Welcome to 'Tharsis'. You're Screwed.

by G. Christopher Williams

26 January 2016

I just ate an astronaut, and I don't feel even a little bit guilty about it.
cover art


(Choice Provisions )
US: 12 Jan 2016

You know, this isn’t the first time that a video game has made me make a decision about committing to cannibalistic acts. It’s just the first time that I didn’t give the idea of not cannibalizing another human being a second thought.

I just wanted so desperately to survive.

My moral compass paused for a fleeting instant (like, about a half second—seriously), and then I dove right into a heaping helping plate of people. And this from a guy who has written in the past (on more than one occasion even) about how video games are capable of evoking guilt in a player in response to that player’s virtual “sins”. 

But I’m sorry, when you are on a ten week mission to Mars and you have run out of food and your ship is falling apart all around you, morality is just so impractical.

Tharsis is a game set aboard a starship. On its way to investigate an anomaly on Mars, meteorites strike the ship, damaging it and killing two members of its crew. Still ten weeks away from Mars, the surviving four members of the crew have one goal: survive.

Essentially, Tharsis is a maintenance roguelike, in which you manage resources, food, energy (in the form of dice—more on that in a moment), the health of your crew, and the structural integrity of the ship itself. The game is played in turns, ten turns matching the ten weeks needed to make it to the mission point.

Each turn something bad happens, well, actually, several bad things happen, and you assign crew to resolve those problems or to generate resources. All of this is accomplished by rolling dice, which affect the outcome of the problems that you intend to focus on. So, positive outcomes are not a given, though there is a strategy to how you assign dice that makes this act not altogether random.

Additionally, however, dice are a diminishing resource, representing as they do the energy needed by crew members to accomplish tasks, a diminishing resource that is renewed by feeding your crew members or improving other systems on the ship (like life support). So, the game is always a matter of carefully balancing repairing ever failing systems and attempting to stock up on resources, and the game barely (or more often than not, never) gives you quite enough time and energy to do both. Hence, options like just opting to cannibalize the bodies of the two aforementioned deceased crew members (or any crew members that may die as the game progresses) become more than viable; they are just the most expedient option available.

Tharsis plays fast and it plays brutal, taking maybe 15-20 minutes for a single playthrough. You probably won’t get the opportunity to play through all ten rounds each time, though. You’ll be dead long before that.

I believe that my first game of Tharsis lasted until turn two. I think I played a dozen or so more games in which I survived until around turns three, four, and five, depending on whether the dice seemed to go my way or not each time. It wasn’t until I’d played more than a dozen games and began shifting my strategy a bit, away from total desperation to merely sheer desperation, that I managed to land two crew members safely on Mars. Since then, I have managed another victory, however, with only one living crew member that time.

If all of this sounds pretty terrible, well, it is. It’s also pretty great.

The game initially seems fairly impossible, but if you hang with it, the possibilities and how you can finesse probabilities begins to grow clearer. This isn’t a completely random dice-fest. There is some pretty clever design underlying all of these seemingly impossible odds, and you’ll feel pretty clever once you start seeing how you can turn some very desperate situations into somewhat manageable ones.

I love roguelikes and roguelites. I love a game once in awhile that is punishing in its gameplay and one that reminds me that games not only have win-states, but definite lose-states. These are the games that leave me feeling most accomplished when I beat them, games that I know I can lose.

If you’re like me and sometimes feel like you need to get away for awhile from games that merely give the illusion of possible failure, needing the threat of real failure and real loss hanging over your head to really enliven your gaming experiences, you absolutely should play Tharsis.

Oh, and I do suggest that perhaps a little ketchup might help in forgetting that you are eating a former friend. Bon Appétit, fellow astronaut.



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