Saturday, February 29, 2020

Starcross: Won!

During my first session, I had made some good progress in mapping out the artifact. I had gained entry at a docking bay meant for me, and received a black crystal rod there. Three other ships had already docked at their respective bays, though one had crashed in a spectacular manner, knocking out power to an entire quadrant of the ship. Of the other two, one was flown by a solitary space-faring spider, who was sentient and friendly but resigned to its ship and not immediately helpful. The other was a colony ship of weasel-like humanoids who had settled in their respective quadrant, and I had successfully bartered for their brown crystal rod. A third, red crystal rod was found in an abandoned zoo near the artifact’s fore, guarded by a nest of rat-ants.

The aliens who built the artifact seem to have intended for each of the four visiting species to receive a crystal rod, to be used in some kind of test. Finding them all and figuring out their purpose was no doubt one of Starcross’ major goals.
A mysterious square-shaped object found in the repair room, hidden beneath an artificial forest in the artifact's inner region, completed the array of slotted PCBs in the computer room.

The lights in the room come on and there is a deafening FOOOOM! noise as the computer starts up.

The main display blinks twice, a bell rings, and a gold rod falls from the output hopper onto the floor! A moment later, a previously unseen enunciator panel comes on.

The panel has three banks of four colored lights: red, yellow, green, and blue. The first is labelled with a symbol of the emission of rays: of the lights underneath, the red one is flashing and the yellow one is brightly lit. The second bank is labelled with a stylized docking port and the third with an airlock. Of these two banks, the first yellow one is brightly lit and the other yellow one is flashing. The panel also contains six other lights, each bearing a stylized picture. The first four, all dark, represent navigation, engine, library, and defenses. A fifth, picturing a cage, is brightly lit. The sixth is flickering dimly. It 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.

The colored lights obviously corresponded to the four hallways, and as the yellow hallway had been severely damaged, it only made sense that bright or flickering lights indicated malfunction. The meaning of the first bank indicated by "rays" wasn't immediately clear, but as I knew the yellow hallway's lights were out, this seemed a likely match.

That sixth symbol exactly matched the verbal description of a symbol I had seen previously in the repair room on one of the machines, and as it was flickering, I had to assume this represented the oxygen generator, which I knew from prior experience, was dying.

While fiddling with my inventory to see if I could make any headway in the repair room, it occurred to me that one of my items, a “tape library” essentially consisting of Wikipedia-on-tape, would be worthwhile to the spacefaring spider. It thanked me for the gift, and offered a yellow crystal rod in exchange.

This rod, it turned out, was useful for fixing the lights in the yellow corridor, but it wasn't obvious - nothing seemed to happen when I put it into the yellow-slotted machine in the repair room. The other machine, on the other hand, immediately turned on when I stuck the red rod into one of its slots. And soon afterward, I suffocated on coal gas.

That machine had this description:

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.

Molecular diagrams, maybe? The coal gas made me think of carbon monoxide, and while I can’t quite think of how four dots around a six-dot cluster would symbolize that, carbon does have atomic number 6, but the meaning of the four single dots wasn't clear. Meanwhile nitrogen has atomic number 7, and oxygen has atomic number 8, making the second diagram a reasonable representation of O2, and the obvious solution to the problem, if not totally scientific (in real life you do NOT want to breathe pure oxygen for long).

Out of curiosity, I tried the third slot, and asphyxiated in an atmosphere smelling of ammonia. With formula NH3, this told me the single dots represented hydrogen, and the first diagram was of methane, which is actually odorless. The second slot brought the air back to normal, though the computer room’s enunciator panel did not change.

Lights and air on, I explored the yellow hallway.

Three things were of note here. First, a robot mouse wandered this corridor in search of trash. A murine Roomba, so to speak. Second, the yellow airlock was here, and the ruined dock outside of it inaccessible without the space suit that I had bartered for a brown crystal – I’d have to restart the game at some point. Third, a laboratory was accessed through a side passage between the two aftmost rings in this corridor.

Within the laboratory were two disks, a projector firing an energy beam into silvery globe, and a dial which adjusted the size of the globe, revealing a embedded blue rod when shrunk to the smallest size. Shooting it with the raygun freed the blue rod inside, though I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the intended solution. I returned to the observatory, where I tried putting a disk from the lab inside the projector, thinking they might be intended for it, but was told something was already inside. When I tried looking inside, the laser blinded me and then grues ate me in the dark.

I restarted the game, quickly completing the tasks needed to turn on the lights and oxygen, so that I could explore beyond the yellow airlock. Outside, I found the drifting body of a space-suited dinosaur clutching a pink rod, which I was able to take by securing myself to a mooring hook with my safety line.

I had to use Invisiclues to figure out what to do in the laboratory. One clue said that I could use the disks to enter the sphere. Experimentation then found that these were teleportation disks, and you can enter the sphere by shrinking it, placing a disk underneath, setting the sphere to its largest size where it envelops the disk, and then stepping on the other disk, but this is fatal. More experiments revealed a better solution; by putting something on top of the sphere and enlarging it, the object will fall onto the pad below and teleport along with the rod. I’m really not sure why the object is necessary – why doesn’t the rod just fall onto the first disk when you enlarge the sphere? But it doesn’t.

There was one last dock - the green dock where the weasels had parked their ship - and I needed an Invisiclue to find it. There, I found a chunk of smoked glass in the cargo hold, which I could use to safely peer into the projector in the observatory and see see that a clear crystal rod was inside it. In the weasel ship's control room, a skeleton surrounded by offerings held a violet rod. Taking the rod proved fatal; the weasels found this shrine had been disturbed, and killed me. I had to use the teleporter disk to leave before they found out, which took me not to the place where I dropped the receiving pad, but to a garage full of piles of trash... and a green rod buried under one. I could exit from an unmarked passage, but could not find a way back in.

High up in a tree, near the inner space of the artifact was a “drive bubble,” a zero gravity room with a white slot on the wall, and a white rod conveniently floated around here. I took and inserted it, which activated the room, revealing various controls and a black slot. I inserted the black rod, and this shut down everything, including the game.
This was the rod that the aliens gave me as a reward for entering the artifact. Why would they choose to give me the one that shuts down everything and kills everyone?

A twin bubble on the fore end of the artifact, accessed by firing the gun to propel yourself across the length of the artifact in zero gravity, held the last few secrets.

My gold rod opened up the hatch here, and inside, my clear rod activated another five slots, matching the colors of my five remaining rods, not counting the deadly black one. I inserted them in, each one caused a beam of light to project onto the opposite wall, and when I inserted the last, this happened:

The pink screen includes a small square, a large square, and a display showing nearby space. This view shows an empty area with a stylized depiction of the artifact itself.

These squares acted as buttons, which zoomed in and out the display of space, as far out as a local interstellar region. The colored lights only worked when the display was zoomed out to the inner solar system, but no further, and only worked when pushed in a certain order.
  • Brown – Picks a destination for the artifact
  • Violet – Toggles between crash-landing, slingshot, elliptical, and circular orbit modes
  • Green – Toggles between slow and fast speed
  • Blue – Confirm and take off

Only earth is a valid destination; any others would shut down the artifact. It doesn’t seem to matter whether your orbit is elliptical or circular, nor does it seem to matter what speed you have selected, but you must select one before the blue button does anything.

I set in a course for earth, and hit the blue spot.

All the displays flash once. There is a sensation of movement as the artifact positions itself to follow the course you have set.

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, tall and thin, swathed in shimmering robes, speaks 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.

Your score would be 400 (total of 400 points), in 373 moves.

This score gives you the rank of Galactic Overlord.

GAB rating: Good

This is easily the best adventure I’ve played since Zork I, and demonstrates a maturity and sophistication in storytelling and world building well beyond those early efforts. This could have been Zork in Space. In some ways it is – the crystal rod collection isn’t far removed from Zork’s treasure hunting, character interactions feel about the same, and even the meta-premise of the game world as a test for the player is shared (though unlike Zork, Starcross makes this obvious pretty early on). But the sincere commitment to its hard sci-fi setting – as well as its cohesive, top-down design (as opposed to Zork’s long and scattershot development cycle) makes all the difference.

Exploring the artifact and making sense of its non-Euclidean layout was a thrill, and its puzzles were both ample and generally well designed. The puzzles, for the most part, challenge the player to logically deduce the meaning of alien symbols or to apply knowledge of the physical world to this strange environment. It mostly avoids the contrivance of having magic-like technology to justify the puzzles and devices, though not completely – the teleportation disks and silvery globe in the lab come to mind, and Invisiclues even lampshades this (“This is a technology so far beyond current human experience that it is impossible to explain. Ask again when you fully understand the details of the Matter Intransitivity Principle of the Dornbrookian Unified Field Theory”).

Starcross was Infocom’s first game to retroactively receive the “expert” difficulty designation, and can be cruel at times. There are so many ways you can get killed, or worse, screw up your game so as to make it unwinnable without you realizing it. These are things I’ve come to expect in these games, and prepare by keeping multiple saves as soon as I have an inkling of what’s going on. In turn, it’s clear that Infocom expects the player to learn through failure. You cannot reasonably learn, for instance, that the silver rod is hidden inside the raygun without giving it a test fire first, which doubly damns you as this not only destroys the silver rod, but also squanders your crucial ammunition. I don’t hold it against Infocom; with the right mindset and preparation, this cruelty isn’t punishment for failure, but a way of receiving pieces of the puzzle. The successful game is won with the knowledge accumulated from dozens of failed games, and the tedium of repeats hastened with frequent use of save files.

Starcross was engaging throughout, its puzzles and spatial challenges kept me intrigued, the puzzles were challenging enough to make solving them satisfying, spread out enough that being stuck on one puzzle did not grind everything to a halt, and the experience was all held together quite well with quality writing and most of all a strongly consistent structure and tone. I induct it into the ivory deck, and award it a harpoon.

My Trizbort map:


  1. I've always wondered how many people actually won the majority of the Infocom games. Particularly without the ready assistance of a walk-through. It seems like I remember reading that Infocom made a ton of cash on the Invisiclues because so many people bought them to use with pirated copies of the actual games!

    Enjoying the blog!

    1. I wouldn't be surprised at all if Infocom made more money from selling Invisiclues than their own games!

      To beat Starcross, I needed Invisiclues for these things:
      * Getting the red rod from the rat-ant nest
      * Knowing that you could follow the weasel chieftain through the warrens
      * Figuring out what the disks in the laboratory do
      * Finding the silver rod
      * Jumping from the top of the drive bubble

      In four of these five cases, my problem wasn't in solving the puzzle, but in knowing that the required action was something you can do. And in half those four cases, there was still a satisfying puzzle even after the spoiler. In Zork III, in contrast, most of the times where I got stuck, the reveal of what you can do solves the entire puzzle.


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