Sunday, 10 July 2022

Missed Classic: Stationfall - When Best Friends Attack (Won! And Final Rating)

Written by Joe Pranevich

Last time out on Stationfall, my attempt at Fourth of July fireworks ended up a dud: the bomb that I spent so much time working on failed to go off. All roads in the game so far have led to finding or securing bomb-making parts and so while I am sure that I am on the right path, I need to figure out what I might have missed. Meanwhile, the evil Pyramid of Doom that has taken over the stations’s systems is gradually making the station less and less livable for carbon-based life forms as literally everything (even the doors!) is trying to kill me. I’m glad we don’t need to use the bathroom in this game because I can only imagine the horrors of an Evil Toilet. It’s only a matter of time before this scourge escapes the station and takes over the universe, so we’d better solve it quickly.

We’re finally reaching the end of Stationfall. I am sorry that it took me far longer than planned to get here and I am grateful that you stayed around for the ride.

They made a whole series of these, but no farting balloons.

Neunundneunzig Furzballons 

What should I do about a bomb that refuses to blow up? I check everything and I seem to have all of the pieces together. I’d like to dazzle you with my puzzle-ingenuity, but all I could do is ask for another hint. The problem was that I put the wrong diode in the detonator! I realized that the old one was broken, but did not clean it off to discover that it was an M-series hyperdiode. The one that I so cleverly pinched from the sculpture in the village was a J-series. So where was the missing diode? In the star on the ceiling in the station’s chapel. 

How would we have known to look there? It turns out that the hint was in the “Chapel Maintenance” nanofilm spool that I did find, but even then the hint was pretty obscure:

Maintenance of the chapel equipment is simple, and should take little time away from your Chaplain duties. Fuel must be added periodically to the flame's fuel reservoir, located..." A loud burst of static drowns out the recording. "...ontact the station's Requisitions Officer if replacements are unavailable from the..." More static. "...iode in the Chapel's star has an expected life of..."  A long burst of static. Suddenly the voice changes in timbre and begins laughing and saying, "You will die, human! All humans will die! You will die, human!"

How bad should I feel that I didn’t remember a four-letter cut off hint in a spool that I listened to hours ago? Moving on!

The second part of my hint is that reaching the star involves the farting balloon in some way. I’m not sure exactly how, but we can take the puzzle one step at a time. The first step will be getting it to the chapel. The Acturian balloon creature remains in its cage in the village pet store, unmolested by the vengeful computer systems. Why they kill all humans but leave ostriches and balloon animals alive will be left as an exercise for the reader. When I open the cage, it floats out, dangling its leash behind. Attempting to grab the leash is a bad idea because it immediately farts in my face, causing me to drop all my items. I regret that quality of writing in these animal-themed puzzles does not seem up to the rest of the game’s standards. 

I quickly deduce how the spores come into play. There’s a hint on the can (“lowest level gas-inducement of any brand!”) that suggests that they are food for our “gaseous” creature. Spraying the can in the same room as the balloon does no good, but spraying them in an adjacent room causes it to float towards me. I repeat that process for the entire walk to the chapel, being careful to take an efficient route for fear of running out of spray-spores. We make it all the way to the chapel, but the balloon refuses to follow us inside. Why?

Have you ever been into an airport interfaith chapel? Sort of like that, but in space.


Why is the balloon afraid of entering? The eternal flame! Naturally a creature made of farts would be afraid of fire. I turn off the flame (using the hidden switch in the pulpit; eternal indeed!) and it will now join me inside. 

How do I get to the star on the ceiling? It takes some time before I think to try the leash again. After a violent and smelly end the last time I touched it, this time I grab hold and am zoomed to the ceiling. I’m not very happy about this. Expecting the player to blindly try the same thing again isn’t fair. Does the creature react differently in zero gravity? More importantly, there’s no way this would actually work. I just don’t buy that the balloon creature has enough buoyancy to take me to the ceiling when it otherwise just floats serenely. The game itself acknowledges that this is “a callous disregard for scientific accuracy on the part of the author” and I appreciate the lampshade hanging, but it’s still a bad solution hidden behind two faults in game logic. 

I retrieve the star and find the M-series hyperdiode inside. I pocket it then return to my pyromancy. About this time, I should mention that I start to lose things and must restore. When I get back, I don’t find my drill so cannot complete the bomb. I restore and do it all again, but now I cannot find the timer. My guess is that the increasingly anti-social Floyd is hiding things I need, but if so then the game can easily put players in an unwinnable situation. While Floyd has been wandering off by himself off and on all game, I haven’t seen him in a while and I am uncertain where he is. 

Making sure to keep the stuff that I need in my inventory, I eventually get back to the commander’s office with everything including the detonator with the newly found hyperdiode. I set it all in motion and get a proper “boom” as the safe blows. (I’m smart enough to be in the next room, of course.) I grab the key. Almost immediately, all the lights on the station go out. Thank goodness I was still wearing the miner’s headlamp or I’d be doing all that over again! I turn it on. My guess is that the virus is starting to take out critical life support systems. 

I race up to the upper dome with my new key and unlock the shed. If you recall, we learned that is where the commander hid the extra fuel cells that I would need to power my spacetruck and get the heck out of here. Unfortunately, the cells were not stored properly and opening the shed results in another immediate explosion. That’s two in five minutes! This one launches me across the dome garden and into some shrubbery where I fall unconscious.

Are the pyramids invading Earth already?

Talk Like a Pirate Day

Some time later, I wake up. I have no idea how long I was out. Everything in the shed was destroyed in the blast, but a nearby grating is now blown nearly off as well. See? I was right to think that violence was the solution with the grating, just not the violence that I expected. 

I enter the shaft and begin climbing down the span of the station one level at a time. My lamp is getting dim; I forgot that it was still lit. I guess I wasn’t knocked out for very long if it still had batteries. (Or perhaps the programmer didn’t want us to wake up in the dark.) I hear an announcement that the game will be over soon:

   A flat emotionless voice booms over the station’s P.A. system.

“Announcement. Prepare for launch of second-generation pyramids. Station will be eliminated by reactor overload immediately following launch.”

I have so many questions! Who are they announcing this to exactly? Do the robots care that they are being blown up too? Do they have an escape plan? We don’t have time to think about it and continue descending into the bowels of the station. At the very bottom, I pry open another grate to find myself in the station’s computer core. I am immediately attacked by a robotic exercise machine bellowing, “No pain, no gain!” I try not to imagine it in Arnold Schwartzenegger’s voice. 

I turn on the jammer… or, I would if I had remembered to bring it with me. I restore and do it all again, swearing a lot. I jam the exercise equipment and it stalls, just in time for me to be attacked by a forklift. For reasons that I do not understand, the forklift settles itself in the arms of the exercise equipment. I get the brilliant idea to un-jam it, causing the two robots to become tangled and eventually destroy each other. I’m not completely clear on why. I take stock and realize that I am on Level Nine with one remaining level left unexplored. I climb the stairs to discover my one true nemesis.

Factory

   Although you suspected what you would find here on Level Eight, the sight is still a shock, filling you with dread. All the station’s main systems – air and water purification, artificial gravity, power plant – have been completely transfigured into a tiny factory.

   The purpose of the factory is obvious, because all around you are row after row of featureless pyramids, each perfectly identical, each sitting aboard a miniature spacepod waiting to be launched toward every sector of the galaxy. The original pyramid sits on a pedestal in the center of the factory, like a monarch impressively surveying its domain. 

   Floyd is standing between you and the pyramid, his face so contorted by hate to be almost unrecognizable. You also wonder where he picked up that black eye patch. It seems that Floyd has a stun ray. 

   One of the blinking lights on the reactor goes from yellow to red.

Floyd has discovered “Talk Like a Pirate Day”! He looks pretty good in an eyepatch. I ask him for help, like I did when we were with Plato, but he doesn’t seem himself anymore. He shoots me with a stun gun for my mercy. Unlike in the previous encounter, my whole body isn’t paralyzed and only one leg goes numb. Maybe Floyd isn’t a crack shot? Or perhaps he’s just toying with me before he goes in for the kill. 

I try to get him to remember me, but the game doesn’t recognize any command that I try. I throw the crystal ball at him, thinking that he’d like to “play ball”. Nothing works. I give up and shoot him. He falls to the ground, stunned. I place the platinum foil on the evil pyramid. I don’t know why it works, but it does!

> put foil on pyramid

The foil settles over the pyramid like a blanket, reflecting the pyramid’s evil emanations right back onto itself. A reverberating whine, like an electronically amplified beehive, fills the room. The whine grows louder and louder, the pyramid and its pedestal begin vibrating, and the sharp smell of ozone assaults you.

   The noise and the vibration and the smell overwhelm you. As your knees buckle and you drop to the deck, the pyramid explodes in a burst of intense white light. The explosion leaves you momentarily blinded, but you can hear a mechanized voice on the P.A. system, getting slower and deeper like a stereo disc that has lost its power: “Launch aborted – launch – abort –”

   The replica pyramids fade to darkness, and a subtle change in the background sound tells you that the space station’s systems and machinery are returning to their normal functions.

   Still dazed, you crawl over to Floyd, lying in a smoking heap near the blackened pedestal. Damaged beyond any conceivable repair, he half-opens his eyes and looks up at you for the last time. “Floyd sorry for the way he acted. Floyd knows… you did what you… had to do.” Wincing in pain, he slowly reaches over to touch your hand. “One last game of Hider-and-Seeker? You be it. Ollie… ollie…” His voice is growing weaker. “...oxen…” His eyes close. “...free…” His hand slips away from yours, he slumps backwards, lifeless. One of his compartments falls open, and Floyd’s favorite paddleball set drops to the deck.

   In the long silence that follows, something Plato said echoes through your mind. “... think about the joy-filled times when you and your friend were together.” A noise makes you turn around, and you see Oliver, the little robot that stirred such brotherly feelings in Floyd. Toddling over to you on unsteady legs, he looks uncomprehendingly at Floyd’s remains, but picks up the paddleball set. Oliver looks at you, tugs on the leg of your Patrol uniform, and asks in a quivering voice, “Play game… Play game with Oliver?”

The game ends. We won, but at a great personal cost. Oh, Floyd. I am and shall always be your friend. I’m not crying, I swear. 

Time played: 1 hr 35 min
Total time: 10 hr 40 min

If only Nimoy had directed the next Planetfall game.

Final Rating

Wow. That hurts. I worked out the scores a couple of days after winning, so the initial shock would be over and I can rate the game more objectively. Looking back, it’s difficult to not see this as a direct response to Planetfall’s “everybody lives!” ending when Floyd and all of the supposedly dead people were fine. Here, there is no such luck. Floyd is dead and we are left with only a tiny hint that he could have “Star Trek II-ed” a bit of himself into Oliver’s body. 

This game navigated an almost perfect balance between humor and horror. What started as a fun romp quickly became survival horror and losing the childlike Floyd at the end hurts. We know now that there was no sequel (two were announced at different times, but neither were finished) and so Floyd’s death has become permanent. I doubt very much there is any appetite to reopen a nearly four-decade adventure game series, but stranger things have happened.

Puzzles and Solvability - Let’s start with the bad: I really didn’t enjoy the animal puzzles. Neither the ostrich nor the farting balloon worked for me at all. And yet, we must give a lot of credit overall. The puzzles in Stationfall were largely well-balanced and well-designed. Much like in Planetfall, the location formed an integral part of the mystery. Meretzky took the Infocom exploration staples and the Zork-like investigation loop, added some great characters, and brought them all nearly as far as they could go. My score: 6

Interface and Inventory - Stationfall used the “old” Infocom interface, most likely to maximize the number of systems that could play it, but it’s still one of the best text adventure engines ever made. Nothing was new here, only one of the final outings of an incredibly solid game engine. My score: 4

Story and Setting - The game's setting is brilliant. Exploring the space station and its attached village is a nervous joy, and it’s a great study in contrast. I love how much attention was made to designing how a modular space station could work on someone’s future whiteboard and then dirtying it up with reality. The story unfolds brilliantly, both in the sense that we have a gradually unfolding backstory (the last battle between the Hunji and the Zeenaks), as well as real character stakes with Plato’s and eventually Floyd's corruption. My score: 7

Sound and Graphics - As expected for a text adventure, we can score no points here. My score: 0. 

Environment and Atmosphere - If there are game design courses, Stationfall could be a case study in efficiently building a tense atmosphere, especially the slow-burning feeling of dread that we have from the moment we step on the station and find no one there to greet us. Everything comes together so well, I cannot help but to score this high. My score: 8

Dialog and Acting - The character work here is perhaps the best we’ve seen so far. Plato and Floyd’s personalities are defined well and mesh well together, but then we see them gradually shift as the virus takes hold. We also have some wonderful text all through. My score: 7

Let’s add up the scores: (6+4+7+0+8+7)/.6 = 53 points! 


A score of 53 ties Stationfall with Trinity as the best Infocom games to date. That feels right and well-deserved. Stationfall takes what Planetfall did and does it all better. Meretzky’s growth as a writer and game designer is fully on display here, even if his penchant for silly animal puzzles could have been toned down. We have more than a few more games to go before this marathon is over, but could this be Infocom’s high water mark? Creating games was becoming harder than ever; I am astounded that he managed this level of quality under such challenging circumstances.

This will be our last adventure in the Planetfall/Stationfall universe, although we still have two novels to look forward to. Two separate sequels were started then abandoned and I look forward to discussing those in more detail at some point in the future. My next Infocom game will be Lurking Horror, Stationfall’s same-release-day twin. I hope to get that game done in a more reasonable amount of time.

This is not the end of our Stationfall coverage! Very soon, we will take a look at the cutting room floor. We are lucky to have many design and QA notes from the development of this game. I look forward to learning more what ideas (if any) never quite made it into our final game. 

(The balloon image used for our title is by Reba Spike and is available on her Flickr page.) 




21 comments:

  1. Sometime in the next few days, I will be starting on "The Lurking Horror". I am almost completely unfamiliar with Lovecraft's mythos. If there is anything I should read before I play to get a sense of the tropes, please provide some recommendations. Thanks!

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    1. I don't think any previous familiarity is necessary. The use is pretty general, like tentacled monsters and things. All I know about the Mythos I learned from playing tabletop Call of Cthulhu in ~1994, and I think I worked through Lurking Horror in oh... 2010ish.

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    2. Seconded. There is really nothing overtly Lovercraftian in TLH, except from vague cult-ish background and abominable entities, which have by now more or less entered the mainstream pop culture.

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    3. Most Lovecraftian stories don't call all that much back to Lovecraft beyond the creatures. You could read a few of the stories like Dagon, Call of Cthulhu and At the Mountains of Madness though. Basically just his stories that directly relate to the Mythos rather than the ones involving his Dreamcycle, which are never a factor in these games.

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    4. "The Lurking Horror" is one of the first Infocom games with sound. There is sound fairly early in the game (I don't want to give unwanted hints) so you will know if you have the sound version and that it is set up properly. The sound is sparse and not essential to play the game .but it is an interesting addition.

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    5. Huh, I last played it on the Lost Treasures of Infocom for iPad (RIP) and never knew it had sound.

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    6. I know the Amiga version has sound, but getting that working just for this would be a pain.

      Is there another way to get the sound version? Maybe one of the open source ZIP interpreters? What do you recommend? (I'm playing on a Mac, so that may limit the options a tad.)

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    7. My recollection is that none of the activision-era rereleases had sound; it was only a very few versions that did. When Masterpieces came out, I remember downloading the patches from the if-archive to add the sound back in.

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    8. Joe, if you have WINE I can send you my installation of WinUAE. Might take a bit doing all the changed settings between the two machines, but it would work.

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    9. If you have the data file for the Amiga version (either Release 219 / Serial number 870912 or Release 221 / Serial number 870918; I don't know what was fixed in the latter), there should be Z-Machine interpreters that handles sound. Frotz does under Linux, at the very least.

      Of course, you also need the audio files. It seems most open source interpreters expect them to be re-encoded, though. You can find Lurking.blb at http://www.ifarchive.org/indexes/if-archive/infocom/media/sound/

      You can tell if the game itself supports sound, because it will have a $SOUND command to toggle it on or off.

      Of course, I can't actually tell you where the first sound in the game is because that would be a spoiler! (And actually, I don't think I've played through the whole thing with sound myself yet.) Suffice it to say that it should happen fairly early in the game.

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  2. I guess there's something weird about me, but I never found Floyd's death very affecting. Tacking "I am and shall always be your friend" onto it does something, though. (Pedantry alert: "I have been - and always shall be - your friend.")

    A score of 53 ties Stationfall with Trinity as the best Infocom games to date. That feels right and well-deserved.

    ...wow, what, really? I'd rate Trinity significantly higher than Stationfall. Huh.

    Also, the image says 55. Did I miss you awarding it 2 bonus points?

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    1. I initially pulled the wrong score image out of the basket. I noticed and fixed it a few hours later, but by then I think you already commented. This is what happens when I push without someone looking over my shoulder.

      I absolutely loved Trinity and the puzzles in that game were superior to this one. Looking over it now, I scored them almost identically. Certainly, Trinity was a more affecting game, but Stationfall managed a lot with what it had and the slow burn of tension with humor all throughout gives a different feel. To put it a slightly different way, Trinity is a game that I am glad that I played-- and hope to never play again. Stationfall is a game that I want to come back to already to find things I might have missed.

      The ratings are very subjective and I fully respect anyone that finds Trinity to be the stronger game. They are both top of their class.

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    2. Without checking my scores, to date I feel happiest about playing Trinity, Wishbringer, and Zork 3. Those are the games that have stuck with me most. I don't have the distance to know yet whether Stationfall will sit with me the same way, but I suspect it will.

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    3. To put it a slightly different way, Trinity is a game that I am glad that I played-- and hope to never play again. Stationfall is a game that I want to come back to already to find things I might have missed.

      Wow, I feel the exact opposite way, heh!

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  3. you don't really need any Lovecraft lore, but .. I think his most well known work is At the Mountains of Madness .. personally, I really liked The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

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  4. I am SO OUT OF PRACTICE. I forgot to mention the important thing:

    Corey Cole comes closest to the score guess (he guessed 48). Everyone else projected lower so perhaps I have a softer spot for this game than most of you. Congrats to Corey and you will receive your CAPs after the next mainline game.

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  5. An interfaith chapel! Just like in Lost

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  6. it’s still a bad solution hidden behind two faults in game logic.

    Isn't this pretty much the entire text adventure game genre?

    Larry had GRASS, but GRASS is also a word for CANNABIS, which in turn is a kind of HEMP from which you can WEAVE a ROPE, so WEAVE GRASS and you have a ROPE.
    -- Adventure game logic

    I am immediately attacked by a robotic exercise machine bellowing, “No pain, no gain!”

    This is from dungeon module S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. If not stopped the gym robot will work you to death.

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    1. In "Leather Goddesses", the puzzles were stupid and I hated them but they were consistent with the tone and spirit of the games they were in.

      In "Stationfall", I found that the science mattered a bit more for consistency with the world and so these puzzles were more jarring. Stationfall is a humorous game, but my suspension of disbelief was lost with these puzzles in particular.

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    2. ....Larry?
      If this is a reference to LSL3, Larry weaves grass into a grass skirt, and it's Patti who makes a rope out of hemp. The latter is not really something you just quickly do by hand in the real world, but in any case it doesn't require going through the slang term "grass" to get there, just realizing that cannabis plants are hemp and hemp can make rope.
      If that's not what you were thinking of, I apologize.

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    3. Are there a lot of puzzles like that from games that aren't intentionally doing some kind of wordplay or humor type stuff? I can't say I've ever ever seen that done in a serious-ish, non-wordplay game.

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