[2/3] >AIM BAZOOKA: Seastalker

I would have gotten away with it if it wouldn’t have been for you meddling kids.

You’ll Find That Information in Your Seastalker Package

The cover for the folio release of Seastalker. The image is fully described in the article.
The outside cover of my own copy of Seastalker. Note that you can view any image in a new tab for a closer look.

Seastalker was Infocom’s final folio release, and it acquits itself well in that sense. The cover, with its comic-book style art, is exciting. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll quote my own copy from a draft of my screen reader-friendly documentation:

[Seastalker: Front Cover. The cover depicts the interior of a small submersible craft. It is viewed from the perspective of the pilot. We see their hands as if they were ours. The left holds a navigation joystick while the right hand hovers above a lever. It is dark in the craft: the pilot’s hands appear silvery-grey in the dim, undersea light. The interior of the sub seems gloomy and purplish in the darkness.

The central focus of the picture is the viewport directly in front of the pilot. This viewport may be leaking: water is gathering at its edges. On the other side of the viewport is a startling sight: a red and very malicious-looking eye staring into the craft. This eye belongs to a strange creature that looks like a mixture between a squid and an alien. It has suckered tentacles like a squid, but it also has slender tentacles that end with three claws that seem capable of grasping–or biting!

At the top of the cover, stylized capital letters read: “SEASTALKER. DIVE DEEP INTO DANGER.”]

The package includes a grid-based map of Frobton Bay, which the protagonist must navigate in their prototype submarine, the Scimitar. The manual includes a letter from the president (signed, “The President”). Also included are a Discovery Squad sew-on patch and a set of “Infocards” that likely would have afforded a real “gee whiz” experience for a young child. They appear to be covered with red text repeating “SEASTALKER” again and again. However, when viewed through a red film, text underneath the red text becomes visible. At certain points, the game will suggest that the player can consult a card for a hint. For instance:

(If you want a clue, find Infocard #3 in your SEASTALKER package. Read hidden clue #1 and put "Electrical Panel" in the blank space.)

Sliding the card under the film, the player discovers clue number 1: “Check the __________.”

On the other side of each card are unconcealed snippets of text that, for whatever reason, ought to be in the game. Perhaps doing so saved needed space in the game file. On the other hand, they may serve as a kind of copy protection. I suppose the best answer is “a bit of both.” Unfortunately, I feel–surely I am not alone–that immersion is, er, torpedoed rather quickly by assertions like:

>examine bly
(You'll find that information in your SEASTALKER package.)

While I greatly enjoy relying upon in-universe artifacts in Infocom games, a list of text descriptions that really ought to have been in the game is not an in-universe document. The protagonist is not, of course, carrying a stack of cards that say things like:

AMY LOWELL–She’s a Navy woman through and through. Always a tomboy at heart, Amy’s been to the Navy Frogman school and had lots of neat jobs like this one. She’s still in college at Columbia University and works at the Aquadome during the summer.

[This space intentionally left blank]

The interior contents of Seastalker, featuring a manual, disk, reference card, and Infocards (described above).
The contents of my Seastalker folio. Not pictured: Discovery Squad Patch

Would You Like Me to Tell You The Story of Seastalker? >YES

Seastalker begins with an emergency call on the “videophone” from Commander Zoe Bly. The aquadome–a new undersea research station–is under attack by a mysterious sea creature known as the “snark.”

Seastalker has one infamously fiddly timer that can result in repeated fail states which a young player–or even an adult–may struggle to diagnose. There are a handful of equally fiddly–though less notorious–timers that affect the player’s experience of the story as well. In this case, Sharon Kemp [consult your Seastalker documentation for more information] is behaving suspiciously, but the player has only limited time to encounter her before she leaves the office. She has sabotaged the protagonist’s submarine, for instance, but most players may not realize that unless they rush to her office after restoring power to the videophone (I don’t consider this a motivated action). Players who rush to save the Aquadome rather than talk to Sharon will miss out on this scene:

>go to office
(Kemp's office)
You're in the office of your lab assistant, Sharon Kemp. There is a desk and chair here, and the office door leading out to the parking lot. To the west, a corridor leads back to your laboratory.

Tip follows you into Kemp's office.
As you enter, Sharon is hastily going through the contents of an open file drawer. She turns with a startled expression as you appear in the doorway. Her face is flushed and her manner seems slightly emotional.

>hello, sharon
Sharon Kemp nods at you.
>examine sharon
(You'll find that information in your SEASTALKER package.)
>ask sharon about files
"I can't find the magazine I bought for my mother this morning. I thought it might be in the file drawer. I wanted to take it to the hospital for her to read. I really must rush off, Drew!"

>ask sharon about mother
(I don't know the word "mother".)

>ask sharon about sharon
"You know me well and trust me completely."
 
>examine papers
You look quickly through the drawer but find nothing suspicious, so you decide to leave the papers alone.

>ask sharon about phone
(You'll find that information in your SEASTALKER package.)

Without this bit of context, the scimitar just mysteriously breaks on the way to the Aquadome–though it is easily fixable by the protagonist (with Tip’s help, of course).

Shortly after the protagonist arrives at the Aquadome, another timer dictates that the air supply for the entire Aquadome stops working! Commander Bly doesn’t have her emergency oxygen supply!

Suddenly you realize that Zoe is literally gasping for breath. Her face is turning reddish-purple! She clutches her throat...
Everyone, including yourself, is having trouble breathing!

This seems like something a protagonist would want to look into. In fact, I wondered if Sharon were lurking somewhere in the base. The exact opposite is true. The game immediately pulls the player into a different sort of conspiracy and places emphasis on customizing the Scimitar for a confrontation with the Snark. If the player decides to investigate the oxygen, well, they are playing a dangerous game. Another timer is ticking away and, if the player doesn’t get out of the dome in time, the monster will suddenly and unexpectedly destroy the Aquadome.

Thank goodness for saved games! If the player searches the facility, they will discover that the science officer (Doc Horvak) sabotaged the oxygen system to convince Commander Bly that she’s “not only a human being, but a warm, desirable woman.”

[This space intentionally left blank.]

If the player does let Seastalker drag them around, they will field an onslaught of yes or no questions from various technicians who want to strap and bolt various thingamajigs to the Scimitar for a battle with the Snark. These constructions are unusual for an Infocom title. The intent, presumably, is to gamify actions that are mechanically narrative rather than interactive:

"Drew," says Zoe, "we could be in danger! The Snark may attack again any time! Would you answer some questions?" >yes
"Can you use the SCIMITAR to hunt the Snark, instead of waiting for it to attack?" >yes
"Do you wish to arm the SCIMITAR for attacking?" >yes
(If you want a clue, find Infocard #7 in your SEASTALKER package. Read hidden clue #3 and put "extensor claw" in the blank space.)

(If you want a clue, find Infocard #7 in your SEASTALKER package. Read hidden clue #2 and put "dart gun" in the blank space.)

"If you want to think it over, we should go to the Aquadome laboratory. Shall we go now?" >yes
"Okay, let's go."

This portion is the wide and open middle part of Seastalker, and in a sense it asserts that Seastalker is not a game about you, the player. It is a game about your submarine. It is a story about a submarine that is taken to a science lab for customization. Said customizations are then used to lob rockets at a mad scientist. This really ought to work better than it does. As a child, I would have loved customizing a submarine and chasing sea monsters. The problem, as I see it, is this: not everything has to be a puzzle. I recently said something similar in the most recent Gold Microphone podcast. Journey suffers as a game because the puzzles are at odds with the storytelling. It wasn’t widely understood, back then, that exploration was gameplay in its own right.

After answering questions, selecting a bazooka as a weapon of choice, and catching random dude Bill Greenup [You’ll find that information in your Seastalker package.] trying to inject you with arsenic, the protagonist is off to confront the Snark. This all begins with a massive exposition dump with what may or may not be the player’s first encounter with Sharon Kemp:

Holy halibut!" cries Tip. "There's a big cloud of silt ahead in the brass search light. It's out of sonar range. This could be the Snark! Want to hold course till we find out?" >yes
However you steer, the cloud holds steady. You may be on a collision course with the behemoth that almost wrecked the Aquadome!
Your brass search light reveals TWO objects dead ahead!
One is the Snark. To the left of the tentacled creature -- YOUR left -- you can make out a vehicle crawling along the ocean floor.
Tip says, "That's one of your Sea Cats!"
A voice crackles over the sonarphone: "This is Doctor Jerome Thorpe, Drew! Do you read me?" >yes
Your answer brings a rasping laugh. "Of course you read me, or you wouldn't be answering! Your lab assistant, Sharon Kemp, is seated behind me. She'll enjoy what's about to happen as much as I will. Would you like to hear what's in store for you?" >yes
"I'll blast your sub with a rocket! Then I'll guide my synthetic monster to the Aquadome to destroy it! Can you guess what sealed your doom, Drew?" >no
"I want to own the valuable ore deposit near the Aquadome! Sharon and I consider it a wedding present from you and your dad ..."
Thorpe breaks off with a sudden gulp, followed by some noise and then a soft female voice:
"This is Sharon Kemp, Drew! Do you read me?" >yes
"Thank goodness! I conked Thorpe with a wrench! He fell onto the microphone, and he's too heavy for me to move!"
(Your score just went up by 5 points!)
>ask sharon about thorpe
"Wait a second, Drew, till I catch my breath!" Sharon cuts in. "I'm not in on Thorpe's plot, Drew. I'm playing along, trying to wreck his plans. I know it was risky for me to leave that catalyst capsule out of the SCIMITAR, and to open that circuit breaker, but it was part of my plan, and you got to the Aquadome anyway."
"Can I interrupt, Drew?" asks Tip. >yes
"Sharon, how does Thorpe control the monster?"
"By sonar pulse signals," she replies. "It's sensitive to the signals on its RIGHT side. Thorpe has installed a sonar transducer on the LEFT or PORT side of this sub. He has to stay on the same side of the monster all the time.""Is the transducer sending out signals now?" Tip asks her.
"Yes, it operates all the time. Can you make out our position on your sonarscope?"
"Thanks to the fine grid!" says Tip. "Maybe we'd better stop the SCIMITAR before we collide with you!"
Tip uses his dual-control throttle to stop your sub. Then he adds apologetically: "This isn't mutiny, Drew! I just figured we should stop now."
Sharon says, "Notice how we keep 5 meters to the monster's right and 5 meters behind its nose. The Sea Cat is programmed that way, so the signals reach the monster with enough strength to keep it in control.""Was it out of control when it attacked the Aquadome?" asks Tip.
"Oh no!" Sharon replies. "Thorpe has a helper at the Aquadome who put a black box on the Aquadome sonar equipment, which made it emit signals to ATTRACT the monster and make it attack. Do you follow me so far, Drew?" >yes
"Good. Before that first attack, Thorpe got the monster close enough for the black box to take over. Then he surfaced near Frobton Bay to get me. By the time we went back to the ocean floor, something had gone wrong: the Aquadome was okay, and the monster had wandered off to its cavern. That reminds me, Drew. Do you want to take the monster to its cavern peacefully? (With no more sonar pulse input, it'll stay there until you're ready to study it scientifically.)" >yes
"First tell me, Drew: do you have any tranquilizer or weapon to use against it?" >yes
"Do you want to capture it for scientific study?" >yes
"Then try the following:
Position your sub on the other side of the monster -- on the monster's LEFT side -- just 5 meters from it. If anything goes wrong and it gets out of control, you can tranquilize it immediately."

[I’ve added some line spaces for readability purposes. These were often omitted in Stu Galley games.]

After successfully herding the creature about with Sharon Kemp, Thorpe [You’ll find that information in your Seastalker package]–who has only just been unmasked like a Scooby Doo villain–awakens and seizes control of his SeaCat vehicle. The end is rather abrupt:

>aim bazooka at pod
(Your score just went up by 5 points!)
Aimed.

>fire
(What do you want to fire?)

>bazooka
(Your score just went up by 5 points!)
Great! You and Tip can see the bazooka slam into the Sea Cat's power pod!

"Hooray! That crippled the Sea Cat for keeps!" Tip cheers.

You hear a voice come over the sonarphone: "Drew, this is Sharon! Do you read me?" >yes

"Something hit us, and Thorpe's out cold! He cracked his skull on the bulkhead! I was waking up when I saw it all happen. I'll tie him up so he can't cause any trouble.

The Sea Cat's regular engine is kaput, but he installed a backup engine for emergencies. And the sonar control's still working. If you like, I'll guide the monster to its cavern."

CONGRATULATIONS, DREW! YOU'VE COMPLETED YOUR MISSION!!

Your score is 100 points out of 100, in 323 turns.
This score gives you the rank of a famous adventurer.

There’s a lot to talk about in this story. It is, like that of Infidel, practically bursting with meaning. However, unlike Infidel, I’m not sure that Seastalker is so intentionally meaningful. The game’s attitude regarding Commander Zoe Bly feels regressive, even by 1980s standards, and sellout traitor Bill Greenup comes off as an ingrate and class pretender who fails to appreciate the magnanimity of his betters. Seastalker is also, ultimately, less about science and more about youthful military fantasy, with its obsessions over designations of rank, service histories, and retrofitting a science vessel for combat. The game, ultimately, is beaten with a rocket launcher. Curiously, the villain Thorpe appears more interested in science than any other member of the cast. Including, of course, the protagonist.

Get In Touch!

You can expect a bit of everything in Gold Machine’s third and final essay on Seastalker next week. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts, disagreements, and questions here, via email (golmac@golmac.org), or on Twitter.

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6 thoughts on “[2/3] >AIM BAZOOKA: Seastalker

  1. >ask sharon about sharon
    “You know me well and trust me completely.”

    I’m picturing a Jedi handwave here.

    If the player searches the facility, they will discover that the science officer (Doc Horvak) sabotaged the oxygen system to convince Commander Bly that she’s “not only a human being, but a warm, desirable woman.”

    [This space intentionally left blank.]

    My face is intentionally left blank, here. How was that supposed to have that effect on her, exactly? This is rather strange not only as an in-universe action (maybe it’s meant to show that he’s not all there?), but just as a piece of writing.

    I’m amused at a literal hunting of a Snark though.

  2. Excellent write-up! Worth mentioning the historical context here, which is that the “successes” of SeaLab were widely published at this time. There was also a strong movement in the late 70s to possibly replace America’s successes in space with successes in underwater living and exploration. This doubtlessly influenced the creators of the game.

    1. I’m surprised to hear this. I always had the impression that the Sealab project ended on a (some) sour note(s), but my knowledge of the project is pretty shallow. The 70s cartoon “Sealab 2020” was a failure, too, I think.

      Still, Galley had to have gotten the idea from somewhere, and the militaristic “Discovery Squad” does seem inspired by–or at least closely connected to–the US Navy.

  3. “How was that supposed to have that effect on her, exactly?”

    The way he describes it in the game, he wants to embarrass her for not taking safety regulations seriously (e.g. not wearing her emergency oxygen gear). Which still doesn’t make it a good idea by any stretch of imagination.

    Though I guess he also had some hare-brained scheme to make himself look like a hero to that “warm, desirable woman”. If you don’t repair the oxygen system, he will. Unless, of course, you’ve hidden the equipment he needs, in which case the game will end. Still not a good idea, but unfortunately not the dumbest I’ve ever heard of…

    (While looking this up, I noticed that the game text explicitly refers to the number of turns the others will survive without oxygen. Another immersion-breaking reminder that you’re playing a game!)

    I don’t know what the original plans for the game were, but it seems to me that some stuff on the Aquadome is rather underdeveloped, or possibly cut for space to make room for the submarine implementation.

    Looking through the leaked source code, I can see things like there is some sort of tension between Antrim and Bly, I can also see that it’s possible to ask Bly to send Siegel on an assignment that’s either in our out of sight from the comm center, presumably to test if he’s the traitor by seeing how he would react if he saw any suspicious activity there. Probably a lot of other little things I missed. But I have absolutely no recollection of any of these from playing the game. The game just doesn’t encourage you to explore any of these options, and the whole thing is just smothered in a series of yes/no questions.

    Which is a shame. I can’t help wondering what the game would have been like if this part had been allowed a bit more space, and been populated with more interesting characters. (If someone objects that I’m just describing Deadline under water, all I can say is… great idea! 🙂

    1. I will write more about the Bly incident next week, but its hard for me to avoid seeing that bugbear of literary criticism, the larger pattern, In this case, I mean the portrayal of women in Stu Galley games.

      I do agree wholeheartedly that Seastalker overinvests in the Submarine at the expense of what really could have been a fun and interesting time at the Aquadome. It would have been nice to have explored more. Better yet, I would have preferred a more hands-on experience with customizing the submarine. That should have been, for lack of a better word, cooler. I also would have enjoyed spending more time solving the mystery of the saboteur.

      If that turned out to be Deadline under the sea, so be it!

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