[3/3] Militaristic Fantasy, Narrative Drift, and the (Sea) Stalker

Grownups are a bit crap.

We have reached, at last, the final installment of Gold Machine’s reading of Seastalker. Before we continue, I’d really like to look back at The Witness, saddled as it is with gender-assumptive bumbling and orientalist fascinations. At that time, I argued that murderous Monica Linder was both eroticized and exoticized as a woman mechanical engineer. Furthermore, the presence of “Terry,” her romantic interest (the Invisiclues makes several jokes about assuming their gender), seems to link what the text presents as provocatively unfeminine deportment (slacks!) and comportment (engineering!) with lesbianism.

Five women stand on a balcony overlooking the French Riviera. Like troublemaking women from Seastalker and The Witness, they are all wearing pants!
A scene from the 1930s French Riviera (photographer not cited).

But that was 1983. What of 1984? There, we encounter Commander Zoe Bly, who is in charge of the Discovery Squad’s new undersea research station, the Aquadome. We discover via Seastalker‘s clunky method of metatextual exposition (rectangular cardboard cards containing various snippets of text left out of the game’s code discussed here) the following facts:

Walt “Doc” Horvak–Walt’s probably the most dedicated scientist around, so dedicated that sometimes you get the impression he’s a loner. He’s always working on some new experiment or scuba diving. Walt doesn’t look like the “doctor” type, but he spent a lot of time working in a hospital before he got interested in marine biochemistry. If you’re looking for any kind of medical advice, he’s the one to ask.

Commander Zoe Bly–This woman’s delicate beauty is hard to resist, but when you start to talk to her, wow–what a tough one she is. For one thing, she’s a champion athlete and a superachiever. For the past three months now, she’s been commander at the Aquadome. She’s an Honor Graduate of the Navy Frogman School and the Galley Institute of Technology. You’ll see soon enough that she doesn’t have much patience with people who don’t meet her standards. And that attitude tends make some people real mad.

While it’s tempting to dive immediately into Commander Bly’s description, it is better to situate this characterization in a dramatic scene–Doc Horvak’s sabotage of the oxygen system (discussed in last week’s post). The player is encouraged to intervene, as the game attempts to create a sense of urgency:

>z
(I assume you mean: wait 10 turns.)
Time passes...

In 10 turns Bly, Greenup and Lowell, who were not carrying Emergency Oxygen Gear, will suffocate from lack of oxygen. In 20 turns, you and the others who do have Emergency Oxygen Gear will have exhausted their supply of oxygen. Need we say more?

Despite these ominous portents, saboteur Doc Hovark will swoop in and save the day at the last possible minute, provided the protagonist doesn’t solve the problem themselves.

Seastalker appears to have lost interest in the incident before it has even been resolved, but curious players will of course want to know more. Journeying to the men’s dorm, the protagonist can open Doc’s locker.

>open locker with tool
The locker contains mostly clothing, toilet articles and books. One of the books is labeled DIARY. Something has been inserted between its pages.

>get diary
You're now holding the diary.

>open it
As you do so, a picture falls out. Oh, oh! It's a snapshot of Zoe Bly!

>examine snapshot
It's a photograph of Commander Bly.

>read diary
You quickly discover references to Zoe Bly. It seems clear that Doc Horvak has fallen for Zoe. But her unsentimental manner is a large obstacle.
The last entry reads:

"If only I could find some way to break down that icy reserve of Zoe's, and make her realize she's not just a scientific thinking machine or a commanding officer...!

There must be some way! She doesn't do everything by the rule book. She even breaks regulations at times. If I can prove this and embarrass her, maybe she'll realize she's just a human being like the rest of us -- and not only a human being, but a warm, desirable woman...!"

Well! Sounds as if Doc Horvak found the answer to his problem by sabotaging the Air Supply System -- at a time when Commander Bly was breaking regulations by not wearing her Emergency Oxygen Gear!

While I admit that I am no expert on matters of the heart, I struggle to see the utility of Doc’s plan. But let’s stop to recognize the magnitude of this behavior, since the game never does.

Suddenly you realize that Zoe is literally gasping for breath. Her face is turning reddish-purple! She clutches her throat...

This is… courtship behavior? And yes, yes, you might say, “But Drew, dramatization is not endorsement.” So true! But the world of Seastalker and the crew of the Aquadome are entirely nonplussed by the incident. The only person disturbed by this terroristic behavior is its intended target, Commander Bly. And yet. And yet, she blushes!

Commander Bly looks briefly toward Doc Horvak and then speaks in a whisper.

"I bet you're wondering if he sabotaged the Air Supply System? I just can't BELIEVE Doc would cut off our air supply!"

Zoe blushes and her voice trembles with emotion as she speaks.

She suspects that he stole her photo, as well.

>show photo to bly
Commander Bly looks briefly toward Doc Horvak and then speaks in a whisper.
"A friend took a picture of me just before I was assigned here. I usually keep it on my desk, but a few days after Doc came on to me, I realized it was gone. I think Doc took it. He wanted a picture of me."

Meanwhile, it seems the rest of the crew may suspect Doc (some may even be in on it). He is unrepentant regarding the theft of her photo:

>show photo to doc
"I took it because I wanted a picture of her."

The Doc’s authority in no way is undermined. He is an active participant in the ongoing efforts to upgrade the submarine. People still do what he says. Oddly, even though his stunt threatened not only Bly but other members of the Aquadome staff, no one seems rattled–let alone angry.

Deborah, the token woman character from the 1970s children's show Sealab. She wears an orange-and white jumpsuit and has blonde hair in a ponytail. Seastalker may or may not have taken inspiration from the show.
Deborah (Voice-acted by Kate Miller) from Sealab 2020 and 2021.

Bly, oddly enough, takes no action despite her suspicions, and may even blame herself. That’s the kind of thing that happens in this bizarre male fantasy where “beautiful” women do not acquiesce to the advances of “nice guys” like Doc Hovark. They are a danger to themselves and others. None of this would have happened if she would have just said “yes.”

We’ll return to the question of gender and sexuality representation one last time when we discuss Vivien, the unhinged stalker-lesbian from Moonmist‘s blue episode. I don’t want to harp and snark excessively, but this business with Bly is pretty awful generally and even worse in a children’s game. It’s easy to say, “well, it was the 80s,” and that’s true. But other Infocom games don’t do this sort of thing, 80s or otherwise. Even though I like to meet these games where they are and read them in their context, the addition of the Bly subplot, which has no effect on the story (and awards no points), is a bizarre and wrongheaded extra in a game that seems quite low on disk space.

This is what they made room for?

This Man’s Navy

It has to be acknowledged, too, that the characters of Seastalker, who are not presently serving in the US Navy, derive their expertise and authority from experience in the Navy. There is a hierarchy with various titles, patches and uniforms. Elite technical training and education (Sharon Kemp, who “you just can’t get close to”, is an MIT student, while Amy “always a tomboy at heart” Lowell goes to Columbia), coupled with an emphasis on military service, elevates both military and educational organizations to high places of privilege in the text. The two exceptional outsiders in this sense are Mick Antrim and Bill Greenup, which present as two types of class ascendants, one good and one bad. Mick seems to be the good sort, because of his entrepreneurial spirit. Perhaps we are mean to appreciate his dislike of Commander Bly as well:

Mick Antrim–Mick was probably out there making a buck before most of us were ever born. In fact, you won’t find anybody who knows more about nuclear power, undersea navigation, or communications. That’s pretty good for a guy who never had a formal education.

Funny thing is, Mick doesn’t like to settle arguments with his tongue; he’d rather use his fists. Naturally, he doesn’t take well to Commander Bly’s kind of discipline.

Bill Greenup, on the other hand, is the bad kind of class interloper, and his description is clearly different from Mick’s:

Bill Greenup–Bill comes from a different background altogether. Basically he used to be a beach bum with a knack for scuba diving and “shade tree” mechanic work. Now he’s joined society in a big way. He’s cut his hair and found himself as a crack scuba diver at the Aquadome.

It may not be surprising that Mick and Bill are the only characters presented as possible suspects for sabotaging the Aquadome’s sonar and booby-trapping the Scimitar, though Mick is cleared quickly. Perhaps he is honorarily inducted into the technical and educational elite of the Aquadome in the way Frank Capra heroes sometimes make their way to the top. Bill, however, needs more than a haircut before he can earn a place among his betters.

Curiously, known saboteur Doc Horvak is never suspected.

A group of seven children circle around a computer in a classroom. They all seem to be having a good time. The are not playing Seastalker; a score of 7 to 5 can be seen on screen.
Please, consider the children. Photo retrieved here.

Last tHOUGHTS ON sEASTALKER

As for my first experience with Seastalker, I saw it often on the Infocom shelf at Waldenbooks (yes, bookstores often had an Infocom shelf!), but was not interested in “Junior Interactive Fiction.” I was, in fact, the right age, but I had already been playing IF games for adults and wanted to keep doing so. I also was not interested as a college student, when I acquired both volumes one and two of The Lost Treasures of Infocom. I saved it for dead last (or was that Journey?) and grew bored of it quickly. Having already played The Witness and Moonmist, I was pretty sure that Stu Galley games simply were not for me. I would not play through Seastalker entirely until last year, when I was considering this project. That was the first that I had seen the Bly-Horvak subplot, and I found it quite shocking.

It is not enough to say that Seastalker is boring, or that it sacrifices too much space for text and code with the two submarine sequences. Deadline, with its Reagan-era nostalgic conservatism, is a game of its time, but Seastalker goes further. The positively portrayed Doc Horvak, who attempts to hassle consent out of a woman by tricking her into thinking that she is going to die is the absolute worst thing I have seen in any Infocom game. In fact, it’s worse than a lot of things I’ve seen in non-Infocom games. The fact that it lies in the center of a game for children is just a cherry atop this dung heap, and confirms that, while many great games lie ahead, Infocom’s golden age, in fact, ended in 1984.

Speaking of 1984: this is the year that the folio release format was replaced with the iconic grey box standardization. This shift greatly benefitted retailers and manufacturers and improved the games’ ability to market themselves from retail shelves (the “browsie” booklet and manual were readable by potential buyers in-store). Whether the games or their players benefitted is another question entirely. Next week, I’ll take a break to discuss the grey box format.

We probably need a little space between nautical games (Seastalker and Cutthroats) anyway! As always, get in touch with questions or comments, either here, twitter, or email (golmac@golmac.org).

3 thoughts on “[3/3] Militaristic Fantasy, Narrative Drift, and the (Sea) Stalker

    1. I wonder, too. I think Galley has some accountability as the Imp on the team either way, but I guess we’ll never know for sure. I think a lot depends on how you read The Witness, which Galley did on his own.

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