This is an appendix to the Where We Came From series.
For Mercenary, author Paul Woakes, has created what can only be described as a world simulator. The first release using this technique is sub-titled "Escape From Targ".
– Mercenary: Escape from Targ instructions
Paul Woakes’ debut title on the Atari 8-bit home computer was a tense and memorable re-imagining of Battlezone (Atari, 1980) called Encounter! (Novagen Software, 1984), using vibrant raster graphics instead of the flickering green wireframes of the Atari arcade original. It quickly became a favourite for Atari owners who liked their action games to be fast and responsive.
Shortly after, hints of Woakes’ followup title began to seep into the news sections of computer magazines. What could Atari owners expect next from a developer whose first title had conquered the action genre?
A first-person 3D open world offering intrigue and complete freedom to explore a planet.
Mercenary: Escape from Targ (Novagen Software, 1985) is one of four key titles that defined virtual exploration in my early, formative years of computer gaming. Along with the seminal Atari console game Adventure, (Atari, 1979), Ultima IV: Quest for the Avatar (Origin Systems, 1985), and the unfinished, ridiculously ambitious Alternate Reality series (Paradise Programming, 1985-87), Mercenary invited you to explore a world that only existed inside the electronic brain of a computer.
It's important to grasp the context in which Mercenary emerged.
Three-dimensional graphics were not new. A decade earlier, the original Maze War (Steve Colley, 1974) was able to challenge a player to escape a 3D maze, using some clever shortcuts in the design to reduce computational cost: the maze was made of square tiles; the player was only permitted coarse movement, stepping from one tile to another; the player could only face in a direction aligned with the tiles, no free rotation was possible; open areas could not be rendered meaning the game consisted solely of narrow corridors.
This implementation was so cheap that it would turn up again and again in videogames over the years. Richard Garriott championed it in the Ultima series, with dungeons being represented as 3D mazes and there were even examples on the relatively underpowered hardware of the Atari 2600 console such as Escape from the Mindmaster (Starpath, 1982). Dungeon Master (FTL Games, 1987) picked up the torch and, even today, the tile-based maze game has seen a revival in Legend of Grimrock (Almost Human, 2012).
Environments where players had full 360º freedom were far less common. We've mentioned Battlezone but it was preceded by Star Raiders (Atari, 1979) which pulled off a free-roaming 3D space dogfight using raster graphics, juggling a handful of objects on screen with just 8K of memory. Paul Edelstein’s Way Out (Sirius Software, 1982) might have been just another 3D maze game but it embraced open areas and allowed the player full rotational freedom. Its split screen two-player sequel Capture the Flag (Sirius Software, 1984) went a step further with dynamic music.
Others were working on more sophisticated 3D implementations. Bruce Artwick had started working on the monochrome Flight Simulator (subLOGIC, 1979) in the mid-70s, which used wireframe graphics to simulate the world. Artwick's sequel, Flight Simulator II (subLOGIC, 1984), had both colour and a smattering of buildings with full surface rendering like the Statue of Liberty.
But mention “vector graphics open world” to anyone who was alive during this era and it's far more likely the BBC Micro game Elite (David Braben & Ian Bell, 1984) will bubble into the conversation than any other title. It sported full-on wireframe graphics with surface occlusion and attached it to a massive procedurally-generated universe that boggled the mind of the average 80s gamer.
Here's the thing: Elite is like an interstellar subway system of planetary islands connected by hyperspace jumps and does not offer the sort of contiguous, explorable space that FSII does. Some of us were logging a lot of hours in the apparently torpid experience of FSII, flying between US landmarks and along jagged shorelines. I did not care so much for simulated flying; learning how to take off and triangulate my position was a means to an end - to find what was out there.
We imagined far more than the software presented and glitches in the fabric of airspace gave rise to weird folklore, like a pyramid hanging in the sky, inexplicable ground features and what happens if you sail off the edge of the map.
Which brings me, finally, to this: with Mercenary, developer Paul Woakes asked what happens if we took the “simulator” out of FSII, showered the world with stuff to see and gave the player a goal. It is an ancient precursor to the authored open worlds we have seen over the years in the AAA space, with GTA V (Rockstar North, 2013) and Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011) being well-known recent examples. However, modern open worlds are heavily dependent on violence as the method of progress whereas Mercenary – like other avant-garde games of the era – does not consider shooting things to be all that important. Mercenary is a secret box game for the self-directed player.
I have been planning to write about Mercenary for a long time. Originally I was going to interview Paul Woakes and do a short piece on Mercenary for the Where We Came From series, but like everybody else in the videogame world I was unable to track him down and the idea was put on ice. Just as I was contemplating writing something on Mercenary again, Eurogamer beat me to the retrospective punch a few months ago.
But this is no retread of nostalgia lane. I want to take you on a trip to the planet Targ, explaining why Mercenary should have been important instead of sinking without a trace.
Here I'm running a modern PC implementation of Mercenary called The MDDClone (Unknown, 2007).
We're witnessing an in-game cutscene. Our interstellar craft, the Prestinium, is en route to Gamma-Five for some undisclosed work. The stars in space are the closest we get to a title screen as Woakes has handed the game to us unadorned. Such restraint suggests both confidence and an aspiration to something greater than merely blasting aliens to pixel bits.
Yet it is a strange design decision. The game could be purchased on cassette tape and few would sit around and wait for the game to load; no title screen meant the game could start while we were out of the room.
The next thing we know there’s a malfunction and we are heading
Benson, a ninth generation PC, is the players communications link and interface with the total environment.
– Mercenary: Escape from Targ instructions
“Benson” is our in-game computer companion who is initially very chatty. Just as we hit the ground, he switches the ship to manual control as if to escape culpability and then chides us with “good landing” or something similar. Next, he rattles off some thin exposition: we’ve crashed on the planet Targ, and there’s an ongoing war here between the Palyars and Mechanoids – and, hey, look there’s an aircraft conveniently sitting right here at the crash site.
The Palyars are the natives and the Mechanoids are the invading force. But “Palyar” is a minor permutation of the word “player” which suggests the plot is just... players versus machine. (Aside: A more contemporary interpretation of a videogame would be players pitting their wits against the game’s developers.)
This careless framing suggests our stay on Targ will be light on narrative meat. I cannot deny that Mercenary has little plot, and the badly-written short story “Interlude on Targ” that was later released in an attempt to retcon in some depth that did not exist in the first place was never going to remedy that. But do not be fooled; Mercenary is rich with environmental narrative and mysteries with no clear answers.
We’re at an airbase at location 08-08 and Benson pushes us to buy the Dart for 5000 credits. We only have 9000 credits. If we wait, Benson continues to prompt and wonders if we intend to walk everywhere. So is there a real choice here?
It’s not signposted but there is. We can steal the Dart. There’s nothing stopping us boarding the Dart and making off with it. As soon as we do, of course, Benson announces that this ship belonged to the “Palyar Commander’s Brother-in-law” and the Palyars launch a ship to intercept us. Attack craft magically pop out of the airbase and if we don’t take off quickly, we’ll be blown away in seconds.
So up we go and when we spin around, we can watch the attack pod come out to greet us.
But death has no place in Mercenary. If we screw up and the pod blasts us out of the sky, we crash to the ground unharmed, minus one ship. As it’s quite likely we would be stranded in the middle of nowhere and Targ is just too big to be walked around, hitting CTRL-Q on the keyboard will summon up another Dart for us. It’s not entirely consequence-free and I’ll come back to this muuuuch later.
No one would play Mercenary for the joys of aerial combat, but we have weaponry and can eliminate the threat. Once the pod is dispatched, it’s time to explore.
The planet Targ, has one major area of habitation, surrounded by an vast wasteland. This 'city' has a road network linking hundreds of fascinating structures. There are a number of subterranean complexes both beneath the city and beyond.
– Mercenary: Escape from Targ instructions
We go north-east and hit our first road at 09-07. We spy an unremarkable box building, but more interesting is that dot hovering in the sky above the landscape to the west. We head towards it and take note of the sights along the way.
The excitement of a vector graphics city rendered in real-time is tempered by the realisation that there’s only one building at the centre of every location node. Back in 1985 this was exciting but already we would have twigged the city was sparsely populated.
However, the dimensions of the city ensure we never quite feel confident about knowing it. It’s so big we can get lost in the vast green spaces between buildings and easily veer off course if we’re not used to the compass. I played on a small black-and-white television back in the 80s and the Atari 8-bit rendering of the compass used colours to indicate direction, so I was screwed from the get-go. The version implemented in the MDDClone dispenses with colours and instead offers a full 360 degree figuration.
At 08-07 is one of the city’s famous landmarks. It’s called Bosher Stadium. How would we know this? Does Benson tell us? Yes. We just have to blow it up first.
Firing a missile at the base of a structure will cause its wireframe to collapse to the ground and Benson will then tell us if the building had a name. Virtually every named building will spring an attack by the locals.
Long-time Electron Dance reader Ben Schroder once told me he enjoyed what I wrote on Dishonored (Arkane Studios, 2012) and he skewered the Heart with a term I instantly loved – he called it the “exposition gun”. I feel some kinship with Mercenary’s weaponry: only by destroying buildings can you find out anything about them. How about that for some creepy foreshadowing of how bullets are the only way to tell stories today?
The player can occupy various types of flying craft and ground-based vehicles and is able to walk about. This total 'freedom of movement' facility creates a very realistic experience given Benson's interpretation of events in three-dimensional vector graphics of stunning perspective. Every player will enjoy the exploration of Targ.
– Mercenary: Escape from Targ instructions
For a three-dimensional world, Mercenary would have been defeated by the graphically superior Rescue on Fractalus! (Lucasfilm Games, 1984) one year earlier, which featured fractal-driven rocky crags to fly around. But there was character to the world of Mercenary, and some wry British humour – for example, the Palyar Commander Brother-in-law’s house can be found in the City, which you only discover if you blow it up.
But there’s a graphical shame that runs through Mercenary which sometimes afflicted games of the era. With all the talk about computers being the future and the so-called realism of computer simulations, there was a fear of admitting abstraction, a guilt that games do not resemble the real world. The game instructions effectively tell you that Benson turns the world into a videogame because it’s an easier way to deal with reality. That’s right. Benson is Jane McGonigal.
Mainstream games have never thrown off this fear and, even today, continue to descend further into the dark and dangerous waters of photorealism.
As I eluded earlier, Benson falls quiet once the initial exposition is over. I begged the game to tell me more about the world but all I had to go on were the structures themselves, their locations and relationships to each other. I spent a lot of time in Mercenary flying around and flying theories about whether an important-looking building was actually important, constructing my own interpretation of Targ.
Targ is another dead videogame world, of course. There’s no real explanation in the game or instructions as to where the Palyars or Mechanoids are. Aside from one exception, we meet no one physically. Filling worlds with people is of course extremely hard and creates even more uncanny valley shame for developers: chairs are not expected to have reactions, but people are.
The formerly peaceful inhabitants of Targ, the Palyars, are now in continuing conflict with the usurper Mechanoids, an alien race of robots. The Palyar Council are housed in the comparative security of their Colony Craft - a defensive stronghold in orbit above the planet. Remnants of Palyar forces form pockets of resistance within the city.
– Mercenary: Escape from Targ instructions
War is essentially the cover for the population going into hiding, but it doesn’t add up. The novelty of the Mercenary experience and being able to explore a virtual world and go wherever the Hell we wanted prevented these questions from developing into a problem. If anything, it made the game more mysterious. I often suspected the population were actually milling around but Benson didn’t render them as they offered neither value nor threat. If true, it means the Benson-outfitted player was almost certainly one of the Star Trek Borg.
We hit the edge of the city then follow the road south towards the dot. What are these crazy places? This structure at 01-09 looks like a rocket or a dart of some kind – is it just some dreary office block or a place of exquisite beauty?
Finally, we catch up with the dot. Guess what. It's another Dart flying around.
Whose ship is this? There is only one way to find out which is to shoot it. If we did, we would discover this Dart is the Palyar Commander Brother-in-law’s ship as well and shooting it down will earn the ire of the Palyars again.
But let me leave you with one little clue to Mercenary's sandbox nature, because little is signposted in the game. If you’re really good at exploring the distant edges of the Mercenary’s mechanics... it’s possible to capture this ship and fly it around. Like I said, Mercenary does not consider shooting things to be all that important.
Okay, let’s do something else now. Let’s fly out of the city into the barren wasteland. Is there anything out there?
Note one of the location co-ordinates has turned red which means it’s a negative co-ordinate. The city is contained within a 15 x 15 grid and we've just tiptoed over one of its edges.
But what are the three white dots we can see? The dot in the middle is the airbase with the crashed Prestinium. Another is the Palyar Commander's Brother-in-law's ship we were following around. What’s the third?
At 12-13, it’s Jordan Airport and the dot is this small car. We can take the car instead of the Dart but it’s slow and ground transport feels more disorienting than flying.
Let’s fly back out.
Right, we might now ask what the Hell is that dot outside the city?
At this remote location, there's this... thing. Thirty years on and I still have no idea what this is supposed to be. It doesn’t seem to do anything. It looks like a drill or possibly a rocket. Maybe it's an ancient monument? But the author clearly wanted us to find it outside the city. Why is it here? What does it mean? I wasted a lot of time trying to cajole static objects into doing something signficant. Do I regret that time? No. It was part of the open-world mystery and even today I still squander time poking at modern open worlds like GTA, trying to prise out their secrets.
Let’s zoom back out and – wait, another dot?
We're very far out now. The second remote dot turns out to be a pyramid. Again, the game offers no explanation for what this is. You can’t do anything with it. I’m guessing it’s meant to be some ancient pyramid, an indication of an ancient race that once dwelt on this planet.
Okay zooming out again and... yet another dot far from home. Perhaps the real purpose of these dots are breadcrumbs the developer has laid for us to follow him out into wasteland. Back in the day, I spent a long time mapping the wasteland, worried I had missed some vital clue, some puzzle piece which would solve the narrative mysteries of the Targ landscape. I wanted to find every secret structure out there. Things no one needed to find but would make fine stories to tell.
Like this one.
Out here, in a location so remote the co-ordinates collapse into asterisks, we find...
An elevator in the middle of the wilderness!
Elevators provide access to the underground which, as you will discover, is where we will spend most of our time in this game. Hitting “E” on the keyboard activates the elevator and we descend into a secret complex far from the city.
It does not take long to explore, though. In the main hangar, we find a new craft. We will be leaving with this as it is much faster than the Dominion Dart we stole.
In the adjoining room there is an object that looks like a carton of milk. We pick it up using the “G” key and Benson informs us it is “Winchester”. The next door out of here is oddly-shaped which turns out to be... LOCKED.
It’s tantalizing. A locked door? What’s behind the locked door? Where is the key? This being a computer game we assume we will find a key somewhere. But our exploration at this desolate place has come to an end already.
Let's fly back to the city in our new craft.
It’s about time we started figuring out a way off Targ and now I need to explain the consequences of the Dart theft we carried out earlier. If we had bought the Dominion Dart, the Palyars would have followed up with a job offer, summoning us to their briefing room at 09-06. However, stealing the Dart means they are not inclined to offer us anything.
So we’re going to head to 09-06 because I know from previous experience that’s where we’re meant to go.
And it’s here the adventure really begins.
How can I play Mercenary today?
Just go to the excellent Mercenary site and download the MDDClone from there. Check the included readme file for instructions how to play. The original Mercenary instructions can be found on the site as well.