Review: Starship Titanic

Official web page; The Digital Village (creators); Simon & Schuster Interactive (publishers).

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Quite good
Good, but small and unimportant
Impossible unless you're the author or a telepath
Probably acceptable if you have a studly-fast machine; poor otherwise
Dialogue and writing
Forgiveness rating
You cannot get stuck or make a mistake. But replaying to repair missteps can be tedious.

More than a decade after Infocom released the text games Hitchhiker's Guide and Bureaucracy, Douglas Adams returns to the computer gaming world with Starship Titanic.

Unfortunately, it's no good.


I shall explain why, conforming to my usual habit when trashing games -- with fairly specific examples. So this review contains a bunch of spoilers. On the other hand, my big complaint is that the game is unsolvable without cheating, so maybe that's okay.

Up to you.

The scenario is straightforward. You're sitting at home, and this spaceship crashes into it. Into your home, that is. Well, precisely, the bottommost tip of the docking keel crashes into your home. The spaceship itself is bigger. A bit.

It is called "Titanic", after all.

So out comes this DoorBot, who politely explains that the ship is lost; out of control; uninhabited except for robots, all of whom are insane (not excepting the DoorBot); and would you come inside and help fix things up, please? Well, why not.

Why not indeed.

In you go, as a Super Galactic Class Traveller -- which is to say, you sleep in a multifunctional closet and eat greasy chicken. (One chicken to a passenger.) And thus the challenge begins; gathering pieces of the ship's AI so that the damn thing works right, and, more importantly, getting yourself an upgrade to First Class.

Because in travel, style is everything.

Okay, speaking of style, I can't keep that style up. Here's the thing. Starship Titanic is full of puzzles that are entirely impossible to solve, unless you're Douglas Adams. The range of action is out of control. You have no idea what kind of actions are possible, and therefore experimentation is hopeless. Good ideas don't stand out, and nearly-good ideas don't get responses that indicate that you're close.

Things start out so well, too. The opening scenes are a textbook example of leading the new player along, showing off the ropes. The DoorBot explains how to pick up an object, speak to a robot, push a button. The first major puzzle involves concerted fiddling with the popup furniture in your Super Galactic closet -- and it's a lovely puzzlebox, physically plausible and with a clear goal. (Okay, mostly clear. I got the idea when clicking on the flopped-out bed gave the response "The bed can't support your weight in this position.")

So I got that bit, and got the next bit, with the helpful prompting of a robot or two. Great, I thought. Adaptive hints. The robots even turn up spontaneously when you seem stuck.

Then I got stuck. Stayed stuck for a while. Robots didn't say anything useful. Nothing obvious to do; I'd explored everywhere I was allowed to go. I checked the cheat book. The cheat book said to take the feather that you got from the parrot, and tickle the nose of the giant Succ-U-Bus robot downstairs.


First, I hadn't gotten a feather from the parrot. To do that, you have to drag the parrot to your inventory; when it escapes, it leaves a feather. But the parrot makes such a fuss when you click on it that I hadn't tried dragging it; it was obviously impossible. Second, all the Succ-U-Bus robots complain about their internals; I didn't hear anything from that particular one that indicated that it wanted to sneeze. Third, this thing is designed to move large objects around the ship -- in fact, the thing stuck in its throat is a human corpse -- and a feather is supposed to affect its nose? Does it even have a nose? I thought that was a mouth?

It was pretty much all downhill from there. There was the button that said "Please poke with long stick", but if you wait to get the Long Stick that you find elsewhere in the game, you'll never get it; you have to use a different stick which is obviously shorter. Some actions have to be performed by robots, but you never get into the habit of asking robots to do random things, because they all seem to be limited to their particular functions, and always refuse all other requests. Some objects are used by dragging them into other objects and releasing the mouse button; other are used by dragging them back and forth over other objects, without releasing the mouse button. Try the wrong form, and nothing happens. Or maybe you have to try it more than once. There is never any encouragement to try again, or try it differently.

Barely-marked controls do random things approximately related to their markings. Usually. I could tell that the blue fuse with the fan symbol activated the fan, but it also activates the cube room lever? Okaaaaay... And the Arboretum controls obviously control the season in the Arboretum, but I certainly wouldn't have walked around the ship after setting the Arboretum to Spring, just to discover that a light fixture was sneezing. (Pollen, apparently. Yes, there's a pollen-level report on TV. That doesn't lead me to expect a sneezing light fixture.) Answering robot questions is rarely important, and you're always prompted repeatedly when it is important -- except for the one critical time when if you don't answer, the puzzle silently bogs down and becomes unsolvable. At least, I think it was unsolvable. I certainly couldn't solve it without restoring an earlier position, and I was reading the cheat book. (Ok, not really unsolvable -- I could have gone through much trouble to re-acquire all the objects I'd just wasted. No thanks.)

I'm condensing a lot of complaints into a short space, because I just don't have the energy to be detailed. I'm sorry about that. Let me scan the cheat book for other puzzles I cheated on. There were lots. Heck, there were lots of puzzles that I still don't understand, because I either cheated or solved them by accident. The logic doesn't always become obvious afterward. One locked elevator let me in as soon as I got the part to fix it. It turns out that was a complete coincidence; I had managed to arrange the other elevators correctly while getting that part. I have no idea how to tell what order to insert the AI parts in. Don't get me started on how long it took to get them out after I inserted them in the wrong order. (Fifteen minutes of futile clicking. Plus quitting the program and restarting. Three times. I think what was screwing me over were clues to the right order; but I was past caring.)

Let me talk about the robots. The authors put incredible effort into these robots. They have reams and reams of conversation (literally thousands of lines of dialogue); a complicated parser system; they're loaded with clues; they have personalities that vary over time (or with appropriate fiddling.) Douglas Adams writes, "YOU WILL NOT GET BORED TALKING TO THESE ROBOTS."

I got bored talking to those robots.

The parser pretty much boils down to a keyword search. I know it's more complicated than that; there are hints of smartness in answering kinds of questions ("what is X?", etc.) But it doesn't work well enough to use. Attempts to follow threads of converation seem to get a couple of responses, and then tail off into "I don't understand." There are many, many clever variations on "I don't understand". But they all mean the same thing.

And there's no particular reason to talk to them. Sure, all the dialogue is well-written -- Adams is good at that. It's funny. It's well-acted. The personalities come across. They're all annoying personalities. That's the first problem. I wasn't interested in hearing the war stories of the old veteran LiftBot, or the DeskBot's gossip. When I tried to pump them for information about the ship, I got a few pieces of information, and then repeats or nonsense. So I gave up. And the information wasn't even always right. Various places were listed as being "along the second class canal". Asking about that got "by the art galleries". Okay, I knew where that was. But I couldn't enter, even though I was a second-class passenger. There was another canal, listed on the map as "first class canal". I asked about that. "By the art galleries." Wrong-o. It was just seeing the keyword "canal". That happened to heterodyne with other unclarities to completely confuse me, but nothing else really worked any better. When trying to get the BellBot to fix a light bulb, I tried about six obvious variations before looking in the cheat book and typing the exact words shown in the screen shot.

This is becoming a very long rant, and I don't want to simply rant. Let me try to explain the underlying flaws here.

As Vinge once said -- focus, people, focus. Traditional text-adventure English has exactly three ways to talk to another character. "Ask robot about <subject>." "Tell robot about <subject>." "Robot, <standard verb>." Those are what the player knows to try, and those are what the author knows to cover. Game designers, beware temptation: more flexible is not automatically better. If there are more than a few obvious ways to give a command, you must cover all of them, or the system fails. The light bulb problem is a classic example. I tried "fix the light bulb" and "give me the light bulb" and "get the light bulb". Nothing happened. It was triggering various responses about the keyword "bulb", but not the action I wanted.

There are design problems that the text-adventure world solved so long ago that we don't even notice the solutions any more. Object manipulation. I put a piece of chicken under the mustard spout. Yellow goo poured out, slid over the chicken, and disappeared down the drain. Yay! I've spiced the chicken. Well, no, I haven't -- I later discover. A text game would have said something like "Yellow goo pours over the greasy chicken, slides off, and pours down the drain, leaving no residue." And maybe you could taste it and find it still bland (and greasy). And then you'd know to wipe the grease off. Here, the only clue is that the object is called "greasy chicken" (I'd seen no other kind) and its icon remains unchanged (surprise!) There's lots of this.

If the authors had spent a tenth of those megabytes of robot dialogue on game responsivity, quite a lot of this could have been avoided. "The lemon is beyond arm's reach." "The parrot squirms in your grasp." "Clouds of pollen swirl around you, drifting into ventilators... you hear a distant sneeze." "The chicken whizzes past you and skids along the floor. The Succ-U-Bus snorts once, gulps, and eructates with satisfaction." "Where do you want to hit the waiter?" "What do you want to poke the button with?" "The left lever slides up as the right lever slides down." "The parrot flaps around the room, apparently oblivious to the pistachios."

Hell, I would have killed for an "EAT CHICKEN" command at one point. I won't even get into that.

I'll admit the game is pretty. Everything is huge, marble, and shiny. Lots of reflections. Clean to the point of spartaness, but it's a brand-new ship, so what do you expect. However (it's all with the "howevers" in this review) it can be very hard to figure out where things are. All the walking transitions are very blurry and fast. Fast is good when you're moving around a lot, but if you're moving around a lot, you're already holding down the Shift key to skip the transitions. When you're not, you may actually want to see how places connect. I often couldn't.

Speaking of transitions... the elevators. My god in wine-dark heaven, the elevators. The Shift key doesn't work in the elevators. Many important places can only be reached by elevator, and there's no way to skip or abort the very attractive movie of elevator shaft going past. I swear one of the rides was a minute and a half long. I had time to get up and get a snack from the fridge before it was over, and I had to take that ride half a dozen times in the course of the game. I started keeping a book next to the computer, and reading during the elevator rides. Did anybody playtest this thing?

Really, the whole game was too slow. I suspect that's one broad reason I had trouble; I didn't want to experiment, because it took so long. My machine was at the bottom of the requirements list -- 120 MHz CPU, and I installed only (sigh) 160 Mbytes of commonly-used images on my hard drive. If you can possibly spare 550 Mbytes of hard-drive space, for gods' sake take that option. Anything to improve the delays of switching between inventory and talk mode.

I have written down here "cursor stuck". What does that mean? Oh, yes -- when the scene changes or a hotspot moves, the cursor doesn't change shape until you move the mouse. Very small bug, irritating far out of proportion. Led to all sorts of confusion. Again, did anybody playtest?

(I'm sure the authors will write me and say yes, there were playtesters. Sorry. It's a rhetorical question. What I meant to ask was, please, can I meet the playtesters and set them on fire?)

Twitch. Twitch twitch.

The sad part is, there are some really beautiful puzzles in here. I'm not going to talk about them, because I've filled up this review with ranting. Sadder, many of the very bad puzzles are good puzzle ideas, implemented very badly.

And the integration is great. Every puzzle is there for a reason. Everything makes sense in the context of the situation. Nothing was added because the ship's designer was a mad genius with a penchant for puzzles. Very impressive. End of compliment.

There's a plot. It's not really a plot you get involved in; it's the business of discovering what happened on the Titanic, and how it all Went Wrong. It's a fairly entertaining story as you learn it, but there's not really that much of it, and it doesn't have anything to do with you. The ending doesn't resolve much of anything, either.

Oh well. At least the game comes with a cheat book.

The back of the cheat book has the blurb, "This may be the game that re-ignites the adventure genre! -- P.C. Gamer magazine."

I think I want to set them on fire, too.

Conclusion: With the cheat book, a fairly amusing semi-interactive movie, punctuated by boring elevator rides. Without the cheat book, unsolvable.

Availability: Just came out, so it's easy to find and heavily hyped.

System Requirements: 120 MHz Powermac, MacOS 7.5, 4x CD-ROM drive, 32 MBytes RAM, 160 MBytes hard drive space, thousands of colors. I'd add that you need either a much faster CD-ROM drive or half a gig of hard drive space, or it gets painfully slow. (I tried turning up my Mac's disk cache, at the suggestion of a helpful member of the audience. Didn't help any.)

Macintoshness: Near-zero. The menu bar is inactive, except for a "quit" command. Loading and saving is done through a fairly clumsy in-game interface, featuring an astonishing total of five save slots.

However, if nothing else, the game does ask permission before switching your monitor resolution. That's getting to be a rare courtesy these days, and I want to point it out specially. I'm grateful, fellas.

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