Saturday, 20 November 2021

Missed Classic 102: Stationfall - Introduction (1987)

Written by Joe Pranevich

A few years back, I planned a short marathon of 14 Infocom games directly or indirectly associated with the Zork franchise. Instead, I went a bit crazy and ended up playing all of the games, learning Cornerstone, and I’m this close to getting a Frobozz Magic Tattoo. It’s probably not healthy. Instead of this being our tenth game, it’s our twenty-eighth and we have a lot more to go. In the original marathon, Planetfall and Stationfall were connected to Zork thanks to grues, and a passing reference that they had been picked up from a backwater planet somewhere in the galaxy. It was a small hook, but expanding my goal to play all of Infocom made the point moot. July of 1987 gave us Infocom’s first double release with both Stationfall and The Lurking Horror making their debuts. Internal production data reveals that Stationfall was completed first, so it will be the first one that I play. 

To recap: 1987 had not been a great year for Infocom. The deal with Activision had concluded, Cornerstone had failed, and sales of text adventures were slowing down. Hollywood Hijinx bombed with only 12,000 copies sold. Bureaucracy failed to capitalize on its A-list “author”, Douglas Adams, and shipped only 28,000 copies. In order to offset the sales loss, Infocom was forced to produce twice as many games as before. Making games was difficult, but making twice as many games with the same team seemed impossible. Fortunately, Infocom still had a developer or two with recent hits: Steve Meretzky (with Leather Goddesses and Hitchhiker's Guide) and Brian Morarity (with Wishbringer). While these two would reach back to produce easily marketed sequels, other implementers sought fresh ideas. We’ll get to those sequels and fresh ideas before long, but for now let’s just focus on Stationfall.

Stationfall didn’t even merit its own hint book! And wow, is that an ugly hint book.

My first question is: why make a sequel to Planetfall at all? With 70,000 copies sold, it was a strong game but not out of line for Infocom’s early successes. Cutthroats sold more copies! Leather Goddesses was still selling well and had legs that no recent Infocom title managed to sustain. Perhaps Meretzky didn’t want to make the same game twice? Perhaps he didn’t want to be typecast as a game designer for light smut? Or perhaps he just had a better idea? I have been unable to find a definitive answer. Even if it had not sold more copies, the first Planetfall was a wonder of a game and in the top three of our marathon so far. If Steven Meretzky wanted to make a sequel to it, who would have said no?

Perhaps, someone should have. Although I will not let it color my perceptions of the game, Stationfall wouldn’t be the hit that Meretzky or Infocom needed. With only roughly 21,000 copies sold (according to leaked sales data), it performed less well than its simultaneous cousin, The Lurking Horror. On the bright side, the double-release strategy was working: if you counted both games together, then the 45,000 copies sold would have seemed almost respectable! Meretzky wouldn't take any chances during his remaining time with Infocom. His next (and final) game would be Zork Zero

And a similarly nondescript manual.

The Manual & Feelies

Popping open the manual, we learn that our life hasn’t exactly been filled with adventure since the events of Planetfall. While we have been promoted to Lieutenant, the daily drudgery of janitorial services has made way for the daily drudgery of bureaucratic management.

As a result of your heroics, you were offered, and quickly accepted, a JUICY promotion. Goodbye Ensign Seventh Class - now you were a Lieutenant First Class! No more scrubwork! No more bathroom details! No more cleaning of the grotch cages! Finally, your life in the Stellar Patrol would be as exciting as those brochures had promised.

Oh, how naive you'd been. Your daily routine simply replaced tedious scrubwork with tedious paperwork. Since your planetfall on Resida, five long years have dragged by, without a single solitary event worthy of note. Why, just look at today's “thrilling” assignment: scooting over to Space Station Gamma Delta Gamma 777-G 59/59 Sector Alpha-Mu-79 to pick up a supply of Request for Stellar Patrol Issue Regulation Black Form Borders Request Form Forms…

Having a patch is nice, though!

Outside of some quick background information and the usual collection of “how to play” information, there is little in the manual of interest. The rest of the game box includes a “Stellar Patrol” patch, some bureaucratic forms (reminiscent of the ones in Hitchhiker’s Guide and Bureaucracy), and blueprints to the space station that I will no doubt be traveling to shortly. Everything is well done, but there’s not much here and it’s a disappointment compared to the fun stuff included in most of their recent games.

If there is one thing to like, it’s the Stellar Patrol motto: “Boldly Going Where Angels Fear to Tread”. Not only is it a fun and obvious callback to Star Trek but also to the famous expression coined by Alexander Pope in his 1711 poem, “An Essay on Criticism”. The expression is (of course) that “fools rush in where angels fear to tread” and I love the little wink that Stellar Patrol really is a ship of fools. I’m always a sucker for literary allusion.

Enough mourning the feelies! Let’s play. 

Let’s begin!

Playing the Game

We start the game to find ourselves in the “administrative level” of the S.P.S. Duffy. It’s been five years since the events of Planetfall, but everything hasn’t been roses. Instead of adventure, our life has become a morass of bureaucracy and paperwork. Hey, didn’t we just play a game about that? (Bureaucracy was released only three months before this and was no doubt on everyone’s mind.) I also love that the ship is the Duffy. I can only hope that in the far future, Sergeant Duffy is renowned as one of the galaxy’s greatest detectives, at least when he is shadowed by a talented but unnamed player character. 

I take stock of my inventory to find a “Spacecraft Activation Form”, a “Robot Use Authorization Form”, and an “Assignment Completion Form”, plus a uniform, watch, and ID card. The forms are the ones from our documentation, a brilliant in-joke that would have been even funnier if we didn’t have faux forms two games in a row. 

From where we start, we cannot move west (to port) without a completed “Assignment Completion Form”. Moving south (aft) takes us to a giant football field-sized room filled with pallets of forms. Inside, we find Ensign 12th Class Blather, our superior and nemesis from the opening of the first game. He’s been demoted since those events and is now in charge of scrubbing toilets. This information is imparted to us in a footnote. The footnote has a footnote:

The author wishes to refute any claims that the use of footnotes is a ripoff from the interactive fiction version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This is not true. Well, maybe it’s a little bit true, in which case the author wishes to point out his right to rip off his own ideas. So there.

Further exploring this section of the ship, we discover the “Robot Pool”. This is an area where we can select which of three robots we want for our mission. Our choices are Rex, a heavy-lifting robot; Helen, a robot document shredder; and an unseen robot sitting in his area playing marbles. It’s Floyd! Is anyone surprised? We insert our “Robot Authorization Form” into the slot and Floyd jumps up, excited to see me! Now, we still get to pick… but could I pick anyone other than Floyd? I’m certain that the game will quickly find some reason why I cannot really pick Rex or Helen so why push it? I request my robot companion from the first game and he joyfully joins me. A different game might have given each potential companion pros and cons, but how could we leave Floyd behind?

Continuing to explore, I arrive at the Stellar Patrol-equivalent of a shuttle bay. A “spacetruck” awaits our mission. Inside is a survival kit (that I take). I insert the activation form, but am given a message that both the pilot (me?) and copilot (Floyd!?) have to be sitting before we can go. I sit, Floyd sits, and we head out again. This time, I am prompted for our destination coordinates. There is something about sci-fi games that make them inclined to do stellar coordinates as copy protection and this game is no exception. Fortunately, it’s easy enough to get the correct coordinates. It’s also easy enough to leave the back door of the truck open as we jump. Our death is quick and I must replay from the start.

So many numbers!

We take off and fly towards the space station where we are to pick up our “Request for Stellar Patrol Issue Regulation Black Form Binder Request Form Forms”. The trip is timed such that we consume 75% of our fuel, so once we get to the space station there is no path back without refueling. That should be easy enough, right? This is a routine mission! Along the way, we also get hungry and thirsty. Yes, it looks like this game is retreating to the early Infocom “food mechanic” of its predecessor. Bureaucracy also did this (although for only one joke); we’ll have to see whether Infocom is bringing the trope back for real. 

A brief glimpse of the space station that we see matches the description in the manual blueprints, except that a “village” of connected spacecraft seems to have sprung up around the station as ad hoc living quarters. That sounds like a fun concept; did it come from any science fiction books? It’s not a Star Trek idea. As we make our final docking maneuver, the computer adjusts us from docking bay #1 to #2 as the first is occupied. This likely will be important later.

The truck glides into the docking bay, and your stomach flips as the bay’s anti-grav field comes on. The truck settles the last few centimeters to the floor, the bay floods with air, and a voice whispers, “Stationfall”. Through the viewport, you see no one to meet you. Odd. 

We leave the truck and there is still no one here. The game does a great job of ratcheting up the tension. What are we going to find? What happened here? I eat some orange goo out of the survival kit to eliminate the hunger; finding food will need to be a priority too. 

Leaving the cargo bay and my parked truck behind, I find that I am on Level Five of the station. According to the map in the manual, this is the “main” level with the command-center, sick bay, and similar features. It doesn’t seem like I “need” to create my own map because the station map is so good, but I don’t trust that it’s complete. I’ll use a combination of looking at it while also filling out my own.

The maps in the manual are quite nice.

I explore the north bits first. Since I’m just outside the second Docking Bay, that means my first stop is the “Workshop” just to the north. I find and pocket a “twenty-ohm bedistor”. What is a bedistor? No one knows! But we had to find and use bedistors in Planetfall and they seem to be back again. North of the workshop is a dark storage room, but I have no lightsource. 

Checking out the sick bay reveals nothing of interest. Whenever the crew is hiding, there is no indication that they had a medical emergency. The nearby brig requires an ID card to open, but my ID doesn’t grant me access and I’ll need to explore that later. 

Looking in the PX-- essentially the station store-- I find a vending machine containing a timer and a large drill bit, each for one “galakmid” each. Since I have no money, I make note of it and move on.

After exploring the north bit of Level Five, I cross a set of tubes into the “Scientific Module”, an add-on to the station where research is done. There’s no map of this so I’ll need to pay extra attention. In one of the offices, I discover a diary that gives me my first clue as to what is going on:

This is the notebook of a certain Professor Schmidt, who was studying a strange pyramid discovered aboard a derelict alien ship and brought here. 

   Schmidt traced back the path of the alien ship; the path points out of the galaxy without nearing any star systems. Further, extending the path leads straight to one of our smaller neighboring galaxies. Schmidt concludes that the ship and the pyramid are probably well over a billion years old! 

   Next, Schmidt studied the wall markings in the alien ship. A series of identical dots, they defined every computerized model of linguistic decipherment! Then, in an inspiration, Schmidt studied the dots for nonvisual properties. His diary vaguely refers to a breakthrough, saying, “I guess my pal, the mayor, will get to show off his linguistic training.” 

   Finally, Schmidt began concentrating his studies on the pyramid itself. He was able to discover very little, blaming this primarily on the unexplained failures of several crucial pieces of lab machinery.

I end my tour of the scientific sub-module with a startling discovery: a holding tank on the bottom level has been blasted open. Whatever-- or whomever-- was inside is long gone. 

I have so many questions! Where is everyone? What was in the tank that got out? I love the sense that we have an unfolding mystery. Perhaps more interesting to me is the nature of this mysterious spaceship. The plot of Starcross also revolved around the discovery of an extra-galactic spaceship; is it derivative or a recurring plot thread from an older game? Planetfall implied that we were in the same universe as Starcross so it could be connected. I may have to consult my notes. On the topic of an unknown alien language, I am naturally reminded of Infidel, but there’s nothing to suggest (yet?) that this game does more than reuse one idea from that game.

Time played: 45 min
Score: 5
Inventory: Diary, 20-prong fromitz board, 20-ohm bedistor, survival kit (containing gray goo and a thermos bottle), assignment completion form, patrol uniform (containing an ID card), and a chronometer. 

And that’s enough for tonight! Since this is an introduction post, that means you also get to guess the score! Infocom is currently averaging 39 points per game, while Meretzky himself is scoring a bit better than that overall. He’s averaging 43. Planetfall did even better: 48 points! Where will this game fall? I leave it to you to be the judge.

Note Regarding Spoilers and Companion Assist Points: There's a set of rules regarding spoilers and companion assist points. Please read it here before making any comments that could be considered a spoiler in any way. The short of it is that no CAPs will be given for hints or spoilers given in advance of me requiring one. As this is an introductory post, it's an opportunity for readers to bet 10 CAPs (only if they already have them) that I won't be able to solve a puzzle without putting in an official Request for Assistance: remember to use ROT13 for betting. If you get it right, you will be rewarded with 50 CAPs in return. It's also your chance to predict what the final rating will be for the game. Voters can predict whatever score they want, regardless of whether someone else has already chosen it. All correct (or nearest) votes will go into a draw.


  1. Hey guys! While I have a post in progress to look at the original mainframe "The Oregon Trail" (to complement work done by Ilmari a few years back!), it's going to take more research before I'm happy with it. As a result, you get Stationfall instead! I have been looking forward to playing this one forever and I hope that you (and I) enjoy.

  2. Are you going, after you finish the game, start again to pick another robot to see what will happen?

    1. Oh! I already did. I should have done that in the first place, but was so excited to get the game started.

      Rex kills you immediately. You insert the form, he steps out of the cubicle area, and then trips and kills you as you walk down the hall.

      Helen is funnier, but only just. She follows you and you can make it to the truck, but in her excitement to be on a mission, she grabs the Spacecraft Activation Form and shreds it. Without a form, you cannot go anywhere and are stuck.

      I had sort-of hoped that you could have them around longer and subsequent events would kill you more quickly, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

    2. That would have quickly exploded the possible interactions, I think. Never mind the development time, the thing has to fit in a certain KB size!

  3. Oh, and my guess is 46

  4. I was going to pick 46, but Leo got there first. Let's try 48.

  5. I haven't been able to verify it, but I have this vague memory that at least one computer magazine described the almost simultaneous release of Stationfall and The Lurking Horror as a showdown between Infocom's two top implementors. If so, I wonder if this was something Infocom encouraged or if it just happened on its own.

    Personally I thought Stationfall won that showdown, but the sales figures suggest I'm wrong. Either way, I think it's superior to Planetfall. Perhaps not in every way (Planetfall has some standout moments), but enough of them. It probably benefited both from a few years of experience, and from being a larger game.

    For a brief discussion on why later games could be larger than the earlier ones, even when running on the same version of the Z-Machine, see ("What about Atari 8-bits and the Commodore 64?").

    The "Infocom Cabinet" for the game reveals that there were several other possible projects being considered at the time, but only Stationfall and Zork Zero ever saw the light of day.

    Which is a shame, because some of them sounded like they might have been interesting. Others, though...?

    See but it's probably full of spoilers.

    1. Thanks! There will (probably) be a "cutting room floor" post at the end on the development of Stationfall, as I did with the last few Infocom games. I'll know more what I have to work with once I get there, but this is good material for it and thanks for linking to it.

    2. Regarding the simultaneous releases, Infocom were struggling hard at the time, and had recently been acquired by Activision, who demanded an increase in sales. Drive they weren't able to instantly conjure up graphics and sounds that would've drawn in a bigger target audience, the only way to do that was by releasing more games, and fast. That's how the almost simultaneous releases of Stationfall and Lurking Horror came about. The Digital Antiquarian has done an insightful writeup of the uncomfortable situation Infocom was in at the time:

  6. Dang, I also wanted to pick 46... I'll go with 45 instead.

  7. Differently from Torbjörn (and without giving away why - because spoilers) I think that Planetfall is superior to this one, so I'm going to pick 42 for the score.

  8. "A brief glimpse of the space station that we see matches the description in the manual blueprints, except that a “village” of connected spacecraft seems to have sprung up around the station as ad hoc living quarters. That sounds like a fun concept; did it come from any science fiction books?"

    In about 1985/86, I remember reading a series of humorous SF novels. There was one part set in a space station with a limited number of docking ports. Consequently, later arriving ships would dock with earlier arrivals, creating a structure much as described in the game. Alas, I have long since forgotten the author or title of the series.

  9. I'll go low with 38, exciting cover art but no in game graphics has always boded ill for me.

  10. Sneaking in with a not-quite late guess of 39.

    1. The next post is well on its way. I've played ahead, but figuring out how to talk about this game is tricky because it's so open, at least at the beginning. It's very old school in that way.

      Should have the next post out in a few days.

  11. great game i thought - somewhat tough but genreally fair