Tuesday 5 July 2022

Missed Classic: Stationfall - When Ostriches Attack

Written by Joe Pranevich

Last time out on Stationfall, I died. After ages exploring the space station with my pals Floyd and Plato, circumstances got away from us. The computer virus that plagues the station took over Plato, the kindly librarian robot, and he killed me as Floyd looked on in horror. Although evil and murderous, Plato’s inclinations as an educator remained intact and he helpfully monologued the full plot of the game. This means that I now know what is going on and I have the start of an inkling how to fix it. Of course, I must restore back to an earlier point and replay a ton, but that’s what Infocom games are like.

In case you forgot, let me recap what I learned. Somewhere very far from here, the Zeenaks and Hunji were locked into an epic war. The Zeenaks developed a weapon to finally turn the war in their favor, a computer virus of a sort (in the form of a pyramid) that would turn not only Hunji devices against their owners, but also convert factory equipment to create more such pyramids and spread throughout the galaxy. How the Zeenaks intended to survive their own weapon is not clear. The weapon was launched but never made it to its destination. Somehow, it was picked up and diverted by a lone Hunji ship, the same ship that the station picked up a few days ago. In a matter of days, the station has been corrupted and all humans on board have been eliminated. (I’m still not convinced this is true; I found evidence of survivors on my first day on the station, but not since then.) The pyramid device is now adapting the factory levels at the bottom of the station to create copies of itself to send out across the universe. My job will be to get down there and try to find a way to stop them. I’m only missing two things: a way to get down there and a way to stop them.

Antique headlamp.

Whispering in the Dark

I spent the last two posts exploring the station and village, but I start this time by doing so again. Much like its predecessor (and many other Infocom games), the key narrative loop is to explore and find something new that we can do, which unlocks an item, which opens up new places to explore. Last time, I discovered a miner’s headlamp and a machine that allows me to increase the access-level of my ID card. I restore all the way back to when I first entered the village and make a bee-line to the Mining Field Office (off of “Broadway”) for the helmet, and then to “Shady Dan’s” for the card machine. 

The headlamp allows me to explore three dark rooms that I mapped before:

  • The dark storage room north of the workshop contains a jammer that can be set to multiple frequencies. I had found a sign earlier that the exercise equipment was sensitive to one such frequency. I’ll explore that further in a bit.
  • A dark room southwest of the “South Junction” (on Level Five) appears to be just an empty filing room. 
  • The dark room on the east end of the sixth level is the “Shipping Room”. Here are the forms that I was sent for at the beginning of the game! A forklift to allow me to take the back to my ship is missing. I don’t find anything else of interest. Will the game really make me complete my original mission (after saving the universe) to win? That would be funny, actually. 

The upgraded ID card gives me access to a few locked doors:

  • I discover a zapgun in a military supply cabinet on Level Six! It has multiple settings (and is currently set to “7”). It looks like I’ll be able to shoot something!
  • The brig behind sickbay is a disappointment. Despite being the most locked-down spot on the station, its three cells sit empty. I had hoped for a survivor or clue, but no dice. 

I’ve explored everything I can! Again! 

I feel like I’ve used this image before…

Rosetta Stone

With no obvious new areas to explore, I switch to solving puzzles. Last time, I discovered that several citizens in the space village had been working on decoding an alien language. While I am not intelligent enough to understand the book that they were working with, they helpfully assembled a partial dictionary of words that they had deduced so far. Unlike our languages based on sounds, this alien “tongue” was just that: a language based on flavors. I am reminded of the dots in the alien craft and return to the ship, still nestled in a hangar on Level Six. This time, I do the crazy thing and lick the dots. That works!

With some effort, I decode the alien message using the dictionary. It says:

Brethren Hunji,
Legal destruction/sabotage died/failed however,
I have shined light upon the Zeenak weapon solitary weakness element/substance 78 !
Turn back the bad/evil/deadly radiation !
Air is souring however

It’s not difficult to deduce what happened: while the Hunji secured the pyramid away from his or her people, it gained control over the craft’s life support systems. I’d wager that the being sabotaged his own drive to prevent the pyramid from turning the ship around. Googling reminds me that “element 78” is platinum. We found a platinum detector in the bank! That must be important. I love that atomic numbers naturally serve as a constant between otherwise very different species.

Like this, but in space.

It’s All About The Platinum, Baby

I return to the bank to pick up the platinum detector that I found earlier. It’s a simple device with only an on/off switch. When it’s on, nothing obvious happens. You cannot “point” the detector at anything, nor “use” it, nor any other verb that I can think of. How does it work? I have no idea. I just turn it on and carry it.

I won’t bore you with details, but I carry the detector through every room of the space village. I intended to search the station next, but I didn’t need to: the detector beeps as soon as I enter the barber shop. I search the place but discover nothing. The shop is empty save for a large mirror that still spans one wall. Fortunately, I am slightly clever and break the mirror to reveal a piece of foil. Is it platinum foil? I confirm this through a quick experiment: with the foil dropped outside, the detector no longer beeps in the shop. Proof enough for me. 

I take stock of my remaining clues:

  • The zapgun and jammer are new items. I should probably try to zap and jam things. Perhaps Plato or the welding robots? 
  • I have found several components that could come together to build a bomb, including a detinator, fuse, and plastic explosives. The explosives must be kept cold, but I may be able to solve that. 
  • There are several locked containers that could potentially be approached with force including a safe (in the commander’s room), a locked cabinet (in the garden), and a lockbox (in the village). Alternatively, they all could just have keys that I haven’t found yet.
  • The foil may stop the virus. I give some thought to creating a tinfoil hat for Floyd, but “fold” is not a valid verb in this game. (Unnecessary trivia: the idea of a “tinfoil hat” originated in a 1927 short story, “The Tissue-Culture King” by Julian Huxley.)  
  • We found an ostrich in the village and there is supposedly some “ostrich nip” hidden in a ceiling somewhere. Even with nip, I can think of no obvious things to do with an ostrich. There is also a farting balloon creature in the pet store. 
  • Other stuff could be important like random computer parts (“bedistores”, etc.), dice, a fortune-telling sphere, can of spores, and more. There are also a few items to choose from in the vending machine.

What is the conversion rate of platinum again? Was it 5 to a gold? Or 20? 

Sweating to the Oldies

Over the next several hours, I investigate these options more or less randomly. And when I say “several hours”, I mean that I’ve nearly doubled the play time so far. When I narrate this, I’m about to look a lot more clever than I actually was.

The first clue that I solved was what to do with the jammer. The device itself is simple: it has an on/off switch and a dial that selects what frequency to jam. Despite being very clear in the description, I didn’t pay attention to the prongs on the side of the device. That alone probably cost me an hour. We know from the sign in the exercise room that the equipment requires frequency 710 to function properly. I’m going to imagine this as some kind of high-tech mesh networking, because I’m fairly certain that the Internet of Things wasn't around in 1987. 

When I take the jammer to the exercise room, adjust the dial, and turn it on, nothing happens. I continue exercising just fine. I also try it in front of the welders, the communication systems, and plenty of other places, none of which do anything. That lost hour I hinted at is because the jammer has a 20-prong plug on the side. I have no idea what a “fromitz board” is (and I’m sure that was the intent), but I happen to have a 20-prong one that fits in perfectly. If I plug in the board then turn it on, the equipment freezes up. Repeating that on other obvious devices on the ship does nothing, so while I believe I am “jamming” correctly, I do not have anything that requires jamming at this point. I’ll keep a lookout. It’s a victory of a sort, at least.

Not quite an Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator

Pew! Pew! Pew!

While all of this is going on, I try to shoot things. Partly, this is to blow off some steam from the stress of solving puzzles, and partly because I’d like to know what I can shoot. I shoot a lot of things. I shoot at the safe and the grating, the food dispensers, the exercise machines. I try to bust open some of the crates in the shipping area. Shooting a welder seems to destroy it, but I restore and just run away in case the gun has limited ammo.

After all of that destruction, I (usefully) blew up one thing only: the lockbox in the pawn shop. Whatever paper money in the box is destroyed, but I am rewarded with a single coin. Is that the right solution? Is there other stuff in the box that I need but miss out on because I vaporized them? Hard to say, but at least I can play with the coin.

Only the vending machine in the PX takes coins, that I know of. I return and find two items to buy: an all-purpose timer and a large drill bit. Unfortunately, we have no indication which of the two we need. I wager that we need the timer to create a bomb, but perhaps there are additional coins later. I try to buy it just to see what happens, but in classic vending machine style, the timer gets stuck on the way down. I hear it fall, but it never comes out of the hole. I shake the machine, shoot the machine, and pound on it, but there’s no obvious way to get the timer out. I restore so that I don’t lose the coin unnecessarily.

This may be my last chance to make a “Conan the Librarian” joke.

Death of Plato

While dealing with my vending machine misadventure, my time must run out as Plato attacks again. I don’t have better ideas than last time– I cannot move enough to use either the gun or the foil– so I resort to asking Floyd for help over and over again. For whatever reason, this time Floyd comes to the rescue! 

> floyd, help me
Floyd waves his hands helplessly. “Yes… I mean no… I mean oh no oh help me please. Floyd in quandry...”
   Plato takes aim with the stun gun. His hand begins to depress the trigger. Floyd suddenly leaps at the fun, knocking it out of Plato’s hands! The gun skitters across the floor. Plato and Floyd both chase it, but Plato is a step faster. He leaps on top of it, rupturing the gun’s power pack. The gun explodes, and Plato is blown apart! 
   Floyd crumples to the deck, shaking all over. Tears of oil stream down his face.

After a brief scuffle, Plato is destroyed and I am in a new phase of the game. Was there a way to save Plato that I missed? I must experiment further. 

It’s not hiding, really.

The Dumbest Puzzle in the Game (So Far)

Let’s start off by stating something that should be obvious: ostriches don’t really hide their heads in the sand when they are scared. Since the next phase and puzzle of the game depends on not knowing this, I’m not pleased. So let’s get started and you’ll see what I mean soon enough.

It starts when I search every ceiling in the space village for “ostrich nip”. I can’t find it. Then maybe I think that I misunderstood the note and search every ceiling in the station. There is no nip anywhere. While all of this happens, Floyd becomes less and less my friend and more obviously impacted both by Plato’s death and the evil computer virus. At one point, I even get killed by an over-excited elevator and realize that I’m going to need to take the stairs from this point out. After failing to find the nip anywhere, I search it all again. You know where the ostrich nip was hiding? In the pet store, the most obvious place it could be in the entire station. There is no one to blame but myself, but it took me a long time.

Once I have the nip, I discover that we don’t feed it to the ostrich: it follows us around when we carry it. (But don’t drop it! It’ll eat it immediately and it’s gone for good.) This is as far as I make it for a while because I was working on other puzzles (in specific, building the bomb; more on that in a bit). When I become stuck working on the bomb and unable to get the timer out of the vending machine, I take a hint. What could possibly dislodge the stuck timer? The answer, unfortunately, is an ostrich.

The puzzle works based on the idea that if you scare the ostrich, it will hide its head in a hole. As there are no holes on the station, this will usually fail– except in the room with the vending machine. There, the bird believes that the dispenser slot is actually a hole, puts its head in there, and dislodges the timer. We can then retrieve it. 

Is that the dumbest puzzle that Infocom has ever made? I don’t think so… but it is up there. I’m not even embarrassed that I had to take a hint for that one because it is so stupid.

Hot stays hot and the cool stays cool.

Send Us Up the Bomb

The “open” nature of Stationfall, means that while I was working on the ostrich nip and blowing things up, I was also working on piecing together all of the bomb-making materials scattered around the station. Looking at it now, it feels like assembling the bomb is a culmination of sorts for the puzzles that we have been working on: the ID card led to the gun, which led to the coin, which led to the vending machine, which led to the timer. I’m not sure what happens next or how many more puzzles will be unlocked when I get into the safe, but I know there are plenty of items that I haven’t found a use for yet, plus one farting balloon creature.

I say “get into the safe”, but I’m getting ahead of myself. While assembling the bomb, I really had no idea where it would be used. Do we drop it down the chute in the doctor’s office to blow a hole into the lower part of the station? Do we use it on the grating in the garden? Or somewhere else I haven’t thought of yet? When you have pieces for a bomb, I guess deciding what to go “boom” is somehow secondary. 

Thankfully, the instruction sheet for the explosives (found in the trading post) provided a number of clues:

FREZONE (tm) Liquid Gorzium Explosive
Instructions for use:
1. Insert explosive in hole of appropriate diameter
2. Attach detonator to explosive and timer
3. Set timer
4. Vamoose
NOTE: Do not expose explosive to temperatures above 150 degrees Kelvin for periods of more than 100 millichrons.

Taking that step by step, we found a detonator in the storage room by the mess hall, the explosives after the spacewalk from Shady Dan’s in the space village, and the timer in the vending machine. Getting the explosives was a bit of a puzzle in itself as it melts very quickly. That means either we are blowing up something close to the village or that there is a means to keep it cool. (And we mean cold: 150 degrees Kelvin is -123 degrees Celsius or -190 degrees Fahrenheit; that is really impossibly cold.) Some trial and error and I work out that I can use my empty Thermos (after eating the soup) to keep the explosives cold enough that I can at least take it around the ship for a while. It probably doesn’t keep forever, but as long as I get it last and have a destination in mind, it seems to keep.

Now, where should that destination be? The hint ends up being a closer look at the explosives themselves: they are described as being roughly the thickness of a pencil. Examining the drill bits reveals that the medium one is also the same thickness. Therefore, I conclude that we’ll have to drill a hole in something to set the explosives. What can we drill into? I don’t exhaustively search the station, but quickly find that we can drill a hole in the safe in the Commander’s Office. Is that the right place? We’ll find out soon!

I'm not quite a "super genius". 

Now that I have everything, it’s just a matter of putting it all together: I drill the hole and place the explosives in the hole, I attach the timer and detonator, I set the timer for 5 seconds, and then I run like hell. And then… nothing happens. 

What am I missing? I check the detonator and realize that it has a blackened (burned out?) diode in it. I swap it out for the one that I found on the junk sculpture in the space village and do it all again. Still, nothing happens. I’m missing something, but this is where I will end today. There is no “kaboom”, only a sinking feeling that I missed something. We’re getting close to the end now; let’s see if I can put this away in one more post.

Time played: 4 hr 25 min
Total time: 9 hr 05 min
Score: 47
Inventory: drill (with medium drill bit), a diary, a cup of coffee, 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


  1. Just dotting-i's and crossing-t's thoughts, but I'll rot-13 them anyway
    1) Ner lbh fher < 100 zvyyvpuebaf cnff orgjrra bcravat gur gurezbf naq gur gvzre tbvat bss?
    2) Gur gvzre vf nggnpurq gb gur qrgbangbe, abg gur rkcybfvir, pbeerpg?
    3) Unir lbh gevrq orvat va gur ebbz sbe gur rkcybfvba(be qhq) va pnfr lbh trg n uvag nobhg jung'f tbvat jebat nf gur gvzre vgfrys tbrf bss?

    1. Those are great suggestions! As you will see (in a few days), the main problem was that I had the wrong hyperdiode in there. The game has a decoy and I needed to clean off the blackened one to find that it was M-series, and then realize (from one of the nanofilm spools) that we could find a M-series in the star in the chapel. That would then lead to solving that puzzle. Almost all puzzles in the game seem to lead to this one.

      Thanks to the July 4 holiday, I had some extra writing and playing time. I have drafted the final post and rating which should go out next Sunday/Monday! And I am assembling my notes for a special post of dropped content at the end. It will be good to have this game behind me and hopefully I'll be able to find more consistent writing time for Lurking Horror.

    2. Looking forward to Lurking Horror as well.
      Glad you got unstuck!

  2. I dont think Floyd helps you defeat Plato unless you actually ask him to (which I don't think you did the first time)

    He is conflicted by the influence of the pyramid vs his affection for you. Thankfully since he has been on the station a shorter period of time than the other machines he is not fully affected by the pyramid, but still needs your coaxing to get him "over the hump"