Right off the bat, Infocom wanted to make Starcross unlike any game that had come before. Only a few months after introducing the “feelies” with Deadline and starting to distribute their own materials, Infocom took creative packaging to the next level by utilizing a distinctive “UFO” shape for the release. The “box”, if you can call it that, was a plastic flying saucer. I vaguely remember reading about this gimmick years ago; boxes literally rolled off the shelves. It’s a funny way to start what promises to be a serious game but let’s hope they didn’t pour more creativity into the packaging than the game itself.
The manual sets the stage: the year is 2186 and there is an urgent need for new sources of energy. Thanks to new technologies, humanity has expanded into the solar system with colonies on the moon, Mars, and even larger asteroids. My character is a space-miner of sorts; our job is to find and harness pinpoint-sized black holes which can be tapped for their energy. (The manual helpfully adds that this is based on “theories from the 1970s”. Disco was a theory from the 1970s and look where that ended up…) My ship, the Starcross, is loaded with a mass detector and specialized magnets to snag and transport the black hole if I find one. The manual reveals that as the game begins, we will instead discover a massive ship from the outer reaches of the galaxy. I’m not sure if that gives too much away, but it does sound more interesting than space mining!
There are only a few specialized commands that we will need. Directions on the ship will be nautical rather than compass: “fore”, “aft”, “port”, and “starboard” replace north, south, west, and east respectively. (They will be mapped to the traditional names as well so our finger-memory won’t suffer too much.) We also are given instructions on how to talk to the computer using “computer, <command>” just as dialog worked in other Infocom games. And finally we will have to type “computer, confirmed” to lock in a course when the time comes. Let’s play!
|The future still uses tapes!|
Lister: Hey, what are these things?
Kryten: They're digital versatile discs, sir. DVDs for short. They were very popular at the beginning of 21st century, before they died out and were replaced by what we use now.
Lister: Well, you mean videos?
Kryten: Precisely. Back then no one knew that the human race were utterly incapable of putting the DVDs back in their cases. You can see the point. Over two trillion went missing in just over 20 years. Videos are just too big to lose.
While I’m poking around, the computer is warning me that if I don’t turn off the alarm soon, we’re both going to have a headache. Perhaps there will be bits of sci-fi comedy here as well?
On the bridge, we find the mass detector, a couch, a view screen, plus access to a utility closet. (There’s a space suit and a safety line in there which I grab as well.) The detector has two buttons: a red one and a blue one. I experiment and find that the red one stops the alarm while the blue one spits output onto a printer. I love past versions of future tech! The detector also has a small view screen which simply reads, “mass UM08”. What does that mean? It’s time for copy protection! The printout is included in the packaging:
|The futuristic computer screen couldn’t display this?|
After waiting a few turns, we arrive at the object and (surprise!) it is an alien spaceship. It would have been more of a surprise if the manual didn’t give that away, but I suppose it’s not a spoiler if it happens in the first few moments of the game. The spacecraft is a cylinder, around 5 km long (3.1 miles) and 1 km (0.6 miles) in diameter. The fore end has a crystal dome. The ship scans us then starts to pull us in with some kind of tractor beam. There’s not much I can do except wait, but at least we get to see more of the ship as we are pulled in and different areas come into view. I manage to spot:
- A blue dome with something that looks like a spaceship held down by silvery ropes
- A yellow dome that is damaged and littered with debris
- A green dome with a long and silvery spaceship tethered nearby
When we near a red area, wires pop out and grab the ship. Unfortunately, since I had taken off my seat belt, I’m killed immediately by the force of gravity as I hurl into the wall. I restore to stay buckled and this time the tethering completes and the giant spaceship is above us. I get that it’s “hard” science fiction, but I’m not sure that random deaths are “fun”. On the other hand, I should not have taken off my belt while the ship was in motion!
|Spacesuits may look cooler in 100 years, but this is pretty cool.|
After spending some time fiddling with the hook and safety line, I discover that the sculpture reacts to touch: if I touch the first bump, all of the remaining ones retract and the object becomes completely smooth. I have to restore to bring the bumps back and I get the same results for the second and third bumps as well. What does it mean? With only ten possibilities, I brute-force it: when I touch the fourth bump, a new column appears the same distance from the center as the first bump. When I touch that one, the whole thing flattens again except revealing a black rod. Picking up the rod opens the airlock! I pass through a simple outer and inner door (closing the outer one first so as to not let any atmosphere out) and emerge into a red hall way with some wilted plants. There’s breathable atmosphere on the ship and I can take my spacesuit off. The rest of my explorations will have to wait for next week.
This has been interesting so far, but I doubt I’m into the real part of the game yet. I feel bad for “solving” the sculpture using brute force but I bet someone here will tell me that the solution is obvious. I restored a few times and verified that only the fourth bump had that effect. I hope I don’t find all of the puzzles in the game to be this inscrutable…
One final note: the registration in the ship says it was manufactured by “FrobozzCo Astronautics”. That sounds more like an Easter egg than a connection to Zork, but I suspect there will be more soon.
Inventory: Library tape, space suit, safety line, detector output, black rod.
Time played: 50 min
Since this is an introduction post, don’t forget to try to guess the score. Thus far in our marathon, Dungeon scored 41, Zork I scored 35, and Zork II scored 32 points, and Zork III scored 42. Deadline, the Infocom game that immediately preceded this one, scored 45 points. Dave Liebling’s previous game as the primary developer was Zork II; This is his first true solo effort.