Monday, 14 March 2022

Missed Classic: Stationfall - When Nerds Attack

Written by Joe Pranevich

Hey, do you remember that time when I was going to take a short break after Christmas? That break turned out much longer than I anticipated. In a world that is so full of stress, I will not trouble you with my own, only to say that once you put one of these post series down, it is very difficult to remember what you were thinking and doing. Time dulls our recollection and an easy write up becomes much more difficult. That is especially a problem with Stationfall: there are so many barely-pulled plot threads going on that keeping them all in my head when fresh was difficult; after taking a break? Forget about it!

Last time out, I finished exploring the station. This game, much like the Zork series and Planetfall, is “open world” in the sense that you must spend a long time exploring every nook and cranny to find the pieces that will eventually be used to solve puzzles. At the end of that session, I had a lead on how to access the Space Village; that’s where I’ll start this time out. As you will soon see, that replaces one open area with another even more confusing one. Rather than spending this session putting together pieces and solving puzzles, I could only try to map out an area a bit smaller than the part that I already explored. I hope the real puzzle-solving comes next time out. 


The space village is attached to the south and east ports.

Just a reminder of where we are in the plot: everyone on the station is missing or dead. Other than a handful of robots, including our new friend “Plato”, we’ve seen no one. There are some tantalizing hints that survivors may yet roam the station somehow (the steaming cup of coffee I found being the key one), but if there is a way to meet these intrepid survivors, I haven’t found it yet.

I learned from the Station Commander’s log that, just a few days prior to our arrival, an alien spacecraft was discovered. That craft, including one dead alien, appears to have been infected by a virus of some kind. Some of the artifacts from the craft were moved to the scientific module for study, but all we have to show for it is a broken-open isolation tank. Whatever artifacts were recovered from the ship are nowhere to be found. My best theory is that they have been moved to the bottom levels of the station, now blocked off. In my explorations last time, I was unable to descend all of the way to the printing press area. Absent any other discoveries, I imagine that is where the action is.

At this point, I’ve been at the station for a day. As a throwback to early Infocom adventures, I have to regularly find and eat food. I also require sleep. That adds time pressure to everything I do.

I imagine the connections in the space village look something like this.

Looking over my notes, my next action was to access and explore the space village, a collection of attached ships that have been connected to the eastern and southern docking ports. The doors to the village were blocked off by the Commander’s order, but we located a crumpled up authorization form in a trash can, as well as an authorization stamp hidden under the Commander’s bed. Using the iron that I found in the station’s laundry room, I pressed the wrinkled form back to pristine. I stamped it. It works! The validated form is accepted by the computer and opens access to the village.

Entering for the first time, I am hopeful. Was the village, locked off as it was, safe from whatever affected the station? Are there survivors? At least for now, that doesn’t seem to be the case. But if everyone is dead, where are the bodies? There is no blood, no signs of struggle. That could be because it’s a game for all players, but there is no evidence of a massacre, only an absence of anything else.

I’m getting ahead of myself, but to be clear: exploring the space village isn’t easy. It’s a collection of randomly thrown together areas with easily-missed exits. It’s a pain to map. Thankfully for you, I did all the hard work!

Station Level Five: Purple is Bio Module, Blue is Space Village

Let’s talk geography: the space village’s layout isn’t immediately apparent. The south and east exits from the station lead to two hub “streets”, “Main” and “Broadway” respectively. But shops have multiple exits, some of which lead directly to other shops. It feels organic and unplanned; it’s a great contrast from the rigid designs of the station itself. I find myself challenged for the words to describe it, but Meretzky did great to make the village a unique place. When I attended Drexel many years ago, there was a collection of classroom buildings that had grown together, sort of twisted where you could no longer tell where one building began or ended, where the interior geography of the space was so warped by being little bits of a dozen former buildings that you could only find your way around through exploration and memorization. That’s sort of what this feels like, except in space. Oh, and unlike the station, there is no artificial gravity here so it’s like that, in space, and weightless. 

I started exploring to the east, so that’s where I’ll start this narrative. My journey was more random than I’m going to imply, but you get the idea.

Remember me to Herald Square!

Broadway

I didn’t have a reason for going east first, but it seemed like a good idea. Broadway is a seedy area with lower-class shops and entertainments. Most of the shops are single rooms, but most of them appear to have some plot or puzzle-related use.

Exploring carefully, I find:

  • A “Recruitment Office” for the Stellar Patrol. This is funny because the village is “unofficial”, an illegal set of hangers-on attached to a military station. And yet, it’s “official” enough to have a recruitment office! If any residents wanted to travel the galaxy, meet new and interesting people, and fill out paperwork about them, this is where they would go.
  • A “Rec Center” contains a holobooth. I can stay to watch a video, but there are no obvious clues.
  • A field office for a galactic mining company (possibly a reference to Starcross) contains an anachronistic headlamp-style mining helmet. That will let me explore dark spaces on the station!
  • A barber shop contains a large mirror. It’s an important-looking mirror, but I don’t see anything to do with it yet.
  • A convenience store is picked clean except for a single bag of taffy. Is that to eat? Or to have something sticky to use for a puzzle? I don’t know yet.
  • A pet store contains an  “Arcturian balloon creature”, surprisingly still alive in a village otherwise cleared of living things. The creature looks a bit like a hydrogen blimp; they propel themselves using smelly farts. Why a smelly farting creature would make a good pet must be left as an exercise for the reader.
  • A fortune-telling den contains a crystal ball. Peering into the ball, I discover an instruction sheet for how to dupe would-be customers.

Although mostly self-contained, the grocery and pet stores have rear exits that lead to a “Trading Post”. The post acts as a link between the several zones of the village and I’ll come back to that a bit later. I needed to drop off my overload of inventory items at my stash first.

Not at all like this, and also in space.

Main Street

Leaving the station to the south, I arrive at a different part of the village. “Main Street” is smaller than Broadway with only four connected shops, but a seedy alley leads deeper into the maze. This part of town is nicer. 

The most important “building” on the street may be the mayor’s office. It is an unofficial mayor, of course, but he has an office. Inside, we find a book entitled “Decoding Alien Speech”. The station scientists must have been working with the civilians out here on the alien mystery! Perhaps the village wasn’t as sealed off as we were led to believe and that may explain the lack of life here. The book is far too complicated for a lieutenant like me to understand, but a piece of paper left inside may be the Rosetta Stone that we need:

I’m detecting a hint of Infidel here. It’s like an Infocom greatest hits album!

The alien language appears to be based on… flavors!? That’s amazing! I recall that the alien corpse that we found had a very well-developed tongue, but it didn’t occur to me to lick anything on the ship. Once I’m done mapping the village, that will give me a new avenue to explore. I assume that there is an alien text (the dots?) that I can decode using this guide.

Other than the office, there are a handful of shops to explore before I poke my head into the alley:

  • A travel agency has posters advertising exotic locales, but nothing that I can seem to take or interact with.
  • A bank contains a portable “platinum detector”, presumably to determine the validity of platinum-based coins. I have no idea why I want to detect platinum, but if I come up with a reason, this is how I will do it.
  • A “greasy straw” (get it?) is a neighborhood diner. If we enter more than once, we catch a whiff of something delicious. Searching behind the counter reveals “fire nectar”. I’m not sure if it’s food or an alcoholic drink, but I pocket it anyway.

With nothing further to see on Main Street, I head down the alley.

You know.

The Alley

The alley stretches southeast from Main Street and acts as an additional hub for the seedier parts of the village. The centerpiece may be a church of some kind where the believers think that God is upset that mankind went to space and will be ending the world soon. Considering the plot of the game, that may be more prescient than usual for establishments of this type.

I also find:

  • A pawn shop, empty except for a can of “E-Z Spray Spores”. What could I possibly want with spray spores?
  • A loan shark, presumably for clients unable to use the regular bank. Inside is a lockbox that I am unable to open. I may need to find a key. This could also be what I’ve been finding explosives around for, although I was expecting that to be for the safe in the Commander’s office.
  • A doctor’s office for a “quack” doctor. Shockingly, it contains a still-alive ostrich. Now, it’s one thing to find that people in the future have strange pets, but to find an ostrich in a zero-gee space village? That’s just weird. There’s also a letter that says that I can find “ostrich nip” in a hidden panel someplace. Presumably, if I find the nips, it will follow me? There is also a disposal chute that leads into space.

The largest set of establishments in this area is a multi-room affair called “Shady Dan’s” used spaceships. There could be a ship that I could use to escape here, or perhaps some fuel. If so, I don’t find either. What I find instead is a junkyard, containing a pair of magnetic boots, connected to an office area. The office has a strange looking machine. If I power on the machine and insert my ID card, it reports (correctly) that I am a “Rank 6, Lieutenant First Class”. If I dial it up to Rank 10, it rewrites my ID card to show that I am a “Grand Fleet Hyperadmiral”. That should get me into some of the locked doors in the station! The office window overlooks a ship parking lot out in space. The final area of the used ship lot is a warehouse. It is empty, except for an airlock that leads (presumably) out to the shipyard. Nothing I can do with it now, other than die in the vacuum of space. 

You know what else this reminds me of? The St. Louis City Museum. It’s a crazy place.

The Deeper Warrens

The “Main Street” and “Broadway” areas do not connect directly, but can be traversed by passing through a “Trading Post”. Presumably, that would have been a commercial hub that could have thrived based on all of the foot traffic that is forced to pass through to get from one side of town to the other. It’s like one of those huge Duty Free shops that they make you pass through when landing in certain airports. No, I do not need to buy perfume, please just let me get to my luggage. (Oh? Real Swiss chocolate? Well… er… don’t mind if I do…)

The trading post itself is mostly empty except for a 12-prong fromitz board and an instruction sheet. The sheet describes how to use “Frezone” liquid explosive, a multi-step process that requires a detonator, timer, and the explosives themselves. The note says that the explosives have to be kept somewhere really cold, but I don’t see a freezer or anything here. I’ve seen both the detonator and timer so far, and will be on the lookout for the rest. An adjacent artist’s loft contains a crazy Watt’s Tower-type sculpture, an a “J-series Hyperdiode” that I can grab. 

Behind the post is a saloon and casino. I pocket some dice in the casino, and find a trick switch in a roulette wheel to open an opium den (with a “say no to drugs” poster!) and a house of ill-repute. Inside the bordello is a space suit that is too unwieldy to carry without dropping everything else. 

What bothers the spaceman? / What's left for him now? / I'm sure he could smile for us.

What Bothers the Spaceman?

Are you tired of the endless exploration? I admit that I am. The opening parts of this game have been one room after another, one item after another. We’re seeing the pieces that will eventually come together to solve some of the game’s puzzles, but I’m becoming bored of exploration. Let’s solve a puzzle!

To finish exploring the warehouse, I must pass through the airlock into the “outer space” storage area. Doing so involves passing through an inner airlock door, closing it, and then opening the outer door. This takes a bit of trial-and-error to get right as we must be (naturally) wearing the space suit that we discovered in the bordello, as well as the magnetic books. Once outside, space appears to be very dark. Fortunately, we brought the mining headlamp with us. I guess I never thought of space as dark in that way before!

Having accomplished all of that, we find what we might be looking for: the Frezone explosive. I grab it and head back into the station. Unfortunately, it melts in a few turns: the warning about keeping it cold was a real one. I’ll either need to work out how to keep it frozen or what I need to blow up with it is close to the airlock. Could it be the lockbox from the loan shark? I’ll need to come back when I have all of the parts.

“Well I’m that mysterious adventurer in time and space, known only as Doctor Who, and these are my disposables – Exposition and Comic Relief.”

It’s Time for Exposition!

After a long day of exploring, I’m getting tired. Unfortunately, the game’s plot takes a decided turn for the worse. I could summarize what happened, but as this is both critically important and some of the game’s better writing, I will just let the whole scene play out:

   Your heart leaps to your throat when I voice begins speaking behind you. You relax when you see it is merely Plato. But you get somewhat nervous again when you realize he is aiming a stun ray right at your chest! 

   “In case it isn’t apparent,” Plato is saying, “your rather pathetic, useless life is about to come to an unheralded close.” He presses the trigger, and an instant numbness envelopes you. As you crumple into a floating heap, Floyd dashes to your side, his face a mask of concern.”

[...]

   “Shortly, I shall shoot you again, and paralyze your cardiac muscle. Naturally, this is fatal. But before I do, human, perhaps it will interest you to discover the reason for your demise, and why the rest of your worthless race will soon follow. 

   “You see, eons ago, two races in another galaxy, the Zeenaks and the Hunji, were involved in an interstellar war. The war had raged for countless millennia before the Zeenaks devised an ultimate weapon, a device that would be launched into Hunji space. There, via methods beyond your comprehension, it would influence all the machines within a certain range to turn against their Hunji creators.”

   Floyd’s head is swiveling back and forth between you and Plato with a look of miserable confusion.

[...]

   “But the device, which was shaped like a pyramid, did more than that! Once all the Hunji in the area were eliminated, the pyramid would influence the Hunji machinery to build a factory for constructing and sending forth replicas of the pyramid; these replicas would enter new Hunji regions, kill everyone, and create more replicas. Thus, the Hunji would be destroyed by their own machines in a matter of weeks! 

   “Somehow, the Zeenak pyramid never made it to Hunji space. Instead, this ultimate weapon drifted across the intergalactic gulf and was picked up by an outpost of humanity -– this very station!”

   Floyd is dashing back and forth between you and Plato, whimpering with fear.

[...]

  “As you’ve certainly surmised, the pyramid has engineered the deaths of everyone on board this station. You’re still alive, of course, but that condition is very temporary. The building of replicas is now underway, and soon a hundred copies of this death-pyramid will be shooting silently toward every corner of human-occupied space! Well, I hope I made the last moments of your life a bit more interesting.” He raises the stun ray.

   Floyd, nearly in tears, his jaw quivering, wails, “Please, oh please, don’t hurt Floyd’s friend!” Plato gives him a look of disgust. “Stay out of this, Floyd. You don’t understand… yet.” 

[...]

   Plato takes aim with the stun gun. His hand begins to depress the trigger. Floyd bursts into tears and dashes out of the room. A beam leaps from the gun…


**** You have died. ****

Bye, Floyd. I’ll miss you.

And with that, I am well and truly dead but we now know what is going on! The station is building copies of the pyramid (no doubt in the blocked-off sections below) and we’ll have to go down there and defeat the menace. This puts me on two tracks: first, I need to do everything faster. Presumably, there is a ticking time-bomb with Plato and I will need to do as much as I can before he turns evil and attacks. That will either reveal some way to defeat him or I’ll have some other idea how I can survive when he turns dark.

Now that the village is open, there really are a ton of leads to work through. Between the ID card and the headlamp, I should be able to access more of the locked doors on the station. I can use the Hunji language to decode the message on the ship. I can piece together the parts of the bomb, although I’m wondering now if I’m wrong on all counts and I’ll use it to blow up the factory rather than a safe. Tons of stuff to look into. Let’s see how the game proceeds from here!

Time played: 1 hr 25 min
Total time: 4 hr 45 min
Score: 24 (of 80)
Inventory: drill, a diary, 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, space suit, headlamp, magnetic boots, and lots of other stuff that I left on the floor in various rooms because I ran out of space

5 comments:

  1. I'm not going to go into detail and prefer if no ones asks, but the world is a stressful place right now. Some of our loved ones may be suffering more than we realize. If you have the means, I hope you will consider donating to a suicide-prevention group such as this one: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/donate/

    In our case, the family member received help in time.

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  2. OK, now I have to know how you know about the City Museum. I lived in STL for 16 years, and the City Museum is my very favorite thing about the place. Most of the rest of my favorites are bars and restaurants.

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    1. When my son was born, we went through a period where "max travel timezones <= age". We weren't sleeping well for a long time and jet lag would have killed us, but we still wanted to see places.

      This turned out to be GREAT. This "forced" us to travel to places that we otherwise might have just skipped. We did the Canadian maritimes (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island), spent time in Montreal and Quebec City, Florida, Chicago, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, several cities in Ohio... Travel is a bit of our splurge. My wife teases me that I play old video games to not have to spend money on new ones. We also skipped things like cable TV to save up for trips.

      One of those trips ended in St. Louis and of course there is no way we wouldn't want to explore the City Museum! As artsy people from far away, it's the #2 thing we know about in the city. (The first is the big arch thing...) We'd like to go back now that our son is older because he'd enjoy it, but it's a bit out of the way for us.

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  3. Funny, I was supposed to go to St Louis for the first time last night and my flight got canceled.

    Sorry to hear about the family member

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  4. I know that game well. Played through it as a youngster.

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