Electron Dance
8Oct/14Off

The First Open World, Part Three

This is the concluding part of The First Open World in which we discuss the true nature of Mercenary, the ending and its legacy.

central-city-map

Because Mercenary could conceivably play for ever, there is a save gameplay facility. A winning situation should also be saved, as this will give beneficial entry into "Mercenary II".

– Mercenary: Escape from Targ instructions

Mercenary is a game cleaved into two.

The city and the underground represent its two sides that maintain an uneasy coexistence. The surface has been drained of function, whereas its underground maze game is saturated with it. It's as if a true, borderless open world cannot support anything resembling player agency.

With Woakes' predilection for challenging the player with opaque systems, perhaps it was destined that Mercenary's approach to the open world would eventually fail as a commercial model.

But that view is short-sighted and misunderstands what Mercenary is.   

It's Fun

Although Mercenary has the look of a serious sci-fi game, because nothing spoke highbrow better than wireframe graphics in the 1980s, it is primarily intended to be fun. It’s a vehicle for British humour and also features a hefty dose of slapstick. I’ve already talked about the unintentional feud with the Palyar Commander’s Brother-in-Law, whose room on the Colony Craft can also be visited (and I threw his furniture out into the adjoining corridor).

Palyar Commander's Brother-In-Law's Room

Palyar Commander's Brother-In-Law's Room

Inside the Colony Craft, there’s a door with a skull-and-crossbones. Is it another prison? There’s no way to tell without going through the door. What is a player to do but try it out?

And that’s when I found myself standing in the sky. Oh, I thought as I plummeted to the ground, that’s what the door on the outside of the Colony Craft was for. A pratfall. (The Mercenary segment of my video Eulogy for an Atari Childhood shows the player leaping out of the Colony Craft.)

mddclone-colony-craft-airlock

Some of the Palyar needs are also pretty weird. What crucial item do the Palyars need in their Stores? A “Large Box”. For the Armoury, something that looks very much like a gun is simply named “Useful Armament”. What do they need in the Conference Room to speed along the war effort? They need “Essential 12939 Supply”. While it makes no sense on the surface, this is one of those jokes that Mercenary is legendary for. Because if you look at the 12939 from the other side...

Essential 12939 Supply

What item do you need to distinguish between Palyar sites and Mechanoid sites? Some sort of scanner? A signal identification system? No, a Metal Detector.

Now it’s time I told you about the Cheese. Yes, indeed, we will find “Cheese” early in the game and think nothing of it. After all, there are only two verbs we can use on objects which is take and drop. Ah, but that’s not actually true. Hinted in the Targ Survival Kit, is an aircraft called the “Casper-Hanley Eagle 8SE” and has no picture to accompany it. What acronym can you make from that? CHE8SE.

che8se

The Cheese is an object that we can also board; there’s your third verb. It is the best aircraft in Mercenary. It needs no Poweramp to reach the Colony Craft and is lightning fast. While we could carry our Dominion Dart around if we used the Anti-Grav, it’s just a lot cooler to carry the lightweight Cheese around. Although is it as cool as driving a car off the Colony Craft?

While I’m on the subject, there are a number of objects which resist relocation even if we're carting around the Anti-Grav. Some figured out the only way to pick everything up is to carry around... the Kitchen Sink, which we can find in the Colony Craft Kitchen. Most importantly, the Kitchen Sink allows us to pick up the spider web in the 09-06 complex. Someone figured out that the spider web is a skeleton key so we can throw away all of those individual keys that have been taking up valuable slots in our finite inventory.

I told you this game wasn’t serious. There’s also the fourth-wall breaking advert for Encounter! If we blow it up, not only does Benson chastise us for destroying the “author's advert” but prevents us from leaving Targ until is it repaired.

All Good Things

In the 1980s, I left Targ in a stolen ship. Thirty years on, while I’m playing Mercenary again for Electron Dance, I realise that I may never play it again. If I was ever going to earn my interstellar ship, now was the time to do it. It was time to destroy all Mechanoid sites for the Palyars.

When originally I played on an 8-bit Atari 130XE, I never worked out that the Metal Detector revealed who occupied each site because it changed the colour of Benson’s message window on the Atari version. Those colour changes were invisible on my parents’ old black-and-white TV.

Atari 8-bit version: Message window has colour

Atari 8-bit version: Colour of Benson message window reveals site occupier

I also thought taking down half the city would not be enjoyable as I was always weaving around, never able to keep a ship on a straight course. But the ‘Interlude on Targ’ short story from the Targ Survival Kit hinted that the Sprintcar, the ground-based vehicle we found in 09-05 last week, was the best vehicle for the job. I hadn’t thought of a ground attack before, but it obviously made more sense than aiming at the base of each building from the air.

Last week, after I finished trading with the Palyars and Mechanoids and handing the latter’s spokesperson over to the Palyars, I drove the Sprintcar to 00-00 carrying just one item, the Metal Detector. Once I drop a building, a Mechanoid ship will be out to stop me so I can’t slow down too much for fear of being blasted. I can’t die but the Sprintcar can; it will be destroyed if hit.

It's time to do this.

For the first few rows of the city grid, I slide around as if driving across a sheet of grease, but taking out the Mechanoid buildings is not difficult in itself. It feels a little wrong, at times, to be taking out works of art like Sabin’s Cube or monuments like Tyler Point, because I'm not going to be repairing them afterwards. Mechanoid ships dog me all the way and I get into a routine of jumping out of the Sprintcar at the end of each row and letting the attack pod shoot me - the Mechanoid ships will withdraw once they feel like they've done their job.

But I am slowing down too much for some of the structures and it is only a matter of time before one of the attack pods intercept me during one of these targeting sessions. I lose the Sprintcar and have to rely on Dominion Darts created through the quit key PgUp after that.

In the end, I get the hang of it and instead of waiting to be shot at the end of each row, I simply turning around and head down the next row. But it is taking so long and I panic about what I have to do if the game doesn’t register a job well done: what if I demolished some Palyar buildings earlier but just forgot? What if I missed some Mechanoid structures? I don’t want to do this again.

But there is nothing to worry about because as I am storming down the penultimate row of the city, the Palyars send a message. “WE ARE MOST PLEASED YOU HAVE DESTROYED ALL KEY OPPOSITION SITES. YOU WILL FIND A REWARD INSIDE THE RED HANGAR.”

Thank God. Here’s a video of the whole thing (with a few meanderings edited out), culminating with the reward and escaping Targ. I was a bit miffed I still had to find the Novadrive – that the Palyars couldn’t give me a bloody working ship – but beggars can’t be choosers I suppose.

But just like when I finished it first time, I was sad to leave. All those mysteries drawing to a close. I knew this place.

What happened next? Well, we waited for the sequel but Novagen offered us something else. An expansion pack called Mercenary: The Second City (Novagen, 1986).

The Second City

The Second City is where Woakes admits that Mercenary is about vexing players with a grand, obtuse puzzle. There are genuinely evil changes afoot here and Woakes makes no apology for it. Don’t say you don’t know what you were getting into.

mddclone-secondcity-city-view

There’s nothing “genuinely new” in the game – it’s more a reorganisation of existing assets – but everything feels out of place; although all the same objects exist and there have been no changes to the mission structure, The Second City leaves the player feeling off-balance. Nothing, not even the city, is where it all was, and the game feels more dangerous.

The red glow of the The Second City sky conceals the first surprise. There are now two dots in the heavens. When I first played, I was excited to think there might be two structures floating in the sky but the extra dot turns out to be rather anti-climatic: it's just one of the game's objects suspended in the air.

mddclone-secondcity-two-sky-dots

I had a quick wander around as it has been years since I last saw this place. The Palyars sent me to their Briefing Room, this time located at 08-01. Locked doors block access to practically every room but there's another room just behind the spider's web and it turns out to be – oh.

mddclone-secondcity-prison

The Second City is full of prisons. After I respawned on the surface with PgUp, I headed back to 08-01 and tried using a teleporter instead. It took me to another hangar, but when I went back through the teleporter it dumped me straight into prison again.

There is no way out of the prison without hitting PgUp, which means having to collect our inventory scattered around the city every single time. The triangular door, which might look like a life-raft of hope, is developer Woakes laughing at you. The triangle doors all lead to the author's “cheat room” which is acknowledged in the The Second City's minuscule instructions noting that only the author has the key.

Author's Cheat Room

Author's Cheat Room

The instructions also say the price of Gold has gone up a hundredfold... if we can find it. Oh, I found it, all right. It's in the author's cheat room together with the triangle key.

Another wicked change is that the Palyars and Mechanoids no longer quote prices for goods they desire but instead merely say you'll get “a reward” if you leave the object in their care. Finding the best price for every item is suddenly a lot more trouble. There's also a maze, a room where the wall edges are the same colour as the walls and, in an evil genius move, several locations have been given an almost identical doppelgänger to confuse you.

The Second City was one for the masochists but I desperately needed more Mercenary at the time. When would Mercenary II emerge?

The Sequels

We had to wait five long years. Five long years for... a disappointment.

All those Mercenary players on 8-bit platforms that had kept their saved games around were to discover it was for nothing. The new graphics engine required a 16-bit platform. Damocles: Mercenary II (Novagen, 1990) was only available for the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga. I was gutted.

I did get a chance to see the game in action on a friend’s Amiga and it was jawdropping, bearing in mind that Mercenary had represented state of the art for me. Here's the opening sequence taken from the MDDClone.

Damocles is a colourful environment where everything is rendered solid - even doors have thickness. We arrive on the planet Eris at the start of the game and the landing sequence shows off a water planet dotted with several islands. Every building we see is explorable. Every planet we see during the approach to Eris is explorable.

Wow.

What's the goal this time around? Eris is going to be destroyed by a comet called Damocles in three hours – unfortunately our excursion to Targ has cost us valuable time – and the system has been evacuated. Once again a dead world to explore... and once again this is a game that isn't about violence.

The solid, rendered world of Damocles was not as revolutionary as the original. The Freescape engine, for example, had led to small, explorable solid worlds like Driller (Major Developments, 1987) and Castle Master (Teque Software Development, 1990). But the scope and ambition – solar orbit modelling, anyone? – ensured Damocles was unique.

Driller (ZX Spetrum)

Driller (ZX Spetrum)

Damocles was not the end of Mercenary. Not only were there two expansions released for Damocles but a full-blown sequel called Mercenary III: The Dion Crisis (Novagen Software, 1992). This also took place in the Gamma System, thus saving the Novagen team from having to create an entirely new environment, but it was now populated with people and taxis. This time a politician called “PC BIL” (short for, uh, Palyar Commander's Brother-In-Law) is running for president and you decide to take him on. The Dion Crisis also continued Mercenary's non-violent trend as its focus was politics.

mddclone-dion

What Did Not Happen

According to the Mercenary Site, the Novagen team were working on a PC version of Damocles for release in 1995 but it was cancelled shortly before completion.

Damocles PC article (Edge Magazine, Apr 1995)

Damocles PC article (Edge Magazine, Apr 1995)

No further titles emerged from Novagen and it is possible that the failure of Damocles on PC sealed the company's fate. But where are the modern descendents of Mercenary? Why has GTA III (DMA Design, 2001) become the de facto model for the open world, where killing is the player verb we cannot live without?

I cannot speak for Damocles or The Dion Crisis but Mercenary was eccentric. It required experiment and observation from the player rather than direct action, and some of its puzzles were a little too convoluted for their own good. Consoles took over from the home computers and PCs as the gaming platform of choice and the more cerebral games took a back seat for awhile. GTA III then figured out the how to make a successful sprawling open world on consoles and became the open world template. It has more obvious appeal to the mainstream gamer as it does not abandon its players to heartless, bewildering systems.

I don't want a modern Mercenary remake, because that's missing the point. Looking at its lineage, it feels like we lost something important, an entire game genus snuffed out through industrial evolution. The closest to the Mercenary template I can think of in recent years is survival game Miasmata (IonFX, 2012) where you are let loose on a vast island with little help.

I suspect if Novagen had not closed its doors, Paul Woakes would have continued to iterate on the open world concept and perhaps Mercenary would have blossomed, fostering real alternatives to the GTA III model. But this did not happen so we have what we have. Cars, guns and big explosions.

Paul, wherever you are and whatever you're up to: we miss you.

Footnotes

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.

If you get stuck, you can have a look at the official Targ Survival Kit or, if you really just want to complete the game, a walkthrough.

Download my FREE eBook on the collapse of indie game prices an accessible and comprehensive explanation of what has happened to the market.

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Comments (10) Trackbacks (0)
  1. “And that’s when I found myself standing in the sky. Oh, I thought as I plummeted to the ground, that’s what the door on the outside of the Colony Craft was for. A pratfall.”

    Oh no, not again!

  2. I won’t deny the apocryphal story of the bowl of petunias was on my mind!

  3. Fun stuff – I had Mercenary on the Spectrum but don’t remember a lot about it apart from the cheese! I did love the Freescape games though – first-person environmental puzzle solving seems to have made something of a comeback lately.
    The single game that made the biggest impression, though, was Cholo. From what I remember its areas reset when you crossed the boundaries, so I’m not sure it counts as an open world, but it was phenomenal – a big and interestingly varied world to explore, the ability to take over different robots with different abilities, indoor and outdoor areas, the odd bit of laser-cannon action, a few hacking puzzles and a main task to be solved systematically – and all this in 1986. No wonder I’m easily disappointed these days.

  4. First of all, love the PEPSI joke. These people have my sense of humour.

    This was one of those series that grew on me over time. At first I didn’t think much of Mercenary, except that it was damn impressive to manage an open world in 1985, before there was such a *thing* as an open world. But the whole thing seemed a bit… diffuse? Spread out? Intimidating? Basically, it felt like I wouldn’t enjoy the game much, since I lacked the secret knowledge (or time needed to acquire said knowledge) to get everything out of it. I guess I still feel that way.

    But, god, that “what if” at the end… Part of the reason I’m intimidated by Mercenary, I think, is that it’s a game unlike any I’ve played before. It seems to be built out of a totally different logic, a totally different set of axioms and design principles. As you say, I simply cannot conceive of an open world without combat. Skyrim? GTA? Assassin’s Creed? Even something like the Metroid games, which aren’t exactly open but are on the same sort of scale.

    Actually, wait. Knytt. Knytt is an open world game with nothing but exploration. It’s lovely. Everyone, go and play Knytt right now. That’s an order. You can scurry up vertical walls while exploring a gorgeously imagined alien world. It’s just perfect.

    http://nifflas.ni2.se/?page=Knytt

    But, anyway. I guess I just have this problem, having been programmed to think of violence and action as interchangeable in games, as necessary filler, as an essential backbone. Yes you blow stuff up in Mercenary, but it’s a wholly different approach to, say, Skyrim, where most plots revolve around “kill the thing” and the space in between things to kill is reliably populated with smaller things to kill. It sounds like Mercenary is a game with several modes: flying around mode, walking around basements mode, and killing things mode (used rarely). Whereas in most open worlds there’s only one mode – the “kill things” one – and the map is really just a series of fluctuations in that mode – here is an optional killing, here is an easy killing, here is a killing area with a reward at the end, here is a quest in which you are told to seek out and kill this thing.

    I guess I’m just really interested in the idea that a game can be fun but give violence a backseat. I know it’s true – I’ve played dozens of games that exemplify it, that don’t rely on violence. But I’m still surprised by it every time, because there’s this little bit of the mainstream industry in my head that says “Ooh, just splash a bit of combat in there, it’ll bind everything together nicely”.

  5. Ah, it’s been a crazy few weeks trying to get this Mercenary series written up. And this weekend I just got knocked sideways by a new cold and my Windows hard drive going bad. So apologies for late responses here.

    @Phlebas: I was annoyed that I couldn’t play the Freescape games on the Atari 8-bit – I had some fun with Driller on a friend’s ZX Spectrum. We were starting to see why 3D worlds were going to be big, but development was slow with everyone reinventing the wheel most the time – there was no such thing as a common 3D library back then, was Freescape the first?

    I think it’s okay to count it as an open world even if the areas reset. GTA III doesn’t have that much permanence to its world so I don’t think persistance is a critical feature.

    @James: It’s an interesting point that because Mercenary is so alien, we have no prior knowledge to fall back on, no education to speak of. The latest GTA-a-like will be familiar: we know the story mission structure, the hidden side-missions in vehicles and special locations. KILL 30 HAITIANS! I’m hoping to get an longform interview up soon which will get into the nitty gritty of some of these issues.

    But 3D is a big deal. They were plenty of 2D open worlds but the switch to first-person makes a huge amount of difference, where we’re suddenly talking about “immersion” and “being there”. (I played Knytt some time ago, and I remember the kind of game it was, but my memory of it is extremely vague…)

    In my short dabble with Damocles, I could fire weapons from piloted craft, but they did not collapse buildings any more. I’m not sure if this was a technical limitation, logical limitation or even developer change-of-heart. I don’t even know if it’s possible in The Dion Crisis at all. Mercenary’s shooting is almost incidental, as you can tell; the game could have easily been designed without it.

    As I said, Miasmata is the only 3D open-world game I can think of that doesn’t feature violence (from a player verb point-of-view). It’s nothing like Mercenary, of course. Mercenary reminds me more of Douglas Adams Sci-Fi if anything, I’m sure it was an influence.

    “Ooh, just splash a bit of combat in there, it’ll bind everything together nicely” – that’s a relative of the old chestnut “what a beautiful environment, if only we could DO something in it!” FUEL, for example, feels like a world clamouring for *something to do* in it. But FUEL is awesome for just driving around. FUEL is peppered with things to do, but none of it feels essential or vital.

  6. What about that Zineth game, as a 3D open world no-violence game? I should maybe try that again.

    Knytt is not for Macs, alas. I’m a bit worried that Knytt Underground will turn out to be too big and sprawling (lots of people thought The Great Work was too small but I was beginning to think it’s too big).

  7. Just ran across this thread again and I was wrong about Knytt Underground; it is big and sprawling and AWESOME. The difference with the Great Work is that TGW isn’t really open-world–there’s only a couple of things you can do at any time, really, and at one point there’s a puzzle involving the whole map which basically means lots of backtracking. Whereas, though Knytt Underground has some quests that take you far across the map, there’s always other stuff to do on the way, and the game design encourages you to (perhaps temporarily) abandon quests and set other goals. Not to say there’s not a lot of fairly uneventful traversal, but you can usually go somewhere else if you’re tired of backtracking. Anna Anthropy had complained that Knytt Underground was padded but I think you need a big design to achieve this effect.

  8. I started Knytt Underground last year I think but barely got anywhere. Something about its openness prevented me from starting it up again, a Skyrim-type feeling. GAH THIS IS TOO BIG IMA NEVER GONNA FINISH

  9. Would it help if I told you that finishing isn’t the point? (And if you do want to finish, you can do so without exploring more than, eh, maybe half the map.) Try to find the bell that’s nearest your starting point and there’ll be something about that. Almost the first thing I did after that was to start wandering off in a fairly counterintuitive direction, and it wound up being in the spirit of the game.

  10. Hi Matt – I’m not sure it would help, really. It’s just that feeling of enormity. I run from that all the time these days. I intend to go back, but I intend to go back to a lot of games… Pretty much the decision on what games I play these days is a process of luck and shallow psychology.


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