Star City

Star City by Mark Sachs (Inform)

I’m not going to pretend I understood most of what was going on in “Star City”. Or, indeed, any of it. It, well, didn’t seem to make any sense. At all.

The storyline is right out of a sci-fi pulp novel from long ago: the Earth has just survived a war with the Gloss (who must be the most unscary sounding aliens I’ve ever heard of) and now you’ve discovered that there is an object orbiting the Earth. Deciding this might be a good time to fly up there and see what’s what, and maybe help yourself to some interstellar loot in the process, you swipe yourself a Gloss spaceship and head off to the object to take a look.

Most of the game involves your exploration of the object, which actually turns out to be a large space station-type vessel complete with monorails, avenues named after (of all people) Lenin, and a city that looks the same in every location you visit. The basic idea is to find something valuable from here to make your fortune with once you get back to Earth.

“Star City” is a frustrating game to play. Nothing happens for half a dozen or so turns at the beginning of the game as your stolen spaceship approaches the orbiting vessel and you can’t do much other than sit back and admire the (lack of) view – wouldn’t it have made more sense to start the game after you’ve arrived? There are many more instances of the game requiring you to hang about for something to happen. You can enter the airlock once the spaceship has landed on the orbiting vessel, but the airlock itself won’t open and let you out of the spaceship until X amount of moves have gone by. If you re-enter the spaceship later, you’ll have to go through a lengthy and ultimately tedious process of waiting for the airlock to close, heading into the spaceship, heading back to the airlock and waiting again for the airlock to open before you can exit the ship once more. Elsewhere there’s a solar furnace which you have to operate by pushing a switch, but this again takes several turns and does nothing that couldn’t have been improved upon by taking one. Then there’s the monorail call button which, you guessed it, calls a monorail… but only after several turns have gone by. And don’t even get me started on how many times I had to wait until the film finished playing.

While I can understand the need for realism, I can also understand the need to not bog the game down with meaningless wait times. If I need to press the button to call the monorail, have the monorail arrive immediately. If I need to watch the entire film, just let it run in one go. There’s no fun in typing WAIT again and again.

A large portion of the game was played with the walkthrough to hand. I seemed to do that a lot with the games in the IFComp this year, more so than in previous years, though in my defence I’ll say that certain aspects of “Star City” (as mentioned in the previous two paragraphs) were the kind of thing that made me loose all patience in playing the game the proper way and just wanted to get to the next part. The part that tuned me to the walkthrough here was when I needed to press a button to turn the lights on. I found a box and tried to EXAMINE IT but the game just told me I couldn’t see it. I tried several more commands, got nowhere, got very frustrated, and then tried EXAMINE BOX and, lo and behold, it worked! Now, is there any good reason to make EXAMINE BOX work and EXAMINE IT not work? If there is, I’d sure like to hear it. It’s not even a case that the game didn’t understand EXAMINE IT. It did. It just required me to enter a different command to achieve what needed doing.

The game ended with my untimely death when the spacecraft I was travelling in unexpectedly crashed into the ground. I say unexpectedly because there was no warning. I was just travelling along, banging out WAIT as usual because the game doesn’t like to do anything in a hurry, and then a message flashed up on screen telling me one of my wingtips had hit the ground and that I was dead. A little unfair, I thought, particularly as there hadn’t been any indication that I was in any danger up to that point. Also unfair was the fact that the game won’t let me UNDO twice in a row so that effectively screwed things up for me.

There were certain parts of the game I liked – the idea of a space station orbiting the Earth which seemed to be part of either Lenin or Stalin’s (I was never sure which) plan to destroy the rest of the world and stay safe – but other parts that just annoyed me. The continual need to wait X amount of times just to progress things was a pain. As was the sudden death at the end. And I never understand what the point of the Gloss occupation of the Earth mentioned in the intro was – did it bear relevance to the rest of the game or was it just there for some unnecessary background info?

4 out of 10