The Rod in the Dumpster: Flying Saucers and the Ambiguous Ending of Starcross

Remembering the complete text of Starcross: its story and iconic packaging.

Warning: this essay reveals the entire story of Starcross, including its ending. If you wish to discover these things for yourself, turn back now.

Starcross Doesn’t Have Flying Saucers. Starcross Is a Flying Saucer.

The original folio packaging for Starcross, a white plastic disk, is both iconic and valuable. Viewed from above, the Starcross logo–stylized orange/red letters imposed over a white-on-black grid–occupies a circle at the center of the disk. From the side, the center is higher that the disk’s outer rim. The package is, in other words, a familiar “flying saucer” shape. The package is undoubtedly the most valuable Infocom collectible, and a factory sealed saucer is, at the time of this writing, available on Ebay for $2,995.00.

For today’s audience, this monetary figure has become part of the Starcross experience, and it is rare to find a long-form critic who does not mention it. The common sentiment that an “authentic” Infocom experience involves the physical elements packed-in with its games–a financial barrier that may exclude many players–reaches an unattainable extreme with the Starcross folio. Only a fortunate few may sit at their keyboards with this totem of atmospheric lucre on their desk near at hand. Even players who dislike Starcross consider the saucer package a desirable treasure.

Still, membership in such an elect group has its downsides. The package is infamously hard to store. Retailers, unable to balance them on their shelves, would throw them in large boxes or suspend them from the ceiling with string. While fans enjoy the non-standard packaging of early Infocom games, vendors did not. This was presumably a consideration when, two years and eight games later, Infocom standardized all releases (and rereleases) in the famed “grey box” format.

The contents of the package are far less spectacular. The saucer contained Infocom’s first attempt at “hard” copy protection (Deadline was theoretically beatable without the feelies): a sort of space map that charts “mass detector output.” In-game, the Human’s ship computer identifies an unidentified mass, and then the player inputs information from the map:

>examine screen
The display reads: "mass UM12."

>computer, range is 100
"R set. Waiting for additional values."

>computer, theta is 345
"Theta set. Waiting for additional values."

>computer, phi is 107
"Phi set." Lights blink furiously for a moment. The computer speaks: "Sequence for intercept of mass concentration is programmed and ready. Please confirm new navigational program. I'm waiting..."

>computer, confirm
"Thank you. New navigational program will initiate in fifteen seconds. There will be a course correction burn of 51 seconds duration. I advise you to fasten your seat belt."
A map of space, featuring concentric circles and angle measurements to show coordinates of distance and angle relative to a fixed center. Used to navigate the spaceship Starcross.
Starcross map of unidentified mass locations. Retrieved from MoCAGH.

The instruction manual for Starcross, like that of Deadline, is more elaborative than those for the Zork trilogy. A full page is dedicated the backstory of Starcross, and it explains the Human’s objectives and motives:

The year is 2186. Humanity has established colonies on the Moon, Mars, and several of the larger asteroids. Earth’s sky is dotted with space habitats, and the spaceways hum and zoom with activity. But as always, there is the urgent need for energy to power this advanced civilization. Based on theories which began as early as the 1970’s, it has been determined that quantum black holes can provide an inexhaustible source of power. These phenomena resulted from the Big Bang, and are extremely rare; there is approximately one 5mm-diameter hole found per year.

Finding and harnessing a single black hole can make a man’s fortune. It is a lonely business, fraught with the known and unknown hazards of the space frontier. You’ve equipped your ship, the mining vessel STARCROSS, with the best equipment you could afford. You’ve got a good mass detector to spot the hole, and the right magnets to bring its charges under control and haul it back to a containment tank at the base on Ceres. You’ve put everything into this venture, and though you’ve tried before, you somehow sense that this time will be different. (Starcross Folio Manual 1. Retrieved from MoCAGH.)

Unlike Deadline, no new or otherwise specialized verbs are listed in the manual other than those required for navigating the ship.

While this project focuses on material included with the first release of a game, it may be worthwhile to mention one document added to the grey box release. This is a memo from the Bureau of Extra-Solar Intelligence (text format found here) that explicitly states that humankind has never encountered verifiable proof of alien life, let alone alien creatures. Since the Human’s thought life is never revealed to the player, there is no “oh my god aliens!” moment or direct indication that such encounters may prove more valuable than even a black hole. While astute players (of the sort who can beat Starcross) will likely deduce this on their own, audience or tester feedback must have indicated that more explicit background was appropriate.

The Ballad of the Star-Crossed Miner

Assuming a player has read the manual, the opening of Starcross conveys a sense of narrative propulsion. The Human, in financial trouble, is desperate for a big strike that will remedy their current challenges. While their motives are better contextualized, ultimately the Human, like the Adventurer of Zork I, is hunting for treasure. When their ship’s systems locate a large, unidentified mass in nearby space, the Human sets a course for it, hoping that the object be the big break they’ve been hoping for.

The mass proves to be something even more remarkable than a quantum black hole: a massive cylindrical object that is clearly of alien origin:

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.

It is not known what the Human intends to do. The discovery is obviously valuable. Perhaps they would attempt to make contact or else notify the appropriate authorities. As it turns out, that decision is not theirs to make:

Suddenly an odd protrusion near the red dome splits open and a huge articulated metal tentacle issues from it at great speed. It approaches the ship and delicately wraps itself around the hull. You are slammed against your seat as the tentacle accelerates the Starcross to the artifact's speed of rotation. Inexorably, your ship is drawn toward the dome. When you are a few tens of meters away, three smaller tentacles issue forth and grapple the ship solidly to the surface of the artifact. The large tentacle retreats into its housing, which closes.

The Human, their ship bound to the artificact, has no choice but to leave the ship and explore. In short order, they find themselves inside the massive cylinder.

From here, the linear movement of Starcross‘s opening ends, and the Human finds themselves in a large, mostly open area that will remind the player–in a mechanical sense–of the Zork games. The player must wander the artifact searching for problems to solve, opening closed-off areas and finding items of use.

A typical "space man" in a spacesuit sits at a bank of ship's controls. Through a large window, a massive cylinder with protrusions at regular intervals can be seen. Two spaceships are connected to it: a narrow, pointed ship and another that looks like a sphere. From the opening of Starcross.
The Human approaching the artifact from their ship. As imagined by the Zork Users Group. Retrieved from MoCAGH.

Because of dependencies (one problem yields an item needed for another problem), the path is more linear than the player will initially guess, so a canon playthrough will have certain priorities. The Human’s first order of business will be repairing the life support system, since the atmosphere is rapidly growing unbreathable. Doing so requires the red rod, one of twelve differently colored rods scattered through the artifact. These are the treasures of Starcross’s treasure hunt. While Zork II‘s treasures are purposeful (paid in tribute to the demon), these rods each have their own, individual purpose, and all can be used to activate or configure alien technology.

The red rod is located in a zoo, and retrieving it will likely be the occasion of humankind’s first contact with alien life. These are “rat ants,” a curious mash-up of animal traits. In an upcoming post, I will explore the implications of characterizing aliens by comparing them to Earth creatures. For now, describing them will be enough:

>examine rat
They look like a cross between a rat and an ant. They have chitinous shells, mandibles, and exhibit an ant-like social order. They also have hair, bear live young, and are roughly the size of rats. They have a crude intelligence, evidenced by the spears of the warrior caste. The cage has many rat-ants of varying sizes, ages, and social roles.

Getting the rod involves smashing their nest, and, possibly, whoever or whatever was in there. Having retrieved the rod from their nest, the Human is able to repair the environmental systems by inserting it into the appropriate red slot.

Once the atmosphere has stabilized, the Human has unlimited time to explore the artifact. The goal of the largest chain of puzzles is retrieving two rods from an alien species that resembles weasels. The climactic, final event of this episode involves desecrating the ancestral remains of the original, spacefaring weasel-creature.

Elsewhere, the Human will encounter a spider-shaped mammal who seems quite happy to have anyone to talk to. He makes amusing small-talk, and it is disappointing (to me, at least) that it isn’t possible to converse with him (in terms of commands like ASK x ABOUT y). He is the one alien better off for having met the Human: they give him a tape library in exchange for a yellow rod.

A person--viewed from behind--with short hair emerges from a "hole" in the ground. It is a perfectly round, black circle--it does not look like a typical hole and is oddly placed, off-center in a featureless hallway. An illustration of the portable hole items from Starcross.
The Human emerges from a portable hole. As imagined by the Zork Users Group. Retrieved from MoCAGH.

The Human solves a number of problems aboard the ship: repairing equipment, manipulating advanced technology, and occasionally making use of scientific knowledge. Having found all available rods, they make their way to the artifact’s flight controls. The Human can only reach their destination by using the recoil from a ray gun to propel themselves through zero gravity.

>jump
You push against the surface of the bubble, and because there is no weight here, you shoot into the air and away along the axis!

Floating in Air
You are floating at the axis of rotation of the cylinder, near the drive bubble. There are enormous trees "below." There is no gravity here.

>shoot drive bubble with gun
A blast of orange flame issues from the gun, and the recoil propels you at an impressive speed through the air. Eventually, air resistance slows you down, but you are still in the weightless area near the center of the cylinder.

Floating in Air
You are floating at the axis of rotation of the cylinder. There is grassland "below." There is no gravity here.

>again
A blast of orange flame issues from the gun, and the recoil propels you at an impressive speed through the air. Eventually, air resistance slows you down, but you are still in the weightless area near the center of the cylinder.

Floating in Air
You are floating at the axis of rotation of the cylinder. There is a metal band "below." There is no gravity here.

>again
A blast of orange flame issues from the gun, and the recoil propels you at an impressive speed through the air. Eventually, air resistance slows you down, but you are still in the weightless area near the center of the cylinder.

On Control Bubble
You are floating outside a 100 meter crystal bubble which protrudes from the fore end of the cylinder. Inside, you can make out shadowy mechanisms and odd constructions. There are odd knobs of some sort which you could use to pull yourself down the bubble. At the other end of the cylinder you can see the drive bubble in the midst of enormous trees.

In the Control Bubble, the Human configures the artifact’s controls using the remaining rods, and is soon on their way home:

All the displays flash once. There is a sensation of movement as the artifact positions itself to follow the course you have set.

The artifact, under your assured control, moves serenely toward Earth, where the knowledge it contains will immeasureably benefit mankind. Within a few years, there could be human ships flying out to the stars, and all because of your daring and cunning...

A holographic projection of a humanoid figure appears before you. The being, tall and thin, swathed in shimmering robes, speaks in your own language. "Congratulations, you who have passed our test. You have succeeded where others failed. Your race shall benefit thereby." He smiles. "I expect to see you in person, someday." The projection fades.

Your score would be 400 (total of 400 points), in 636 moves.
This score gives you the rank of Galactic Overlord.
A detailed view of large computer banks featuring large lit panels and tape reels. It looks like a modified mainframe from the 80s and must be what people once imagined future technology to be. From the Computer Room in Starcross.
Starcross’s futuristic computers of the past. Retrieved from MoCAGH.

Testing Testing 1-2-3

Many have found this conclusion unsatisfying. “It was all a test” feels like a shopworn narrative move, and it’s an unfulfilling thing to learn at the very end of the game. Realistically, though, few players will remain in the dark for long: when the Human dies, this is the message:

You hear, if that is the right word, an expressionless voice. It seems to be inside your head. "This is not promising. The candidate does not deserve another chance, but the instructions are explicit. There are not even any more docking ports. They would be disappointed if they knew." You wake to a brief glimpse of a pallet (on which you are lying) surrounded by metallic threads. The whole apparatus begins to vibrate and you feel very dizzy. As you lose consciousness, you realize that you can't see the rest of your body. There is a feeling of dislocation, and then...

Starcross is a deadly game–perhaps more deadly then Zork in terms of likely deaths–and most players will encounter this message. However, that doesn’t mean the specific nature of the test is clear. Perhaps that is what players object to: the ambiguity of the test’s parameters. Was the test initially a matter of locating the rods and configuring the artifact’s navigation system? That doesn’t seem difficult enough. Surely the weasels or the spider could have done so–they are smart enough to achieve spaceflight, after all. Is the entire artifact a test, then? Rods stuffed in dumpsters and rat ant nests for the Human to find? Cowardly lizards blowing themselves up attempting to flee the artifact? Hiding rods in the barrel of a gun? And so on.

Is the artifact essentially a “big store” con?

This is the essential problem of the alien gamemaster ending: the artifact in pristine condition would be so easily navigated as to not require the Human’s intervention. A deliberately sabotaged ship stretches credibility. Feel free to disagree below, but I contend that the most difficult puzzles in Starcross rise out of problems that are a consequence of alien activity and deterioration of the ship (perhaps barring the ray gun puzzle). It’s hard to know how or why the other aliens would not have already flown the massive ship home.

The ending’s ambiguity is not the kind of mystery everyone enjoys. Rather, it calls into question the specific nature of the player’s achievements. It is reasonable to want to know what, exactly, one has done and why. For many, though, the setting and mood–unique in the Infocom canon–will compensate for the narrative shortcomings of Starcross. Paired with a collection of organic and challenging puzzles, it scratches a singular itch. Starcross has many detractors, frustrated with its light implementation, deaths, and dead ends, but its dedicated fans recall it fondly even now.

Other Goodies

I have linked two texts. The first is my play transcript, complete with typos and some aimless bungling. The second is Dave Lebling’s own notes on the game that would eventually be named Starcross, dated 1981 (found bundled with the r18 source code).

Kamineko’s Starcross transcript
Dave Lebling’s notes from 1981

Next–Let Them Have Dominion: The Human-Centered Cosmology of Starcross

11 thoughts on “The Rod in the Dumpster: Flying Saucers and the Ambiguous Ending of Starcross

  1. So the original flying saucer package didn’t include the Starcross log book at all? I always did think it was odd that such an early game mentioned Leather Goddesses of Phobos…

    Another piece of trivia: The Lost Treasure of Infocom replaced the map with a table, presumably to cut down on printing costs. For some reason, this table does not include the coordinates for Mars, but you don’t need them anyway. More annoyingly, it gets the coordinates for UM08 wrong. It lists Theta as 110 when it should be 210.

    1. I assume that since Infocom’s marketing department determined that customers preferred funny/silly content, the grey box rereleases often injected humorous content into the packaging of games where it didn’t make sense. There are a couple of out-of-nowhere jokes in the Suspended browsie, as an example. This is one of the reasons I focus on the folio packaging (for the games released in that format). It’s confusing to synthesize the original material with content added after the fact.

      I can vouch for the inferiority of the LToI packaging. That was the way I first encountered Starcross! And actually, I think I ran into the UM08 problem as well. I seem to recall a couple of restarts. We’re lucky some good people have made the original content available online; I wasn’t so lucky back in 1993.

  2. Drew, I am writing to publicly thank you for sharing Starcross course coordinates in your essay. I had not played the game for years, and the data which you provided enabled me to reach the artifact. After reading your essay, I decided to access my copy of the Lost Treasures of Infocom CD-Rom and play Starcross again. As of this wiritng, I had never completed Starcross. During my original playthrough attempt decades ago, I got frustrated at one point and gave up at that point in time.

    I also choose to make an observation regarding Infocom’s use of feelies. Your essay mentioned the one for Starcross. I understand Infocom used feelies as a form of copy protection/proof of purchase before the company dissolved. The problem which I have always had with feelies is simple to explain. Infocom assumed the player has sight. I do not. When I played Starcross for the first time years ago, I remember the Infocom CD-Rom came with physical game manuals which I no longer have to my knowledge. Since a map is not accessible for me, I needed sighted help to look up the UM in the aforementioned physical manual. I could not have acquired the UM independently.

    I am enjoying your wonderful Infocom essays. Keep them coming!

    1. Blake, I’m glad you were able to get there. And actually, I’m glad you bring up the issue of feelies and the way that they assume sightedness. I’d love for this content to be accessible to anyone, so please let me know if you have issues with any of the content that I share. If I can do anything to make it accessible, I will. Enjoy the game!

  3. I remember ordering the last copy of Stationfall from a store back in… 1989 or 1990, I think? Turned out someone had “borrowed” the forms, including the one with the coordinates you needed to reach the space station. Fortunately the picture on the back of the box, and some lucky guesses, allowed me to reconstruct most of the table in a reasonable amount of time.

    With most other games, I probably would not have been that lucky!

  4. The Stationdall story was meant as a reply to the bit about copy protection. Not sure what happened there.

  5. Yes, the rest of the Stationfall feelies were there. (And years later I did find another copy of the game at a reasonable price anyway.) The picture on the back was enough for me to guess that I needed a 3 digit code and that it depended on the the current time in the game. The code is calculated by some simple formula, so once I had found a couple of them by trial and error I could make better guesses for the remaining ones.

    And if course it helped that I played it on a fast (by Infocom standards) computer. On a C64 the process would have been painfully slow!

    As for Starcross, if I were to rank the Infocom games it would probably be somewhere in the middle. Maybe that’s why I rarely think about it when I think of Infocom? I can’t explain it better than that.

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