Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Game 154: Starcross

Read the manuals here:

Starcross, Infocom’s mindbending science fiction first, launches you headlong into the year 2186 and the depths of space. And not without good reason, for you are destined at that point in time to rendezvous with a gargantuan starship from the outer fringes of the galaxy. But the great starship serves a far larger purpose than mere cultural exchange. It conveys a challenge that was issued eons ago, from light-years away – and only you can meet it.

In other words, this is Rendezvous with Rama: The Game. Hardly surprising that a group of MIT alumni would be Arthur C. Clarke fans. In retrospect, this is a perfect concept for an adventure game – exploring a vast, mysterious structure in space, full of logic puzzles that were, in fact, designed by aliens.

By 1982, Infocom hadn’t yet made their famous practice of bundling feelies. Deadline went all out with its forensics, memos, and interview notes, distributed with the game in a package resembling an evidence sleeve, but Zork III of the same year was shipped in a simple blister pack containing little but a simple instruction manual and the game itself. Starcross’ 1982 release came in a package shaped like a flying saucer, but contains only the game, manual, an errata card, and a space map showing locations of massive objects, in 3D polar coordinates relative to your initial position in space.

The manual provides a few paragraphs of backstory. In the 22nd century, humanity has colonized earth’s skies, the moon, mars, and the asteroid belt, but fossil fuels aren’t enough to keep the gears of space age society turning. Like the prospectors of old, searching the unsettled frontier in the hopes of being one of the lucky few to strike a golden claim, you cruise through the asteroid belt in your mining vessel Starcross, in search of an energy-providing quantum black hole.

The game begins waking up to an alert from the mass detector and some derision from a snarky on-board computer. The screen indicated “mass UM24,” and I entered its polar coordinates from my origin as shown on the space map. What does 0 degrees mean in space, anyway? Current heading? Direction toward the sun? Something to do with galactic rotation?
My ship approached the mass, which appeared as a smooth, rotating, cylindrical asteroid as it came in visual range, 5km long and 1km in diameter, with a crystal dome on the fore end. As my ship corrected its course to match the artifact’s speed and heading, the computer announced we were being scanned, and awaited further instructions. I tried to tell it to land, but it refused, advising me to “look around” instead.

As the artifact rotated, different areas of its exterior came into view. A spherical space ship was docked by a blue dome. Another surface by a yellow dome was scorched and littered with debris. A third surface featured a green dome, and had a long silver space ship docked nearby. Finally, a red dome came into view. A giant metal tentacle then grabbed Starcross and slammed it into the artifact’s hull, killing me.

This turned out to not be that big a deal – in Zorkian fashion I was given another chance, and found myself alive on my ship, now docked to the artifact. But I wanted to see if there was a way to avoid getting killed. I tried seeing if I could use the ship’s safety line to secure it to the artifact, or to myself, but there just isn’t enough time to do anything before being pulverized by the tentacle. I tried to think of orders to give the computer, but the few commands that it even recognized had no effect here. Then I found the solution – you just need to stay seated with your seatbelt on, and let the tentacle do its thing and dock your ship in its somewhat violent fashion.

Down (up?) on the surface of the artifact, the red dome had an airlock with a bumpy relief.

A closer examination reveals that there are exactly ten circular bumps or columns on the sculpture: the first is large and centrally located, the second through tenth are smaller and scattered at various distances and orientations. As you go outward from the large bump in the center there are four small bumps, two rather large ones, two medium-sized ones, and then a small one again.

Here, I feel graphics would have helped. Trial and error showed that pressing the fourth bump rewards you with a black crystal rod and entrance to the red dome, and from this, I realized what was going on here. An image showing the bump’s actual sizes and distances relative to each other would have made it perfectly clear what the aliens were trying to accomplish.

Apparently, this space ship was built specifically to visit this solar system, possibly others, and in any event, I wasn’t the first to stumble upon it; at least three others were here before me, two of them docked in their designated parking lots, one of them smashed into little pieces all over theirs. Were they from our solar system, or were they picked up by the cylinder along the way? Had the other two perished? Or were they still on board, after who knows how long?

I entered, and within, I explored a red hall lined with plants, continued northward until the hall ended, and then headed “east” along the inside wall to a green hall, a nondescript room, and a yellow hall, where this familiar message appeared:

It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.

Oh, come on guys. Must everything be tied to Zork? The backstory expressly states that this is about the future of earth-based humanity. Presumably an earth where people can turn off the lights before going to bed without fear of being eaten by grues.

While Trizborting out the artifact, it became apparent that the usual mapping techniques weren’t going to work out. Although you navigate with North/East/South/West/Up/Down directions, these all take on a different meaning when walking through ring-shaped corridors that circumference the inside of a cylindrical object in space. Walking west from the dark yellow hall returned me to the green hall, then back to the red hall, onward to a blue hall, and finally to the dark yellow hall again. The four halls all ran north and south parallel to each other, but met at the inner-most ring at the fore end of the station, not in accordance with Euclidean geometry that governs typical game mapping techniques, but as lines of longitude on a globe meet at the poles.

Projecting a cylinder onto a flat graph is quite a challenge, but I decided to visualize it as a series of concentric rings (though in Trizbort fashion they’d come out more like concentric diamonds), each one representing a circular cross-section of the cylinder. North would not refer to the top edge of the graph, but rather to the center of it. East and west would be relative directions, and would traverse the rings’ circumferences within the cylinder, while north and south would move across the length of the cylinder from ring to ring. Think of a map of the earth as viewed from above the north pole, if that makes any sense.

The green hall, where the long, silver space ship had docked, had a bustling settlement of wood and mud-brick huts populated by man-sized weasels. A gray one, wearing a tattered space suit, and possessing a spear and brown crystal rod much like my black one, emerged from the crowds, and gestured wildly at my own suit. I complied with its pantomimed request, found the artificial atmosphere to be compatible with my own terrestrial needs, and nonverbally demanded and received the brown crystal rod in exchange.

The settlement spanned several rooms in this hall and in the ring corridors connecting it to the red and yellow halls, some divided by palisade barriers, but none had any immediately obvious purpose. The most interesting were a set called “In the Warren,” an unnavigable maze of randomly connected burrows which would eventually spit me out back in the village center no matter which directions I wandered in. Using items as breadcrumbs was not possible; dropping anything here would cause a weasel man to emerge and steal it.

The yellow hall remained dark and unexplorable, but a side passage in the foremost ring corridor between the yellow and green halls led to a computer room, where Infocom’s bias against micros was all too apparent:

The builders of this ship were obviously still wedded to large mainframes: this one fills the room and is thirty meters high. There is an overlarge switch at about eye-level and an access panel below it, which is closed. The power seems to be off.

Turning it on displayed a useless error message (in English!), but opening the access panel revealed racks of slotted PCBs, and one empty slot.

The blue hall had the most features of interest. Near the foremost ring, a side-passage led to an observatory, featuring a laser holographic projection of the solar system. A side passage in the second ring led to a neglected menagerie of broken cages and dead animals, including one marked “Common Grues,” and another cage occupied by a nest of rat/ant hybrids guarding a red crystal rod. Aft-ward, a ring-section had been pulverized by an unknown energy discharge directed at an armored hatch, which led to an armory, empty except for a single raygun, with only one good shot of ammunition remaining.

Yet another room here had a passage “up” into a region in the interior of the cylinder, from where I could observe a veldt where the weasel men hunted unicorns. At the fore end of this region, I could see the inside of the crystal dome high above. A hatch in the floor of an artificial forest here led to a maintenance room with some more awkwardly described machines:

This room is taken up by two large pieces of machinery. The leftmost has a symbol depicting the emission of rays beside 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.

There is a metal and ceramic square here.

I tried putting the metal square into the yellow slot, but it did not fit. I then put into the red slot by the first diagram, and it slid in, unretrievable.

Another hatch, at the top of a tree, had a silver slot next to it and could not be opened.

Lastly, the blue airlock could be found in this hall, in the same ring as the red airlock, which I entered and followed to the docked spherical space ship. Within, an enormous and hideous spider being watched me from a webbed perch, but this was no malevolent Ilwrath-type being. He produced an artificial speaking device, and for the first time gave me some semblance of what was going on here.

"Greetings, creature from Earth. Are you afraid of me? Come closer, I won't harm you."

The spider tells you his name is "Gurthark-tun-Besnap," (or something more-or-less that). Like yourself, he landed here to explore. He failed to control the artifact before it left his system, and has been stranded here for centuries. He sighs. "It's getting a little boring. The other inhabitants of this place are not too stimulating. The computer was some company until it malfunctioned. When we began to approach your system, I got excited! A whole new culture to learn! The end of boredom, for a while at least. I fed your language to my translator, from your radio broadcasts, and have eagerly awaited your arrival." He grins broadly, a fairly horrific sight.

The spider blathered uselessly, and I could find no immediate use for it or anything in its ship.

Alas, I could not explore to my heart’s content and solve the station’s many puzzles in a meticulous fashion. In the style of early interactive fiction, there is a time pressure element. Colossal Cave Adventure and Zork had this in the form of a battery-operated lantern, and Deadline operated on a schedule of events, forcing you to make your discoveries before characters left the premises or otherwise made the case unsolvable. In Starcross, the artifact’s atmospheric generator is malfunctioning, which was first hinted at some time in when the game informed me that the air felt thinner, and sometime later, ran out completely.

As I suffocated, a postmortem epilogue shed some more light on the aliens’ designs.

An expressionless voice seems to be trying to express outrage, but not successfully. "The candidate has not made the necessary repairs in time. This is a disaster. All are now dead, and repairs are not possible. They would not approve. This area will be marked, that is certain." Everything fades to black, and silence reigns.

My Trizbort map so far:

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