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About the Story
An astronaut’s life is wondrous; sometimes, space has other ideas.
Entrant, Main Festival - Spring Thing 2022
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Number of Reviews: 4
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This is one of the most polished, multimedia-confident Twines I have ever come across. Some great graphics, particularly at the end, and a really good, atmospheric soundtrack.
Writing a puzzle game in Twine is potentially a challenge because the options are laid out for the reader already, but a way around that is to have lots of options so that the signal is hidden amongst the noise. I took a few tries on this one, and found a way of exploring every location before making any irreversible errors. Part of me wanted a bit more detail about the world which the PC is living in, the mission, and what has happened - but perhaps it was all the more evocative that these things are only briefly sketched in. It took me several plays before I managed to get to the good ending, and held my attention through all of them. A very accomplished game.
For all that its plot hinges on a lone astronaut’s attempt to escape a doomed space station before it falls out of the sky, Orbital Decay is a surprisingly low-key affair. This choice-based take on a classic premise is distinguished by steering more into real-world plausibility than is typical (given how grounded the game’s tech is, I was surprised to learn the space station was orbiting an alien planet), but also by simple puzzles and a willingness to back-burner the imminent threat when there’s an opportunity to poke around its well-realized setting. This winds up playing to the game’s strong research chops – it’s fun to explore the station and read the various infodumps on how it should be working – but means the stakes and challenge felt reasonably low throughout.
I got a lot of enjoyment out of the game’s accurate rendition of NASA bureaucratese. After some early hiccups – the writing in the opening starts out a bit too wide-eyed (“The celestial heaven - an immense sea of black and stars, almost as if the uncounted fiery eyes of the Gods themselves were peering through the darkness”) and then overcorrects towards an overly-abrupt style when laying out the inciting incident:
"As an astronaut assigned to the COL (Crewed Orbital Laboratory) Bowman, you’re currently conducting a spacewalk to repair a failing AE-35 unit.
"Swiftly and without warning, the Bowman is struck by space debris. You survive, but the impact sends you spiraling into the vastness. Suddenly, you feel a violent recoil and realize your tether has miraculously remained intact!"
But once you’re back aboard the station, things settle down, and as you work through the puzzles, you’re treated to stuff like this:
"You’ve opted for the CEVIS pre-breathing protocol; before you can begin suit preparation, you need to perform exercise on a stationary bike while pre-breathing pure oxygen and then slightly depressurize the airlock to 10.2psi."
Maybe I’m a strange person, but I really like this! It gives a nice, grainy texture that lends novelty to a fairly played-out scenario, and if it sometimes undercuts the gravity of the protagonist’s predicament, I think that’s an OK tradeoff. The downside of this highly-technical style is that it risks bewildering the player by expecting them to have the same facility with jargon as the protagonist, but Orbital Decay avoids this by keeping the puzzles and obstacles quite simple to work through. There’s a pleasingly complex protocol required to move through an airlock, for example, but all the player has to do is click a series of links in order and enjoy the technobabble the game spits out. Similarly, there are a lot of different gadgets and items to find, but they’re pretty much all floating around in corridors, and with no inventory limit it’s easy to just grab all of them and then choose the usually-obvious options to use them appropriately.
I sometimes got the sense that the author realized that they’d streamlined things quite a lot and tried to re-add some complexity. For example, at one point you need to do an EVA to enter a damaged portion of the station from the outside, and have to make it across the gap. You have a large number of options to try, from using a tether to anchor you as you jump to using a fire extinguisher as an improvised propellant, but since you’ll have almost certainly picked up a jetpack that’s specifically designed for these kinds of situations as you went through the airlock, you’ll obviously want to just use that. Similarly, one of the options you’re given as soon as the game starts, when you’re still floating out in space, is to remove your helmet. It fleshes out the list of choices, sure, but having a “shoot self in face” button doesn’t really improve interactivity or add difficulty.
Also on the negative side of the ledger, I did run into some technical niggles, including a soft state-reset where after pressurizing an airlock, my choice to look around before heading onward somehow depressurized the airlock and put me back in my suit. Some text that probably should only fire once – like the protagonist musing “where is everyone” upon seeing the empty crew hub – repeats whenever you backtrack. And played on a phone, there are some misalignment issues that meant that some lists wound up mismatched, making the last “puzzle” (you need to pick a landing point from a list that includes an assessment of how well-suited they’re likely to be) harder than it was intended – though again, it was probably intended to be too easy.
Would Orbital Decay be a stronger game if it was harder? I think in some sense yes, the version that has timers, inventory limits, and more challenging puzzles probably does a better job of realizing the premise. And the low-key vibe extends to the ending, which I found pretty anticlimactic. At the same time, I feel like I’ve played a million games milking drama and challenge out of escaping a crashing spaceship, so playing one that leans hard into nerdy technical detail, where it’s no big deal if I want to ride an exercise bike or rehydrate a burger mid-crisis, made for a nice change of pace.
There is a long tradition in IF of space games where you start alone in or near a damaged space station and have to make it out alive or at least figure out what's happened. It's a genre I enjoy.
This one goes out of its way to focus on realistic aspects, something I haven't seen much before. A lot of images directly from NASA are used, as well as a variety of free images online that have been modified, with accompanying music.
Using airlocks requires a variety of processes, including exercising! Hadn't known that was a thing with pressure changes before.
I ran into a couple of issues with lists not lining up (numbers and text was mismatched) but I think that might just be my Chrome browser, as the same thing happened with a website my son was working on, so I don't think it's the author's fault.
The only thing I felt really lacking here was emotional engagement. The processes were interesting and clinical, and there were definitely places I could have hooked in emotionally (a picture of family, the loss of Commander Rico), but for whatever reason I just didn't feel that connection. Overall, well done scientific space adventure.
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