Wot I Think: Tharsis

Tharsis is a turn-based spaceship crisis management game. It’s out now, and it’s cruel as hell. You should play it, and here’s why.

OK, take the crew management side of FTL. Not the shooting, not the random consumption by space-spiders, not even being sucked out of airlocks or burned alive. Just that central dilemma: what should everyone be doing in any given moment in order to prevent everyone else from dying? Blow that up into an entire game. No, not the boardgame Space Alert, although that’s pretty good too. Tharsis is about crisis: ongoing, terrifying crisis. That it does this by primarily being a game about dice rolls is what makes it extraordinary.

You can call it Gravity: The Game if you want, although aside from a few superfluous and annoyingly repeated cutscenes it essentially eschews melodrama in favour of utilitarian decision-making. For instance: the life-support system is damaged. The food module is damaged. The maintenance bay is damaged. You have four crew, each of which can go to just one place and perform a small handful of actions each turn. They are all wounded. Moving through damaged areas of the ship wounds them further. At the end of this turn, if nothing else has changed, the ship will take six damage. It currently has four hit points. What are you going to do?

Roll a bunch of dice and swear a lot, basically. I know This Year’s Thing In Game Design Discussion looks set to be arguing about random number generation (in the same way we had the debate about formalism last year), but Tharsis is an elegant case for the defence even if it does nothing to redeem the exploitation of, say, ARPGs. Because the nature of the game is crisis, things going randomly wrong – or, less frequently – well is part and parcel of the fantasy, not just another Skinner box. If you’re going to hit a pipe that’s leaking poisonous gas with a hammer, expect consequences. 

Yeah, you’re regularly going to fail through no fault of your own because sometimes the numbers relentlessly go wrong, but you’re roaring through space on an exploding ship. The odds were always going to be massively against you. If you can’t buy into the idea that only extreme luck will save you from certain doom, then you’re going to hate Tharsis.

It does a good job of carrying itself like a strategic game, but it is absolutely a chance game. Knowing it well helps, but it won’t be enough to save you if two rooms suffer 28 damage simultaneously or everyone rolls all 1s and 2s for an entire turn. If you can, enjoy the ride into hell.

True, a slightly flat presentation that can’t make its mind up as to whether to look like a videogame or a boardgame means much of this fantasy has to come from within rather than without, but I’m far happier with that than having to watch a little hammering’n’explosion animation several dozens times over. Tharsis is pure dice-rolling in its way – you pray, pray, pray for a certain result, then cheer or curse at the result. Mostly curse, because even on normal difficulty, Tharsis is a slow train to doom.

Making one decision – i.e. where to go, and whether to spend your rolls on straight-up fixing damage or trying to activate one of the various crew or room special abilities – almost always comes at a cost. Fix up the maintenance bay and, sure, the ship’s taking fewer hits at the end of the turn, but the broken valve in the life support module means all the crew will lose health. Or, because you haven’t sent anyone to harvest food from the greenhouse, you’ve no way of feeding your guys – which means you can’t replenish their dice rolls next turn.

Tharsis is about being in a rolling state of mental anguish, knowing that every positive action you take is also sowing the seeds of your own destruction.

So why even embark on such a journey into darkness? Well, because the little wins feel so triumphant. Because keeping on top of things, even for a short while, makes you feel like some sort of strategic genius. Because, after learning the game well, once in a while one or two of your crew might survive all ten turns. And if they do, you’ll be rewarded with new crew members for next time around, or you’ll feel ready to tackle the tougher difficulty, even though tougher than this seems like an impossibility.

Also, it does dice really well. They sound good. They rebound off the sides of the screen. They sometimes totter and roll just that little bit before settling, and you’re holding your breath because, just for a second, it looked like a 5 but then Oh God No it’s a 1. It’s about the moment of the roll, the action of it, not just the number at the end. And this overcomes the dissonance of nothing else in the game looking like it’s a board, as though you’re for some reason rolling dice onto an upturned monitor.

Twin dramas, then. The drama of being aboard an exploding spaceship, the drama of praying that your number comes up, and I think it nails them both. It’s short,  it’s brutal to the point of unfair, and I haven’t even mentioned half the things you need to manage, because I don’t wish to either spoil or overload you.  

The thin storyline around it is entirely superfluous, I’ll admit to tiring of the spaceship looking identical every single time I play and it’s fair to say there’s less motivation to keep on going back once you finally beat it, but even if you only get a few days out of it, right now the price is right.

Tharsis is out now for Windows and MacOSX. It’s discounted by 34% on Steam and Humble for the next five days to £7.25/$9.89 and £6.92 respectively, so now’s the time to grab it if you’re interested.

43 Comments

  1. Boomerang says:

    Gaming’s thing-du-jour seems to be misery, if the success of games like FTL, Dark Souls, etc are anything to go by. On one hand I applaud it (if something is too easy, where’s the achievement), but I game for fun!

    • popej says:

      So do I and Dark Souls is the most fun I’ve had in almost 30 years of computer games.

    • thetruegentleman says:

      Dark Souls isn’t nearly as hard as people make it out to be; its reputation mostly comes from when people had no idea what they were doing, and thus kept trying to smash square pegs into round holes.

      This game, by contrast, is just chaos.

    • ShawnMcCool says:

      This is a game of crisis mitigation. So long as you realize that you’re not in real danger, then the amount of stress that you have is determined by your perspective.

      It helps me to remember that the core of the game is being presented with a set of bad options and just trying to do my best. I am competing in the scoreboards globally and with friends (if only they played).

      My wife and have been sitting at the same computer playing and sometimes the situation is so borked that we just laugh.

      The game does a good job of managing the player’s anxiety; something that I imagine will only improve as the game continues to be developed. But, what you expect from the experience has a lot to do with it.

      • Diatribe says:

        The game also isn’t as hard as everyone is making it out to be if you’ve played similar risk management games before (e.g. BloodBowl).

        It is a game of chance the same way Xcom is a game of chance, or FTL is a game of chance. There is chance involved, but the core strategy is mitigating the risk involved with the chance such that even poor results can be managed and are not catastrophic. I’m not sure why people are so much more up in arms about dice on the screen than they are about a random number generator in the background.

        I’ve played normal twice, and beat it twice. So either I’m “incredibly lucky” or I know how to mitigate risk properly. I’m probably going to go home tonight and beat it again on normal on my next try. Or I might move up to hard and give that a shot. Interestingly, the ending was different each time I beat it.

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          colinmarc says:

          I can beat normal most of the time now – have played it about 15 times in total. I think the biggest trick is just realizing you don’t need to solve every crisis every turn. The game can be way easier if you let the less-bad crises (which show up at the beginning) linger instead of being replaced by terribad crises. Damage can be mitigated by repair instead of solving the damage, etc. And turn 10 shows up pretty quick.

          However, I haven’t gotten even halfway in hard mode.

        • Kitsunin says:

          Yeah, on normal difficulty it doesn’t seem that hard really. I’ve only played once yet, but I won having lost two crew (one early as the fifth turn) and never utilizing cannibalism. I can even point to very obvious mistakes which led to the deaths of those individuals i.e. it wasn’t a slow decline leading to necessary sacrifice, just a misstep.

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      gritz says:

      I think the trend is less about misery and more about meaningful choice and consequence. We usually think of C&C in narrative terms (CYA), but this trend is more about supplying those consequences to non-narrative systems and procedural elements.

    • noodlecake says:

      Different people find different things fun.

      I like a huge range of different types of games, some of them incredibly easy and chilled out, and some incredibly difficult and intense.

      I’m loving playing Nuclear Throne at the moment, picking the character who only has 2hp which means almost any stray bullet will kill him in one hit, but he has the power to explode any corpse on the screen whenever he wants which is awesome!

      I still haven’t gotten massively far with him and the game makes me shout expletives at the TV but it’s great fun and you can have about 15 runs and think lots of time has passed and you look and it’s only half an hour later which is a great feeling.

      I also like a whole lot of very easy games where it’s nearly impossible to lose, like Crusader Kings and Metal Gear Solid V.

      • BluePencil says:

        “you can have about 15 runs and think lots of time has passed and you look and it’s only half an hour later which is a great feeling.”

        That’s interesting. Usually people judge things more fun if more time has passed than they thought. Not a lot less time.

        • Kitsunin says:

          Well, time tends to fly by when you’re having fun, but you don’t want it to fly by because darnit you’re having fun. I’m finding this interesting to think about. How do you make something fun while minimizing the feeling of “time having flown by” when you’re done?

        • April March says:

          I’ll be turning 30 in two weeks. A game that makes me feel a lot of time has passed while taking very little actual time would be a godsent.

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      zapatapon says:

      On one hand I applaud it
      I see what you did there

    • Unsheep says:

      If you look at the game like a rogue-like its difficulty makes sense, the longevity of a rogue-like game lies in its challenge.
      However pure RNG can make a game feel unfair, because no matter how well you play everything comes down to chance. Pure RNG can take skill and tactics away from a game, as all it takes to win is persistence: roll a dice enough times and eventually your number will come up.

    • lordcooper says:

    • trjp says:

      There is certainly a vogue for permadeath and randomness – both things which can work in a game but both things which are being used by some game developers for NO GOOD REASON

      All games contain randomness but we’ve worked for decades to make it less obvious – a fad for making it MORE obvious is odd and whilst there are good implementations of it – there are LOTS of shitty ones

      I’d argue that showing actual dice in a video game is bizarre UNLESS you’re simply modelling a real-world game. Dice exist to create randomness in reality – no need to model one in a game anymore than a game doesn’t need to cramp the play area to fit on a table!!

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        CdrJameson says:

        Having dice REALLY MATTERS.
        It gives a little tension dance, as Alec points out, and it lets you see how the game works. I can connect what happens in a given round straight back to the specific dice that rolled.

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      phuzz says:

      Play FTL on Easy instead of Normal, trust me, it makes the whole experience better.

      • Spakkenkhrist says:

        I’d say play FTL on easy to get to grips with it and then play it on normal to really get stuck in, and then blown up. I love the sense of limping along in a barely functioning ship hoping you’ll find the means to repair it.

    • Shadow says:

      Using the term “misery” is hyperbolic enough to imply the poster’s intolerant towards challenge and the reasonable possibility of defeat in a videogame. Likely a hyperbole in turn.

      A well-designed challenge sweetens victory. For some of us, at least.

  2. NikosX says:

    This game looks super interesting and except that I love the graphics. Need to try this out asap.

  3. magogjack says:

    It still seems a little expensive for what it is.

  4. frogmanalien says:

    Is there much longevity in it – I like the idea of random dice rolls, but if I’m effectively playing a game of chance, I’m not sure how much of a hook there is keep me playing except to see if my luck gets better (my casino experience tells me to quit when I’m ahead)?

    • LacSlyer says:

      From what I’ve seen, the game looks a bit more shallow than it actually appears at first. With the gameplay basically coming down to optimizing dice rolls.

      What’s worse is it also seems to suffer from something other difficult games don’t have an issue with, in that it relies on RNG too much. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it’s a great feeling to beat the game after you’ve died numerous times due to bad dice rolls. But when a game is basically designed for you to fail to learn how to play it then the RNG shouldn’t be as big of a factor, at least in my opinion. Because that just creates frustration due to elements completely out of your control.

      • LW says:

        This is my experience with it. I know how to play now, what all the modules do and what research is likely to crop up, so it’s now just hitting retry until the dice fall my way. Kind of a shame, cause there’s potential for a decent game here.

      • Unsheep says:

        To me that’s a common problem with how people present or review rogue-likes and similar, those who really like them have a tendency to make these games feel bigger and more substantial than they actually are.

    • BluePencil says:

      You can unlock different characters. There’s also a button for “missions” which are “coming soon”.

      I beat the game on my 3rd or 4th try but I can imagine someone else taking a lot longer due to the RNG factor. Beating it so quickly kind of makes me feel that I didn’t achieve much because I’m sure my play was by no means optimal.

      One thing that I don’t like is that I have almost always had to send my characters to tend to accident sites which renders the idea of locating them at the best capsule to boost a particular resource moot.

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    Nauallis says:

    Too bad, you still have to buy it.

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    Grizzly says:

    How does it compare to something like Red November?

    • unacom says:

      That is exactly what I was thinking. I think Red November might be more intense, because there are other players involved.

  7. Geebs says:

    This game is set on a mission to Mars, isn’t it? If so, where the heck do new crew members suddenly arrive from?

    • Kitsunin says:

      You mean how in the tutorial/prologue there’s just one, and then there are four after? The story is that the other four were just doing their own stuff before tragedy struck.

    • Ross Angus says:

      Well, a mummy Spaceman and a daddy Spaceman who love each other very much come together for a sort of … special cuddle. And then nine months later, a tiny baby Spaceman is born.

  8. Didden says:

    I wonder when aspects of this game will suddenly become stretch goals for Star Citizen?

  9. GreatBigWhiteWorld says:

    I feel like RNGesus plays a little too prominent role in this game. It’s a cool concept though and would like to see it expanded.

  10. Cinek says:

    Skill is a tertiary thing in this game. It’s far less important than it actually seemed to be from the videos I seen.

    It’s good 75% of luck, 25% of decisions you make that matter.

    I had some outstanding games where in many turns I had a free man to do whatever (eg. harvest food or get assists ready). And I had some horribly wrong games where I couldn’t get past the 3rd turn.

    Other than the first play-through (which I won) where you are getting familiar with the mechanics there’s no learning or skill curve. It’s just a flat line. Whether you win or loose is decided by the RNG magic behind the game.

    I still had some fun with this game – cutscenes and plot were nicely done, and so were graphics and some of the decisions you make, all of which really make this game “tick”, but beyond that – it’s… well… more RNG-based than FTL was. So if you didn’t like randomness in FTL – than this is even worse. Currently, while discounted 35%, this game runs for £7.25 – IMHO for that kind of money there are several better titles. My recommendation – wait till it drops below £3, then buy it as a one-evening game – you might get interested to play more than that, but just as well you might throw it into a garbage bin. ;)

    • froz says:

      Funny you say that. I guess the guy who has 100% win ratio (finished 20 times in row on normal, then switched to hard and finished already 2 or 3 times) has a lot of luck. Only that’s not true, he just takes his time and is very good at risk management.

      Check the thread on steam forum about that:

      link to steamcommunity.com

      There is luck in game, of course there is, but skill matters quite a lot more then what many new players may think. It’s just a hard game (and feedback it gives to players is not obvious, it’s hard to tell when you made a mistake).

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    DelrueOfDetroit says:

    Seeing as how I couldn’t even get through the tutorial of Chaos Reborn without rage quitting and refunding the game, I think I will pass on this one.

  12. keithburgun says:

    “Not just a skinner box.” So it *is* a skinner box, just, not *just* one.

    • Stewardly says:

      Let’s say Game A is not a Skinner box. Which of these is true?
      1) Game A is just another Skinner box.
      2) Game A is not just another Skinner box.
      3) Neither is true: Game A is not just another Skinner box and it is just another Skinner box.

  13. TheAngriestHobo says:

    Couldn’t I just play Space Station 13?

  14. bill says:

    Playing Space Hulk PC as a singleplayer game right now, and the randomness does lose something in the translation from real game (with mate) to pc.

    I mean, it was infuriating at times when a single dice roll cost you the game, but on the board game that somehow felt fair. In a PC game it somehow feels unfair.
    It becomes a lot more obvious that winning or losing a game can come down to how many command points you roll in one turn.

    Then again, the game is at its best when things start to unravel and you’re improvising a scrambled retreat across the map. But one or two bad rolls can move you straight from “coasting” into “no chance” without stopping in improvised retreat land.