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ParserComp 2021: Return to the Stars, August 2, 2021
“Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.” – Alfred, Lord Tennyson
I think one of the reasons people are so nostalgic about 70s/80s text adventures is just how inexplicable they were. Alluring magic of the poorly lit room deep in the recesses of a university far from your hometown, where glowing terminals, buzzing and beeping, linked to impossibly complex networks of wires, built into a Stongehenge metallic, promise the intrepid student a strange array of secrets, some of which you surreptitiously at 1am log in to play, files mysteriously apparating from the nonnet, from who knows where, written by who knows who. As you play the game, you’re forced to surrender your normal common logic, your usual language, instead communicating with a dense and rigorous system of life and death, where success lies tantalizing behind obtuse, opaque inference matrices…
Entrancement of the inexplicable beguiles us through this strange, spartan affair. Based off Marko Kloos’ Frontline military scifi novels, which appear to have a reputation for being light on plot but heavy on events, Return to the Stars offers a no nonsense prison escape “puzzlefest”. I use quotes here, because you’re not solving puzzles per se, rather the game experience mostly comes from trying to figure out what set of commands propels you forward through the rather compact gamespace. It’s exploratory, even sometimes gently so. Like for example here’s a puzzle: you’re in the control room, and you need to find a keycard for later in the game. The main scenery in the room is a control panel: “The walls are plastered with screens showing video feeds from throughout the facility.” That sounds like a wall-mounted display above a panel featuring a few dials, right? Well, it’s not, it’s a desk, and you need to look under it, which rewards you with the keycard. This puzzle asks you to look at your surroundings, and most of the puzzling comes from the fact that it’s described in a way that might prove confusing. Here’s another puzzle: you’re presented with several switches with alien labels. You might think you need to pull them and then explore to see what they do, right? Well actually you just need to go to a storage room, get your armor, then return, because apparently your armor translates the alien language. (How does that work you ask in vain, imagining perhaps a slight buzzing in your sternum as you suddenly just know what gthyunibekzuut means.) If you flip the switches without knowing what they do, you get no result, but as soon as you can read them, now they have an effect. Again, you’re not trying to figure anything out, you’re just exploring a space and seeing how it changes as you acquire more items. These aren’t really puzzles so much as they are progress gates. While in theory such a system could work well for a military thriller, where you’re trying to catapult yourself through a series of rooms at high speed, tension always building, there’s not really any tension here: the prison is mostly abandoned, you’re exploring at your leisure, the only time you encounter the aliens is near the end, where you engage in a brief shootout, then you’re right back into exploration.
That exploration is where most of the puzzly nature of the game comes into play, as the pathways in this game are complex and disorienting, though not necessarily for any hypergeometry alien lore reasons, but simply because of the mercurial construction of the gamespace. You climb into a pair of vents, crawl into an installation room, where you climb a ladder into a control room, but then you go south along a corridor and end up right outside where you started? And if you want to turn back to the control room you just left, rather than going north like you’d expect, you actually have to go west. Then, when you manage to get out of the prison block, you’re in a place where, besides a few buildings, “You are otherwise surrounded by water,” though when you examine the water, “You can’t see any such thing.” So you go down towards the water, where “A small dock extends into the water, away from the rocky shoreline. The shore, populated with buildings, lies a few hundred meters to the north.” But when you examine the shore, “You can’t see any such thing.” Confusing! But perhaps we’re meant to understand that the shoreline is a C shape, and we’re swimming from tip to tip of the C? But then why plunge into the dark alien sea? Like I think I prefer a stroll along the beach to fending off whatever may lurk beneath the surface? But no, you dive into the water, then walk through the darkness north for several turns, then voila, you’re now on a different part of the island. Shall you realize that you forgot the keycard in the prison block and need to return, then you can climb the cliffs to get back to where you started? I suppose that’s what you get when you employ Escher and Moebius Architects to build your prison.
You might think from these points that the game is frustrating or dense, but actually it’s rather laidback and genial. The plot consists mostly of your objective. At the beginning you’re told “it has been three days since your captors last fed you – or given you any attention, really. If you are to leave this planet alive, you better find a way before you starve…” So you get the sense that maybe something has gone wrong, and the base has been rapidly abandoned? That sense builds as you wander around more and more of the area and find no one. But then there are aliens, just like, there, in a room. So you’re not supposed to worry about where the aliens are, don’t even worry where your comrades are, don’t think, soldier, just move. Indeed, a slightly garrulous military mood is perhaps the connective tissue the game presents: our primary flash of character is an offhand comment that “In all your years of military service, you’ve never felt a desire to move up into the officer ranks yourself, even though there were plenty of open spots in the newly-unified military.)” So I suppose our protagonist possesses a master sergeant mentality. But you’re not meant to suppose that, the game mostly shrugs off every question it raises, who’s paying you to think, give me some PT soldier, hup two three four! Again this game stresses a certain tension and forward momentum, there’s even an oxygen limit and a timer which decrease ominously on your status line, even if perhaps you’re not immediately threatened or compelled to make progress.
The gunmetal gray aesthetic extends to the prose, which gives us the thousand yard stare on its finale: after finally commandeering a ship and making your daring prison escape from this alien planet, our master sergeant stays focused: “You push your doubts aside and follow the pointers provided by you armor’s computer system. Half an hour later, you have safely left the atmosphere and have settled into a stable low orbit.” Shortly thereafter, we get our victorious denouement as we at last return to Earth: “Despite the prospect of hours upon hours of debriefings from all levels of command, and probably military intelligence as well, you are glad to be back.” Epictetus would be proud.
I have to admit that, rather than being put off by all this head scratching uncertainty and flatness, I actually found it sort of endearing. That’s especially the case because the game was clearly built with love and care: we get an author’s note describing how they’ve dreamed of making this game for several years. We get some lovely little details, for instance if you destroy the camera in your cell, then when you examine the control panel, your action is remembered: “One feed is missing – presumably yours, considering that you broke the camera in your cell.” Several synonyms and alternate constructions are smoothly implemented, and the parser does point you towards the constructions it wants on several occasions, so I never felt like I struggled with the parser. The hint system is really excellent, with four to eight hints per puzzle all arranged neatly in a menu. Welcker wants us to enjoy our jaunt through this tautly crafted military escapade, and who am I not to oblige? Like the IF aficionado of the 80s, holding a diskette mailed from across the world, seeing text appear on my screen, living suddenly in a computerized world where simple sentences are enough to energize my imagination, I cannot but find myself entranced by the inexplicable…