skill, I spent no points at all in raising that particular skill from its default value. My adventuring party consisted of:

    Prof. Plum-- Specialist in Leadership, Science, Linguistics, and Bargaining; imagined as a scholar and gentleman adventurer;
    Rose Rivet-- Specialist in Engineering, Mechanics, and Gunnery; imagined as a female grease-monkey who likes to set off explosives in her leisure hours;
    Ed Drummond-- Specialist in Trimsman (eh, no, not what you're thinking), Fieldcraft, Tracking, and Close Combat; imagined as a haggard mercenary;
    Opal Owens-- Specialist in Crime, Theatrics, and Marksmanship; imagined as a good-natured rogue;
    Dr. Havelock-- Specialist in Medicine, Piloting, and Close Combat; imagined as a physician and sportsman.

    The above group of characters has at least one member highly competent in each critical or frequently-used skill in the game. One peculiar aspect of the game regards operating spaceships. To make most effective use of a spaceship, a crew of at least three is required: one pilot to man the steering column (based on Piloting skill), one navigator to plot a course and keep the instruments aligned (based on Engineering skill), and one fellow to trim or let out the ether sails as required (based on Trimsman skill). The above group of characters fills these cosmic-voyaging requirements perfectly. Another eccentricity of the character system regards the combat skills. The skill called "Close Combat" is used for all attacks rolls, both with ranged and melee weapons, when characters are close to their targets (which is most of the time on the game's tightly-packed maps). Hence the skill called Marksmanship may be better understood as "Sniper Skill," and for nonspecialists a high Close Combat value is to be preferred to sharpshooting.

    One game mechanic I particularly enjoyed was the game's approach to languages. Player-characters have a skill called "Linguistics." A high linguistics skill allows pcs to freely and legibly converse with anyone on any planet; on the other hand when using a pc with low Linguistics skill, the player will be presented with increasingly mangled text as a result of language and dialect barriers to understanding. I've never seen this particular technique (which certainly required a considerable effort of writing multiple versions of each dialogue found in the game) used in this way before, and found it highly satisfying from a role-player's perspective.

    Construct an ether-ship according to your own specifications and budget, then explore outer space in whatever style you prefer.

    One particular mechanic, as ill-conceived as it is ineptly implemented, that cannot be excused is the game's system of interplanetary space navigation. This feature is in fact the primary defect of an otherwise fairly well-made game, even though it presents only a piquant rather than an insurmountable obstacle to the player. The game manual offers pages of description of space travel mechanics, complete with numerous star charts and diagrams of the solar system; unfortunately, it's all nonsense. Apparently the designers intended for players to navigate the solar system using bearings of heavenly constellations, but failed to notice that in the game the depictions of the constellations are so large that they often cannot be comprehended (they span two or three times the displayed gameplay area), and five white-grey pixels mixed in amongst a jumble of grey-white pixels are hardly discernible in any case. The good news is, however, that players need not even bother trying to comprehend whatever specious notion the designers had in mind. Navigating the solar system is quite easy if the player refers to a few simple ideas:

    --The two-dimensional representation of the solar system is fairly small, and one may fly from one side to the other in but a minute or two. If one is currently orbiting Venus, Earth or Mercury will likely be visible at the periphery of the currently displayed area of space when the planets are in alignment (i.e. adjacent along a single line perpendicular to the Sun). As each planet is in alignment with each of the two planets whose orbits are adjacent to its own two times per orbit, if one for example simply flies alongside Venus as it orbits the Sun, then one will sooner than later automatically find Earth and Mercury as Venus comes into alignment with each respectively.
    --The asteroid belt on the far side of Mars completely surrounds the traversible space area. If you reach the asteroids you've gone too far, unless you want to find Mars-- the Angry Red Planet is easily located by simply flying around the edge of the asteroid belt since the orbital path of Mars is quite close to the asteroids.
    --The planets orbit the Sun in a counterclockwise direction, and (because the radius of orbit is larger) outer planets orbit more slowly than inner planets. For example, Earth always "trails" Venus (except when the two are in alignment, which is simply Venus "gaining a lap" on Earth). If one is at Venus, then, heading a short distance outward from the Sun and then simply flying in a clockwise orbit around the Sun means you will sooner than later meet Earth coming straight toward you.
    --As the planets move through the "ether space," they leave wide blue trails of turbulence. Thus if one is at Venus and Venus is on the "northern" side of the solar system, the big blue trail above you will guide you to Earth while the big blue trail below you will guide you to Mercury. Alternately, one could just sit and wait a bit in this or that blue trail, and eventually the planets will come to you during the courses of their orbits around the Sun.

    "My pipe's been empty since we left the moon. You lads fancy a wager on whether we might find a right proper tobacconist on Mars?"

    As I previously quoted Dragon magazine (a rather prestigious gaming publication in days of yore) and happened to have their contemporary review of the game handy, I found interesting their complete lack of comment on this potentially obnoxious navigation issue. Perhaps their reviewer did not play long enough to leave Earth-- or perhaps then, as now, professional gaming journalists simply aren't credible? Rather their reviewer seemed more concerned with a minor detail I found otherwise unremarkable, a lack of labelling for npcs on the world and town maps; I can't recall any other game of the era that featured such labelling, so such a critique seems odd. Beyond that, however, their assessment nearly 25 years ago largely reflected my own sentiments after only last week playing for the first time:

    The game seems to have a fair bit of framework in place for unimplemented content, and some of these unused ideas crept into the documentation and interface. For the record, having played a full game that lasted over 6000 days of game-time, I say to any players: don't worry much about food or fatigue. The "fatigue" mechanic in relation to food is simply not coded, and I only saw evidence of any fatigue record-keeping at all one time when one of my characters was carrying twice his weight in gear-- and even in that case, there was no authentic practical penalty at all (I merely saw an "X is fatigued" message with no performance impact). As there is no relevant fatigue, there is furthermore no need to buy any strength potions or food pills (different from food, but just as useless). Another example is a quite confusing dialogue on Mars:

    The town constable of Moerus says "Welcome to Moerus Lacus, located between the cities of Syrtis Major and Shastapsh." Simply put, there is no city named Shastapsh. Sometime after this dialogue was coded, either the developers decided to change the name of Shastapsh to Moab, or Shastapsh was a planned city between Moerus and Moab that got cut for time or budget constraints.

    My final reservation regarding the game was the taxonomy of combat weaponry. The game offers several dozen authentic Victorian-era weapons characters may use, but unfortunately they're all virtually indistinguishable and in many cases numerous "different" weapons share completely identical statistics (damage, range, etc). This, in my opinion, is pointless and a significantly poor design decision. My experience from gameplay was: eschewing weapons and attacking with fists alone facilitated very frequent attacks of low damage; on the other hand if weapons are to be used, since weapon attacks are slower and most weapons perform identically in practice, one may as well use the weapons that clearly do the most damage. When my characters were using guns, the only three guns I ever used were the Heavy Multibarrel Pistol, the Heavy Double Rifle, and the Maxim gun.

    Mercury is rather uncomfortably hot, particularly when one is dressed in a three-piece wool suit. Note convenient labelling of all hotkeys, which I much appreciated.

    Despite my several criticisms of Space: 1889 I quite enjoyed playing this fine old game, and if anyone else is looking for an interesting retro-gaming experience I highly recommend the title. While the mechanics may not be up to modern standards in a few areas, the game's narrative and characterizations are excellent, with thought-provoking themes. Simply put, the game offers hours of engagement, and in the end that's all that really matters in my book.

    I found no high-quality walkthroughs available for Space: 1889 (few are available at all, and the ones I perused had some errors or were otherwise woefully deficient). Since I made extensive notes while playing the game and as far as I can determine only missed two very minor subquests, if anyone wants to try this game and has gameplay questions, ask away and I'll try to help. Alternately, if anyone else is highly familiar with the game I'd appreciate any comment on the two things I seem to have missed entirely during my playthrough:


    --I was never able to find the statuette of Garuda, and therefore was never able to get (from Hirakawa Nakimatura of Venus) the Japanese codebook wanted by Pai Mi Sunn in Angkor.

    --Allegedly the game features the lunatic Russian svengali Rasputin as an npc. I never encountered him (to the dismay of my two female party members, Lady Opal Owens and Ms. Rose Rivet-- history and autopsy records indicate at least part of the mad monk's ability to inspire uncanny devotion from women was due to his epic endowment in the generative organ department).