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Daily Archives: September 19, 2012

Starcross

For whatever reason, it seems that the Infocom guys just weren’t interested in laughing it up during 1982. Like its simultaneously released companion Zork III, Dave Lebling’s Starcross is amongst the most austere of Infocom’s efforts. Their first science-fiction game, it’s also the hardest science fiction they would ever produce, in the mold of technically and scientifically rigorous authors like Larry Niven, Poul Anderson, and Arthur C. Clarke, whose classic 1972 novel Rendezvous with Rama is Starcross‘s most obvious direct inspiration. Like the novel, Starcross tells the story of a mysterious alien generation ship that enters the Solar System, to be met and explored by a very unlikely ship from Earth. The heart of the Rama scenario, of exploring a strange, largely deserted environment and puzzling out the wonders of alien technology, seems tailor made for an adventure game. It’s thus no surprise that games had used it before Starcross, and would continue to do so afterward, including two officially licensed direct adaptations of the novel. Typically enough, however, Infocom approached the scenario in a more rigorous way than anyone had before.

It’s the year 2186, and we are a prospector for quantum black holes that can be harvested as energy sources. (The technology is “based on theories that began as early as the 1970s,” the manual tells us, a reference to Stephen Hawking’s pioneering work.) A sort of wildcatter of the future, we live a lonely life aboard our one-man vessel, the eponymous Starcross, scouring the vast reaches of the Solar System for that lucky gusher that will make us rich for life. Then, one day…

You are sound asleep in your bunk aboard the deep-space black hole prospecting ship "Starcross," operating out of Ceres. Just as your sleep becomes deep and comfortable, an alarm bell begins ringing! It's the mass detector! Instantly you awake. This hasn't been a profitable trip so far, and you don't even have the cash for repairs. This could be the break you've been waiting for.

Our first task is to navigate to the mass, which we accomplish using a map of nearby space included in the game’s box. Working out how to read the map to determine the correct “range, theta, and phi” values to enter into the ship’s computer serves as a unique and interesting puzzle in its own right, one sadly lost in later, cheaper repackagings in such collections as The Lost Treasures of Infocom, which reduced the map to a simple list of destinations and values. Still, the map also represents Infocom’s most obvious attempt yet to use feelies not just to enhance the experience of their interactive worlds but also to combat piracy. The destination is determined randomly from more than a dozen possibilities, which makes simply writing the necessary numbers down and passing them along with a copied disk at least a bit more complicated.

The mass, of course, turns out not to be a quantum black hole but rather something even more spectacular. This whole opening sequence has a dramatic urgency that is new, not only to Infocom but to text adventures in general. We feel caught up in an onrush of events, like we’re really living out a story rather than just exploring a static environment (Zork) or ducking in and out of someone else’s story (Deadline). For the climax, Lebling takes his time, using a number of turns to introduce us to the massive, awe-inspiring spaceship that proceeds to effortlessly capture our pitiful little vessel. Even the fact that there’s nothing for us to really do here works for the scene, which functions as a sort of preview of some of the things we’ll encounter when we actually start exploring inside and outside the ship. What else would you do in this situation but sit and hold your breath and stare?

>wait
Time passes...
Time passes as you journey towards your destination.
Filling space before you is an enormous artifact, more than 5 km long and about a kilometer in diameter. Regularly spaced around its waist are bumps and other odd protrusions. You cannot see the aft end but the fore end sports a glass or crystal dome almost 100 meters across. This dome is brightly lit.
There is a brief burn as the ship matches course with the artifact. You are hanging in space about one kilometer away from the waist of the object. The Starcross's engines shut down. The computer speaks: "Program completed. We are being scanned by low level radiation at various frequencies. Waiting for instructions."

>wait
Time passes...
As the object rotates beneath you, the surface features of a different area are visible through the viewport.
There is an area with a blue dome below. Near the dome is a spherical object which just might be a spaceship. It is held down by silvery ropes.

>wait
Time passes...
As the object rotates beneath you, the surface features of a different area are visible through the viewport.
The area here has a yellow dome. The surface of the object here looks damaged and scorched, and is littered with tangled debris.

>wait
Time passes...
As the object rotates beneath you, the surface features of a different area are visible through the viewport.
This area has a green dome and a long, silvery spaceship tethered nearby.

>wait
Time passes...
As the object rotates beneath you, the surface features of a different area are visible through the viewport.
Below is an area with a red dome which has no ship near it.
Suddenly an odd protrusion near the red dome splits open and a huge articulated metal tentacle issues from it at great speed. It approaches the ship and delicately wraps itself around the hull. You are slammed against your seat as the tentacle accelerates the Starcross to the speed of rotation of the object. Inexorably, your ship is drawn toward the dome. When you are a few tens of meters away, three smaller tentacles issue forth and grapple the ship solidly to the surface of the artifact. The large tentacle retreats into its housing, which closes.

From here — and inevitably given the restrictions in the allowable amount of text under which Lebling labored — things get more traditional. Once we solve the next few puzzles to get inside, it becomes clear that the ship is another large, static environment to be explored and gradually conquered. To his credit, however, Lebling refuses to make Starcross into Zork in Space. In keeping with the game’s hard science-fiction roots, the alien ship is a carefully worked-out environment which, at least as far as such advanced technology can be expected to, makes sense. The ship rotates to provide gravity. Inside it consists of a network of corridors and rooms spanning the underside of its outside hull and a large open cavern in its center, whose outside walls/floor are planted with trees and grass. As one would expect, gravity gets weaker as we get closer to the center by, for instance, climbing one of the taller trees. In fact, this is the key factor in a fairly brilliant climactic puzzle that finds us floating in the very center of the cavern and requires us to devise the most unlikely means of propulsion if we don’t want to be left stuck there permanently.

So, the ship always feels, at least conceptually, like a real and believably alien place, give or take the occasional slip-up like the damaged computer that flashes — in English — “Fault” when we try to turn it on. Again in keeping with the game’s influences, the puzzles mostly involve practical, real-world science and technology, a marked departure from those of Zork. Often we find ourselves needing to translate alien symbology into universal scientific principles, as when we must use our knowledge of basic chemistry and our decided preference for breathing oxygen over methane or ammonia to figure out which button to press to reactivate the ship’s life-support systems.

Repair Room
This is a bright room taken up by two large pieces of machinery. On the leftmost one is a symbol depicting the emission of rays and beside it a yellow slot. The other machine bears a symbol in three parts: the first two parts, in black, are a solid block and a fluid level. The third, in red, is a series of parallel wavy lines. Beside it are three diagrams; under each one is a red slot. The first diagram shows four single dots equally spaced around a six-dot cluster. The second shows two eight-dot clusters in close proximity. The third has three single dots equally spaced around a seven-dot cluster. The only exit is up some stairs.

Starcross is by no means a trivial game; it has a fairly big map and a lot to keep track of, and, as usual for even Infocom games of this era, it’s very easy to lock yourself out of victory by doing things in the wrong order. Still, its puzzles require careful experimentation and practical thought rather than leaps of intuition. We always feel grounded in Starcross; it’s by far the most solvable game Infocom had yet produced, a prime reason I’m declining to spoil it heavily here.

Surprisingly, the ship is not the deserted environment you might expect. In fact, in a marked departure from Rendezvous with Rama, it’s well-nigh teeming with intelligent or semi-intelligent alien life, all captured and held here over the centuries in the same way that we are. There are small creatures who look like “crosses between a rat and an ant”; a hyper-intelligent giant spider who’s been learning English via radio broadcasts from the planet; and some human-sized weasels who have regressed into a primitive and superstitious tribal culture since their ship was stranded here generations ago. And even though Starcross largely transcends being Zork in Space, there are nevertheless grues here, a fact which was doubtless helpful to Infocom in not making them rewrite their standard code for darkness. We even learn through their existence here that the Zork games apparently took place on an alien planet; even hard science-fiction authors have to have a little fun sometimes.

Broken Cage
This cage was apparently forced by its inhabitants before the general deterioration of the zoo equipment. The force projectors are ripped out of their mountings and smashed against the bulkhead, and the whole cage is scratched and dented as though many enraged creatures pounded on it violently for many weeks. There is a somewhat chewed sign to one side of the cage.

>read sign
The sign is a liquid crystal display, and even more oddly, is in English:

" Common Grues (Grue Vulgaris)

The common grue, an inhabitant of the dark underground passages of a forgotten planet, is here exhibited for your pleasure in a typical family group. Note particularly the slavering fangs which reach such impressive size in the adults. Feeding the grues is not recommended."

Inevitably given the sheer quantity of stuff packed into Starcross‘s 83 K story file, our scope for interaction with any of this life is decidedly limited. They’re all classic vending-machine NPCs, each possessing some vital object to be coaxed away, traded for, or taken by force.

Indeed, if Starcross really falls down somewhere it’s in failing to adequately convey the grandeur of the experience we’re allegedly having. It comes the closest to evoking a sense of wonder during the introductory sequence I quoted above. After that, however, the text is usually flatly practical and to the point. It gets the job done, mind you, describing some very intricate puzzles, devices, and situations with careful precision. But it hardly feels like it even tries to inspire. That’s particularly surprising given that the game was written by Dave Lebling, who had the reputation of being the most self-consciously “literary” of the original Zork team, and who took his share of ribbing for his purplish prose — and with some justification. (The more wordy and elaborate descriptions in Zork, such as the jeweled egg found in the forest, tend to be Lebling’s.) Perhaps he just didn’t have the space to indulge his literary sensibilities here. Still, Zork III managed to do much more with similarly terse prose. Starcross is a fun, well-crafted adventure in an interesting, meticulously worked-out setting, but it never manages to be more than that, never touches that ineffable something that makes Zork III resonate so.

Our goal in Starcross, we slowly realize, is to repair this ancient and rather battered ship enough to fly it triumphantly back to Earth. It’s only when we’ve finally done so that we realize that the whole exercise has been a test, an experiment conducted by the hyper-advanced aliens who built the ship to see which species is ingenious enough to succeed in this task before the ship leaves their system forever.

The artifact, under your assured control, moves serenely toward Earth, where the knowledge it contains will immeasureably benefit mankind. Within a few years, there could be human ships flying out to the stars, and all because of your daring and cunning...

A holographic projection of a humanoid figure appears before you. The being is tall, thin, and swathed in shimmering robes. It speaks perfectly but expressionlessly in your own language. "Congratulations, you who have passed our test. You have succeeded where others failed. Your race shall benefit thereby." He smiles. "I expect to see you in person, someday." The projection fades.

The idea of the game as a sort of diegetic test for the player’s avatar was one that Infocom fell back on quite a lot in these early years; Zork III, and by extension its prequels, were built on essentially the same premise. It worked there, but it’s not very compelling here. In fact, it undercuts almost everything that came before. Suddenly this believable ship we’ve been exploring, with its battle scars and its aged and malfunctioning systems we’ve lovingly repaired, is revealed as nothing more than an elaborate prop in a game of interstellar eugenics. It feels like Lebling, having so carefully worked out all of the engineering details of the ship’s design and its history of collecting more and more aliens, suddenly didn’t know how to justify its existence in the first place, didn’t know how to answer the Big Question (“Why?) and end the game. This is the disappointing result. Luckily, Infocom — and Lebling — would get more sure-handed and confident in their storytelling in later efforts.

Infocom’s advertising firm, G/R Copy, once again played a vital role in presenting Starcross to the world in the most memorable possible light. As they had for Deadline, G/R came up with Starcross‘s short, catchy name, a huge improvement over the original title of A Gift from Space. And in Starcross‘s packaging Infocom and G/R really outdid themselves, packing it all inside a big plastic flying saucer.

Granted, there were no actual flying saucers in the game, but it was certainly unique. Maybe too unique — retailers quickly came to loathe the things, which tended to literally roll away when shelved on racks designed for normal, rectangular boxes. Many ended up hanging the games from the ceiling using string, as a) the most practical solution and b) one that looked pretty cool in its own right. Today the original saucer Starcross is one of the most sought-after bits of Infocom memorabilia. (The plastic used to form the saucer doesn’t tend to age all that well, making a copy in good condition a rare find indeed.) Infocom and G/R didn’t stuff as much inside the box as they had for Deadline, just the aforementioned foldout star map and a fairly terse manual. (For the “gray box” re-release a couple of years later, they added a rather jocular diary painting the protagonist as something of a loser. They should have left well enough alone; it’s one of the least effective of such inserts, jarring with the fairly serious tone of the actual game rather than complimenting it. It feels more suited for Planetfall — or, hell, Space Quest.)

Both Starcross and Zork III –more minimalistically packaged in a blister-pack with only a short manual — were solid hits for Infocom, selling more than 10,000 copies each during the 1982 holiday season alone. Already more games were in the pipeline, including one from a talented new author about which they were very excited. And, on what is in retrospect a more ominous note, they were now established enough to start another project, one completely unrelated to games — a little thing called Cornerstone.

 
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Posted by on September 19, 2012 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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