Space Zork: Starcross

Despite its respectable sales, it has become hard to find a good conversation about Starcross.

Starcross (1982)
Implemented by Dave Lebling

Packaging and Documentation

Starcross folio packaging. Retrieved from MoCAGH
Starcross grey box packaging: Retrieved from MoCAGH
Starcross ZUG map. Retrieved from MoCAGH
Starcross Witt’s Notes map. Retrieved from MoCAGH
For best results, open MoCAGH images in a new tab.
Starcross Invisiclues in Z-code format. Retrieved from IDP
Starcross at the Obsessively Complete Infocom Catalog

Starcross: Specifications

(Courtesy of the Infocom Fact Sheet and this forum post). For comparison’s sake, Zork I‘s specifications follow in parentheses (this idea comes from the excellent Eaten by a Grue podcast).

Rooms: 86 (110)
Vocabulary: 557 (697)
Takeable Objects: 25 (60)
Size: 84KB (76KB)
Total Word Count (outputted text): 14637 (14214)

Opening Crawl

Copyright (c) 1982 by Infocom, Inc. All rights reserved.
STARCROSS and INTERLOGIC are trademarks of Infocom, Inc.
Release 18 / Serial number 830114

You are sound asleep in your bunk aboard the deep-space black hole prospecting ship "Starcross," operating out of Ceres. Just as your sleep becomes deep and comfortable, an alarm bell begins ringing! It's the mass detector! Instantly you awake. This hasn't been a profitable trip so far, and you don't even have the cash for repairs. This could be the break you've been waiting for. 

Infocom: The College Years

By 1993, my parents’ financial situation had improved significantly (in my last post I talked about the importance of affordable microcomputers for people like me), and they were able to send me to college AND buy me an IBM compatible x486 PC. A first order of business was to purchase the Lost Treasures of Infocom, which of course led to many English and philosophy papers (my double major) being completed at the last possible moment.

I played Spellbreaker first (my Commodore 64 had been unable to run it), but that must remain a story for another day. Fittingly, the second game that I played was Starcross. Both titles were authored by Dave Lebling, and both were famously difficult. I would later realize they were waypoints on Lebling’s journey toward perfecting the treasure hunt game.

Starcross is as hard as people say, but I loved the way that all of the puzzles were organic–they emerged naturally from the game’s world. I also loved that it was an homage to the canonical science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke (perhaps too much so, looking back). I was able to beat Starcross without hints, which made me feel quite clever. While it could be cruel, I found its puzzles reasonably clued; they felt fair.

I experienced my first major depressive episode in those days, and it was a mercy to lose myself in this and other games.

Zork in Space: A Critical Introduction to Starcross

I find it hard to measure the critical footprint of Starcross. It is difficult to lure people into conversation about it, and there is little discourse to be found online in terms of reviews or more thorough critical analysis. A strong seller in its day, Starcross seems largely forgotten by today’s internet. It is even hard to find evidence of the kind of negative attention other Infocom games have received in the past 20 years or so. That timeless bugbear of 80s IF, “learning through dying” is only one expected-yet-absent critique.

In fact, late stage Infocom seemed to have forgotten about it, too. Infocom’s sophisticated and acute marketing department determined that its customers preferred humorous fantasy games, which was bad news for long suffering fans of serious science fiction. Neither Starcross nor Suspended were bundled in the Science Fiction classics anthology released in 1987. In a literal sense, Starcross truly was a lost treasure of Infocom.

A photo of 1987's Science Fiction Classics anthology published by Infocom.

The cover is an abstract design of blue and red lines emerging from a square at the center of the box. Within are packages for Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Planetfall, and A Mind Forever Voyaging. Missing: Starcross
An odd mix, when you think about it: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Planetfall, and A Mind Forever Voyaging. Retrieved from Ebay, of all places.

Starcross begins as one Arthur C. Clarke novel only to end as another. A down on their luck prospector of black holes hopes that an unidentified mass will prove to be an end to their poverty and debt, and, though the mass is no black hole, it may prove to be something far more valuable: humanity’s first contact with alien technology. This discovery will remind even the most casual Clarke fan of his classic novel Rendezvous With Rama. The scope and narrative propulsion of the prospector’s (let’s call them the Human) initial sighting of the artifact contribute to what was certainly a new high for interactive storytelling:

Time passes as you journey towards your destination.
You are headed towards a bright starlike object.

Time passes...
Time passes as you journey towards your destination.
The starlike object now shows some shape.

Time passes...
Time passes as you journey towards your destination.
You are approaching a huge, cylindrical asteroid.
The computer says, "Telescopic observations reveal the object ahead to be extremely regular in shape. This is not your usual asteroid."

Time passes...
Time passes as you journey towards your destination.
The asteroid is unnaturally smooth, but there are surface features on it.
The computer remarks: "I detect low-level scanning taking place. The radiation is not dangerous. I think we may be getting into something more than we expected here."

Time passes...
Time passes as you journey towards your destination.
Filling space before you is an enormous artifact, more than 5 km long and about a kilometer in diameter. Regularly spaced around its waist are bumps and other odd protrusions. You cannot see the aft end but the fore end sports a glass or crystal dome almost 100 meters across.
There is a brief burn as the ship matches course with the artifact. You are hanging in space about half a kilometer away from the waist of the object. The Starcross's engines shut down. The computer speaks: "Program completed. We are being scanned by low level radiation. Awaiting instructions."

While Jimmy Maher asserts that “Lebling refuses to make Starcross into Zork in Space,” I would argue the opposite in a positive sense. Just as Zork II is a refinement of the classic Dungeon treasure hunt thanks to its purposeful treasures, abandonment of RPG-style combat, and innovative (albeit failed) refinements of maze problems, Starcross improves upon Zork II in meaningful and rewarding ways. Here, there is not merely a narrative overlay to explain the purpose of treasures. Rather, each treasure (variously colored rods) has a clear and unique purpose in the game world. In Starcross, there is no combat at all. Yes, there are “vending machine” NPCs, but they must be dealt with by thoughtfully observing their mannerisms and speech. On Lebling’s second attempt, he finally gets the maze-that-isn’t-a-maze right.

This is a trajectory that would continue through Enchanter and culminate with Spellbreaker. From a mechanical standpoint, I would argue that Starcross was, at its time of release, the best classically Zorkian game available: a fair yet difficult treasure hunt on a large, mostly open map.

A famed section of Michaelangelo's work on the Sistine Chapel. Adam reclines at lower left, reaching toward God in the upper right. A depiction of God imbuing Adam with the spark of life. Not featured in Starcross.
Retrieved from History

I have chosen two lines of inquiry for this three-part series on Starcross. In my next post, I will, as always, discuss its complete text: its packaging and story. Over the years, the limited discourse surrounding Starcross has portrayed its ending in a negative light, so I will pay particular attention to that issue. In the third and final post, I will investigate the human-animal relationship as it is portrayed aboard the artifact. Is humanity the greatest of all species? The other lifeforms aboard the artifact–savages and cowards all–are described in terms of animal features. How do these relationships reflect human attitudes toward the environment in our time?

Is human superiority essentially an assertion of western religiosity stripped of its spiritual nature?

Buckle up before the thrusters kick in!

Next–The Rod in the Dumpster: Flying Saucers, Space Suits, and the Controversial Ending of Starcross

2 thoughts on “Space Zork: Starcross

  1. I had the folio edition of Starcross and it was unplayable, because *I never figured out how to put the coordinates in from the map*, thus never getting out of the initial spaceship..

    Infocom must have gotten feedback about this because later editions gave a list of coordinates.

    When I played the game much later, with the *list* of coordinates, I really enjoyed it and got a long way through it before resorting to the hints. But it goes to show how one design problem very very early can break the enjoyment of a game completely.

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