Star Control II is my Lord of the Rings.
At a time of life where many of my friends would return to Tolkien’s works with an abiding fondness and nostalgia, I favoured repeated explorations of the rich world-building and characterisation of Fred Ford and Paul Reich III found in Star Control II.
The game combined an odd collection of genres, including space exploration, top down semi-tactical dogfighting, and significant RPG elements – prompting a friend to comment “A game where we wouldn’t have minded if the industry churned out a dozen unimaginative clones, yet not a single one was made.” My attachment reflected what I saw as the quality and depth of the game’s experience, but it also reflected the unusually large shadow it cast across my personal history of playing games.
Star Control II was released in 1992, when I was twelve. Not only would it present the traditional ships from Star Control in “modern graphics” (gasp!), but there was actually going to be a story! It was even one you could play by yourself – and thus without the lamentable inclusion of siblings. I was hooked. The edition of PC Format which reviewed and discussed the game was the first computer gaming magazine I ever read.
I remember a tense and portentous summit during lunch-hour at school between myself and three or four other boys. We were all alumni of the first game, attempting to see what agreements might be forged between us that might allow a communal purchase of our Holy Grail. Unfortunately, attempts to work around the prisoner’s-dilemma of trust issues surrounding who of us would actually purchase the game ran aground into the more fundamental problem that we couldn’t afford it: a whopping $120 in New Zealand money, which was the peso of the south pacific at the time.
For interminable years, Star Control II was something that happened to other people. New Zealand was a tiny marketplace, and the game was on sale for what seemed a microscopic period. I was sixteen when a fellow in-mate of my all-boy’s school revealed he had access. But it was worth the wait! To this day, the opening drums give me chills, and I can recite the text of the opening sequence almost from memory. The whole concept of taking someone whose ancestors had been marooned during the conflict of Star Control was elegant and simple, meaning that you could start playing the game with no idea of what had happened in the intervening time. I remember starting the game and raring to get into the fight against the ghastly Ur-Quan… and the hollow horror as I realised the battle had long been lost. However, the horror of realising that the player’s ship is the equivalent of those Japanese soldiers in WW2 who never got the memo to lay down arms is not the only kind of horror concealed within what would seem to be pulp adventure.
Exploration drives Star Control 2, and the surprises you find are what makes it great – particularly uncovering the mysteries of what happened to the familiar races from Star Control in the intervening time. The Androsynth were Star Control’s Cylons: android creations of humanity who had turned against us and joined the Ur-Quan Hierarchy. Talking about that section of history with the human starbase commander in Star Control II highlights the grey areas that the games liked to inhabit: the commander’s perspective is that the Androsynth were frightening enemies because of their ferocity and how well they knew humanity… and because whenever you were fighting them, you had to ask, “Maybe we deserve their ferocity for how we treated them.”
As part of exploring Star Control II, you can go looking for the Androsynth. Perhaps this is an opportunity to reconnect with the species and undo the damage of the wars? Perhaps they have riches to plunder? In any case, you don’t find them. Instead, you find these happy folks, called the Orz:
The universal translator doesn’t work for the Orz terribly well, but they are enthusiastic and terribly happy to meet you. You think. However, they don’t want to talk about the Androsynth. They really, really, don’t want to talk about the Androsynth. On the other hand, they readily agree to an alliance with you, and send you ships! So maybe you don’t want to ask too many questions. And since you’re there, safe in Orz space with your partners in this new alliance, you feel safe and secure to do some mining, all the better to fund your next set of upgrades or refuelling the ship. In the process, you stumble onto the second planet of Epsilon Vulculpulae and find what had been the Androsynth homeworld. Emphasis on ‘past tense.’
The planet is covered in ruined cities, but they haven’t been destroyed from orbit: someone or something was involved in major combat within the Androsynth civilisation, but left neither a sign of how it arrived, nor a single Androsynth body behind. I remember playing this at night. I remember thinking, “It’s Star Control II! Glorious space adventure! This isn’t going to get creepy! It’ll be fine.” So I kept playing.
You get a message from the surface each time you reach a new city, as Science Officer Bukowski tries to unravel the mystery of what happened. The first clue is that ten years prior, the Androsynth discovered some ancient artefacts, and after three years of work, began researching what they referred to as ‘dimensional fatigue phenomena,’ or DF. They thought that it might allow for faster hyperspace travel and communications, and had reached the point where they could see into other dimensions. They found something waiting for them.
—- REPORT FROM SURFACE —-
AGAIN, THE RECORD IS FRAGMENTARY HERE. I SEE REQUESTS TO THE CENTRAL COMPUTER FOR INFORMATION – DATA ON `REALITY ABERRATIONS’, THE `MOSQUITO MANGE’ AND, WELL… GHOSTS, POLTERGEISTS, AND OTHER MALEVOLENT, SUPERNATURAL CREATURES. THE REQUESTS GROW MORE URGENT, ALMOST FRANTIC, AND THEN… THE RECORD ENDS.
—- END OF REPORT —-
The pacing is magnificent. You find a city, approach it, and get another snippet of the unfolding story. Then, having read about the unfolding supernatural downfall of Androsynth civilisation, you trundle towards another city in your fragile little lander, on the edge of your seat, driven to know what you might find there while chilled at the possibilities.
The last message is true genius. Science Officer Bukowski does not send it, because he managed to get into an Androsynth computer core and lock himself inside. Having read its contents, he destroyed it while the rest of the crew tried to get to him, screaming that “No one could be allowed to know!” and that “They” could see him now. Mention is made that Bukowski seems more injured now than he was when the crew was required to restrain him, and it’s left entirely ambiguous whether he left the surface alive.
I remember being utterly captivated as the drama unfolded, and increasingly spooked. After all, we ourselves were learning secrets that had evidently doomed an entire civilisation!
It wasn’t until years later that I realised the game had very cleverly repurposed the format of some Lovecraftian horror stories told through sequential letters told from the perspective of our doomed protagonist as he gradually learned What Man Was Not Meant To Know.
It also meant I could never look at the cheerfully daft Orz the same way ever again, and that their cryptically garbled statements about not being ‘reflections of light,’ but ‘fingers from outside’ took on an entirely ominous dimension.
Star Control II amazes me today because it contains so many different kinds of stories, onion layers of different genres and tones. The gradually dawning horror of crawling across an entirely abandoned planet – absent any tangible threat whatsoever – hardly daring to learn what secrets the ruins hold is something that will always stay with me.