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Wot I Think: Tharsis

Dying faster than light

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?

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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.

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