This guest post is brought to you by Michael Tegos. You can find more of his content on Twitter (@michaeltegos) or on his website.
Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster, Interstellar, was last year’s pop culture black hole; its gravity well inexorably pulling online buzz around it, people arguing about whether there was actually something to be found beyond the dazzling spectacle of its event horizon.
No matter where one stands on the movie itself, the core of the story – the challenge of the unknown, the loneliness of the long-distance explorer – appeals to science fiction writers and readers alike; some of the best stories in the genre have been about the human race braving the odds to travel to distant places, where our own fears and prejudices prove as dangerous as the alien wilderness we find ourselves in.
And while this extraterrestrial existential angst doesn’t seem like the ideal setup for your average movie tie-in, it is in fact just the ticket for interactive fiction. The Interstellar Text Adventure was created mainly to promote the movie’s Blu-ray launch at the end of March, but for a major media franchise, it’s an intriguing foray into a medium that’s not exactly high-profile.
Those who haven’t yet seen Nolan’s film or don’t plan to don’t have to worry; the story is entirely self-contained and while having seen the movie certainly lends it context, the text gives you everything you need in order to understand what’s happening. Fans of the film will know a little more about how the Earth is becoming unsustainable for us, how NASA discovers a wormhole near Saturn that leads to a whole other galaxy, and how a team of twelve astronauts led by Dr. Mann is sent out through the wormhole as the vanguard of an unprecedented exploratory mission; each member travelling to a different world to find a new home for humanity.
Unless, you know, something goes wrong out here on the other side of the universe.
But all you need to know are the basics: you are a scientist and explorer, part of the aforementioned team of astronauts, who crash lands on an alien world many, many light years away from Earth. Your mission is to explore the planet and assess its viability as a possible new home, so your fellow humans can follow. Until then, the planet and your small landing pod are home only to you and a robotic companion called PLEX. Your task is basically to survive, plant probes that will collect data on the planet, transmit the good news back to Earth, and then sit comfortably and wait for your compatriots to arrive. Unless, you know, something goes wrong out here on the other side of the universe.
The game’s title probably gives it away, but this is a text adventure game in the proud tradition of Zork and the rest of the beloved Infocom oeuvre. You read the text to get a sense of where you are and what you can do and you enter commands into the parser to proceed. The commands range from single words like “north” (to move one screen to the north) and “relax” (self-explanatory) to simple sentences such as “take binoculars” and “attach hose to canister”. In most cases you get a sense of the command you need by carefully reading the descriptions but the game only recognizes specific words and sentence structures. Luckily, there is always a hint system available so you can get a sense of what the game is asking from you at any given time.
Text adventure veterans will probably be disappointed to learn this is not an especially hard game; no Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy shenanigans here. The action is pretty linear with very few opportunities for divergence and although there are four possible endings, they’re not that much different from each other. Your tasks are clearly spelled out and there aren’t many different ways to go about them – indeed, there aren’t many different commands the game will recognize and accommodate.
The game still manages to offer up some interesting uses of the parser though, and rewards you for paying attention to the narrative.
The puzzles on offer are interesting, if not terribly challenging. They could have been better integrated in the story and the atmosphere, however; platforming over a bunch of floating rocks, for example, does not make for a very poignant outer space exploration tale. The game still manages to offer up some interesting uses of the parser though, and rewards you for paying attention to the narrative.
Perhaps correctly, the game assumes that most people who come in contact with it are movie fans first and interactive storytelling fans second, so it serves as a fine primer for anyone who hasn’t tried this kind of interactive experience before (the website even goes as far as describing exactly what a text adventure is).
Ultimately, a good text adventure game stands or falls on the strength of its writing, and the writing here (apparently by Interstellar executive producer Jordan Goldberg) is fine. It does an adequate job of describing your surroundings to you and providing hints and context, but that’s as far as it goes. The only other character you can interact with is PLEX who, especially compared to his counterparts in the movie, is little more than a metal slab spouting expository dialogue. You can supposedly have some fun with him by playing with his honesty and humor settings, but nothing very interesting comes out of that.
Despite Interstellar’s themes of isolation in outer space, of the perils of exploration, and sacrifice for the good of the many, there’s precious little of that here. While there are some passages devoted to your character’s psychological condition and inner struggle of duty vs survival, it never goes into enough depth to be meaningful. The one moral choice the game offers is significant enough (and in fact the movie characters do come across the consequences of the decision to a similar predicament) but without much insight into your own protagonist, it never feels like it has any weight. While you can play the game without knowing anything about the movie, here it feels like it’s counting too much on the emotional context of the movie to inspire any kind of empathy.
Even though it’s far from the best the medium has to offer, the Interstellar Text Adventure is still a nice way to shed some mainstream light on interactive fiction (as far as a science fiction blockbuster can be considered “mainstream”). For fans of the movie, it’s a neat way to dive back into the universe before getting the Blu-ray and for something that was created mainly as a promotional item, it certainly goes the extra light year. Still, much like the ending of Interstellar, I wish there was a little more in there.