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A few old school puzzles frame a moving sci-fi story, April 7, 2015
The Interstellar Text Adventure materialised on the official website for the film Interstellar in March 2015. The ASCII art title screen and mention of Zork in the first paragraph of the FAQ gave off a vibe that the game might turn out to be more of a novelty promotional item rather than a legitimate standalone entity, but this proved to be an unfair assessment. The Interstellar Text Adventure is a small but narratively solid prequel story to Christopher Nolan's film. The game sees you playing one of the Lazarus mission astronauts, and opens with your waking from cryosleep on an unknown planet. Your goal is to determine if it is fit for human life and then to broadcast your findings so that they can be picked up by any who might follow you. Your companion on the mission is a walking, talking robot called PLEX, whose Humour and Honesty settings can be adjusted, as per the film.
The prose is good at evoking the geographical strangeness and splendours of the mystery planet, and does so at length. The dialogue for the robot's practical observations and bad jokes is also effective. However, it should all have gone in for more proofreading; sometimes it's evident that an automatic spellchecker has made the wrong choice and that the result simply hasn't been picked up.
What may cause a few old hands to smirk is that the game's puzzle content is very traditional. It includes a maze that can be solved by dropping things and a text version of something akin to the old Lunar Lander game, where you must burn fuel at the correct rate to touch the ground at a safe speed. There's also an oxygen limit attached to your spacesuit, but you can refill the suit whenever you return to your ship and you're unlikely to find yourself in real danger of running out.
The puzzles must still be viewed as being of potentially extreme hazardousness, given that there's no proper save feature. You can save the game and return to it later, but you can't manually restore an old saved position; to die is to return to the start. Once I'd confirmed this, I felt no compunction about using the COMMANDS HERE option at critical moments, which handily lists all valid commands for the current situation.
So there is a novelty angle in the game after all, in that it builds on a popular modern film and uses it as an opportunity to demonstrate some old school entertainment to a lot of that film's audience who will be unfamiliar with it. But importantly, what surrounds these puzzles is a genuinely interesting narrative about what may be necessary to support human life on an alien planet. There is also a moral choice to be made about what you will do if you are forced into the position of being the bearer of bad news about this planet's habitability.
The game's parser is certainly clunky. It hardly knows any synonyms, and expects a mixture of simple and very complex commands to be entered in turn. Fortunately these problems are mitigated by the presence of the COMMANDS HERE feature, along with its inevitable embrace by anyone serious about completing the game. There are a few other bugs about, the robot's variable settings are under-utilised, and there are puzzle moments that don't work because important text scrolls away and can't be retrieved.
In spite of these problems, the story delivery works. The potentially complicated business of installing environmental probes around the planet is made accessible and comprehensible. The environmental science musings are interesting. The astronaut's relationship with the robot can be affecting, even within this short span of game, and I found the finale moving. The whole game fits as a satisfying elaboration of one aspect of the film. The weird physicality of the robot is probably the only element you won't perceive if you haven't seen the film, as it is not described in the game, but I think that the rest of the content is capable of standing alone. You'll just comprehend it faster if you've seen the film.