Next up: Terminator Chaser (Bruno Dias). This is going to involve plenty of spoilers.
Story: This starts out as one of the most traditional of parser plots: a PC alone in a hostile, austere extra-terrestrial environment, dealing with machines. I’m instinctively averse to this approach – it tends to be about debugging machines rather than engineering, which is the fun part of engineer SF. And there have been lot of very boring games made with this general premise.
The background is more engaged with the story than that would suggest, however: the PC, Ainsley, is day-proofing a mining station prior to the long sunrise of Mercury, and is doing so – not a lot of safety regs out here, evidently – alone. As the story progresses, we get Babel-style backstory snippets revealing a troubled relationship between the workers and the mining company, and things start to go sinister.
I’d have liked to see more about how the power dynamics work in this weird situation – labour struggle in a future Mercury might have some analogies to modern mining strikes, but a lot of things would be different. Bringing in blacklegs would be a good deal more expensive, for instance. This is the kind of thing that could be handwaved in most stories, but when you make a hard-SF game that’s also about social or political dynamics, there’s a stronger need to get those parts right too. I didn’t necessarily feel that Terminator Chaser was utterly wrong about anything – but there were lots of places where I went ‘hunh. That’s kind of unlike any situation I’m familiar with. How would that play out?’ and the story didn’t furnish an answer.
More to the point, the company guys evidently really want Ainsley, and Ainsley specifically, dead. They’re willing to sacrifice an entire base to accomplish this, so Ainsley is evidently a lot more significant than a single malcontent. But the picture I got, both in the flashbacks and the general narration, didn’t exactly give me a sense of character that supported that.
There’s also a general lack of surprise; from very early on I expected that the bosses would have sabotaged the base, and that the mid- to late-game puzzles would involve escaping and/or striking back.
Strong 3 to weak 4, I think. I’ll see how the field pans out.
Writing: Solid, unostentatious, confident; exactly the kind of tone you’d expect in this kind of game. The flashbacks summarise the situation efficiently, suggesting characters and situations without needing to spell everything out. The prose is not exactly gorgeous or exciting, but that’s not the objective. 4.
Puzzles: As predicted, you’re going around the base fiddling with machines; initially to carry out a to-do list, later acting more on your own initiative. There’s good signalling; I was never lost about what might be useful to work on.
Most of these are fairly straightforward find-thing-and-do-it. The exception involves acouple of tasks which have to be done without your vacuum suit on, and therefore require you to tamper with airlocks in order to pressurise rooms; this involves a lot of circuitous backtracking to reach the airlock that’s legal to open. This puzzles has a fair bit of trouble with what Emily Short terms extent: much of the time you know pretty much what you want to do next, but a good number of tedious steps are required to go through it, and after you’ve done it once you have to do virtually exactly the same thing again, only in a different place. I can imagine someone finding the methodical pace of this soothing; for me it erred a little too far on the side of frustrating. I think this is a 3.
Theme: This is one of the more obvious interpretations of the premise (so much so that there is another game in the comp called Terminator), but it does form a huge part of the game; the looming threat of the sunrise hangs over the plot, pleasingly ominous. I wouldn’t call this a deep or transformational treatment, though, so it’s a 4.
Technical: Mostly this is pretty good. A lot of obvious actions are automated, the checklist fills itself in, that kind of player-friendly detail work. It’s working squarely within established territory, but it has a good grasp thereof.
However, I found one major bug: when you try to push the load button for the mass ejector, the game makes no response at all, not even an error message. This would be less of a big deal if it didn’t shut off one of the endings entirely. That knocks it back to a 3.
Overall: This is a well-put-together piece of work, but a number of factors conspired to make it a substantially less satisfying experience than it should have been. The early tasks were made less interesting because I knew exactly where the plot was going; the airlock-hacking puzzle was fiddly enough that, when the mass ejector ending bugged out, it felt pretty frustrating. I think this is a 3, albeit one which could be readily improved.