Monday, 20 December 2021

Missed Classic: Stationfall - When Food Dispensers Attack

Written by Joe Pranevich

Welcome back! It’s December already and I hope you are getting ready for your holiday cheer. When we last left Stationfall, our intrepid hero had just arrived at Space Station Gamma Delta Gamma for a mission of great importance: pick up a shipment of bureaucratic forms and return them to our ship, the SPS Duffy. Unfortunately, something feels wrong as soon as we arrive. There is no greeting party and as we explored, we discovered the whole station seemingly abandoned. Eventually we made our way to a scientific module where we discovered a holding tank with a large hole in it. What evil is prowling the corridors? Where is the crew? And how will we escape the deserted station with no fuel? We have quite a mystery on our hands!

The beats so far between Planetfall and Stationfall are eerily familiar. Perhaps, too familiar? In that first game, an emergency forced us to escape to an unknown planet only to find it completely devoid of life. We explored empty area after area to gradually unlock the clues behind what had happened to the world’s population and to find a way home. In Planetfall, the emptiness was part of the point; the lonely tone could only have been created by having a wide (but population-less) area to explore. Stationfall has so far copied both of those beats exactly, landing us in yet another vast empty area that we have to map and gradually sort out to find out where everyone went and how to get home. Whether we decide that this game is brilliant or derivative will ultimately come down to how well the new game justifies the return to the same old beats. Planetfall was amazing, but I didn’t want to play it twice. 

Given all the mapping and exploring to do, this week’s post is pretty much just that: mapping and exploring. There’s a lot of ground to cover, but no real way to tell this game in a linear way. You get to explore it the way I am, with a lot of open questions that will (I hope!) coalesce into a puzzle-solving frenzy over upcoming weeks. This will likely be our last Stationfall post this year, but we will resume full force in January.

The real Plato presumably had a body.

When I ended last week’s session, Floyd and I had been exploring the Scientific Module, a small collection of research rooms attached to the “north” side of the station. It was only a turn or two later, when we stumbled into a brand new face: a robot named “Plato”! Floyd had wandered off for a moment, found him, and brought him back. Plato immediately comes off as nice enough, but the opposite of Floyd in most respects. Floyd’s childish exuberance is neatly matched by Plato’s stuffy and grandfatherly presentation.

    Floyd dashes into view, followed by a slightly older-looking robot. “Look, Floyd found a new friend,” Floyd says with unbounded exuberance.

    “I’m quite surprised to discover you here,” says the robot. “I have not seen a soul for a day now, perhaps more. But look, here I am forgetting my manners again. I am known as Plato to the humans on this station, and I am most gratified to make your acquaintance.”

The parser fails us here. I want to ask him about the “station” or “humans” or anything else, but the game stubbornly doesn’t let me. He surely knows where everyone has gone, but no way that I phrase the question gives me more than that. He hasn’t seen people “for a day now, perhaps more” and doesn’t seem to know what happened to everyone. They just went poof? Did they evacuate and leave him behind? If so, he doesn’t seem distraught about it, although perhaps a bit lonely. I’m likely reading too much into too little text. From this point onward, Floyd and Plato seem inseparable. Every now and then they run off together, only to return in a few turns. One time, they went to the station library (that I have not found yet) to read Floyd’s favorite comic, The Adventures of Lane Mastodon. That’s a nice callback to Leather Goddesses, but I can’t work out how that could make sense in-universe. Let’s not overthink it. 

From here, we hit a narrative challenge. I’m left with stacks of notes about the station, but if I narrate “then I go west to an empty room”, it’ll be both boring and nonsensical. Instead, I’ll narrate the broad pattern of my explorations but summarize a bit what I found. I hope that works. 

The scientific module isn’t on the main maps.

Scientific Module

As we discovered last time, the Scientific Module is an add-on connected to the “north” side of the station, moored at Level 5. That’s the same level as our docking bay and it’s easy to suspect that the designer wanted us to wander that way fairly early. While we have been given a map for the station, the three modules (Scientific, Diplomatic, and Military) are their own thing and not included. 

I was a bit haphazard before, but now I search thoroughly. The place is too clean. The scientists’ quarters at the top of the module contains no clues, nor does the astronomy section (although that is where Plato wandered in). Retracing my steps, I discover a note in the biology lab:

Schmidt -- why didn’t I see it before now? Just think of this station as a cell and the pyramid as a mechanized bacterioph. The note ends at that point; there seem to be some reddish-brown stains on it. 

The word “bacterioph” probably was a bit of a challenge in the pre-Internet age. Someone would have had to look it up in a dictionary or an encyclopedia to see that it’s a shortened (or incomplete) form of “bacteriophage”. I just sorted it with Google. It means “a virus that parasitizes a bacterium by infecting it and reproducing inside it.” The conclusion I draw is that a virus infected the station and the crew left. Where did they go? Planetfall also had a disease plot; I am disappointed that once again Stationfall seems to be parroting the formula that worked before. 

The rest of the module is devoid of clues. Returning to the station, I am greeted by another robot:

You spot a hull welder approaching. This welder, which is marked “Welder Number 2,” seems to be moving purposefully towards you, its welding extensions quivering with… excitement?

I move out of its way, but that feels both ominous and important.

No disassemble, Number Five!

Level Five

I retrace my steps south through the umbilical-like connection and return to the station. Last week, I noted a few areas that are not open to me: a dark storage room and a locked brig behind the sick bay. Since we know this is a “virus” of some kind, my guess is that the sick bay door will lead to an important clue. 

Let’s walk through the rest of what I find:

  • The communications center, like everywhere else, is empty. A red button to push in case of emergencies cries out to be pushed, but doing so just triggers a powerful electric shock. A monitor for incoming messages is blank.
  • Nearby “Station Control” has a status readout of what is working on the station versus what needs to be repaired. (I am reminded of a similar setup in Starcross.) Communication and food production are currently red, while printing is yellow. Life support, gravity, the main computer, and power are all green.
  • In the commander’s office, I discover a machine to read station log tapes. I love that they use tapes for this and am reminded immediately of the “tapes” used on the original Star Trek. I will assume that each contains many petabytes of information and it only seems like they have the capacity of an ancient floppy disk.
  • In the “robot shop”, I find a potential third friend: “Oliver”, a new robot almost ready to be commissioned. His final programming could take anywhere from 2 to 20 days, but there’s no indication how long he’s been incubating for. Floyd thinks he could wake up at any moment and hopes to be around to see it. The room has a heating/sterilization chamber for tools. Inside is a drill bit, but it’s too hot for me to retrieve. Fortunately, Floyd will grab it for me! That’s 3 points, so I assume the drill bit will be useful for something down the road.

I finally explore the commander's cabin. He’s not home, of course, so shouldn't mind that I’m snooping around. His room contains a safe and a log tape. I’ll need a 12-20 digit combination for the former, but the latter at least is easy to deal with. I nab the tape and return it to his office to play.

Captain Kirk admires some futuristic data tapes.

Playing the log, we are rewarded with a crazy amount of exposition and clues to the plot. This post is already exceeding my allowance of bullet lists, but there is just so much to pick up on here:

  • Thanks to some joyriders, the commander hid spare fuel cells in a storage bin at the station’s dome and hid the key in his safe. Since we’ll need that fuel to get home, I’ll have to crack the safe eventually.
  • “Shady Dan” in “the village” (whatever that is) sells forged ID cards. The problem is so bad that he has blocked off all access to the village and is refusing to validate new access forms. He even hid the validation stamp under his bed! I wonder if Shady Dan is still around. Could it be that the locked-off village was safe from whatever went on aboard the station itself? A forged ID card could get me into the brig.
  • The forms that I was sent here to fetch are located on “Collator #22”. That detail may be useful once I gain access to the printing area.
  • The log catches up to the plot of the game as the commander narrates both the discovery of the alien craft and an increase in faulty equipment. He suspects sabotage. Something is happening across the station; even his log recorders are overheating!
  • His final entry is that of a crewman attacked by a hull welder and taken to sick bay. It ends with a worrisome “what the krip!?” and “End of Log”. 

Armed with that ton of clues, I return to the commander’s quarters and grab the validation stamp from under his bed. While I’m tossing his room, I hear an explosion to the west. I race back to find that the log reader that I was listening to exploded! Overheating? No, that’s more like going nuclear. I consider whether I could use an overheating log reader in some way– perhaps a bomb?-- but I restore to learn that it’s permanently attached to the desk.

At this point, I have fully explored Level 5. Locked doors prevent access to the “south” and “east” modules; my guess is that is the location of the village? (Or villages? Are there two?) To continue exploring the station, I flip a coin and start to climb up a ladder near the elevator. 

Coed bathrooms but not barracks. Not quite Ender’s Game or Battlestar Galactica, yet.

Level Four

When I ascend the ladder, I arrive at Level Four rather than Six. I had imagined a building with the first floor at the bottom, but this is the opposite. Can any smart people tell us how real ships number their deck? Star Trek always had the top of the ship be Deck 1 (or “Deck A”, depending on the ship) and Stationfall follows this convention. 

In any case, Level Four is small in game terms. Despite the map showing a barracks level with many individual compartments, bathrooms, and cubbyholes, the game represents this all using only six “rooms”. The barracks turn out to be empty. The only item of note in the level at all is a nanofilm spool labeled “Spacetruck Refueling Instructions”. That looks like it will come in handy later! I continue ascending. 

This is also the point where I realize that the game has an inventory limit. I’m going to leave a pile of stuff by the Level Five elevators, but for the most part inventory management is boring and I’ll just deal with it.

Star Trek trivia: There was a non-denominational chapel on Kirk’s Enterprise, but not on Picard’s.

Level Three

The third level is also tiny game-wise, but is packed with details that the previous level lacked. 

  • The west side of the station includes a chapel with an “Eternal Flame”, a glowing star near the ceiling. It flickers and appears to be a real flame, although it is too high to get to. A nearby spool labeled “Chapel Maintenance Procedures” may hold the clue to getting it down, but I haven’t found a way to play the spools yet. (They do not fit in the log reader, even before it blows up.) A thorough investigation reveals a switch inside the pulpit; pulling it turns off the flame. Ha! “Eternal” indeed!
  • The theater takes up the southern end of the level, but it’s empty except for a locked projection booth. Considering all of the clues hidden in a projection booth in Hollywood Hijinx, I’m going to be on the lookout for a key. 
  • The gym, despite being nearly half of the level, is just one room. One exercise machine has a sign that warn us that the machines communicate on “frequency 710” and that we must never bring anything that broadcasts on that frequency within range. I make a note to try that at the first opportunity. Exercising in the machine does nothing of interest.
  • The final room is the laundry. While it’s missing a washer, both a dryer and a presser appear functional. The dryer spits out an “abnormal amount of hot air” when turned on, but that could be useful somehow. The presser appears to be an ironing machine. (I had never heard the term “presser” before for laundry, but I also never worked at a laundromat.) 

All space stations need a pleasant arboretum.

Levels One and Two

Continuing my ascent, I arrive at the second level. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting exhausted by room after room of just “touch everything, pick up everything, map everything”. The first and potentially most important clue on Level Two is that we may not be alone:

A cup of thick brown coffee sits on one of the tables. It’s still steaming, though there’s no one in sight. 

Is there someone else alive on the station? Did he or she flee just as they saw me coming? If so, why? Are they partly responsible for whatever is going on? Casually sipping coffee in the mess hall of an abandoned space station doesn’t seem like something an innocent person would do. I try to get my own coffee from the dispenser, but fail. Despite the system cheerfully telling me that today’s menu includes “chicken pot pie, braised volpoid livers, and mashed Rigellian yams”, all I am rewarded by is a squirt of highly-corrosive acid. This leads to more questions than answers. If the machine is broken, where did the steaming coffee come from? And who ordered it?

My next stop is the library. The main computer access has been ripped out, but there is a spool reader that I can use. Alas, there are no Lane Mastodon comics that I can find. Both of the spools that I have discovered so far (truck refueling and chapel maintenance) have been partly overwritten by someone screaming “All humans will die!” over and over again. That’s pretty creepy. I learn from the chapel spool that there is a fuel reservoir for the Eternal Flame and that it is powered by some sort of diode. Either of those nuggets could be important later. Refueling the truck will require a “quarnum wrench”. That’s all I’m able to extract from either spool thanks to our mystery homicidal friend. Finally, I locate a detonator in a nearby storage area. Opening it up reveals a blackened (burned out?) hyperdiode. I grab it, assuming that something somewhere may need to be detonated.

I ascend for the final time and arrive at the top of the station, in a lush and relaxing garden dome. The “Shrubbery Maintenance” shed has a fancy new lock on it; no doubt the same one whose key is in the commander’s safe. A grating blocks access to air ducts, but I am unable to get it open. Are we going to get some Nakatomi Plaza in this game? How Christmassy!

You have to give credit to Meretzky for designing such an intricate station.

Level Six

With the top half of the station mapped, I work my way down the ladder to Level Six. Like the level just above, this is a large and complex level with two more docking bays and plenty of other places to explore. Given that it may be the source of all of our troubles, I hit the docking bay first. There is an alien craft inside and the hatch is open. I climb right in.

Alien Ship

   Something about this cabin makes your skin crawl. Perhaps it’s merely the unpleasant colors and odd textures and disturbing angles of this ship – despite your frequent contact with alien races you’ve never encountered anything that seemed as unhuman as this ship.

   There are no controls in sight, but there is a sturdy pedestal in the exact center of the room. The pedestal is empty. The only other features of the cabin are some dots on the wall and a hatch leading out. 

   Lying under the dots is a skeleton, the brittle remains of a member of some unfamiliar alien race. 

The skeleton appears humanoid, but with an “overdeveloped tongue case”. I’m imagining something with a bulbous head, but that may not be right. Floyd is scared by it, but he’s scared by a lot of things. I can find nothing obvious to do with the pedestal; I can put stuff on it, but nothing happens, and there is no other way I can see to interact with it. Anything I do to examine the skeleton more closely causes it to crumble to dust.

Perhaps most importantly, the dots on the wall above the alien form a pattern. It looks too simple to be a code or a form of language, but it must be something. I don’t get it yet.

ASCII Art… almost. This probably isn’t worth a pity point.

I make a note to explore this area more once I have some better ideas (or a clue). 

The remaining area is mostly empty. The officers’ barracks, the “auxiliary” barracks, and the other docking bay are deserted. A storage room in the far east is dark, the second dark room in the game and another hint that I need a light source. Access to the armory is blocked by an ID card reader, a reminder that I need to track down this “Shady Dan” fellow. 

This is also the point where I start to get sleepy. To be honest, I have cheated a bit and reloaded once or twice so I should have been tired before now. Since I’m here, I sleep in the officers’ quarters and have some of my emergency goo for a meal. 

The next day on the ship, I start to notice little things that are different. The doors, for example:

The auto-door opens sluggishly. As soon as you have passed through, it zooms shut, seemingly a little sooner than normal. Very puzzling; auto-doors have been around for millennia, and are generally the epitome of reliability. 

With nothing further to see on this level, I duck down one more.

The real purpose of the station.

Levels Seven and Eight

The penultimate level seems almost disappointing: it’s just one big room except for a small partitioned recycling area. We quickly find another nanofilm spool (this one for “Collator Repair”); I grab it to review at the library later. I also see a trash can with a crumpled and not-yet-validated “Illegal Space Village Entry Form FW-83-Q” inside. 

I descend to Level Eight, but am unable to proceed: the passage has been blocked off from below. I try the elevator and that refuses to take me down there as well. That sounds important. Is that where the crew members are hiding? Or is that where something nefarious is happening? I don’t know, but I am confident that finding my way past this obstacle will be another puzzle to work out.

I have now explored the entire space station. If I am going to make it any farther, I will need to solve some of these puzzles. Let’s take stock of my current open questions:

  • The “Space Village” (that we can access from Level Five) needs a form to access. I found a crumpled form (on level seven) and a validation stamp (in the commander’s quarters). I might be able to use the presser to un-crumple it to gain access to the village. Maybe someone there can help me.
  • Supposedly someone in the village can provide fake IDs. I may be able to use them to access the amory and the brig areas which are currently locked. 
  • I still have one nanofilm spool to read in the Library, but it will probably be overwritten by “Death to humans!” too.
  • I need to find a way to activate Oliver, the robot.
  • I need to find a light source (possibly the one in the chapel?) to enter dark rooms on levels five and six.
  • I need to find the combination to the safe to get the key to unlock the fuel hidden in the shed on the top floor. I should also look for a way to open the air grate, although I didn’t see a keyhole. 
  • I found a detonator; something at some point may need to be exploded.
  • I only have enough food for one more day. I need to fix the FDUs in the mess hall or find some other options. 
  • What is up with the dots in the spaceship?
  • I have no money for the vending machine. There are three options inside; will I find enough cash to buy all three or will figuring out which item to buy be one of the puzzles?
  • No way down to the eighth level yet. 

That’s a lot, and there’s probably more that I’m not thinking about yet. Thus far, this game is doing a lot better asking questions than answering them. I hope we’ll find more answers soon. If this is anything like Planetfall (and the old Zork games), I’ll need to conserve my turns as much as possible. I should probably restore and do this stuff faster to conserve food. I don’t think I missed this specific game mechanic, but early Infocom really loved making you solve the game faster after you worked out the bits the first time…

The next Stationfall post will be in January!

Time played: 2 hr 30 min
Total time: 3 hr 10 min
Score: 11
Inventory: drill, crumpled form, a diary, a puce nanofilm spool, a cup of coffee, medium drill bit, validation stamp, 20-prong fromitz board, 20-ohm bedistor, survival kit, assignment completion form, small drill bit, Thermos bottle, Patrol uniform, chronometer, ID card


  1. "We explored empty area after area to gradually unlock the clues behind what had happened"

    To be fair, this "Woah, wtf happened here?" premise describes a lot of games. I think that a lot of the modern ones inherited it through System Shock 2, but Looking Glass didn't come up with that story framework on their own.

  2. The station plans really are nicely detailed and well thought out, which only makes it worse that some areas are so nondescript and empty feeling. If it hadn't been for the plans I would have imagined the station to be much smaller.

    1. "The station plans really are nicely detailed"

      That's perhaps not surprising, given this part of the the author biography in the manual:

      "Meretzky arrived at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in September of 1975 to pursue a career in architecture. MIT's Department of Architecture convinced Meretzky that he should pursue a career in Construction Management. Following his unexpected graduation, several construction firms convinced Meretzky that he should pursue a career as a game tester for Infocom."

  3. Don't worry yet too much about having more questions than answers. This game has an intriguing puzzle structure in that by solving one puzzle, which I think you are about to solve soon (bcravat gur jnl gb ivyyntr), you suddenly find lot of new avenues to investigate, and most of them eventually funnel into solving one exact puzzle (oybjvat hc gur fnsr).