This is the second part of The First Open World.
Technically, Mercenary: Escape from Targ (Novagen Software, 1985) was not the first open world. That title probably goes to Ultima (Richard Garriott, 1981) like the Wikipedia entry for “open world” currently suggests. But Mercenary stands alone as representing the open world sandboxes that are big business today. This is why it was critically acclaimed and jumped from the Atari 8-bit to practically every other home computer at the time, even the ZX Spectrum which I had believed too underpowered to support it.
But lest we get too wrapped up in golden age nostalgia, let's cut some of the crap here. Mercenary did not deliver on all the promises Novagen sold to the gaming public.
“To be perfectly honest, I had rather mixed feelings about MERCENARY to begin with. Whilst recognising it's technical merits, I couldn't really fathom the game out even in it's initial stages. I was told (by BENSON) to go to a certain location where the Palyars wouId offer me a job, but I spent literally hours wandering around in circles unable to co-ordinate the directions. And then I discovered how to work the compass properly and everything clicked into place. Now I'm totally hooked on the game. It's brilliant!”
At the end of the last part, we were at an elevator at 09-06, ready to descend into a complex where the Palyars were going to offer us a job. Down we go, into a large chamber.
We don't know, yet, that this chamber is called a hangar. In an awkward design quirk, we only get told room names if we enter from an adjoining room, not if we enter with the elevator. But what is a hangar? Why tell us? What we're supposed to realise is that because a hangar is a place to store craft, there must be a way up. Until you realise that “hangar” really means “bottom of elevator”, you might not know you've discovered other elevators... from underneath.
This is just one example of how Mercenary makes drama out of the most mundane elements. In the absence of explanation, the game becomes a black box in which the player is challenged to figure out cause and effect. I'm not proffering that this is great game design, pioneering game design nor even poor game design. Mercenary is what it is, an object of its time when the ground rules of good game design were being figured out. Hell, this was the cutting edge of the cutting edge: there was no prior art to compare to. Some of its design is ingenious while other parts would likely aggravate a modern audience. Later editions of Mercenary came with hint sheets, having learnt that players often got lost... for a long, long time.
There are three doors out of the hangar and we'll take the rectangular door in the north wall. We emerge in a west-east corridor and just to our left there's a trapezoidal door which is locked like that one we found in the wasteland. Okay, we've established a rule: doors which are not rectangular are locked.
We head down the corridor to the east and pass through a door into a north-south corridor. There are two doors off to the west here; one room is empty, but in the second we find an object and a door marked with a cross.
We pick up the object and Benson tells us it is Medical Supplies. The crossed-door is enticing though. We head through and find ourselves in a small black room... which glows and hums briefly. That's it. So we leave the room.
Right, it's a teleporter. We're now somewhere completely different. There's an object here - when we pick it up, Benson tells us it's a Photon Emitter - and two triangular doors. Two locked triangular doors, that is. There's nowhere else to go, so we jump back through the teleporter to where we were before.
In the next corridor at 09-06, we find a door to the north which opens into a seemingly endless corridor. We follow the corridor because, as explorer-players, we want to check every nook and cranny.
The Mercenary underground feels like quite a different world to that above for several reasons. Each chamber is a miniature universe, with the doors instructing the game engine to discard the current one and make a new one for us to explore. It is visually less impressive because rooms are always rectangular, there are no L-shaped rooms or anything of that sort.
The last reason it feels so different is freedom. On the surface, we spend all of our time in flying machines which give us complete freedom to explore verticality. But whenever we walk, we lose that extra degree of freedom and we can't even look up and down (up and down keys are now mapped to walk forward and back). The underground is about walking from rectangular box to rectangular box and it feels more timid in comparison.
Back to this long corridor. Along its length we find a door with a single diagonal line across it. I'm a bit scared to go into it because I know what that line means having played the game before. A cross means a teleporter that goes both ways, a single line signifies a teleporter that only goes one way. I can't tell whether this one-way teleporter is the transmission end or the reception end without entering it.
One-way teleporters are an efficient mechanism to screw up navigation because you can't come back - you've got to start mapping the area where you end up. Teleporters often boot you across to different underground complexes but you won't necessarily know until you find the associated hangar.
The long corridor is actually in two pieces, with a small chamber bridging the two halves. There's a good reason it's so long. At the other end of it is another hangar, so we must have walked to a different grid location. But where? There's a new vehicle sitting here, so we board it and take it to the surface. That nice long stroll did not take us as far as we might have thought. Once on the surface, we discover we are at the adjacent grid reference of 09-05.
We leave the new car outside because objects and transport, unlike buildings, can be seen from far away. The car will be a useful beacon for the 09-05 elevator instead of having to navigate to it by compass. We can drop all of our objects on the surface if we want and even in mid-air while we're flying around, where they will hang in a rather unreal fashion, revealing how much of the game's physics is composed of hacks.
Back in the hangar, we notice one door is marked with a triangle.
It's not a locked door. This symbol is telling us there are no lights on in the room beyond. If we hadn't picked up the Photon Emitter already we would see something like this on the other side of the door.
As it is, we can proceed. Inside the dark area, there's a star-like object but when we reach for it we just get told “too heavy”.
Mercenary is now throwing environmental features at us rapidly – dark rooms, locked doors, teleporters, heavy objects. Even down here, in this maze of boxes, the game is still earning its open world label. It doesn't seem to care how we attack the game or where we go. If a player hits a dark area with the Photon Emitter in hand, they won't realise the meaning of the triangle-marked door until after they've dropped the seemingly pointless object and later wonder how they turned the lights off in certain rooms which used to be just fine. Figure it out, the game says. I can imagine the modern equivalent of Mercenary making sure the player didn't find the Photon Emitter until after they had discovered a few dark rooms first - but to eradicate player confusion would destroy what Mercenary is.
These kind of black box implementations are still around today, of course, and I'm thinking of crafting where players have to figure out ingredient combinations to make useful things, sometimes through pure guesswork.
We press on and discover a giant triangle. Is it a segment of a Toblerone? Who knows, because when we pick it up, we get the satisfying ping of an object taken but Benson doesn't tell us it's name. In this play session, we're actually lucky: there's a triangle door just round the corner and the association might be just enough for us to figure out the giant triangle is a key.
For all of Mercenary's aspirations to be a world simulator, most of its player puzzles are artificial and arise from obtuse systems. The keys do not look like keys and the game refuses to tell us anything about them.
The room beyond the locked triangle door is both frightening and exhilarating from an explorer standpoint – a battery of teleporters. And on the opposite side of the room, there's another a smaller chamber that has a pentagonal door. Each new lock and each new teleporter builds the impression that Targ's underground network is vast.
We continue searching around this area to find a useless coffin and another pentagonal door. But we're close to exhausting all the rooms behind the dark door in the 09-05 hangar so, just for fun, we jump into one of the teleporters we passed earlier.
The teleporter takes us to... the same room. Hmm, a little odd. We try it again and end up in another hangar. Teleporters with random destinations are only going to add to our mapping troubles. But where is this new hangar?
Going up to the surface, it turns out it's another elevator in the wasteland, at 81-35 to be precise. The complex is actually pretty small. Here's the map I drew.
We find, presumably, another key - the object looks like one and has no name - and a bar of gold. Why are these items stuck out here in the wasteland? I imagine the gold was hoarded away for a rainy day. But by who? The Palyar government? Some rich dude?
There's a teleporter at the back of the gold room and it takes us back to 09-05.
See how easily our mission to go meet the Palyars turned into exploring two different hangar complexes... the first-time player is going to get completely lost. Without mapping, these mazes of twisty little boxes all alike become a bewildering experience. And don't forget teleporters that bounce the player around like the ball in a pinball machine. But in 1985 it was wonderful to be lost in something that seemed so enormous and unforgiving. It felt like you could explore forever, constantly finding new rooms and new connections, that the end was so far away.
Back at 09-05, mapping becomes fraught behind the triangular door on the hangar's northern wall. I'm having to guess the size of rooms from their visual presentation, but there's a cluster of rooms that fill out a space so on my map everything starts to overlap. Take a look at the full map – with a couple of pentagon doors still unexplored.
The most interesting find is a room with an Antenna, because there's a door with a skull-and-crossbones on it.
What do you think every single player in the known universe is going to do with a door like that? Let's save the game first. Because on the other side of that door is... a room with no exit.
If you hadn't saved the game, what could you do to get out of here? In Mercenary, there is no death. You could hit PgUp (CTRL-Q on the original Atari version) and it would send you to the surface immediately with a new ship – and one horrible consequence. Everything you were carrying would be scattered around the city. Because objects act like beacons, recovering everything would be laborious but not difficult.
The prison is the only place where you have to live out this consequence. The only other time you need to hit PgUp is if you've lost a ship to combat, but the smarter player realises that, on the surface, if you drop every item on the ground first then there are no object scattering consequences to the quit command. The original Atari 8-bit version was more unforgiving, because under MDDClone the objects aren't scattered throughout the city, but around one small area. (Although you can't die, you can make the game impossible to complete. If you drop any key behind one of its associated doors then hit PgUp, there's no way of getting the key back.)
We've got the basics covered, so let's speed this up. We head back to 09-06 using a teleporter and wandering around that complex we find more trapezoidal doors as well as their key, a Large Box, a Bank (another featureless empty room) which tells us we have 9,000 credits and, finally, after all this time: the Palyar Briefing Room.
“So far I've explored the underground complex, traded with the Palyars, double-crossed the Mechanoids and ran off with their leader, and I'm determined to escape from Targ if it's the last thing I do (which it probably will be!).”
– Mercenary review, Jim Short, Page 6 magazine #20, Mar/Apr 1986
The Palyars want us to deliver “their needs” to the orbiting Colony Craft, which explains why items like Medical Supplies might be useful to our escape from Targ. They would also be happy if we captured a Mechanoid for them but the big mission is to destroy all Mechanoid sites on the planet but only once we can tell them apart from Palyar sites.
The hardest way to escape the Targ is the most natural method for the modern game: blow up half the city. This is not easy to do because (a) it's completely unclear how we determine site ownership, (b) we'll be under constant attack, (c) we need to reverse any destruction we've already inflicted on Palyar sites – yes, this is a thing you can do, and (d) there are over 200 structures in the city. I'd wager most veterans of Mercenary did not escape this way. But it's clever that the sprawl of the city does have a gameplay purpose beyond hiding the various elevators: it's the key to getting off the planet.
If you talk to the Mechanoids, who are holed up at 03-00 on the other side of a few one-way teleporters, they roughly want the same thing. Hand them what the Palyars want, blow up Palyar-held sites. They don't want you to capture a Palyar because 8-bit wireframe graphics can only render robots not people, don't you know.
“The Palyars are not completely defeated though. The Palyar War Council and the majority of their population live in a colony craft that hovers high above the city. Though a few pockets of resistance still exist on the planet they are easily controlled by the Mechanoids.”
– Mercenary review, Zzap!64 #11, Mar 1986
This is what the game promised – charting your own path between two potential employers. But it didn't take me long to notice that this “world simulator” had collapsed into a series of player-directed fetch quests: find square peg and put it into square hole. It didn't shake my love for the game, because there was still plenty of exploring to do, but the intrigue implied by some reviews and the game's marketing just wasn't there. I see this as the reason why Benson grows so quiet, because your tasks are merely explore, gather and transport.
Even the current Wikipedia entry purports the player is “able to play the warring factions off against one another to the player's own advantage” which completely oversells the reality. All we're doing is finding the highest bidder for a handful of trinkets, maximizing our cash score. There are few consequences to trading with both sides – capturing a Mechanoid is about the only thing you can do to terminate your relationship with one of the factions.
“The adventure turns out to be a scavenger hunt. To escape from Targ, you must collect a number of articles, which you use or sell. You move through a vast number of buildings and rooms, all similar. You can also shoot at things, if you so desire. The endless series of identical rooms become a monotonous maze, whose grip on me (I'm happy to report) was released by a well-placed index finger on the RESET button.”
– Mercenary review, Steve Panak, A.N.A.L.O.G. Computing #50, Jan 1987
Continued explorations will reveal there are actually three solutions to the game, all of which require substantial player investment. You can buy a ship via the 09-06 Communication Room if you manage to accrue 999,999 credits, or break into the Palyar complex with the highest security at 03-15 whose elevator only works with a security pass, and steal the interstellar ship in its hangar.
We are so very far from achieving any of these goals but we are able to take a trip into the atmosphere at last. What I haven't mentioned previously is that there's a white dot floating in the sky above the city, the tantalizing Palyar Colony Craft. Here it is, bracketed by some sights we just acquired in 09-06.
It's not possible to fly to the Colony Craft with a normal craft because it's too high. All aircraft will eventually slow down and stop at a certain altitude, they don't have the power to make it to 65,000. But behind one of the trapezoidal doors in 09-06 is the Poweramp, which boosts aircraft capabilities. That you need the Poweramp at all is, of course, not mentioned in the original instructions.
Back in 1985, that dot in the sky taunted me for weeks, a floating complex begging to be explored. After locating the Poweramp the first time (which I'd learnt was required to reach the right altitude from the hint pages of computer magazines) I was crazy excited to finally take a craft up to that bloody white dot. Let's do that right now.
We hover over the Colony Craft, but it's not clear how we get inside. It looks just like every other wireframe building on the ground. Do we go in that door? How?
But, oh my God, the moment I landed on the Colony Craft and got out of my ship was just incredible. It was just so cool walking around a wireframe box floating high above the city. And, looking back, there was no actual reason for the Colony Craft to be stuck up there - it could easily have been turned into another underground complex. But, no, Paul Woakes put in a floating platform in the sky just because he wanted to.
That's what open worlds are about, the non-essential items, the nice-to-haves.
You climb the mountain because it is there. Not because you need to.
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.