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Starship Titanic, Digital Village, 1998

Douglas Adams made a very successful career out of writing humorous science fiction, one of the hardest genres to get right. His famous Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series has lived on (a movie version is in production) and I've found most of his books amusing, if not suited perfectly to my sense of humour. Of the five books in the Hitchhiker's trilogy, I laughed most at The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, if that helps to define where I stand. Monty Python is likely closer to my sensibilities than Douglas Adams, so the involvement of Terry Jones in the Starship Titanic project is a point of appeal for the game. Starship Titanic falls into the genre of computer gaming known rather loosely as the adventure game or the puzzle game, and I have a somewhat mixed relation with that genre. I sometimes find puzzle games fun, but I am very easily frustrated and when that happens, I become critical (or a little more critical than usual).

So with all of this in mind, I began playing Starship Titanic with a measured enthusiasm. Or at least, I tried to begin playing. The game has a number of technical difficulties with its sound. I tried installing the game on three different computers, but the game had sound stuttering or total lack of sound on all three. I will give Digital Village a bit of credit, in that writing any program for the wide array of systems in use across the world is not easy. But they certainly should have worked a bit harder as no proper support for a popular soundcard like the Soundblaster is a bit hard to swallow.

What about the rest of the game? Again, I would have to say the quality assurance people or the game testers should have put in a few more hours. Starship Titanic is simply not very fun, and what other pressing reason would there be to play a computer game? The puzzles are ridiculous, anti-intuitive, and plain frustrating. When Terry Jones as an Arthurian knight got arrested by the police at the end of the Holy Grail, I laughed at what was an anti-ending. When Douglas Adams told us the answer to everything was 42 or that God's last message to us said "sorry for the inconvenience," I laughed at what was a joke by virtue of its anti-jokeness. But I'm a little reluctant to play a computer game filled with anti-puzzles. The people in quality assurance should have taken the courage to tell Adams that his puzzles are simply horrible.

A few examples follow, but first, I will analyze one of the successful puzzles in the game. When you finally find your third-class room in the grand Starship Titanic, you have the task of turning on the TV. Sounds simple? Well, it's not, and trying to do so is hilariously frustrating (note the adjective). A "horizontally mobile storage compartment" would still be horizontally mobile by any other name -- like "desk drawer" -- but half of the fun of the situation would be gone. The third-class room is about the size of small bathroom or cubicle, and unfolding the bed (sorry, make that the "fully recumbent relaxation device") is a exercise in ingenuity. One of the next puzzles has to do with the broken elevator. If you happen to check Channel 5 of the TV in the Parrot Lobby, you'll find the number 27. What does that mean? Well, it's the first of the more frustrating puzzles (take elevator 3 to floor 27 is all I will say). After this, a number of superhuman leaps of logic are required, like asking the bellbot to fix a light and throw a TV (and there's no indication which TV he can throw, and there are thousands of them onboard). Relaxing the Maitre D' Bot is not much fun either, and I particularly disliked most of the puzzles to do with the parrot (never mind that I didn't laugh at the parrot's jokes). The puzzles were based on trial-and-error and inventory, which are two serious sins to my mind. How do we know that walking out of the Parrot Lobby with the parrot will result in a feather arriving somehow in the inventory as it flies off? Not possible to know except by trial and many errors. Worse, the puzzles were presented as such, puzzles, with no relation to any kind of story (I'll talk about the complete lack of story next). I had no compelling reason to beat my head against these abstruse, meaningless conundrums. I don't mind the agony of a hard puzzle or the humour of a funny puzzle, but only one or two instances here could qualify under either of those categories.

Similarly, Douglas Adams should have gone back to the drawing board with the story. The idea of a Starship Titanic, the ship that could not possibly go wrong, is somewhat amusing in itself, but he didn't do much development on the idea. The Starship Titanic crashes into your house, and the Doorbot asks you to come along and fix the ship. You proceed to fix the ship. The ship has lost its mind and all you have to do is find the pieces, then make your way home. Nothing else happens, the plot does not twist, and the characters are largely irrelevant. Adams has provided us with some hilariously accurate and fresh satire of science fiction in the past, but Starship Titanic seems as tired and worn out as its malfunctioning robots.

I have two other complaints about the game. I enjoyed the graphics depicting the interior of the ship -- they had a nice art-deco feel to them, a certain kind of excessive grandeur that would be appropriate to a ship named Titanic. The graphics are rendered in high resolution, and this is the reason that the game comes on 3 CD-ROMs. When you have 3 CD-ROMs, this means that you will have to swap CDs in, at minimum, two sections of the game after starting up. I hate CD-swapping with an irrational fervour, and I am always happy when a game manages the process with some sense. That is not the case with Starship Titanic. You are forced to swap CDs at far too many junctions, and what's worse, the swapping makes no sense. One time when I was about to use the Gondola to get to the Arboretum, the game asked me for CD 3. I went to the Arboretum, returned, and proceeded to do a number of other things I had previously done while playing from CD 2. Why not eliminate one of the CDs altogether if there's that much overlap?

That's first irrational peeve. My second has to do with the transitions between locations. Clicking from viewpoint to viewpoint always gives a smooth, gliding transition. Which I didn't mind, except that the game forced the same stupid trips on the gamer, over and over again. After a while, I checked the manual and found out that I could skip the transitions if I held down the shift key while clicking with my mouse. I started to think that the game maybe had the gamer in mind after all. Then I got to the elevator and tried to shift-click past the long ride. No such luck. Every time you ride any of the elevators (or the pellerator, a type of elevator), you have to watch the most boring transition video of them all: a wall passing by. Why on earth would riding the same elevator a million times be considered any fun? By anybody? That's an extremely shoddy way to extend the longevity of a game, and it's simply not the kind of thing I want to do when I play a computer game.

Starship Titanic is a creative project with some lovely art but many unwise design choices. Readers familiar with books by Douglas Adams will be expecting some of the types of gags and puzzles that are present in the game, but overall, the game feels out of balance and not as entertaining as it could have been. A disappointment.


First posted: February 24, 1999; Last modified: February 24, 2004

Copyright © 1999-2004 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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