Interstellar War: Safe for Peace   7 comments

For those not versed in the ways of Star Trek, a brief supercut of technobabble from Discovery:

Starting in the Next Generation days, writers would often put “(TECH)” in their draft scripts to be later filled in by the science advisor André Bormanis. With technobabble, the audience does not need to understand the actual content of what is being said; it only needs to be conveyed that the characters have confidence in what is going on.

In interactive form, having the audience not understand how things work is significantly more of a problem. Infocom’s Starcross (1982) managed fairly well with the inclusion of realistic physics which could be sussed out by a canny player; Interstellar War’s second part of the game, on the other hand, mostly feels like “magic”.

I left off last time having teleported onto a ship orbiting above the main character’s destroyed planet, and a “treaty”. The room with the treaty also had a red button marked “limbo” and a gold button marked “fire” which did nothing. A bit of poking around yielded a computer room with a “chip shunt”, a “engine room” with an “empty drive box”, and a “vacuum oven” where it’s possible to die in colorful fashion.

You are in a plastic room beside a vacuum oven. Visible items:

Pulled-down lever. Open oven door.

Obvious exits: West

Through a window in the door, you see a red glow.
And the heat comes out! You’re fried!

A storage room included a magnetic bottle, field-charged tongs, a lightning rod, and a suit of hardened titanium armor.

Technobabble Moment #1: In the engine room, there’s valve which releases “fusile deuterium” from the engine; in normal circumstances this kills you, but if you’re holding the magnetic bottle, it gets contained inside. There’s no reason to suss this out other than just experiment.

You are in the engine room. Visible items:

Window into engine. Large knob & valve. Empty drive box.

Obvious exits: North

A stream of fusile deuterium shoots out from the engine, and is instantly pulled into the magnetic bottle.

This is still pretty easy to run into accidentally, but here I was terribly stuck and had to resort to periodic checks at Dale Dobson’s walkthrough. (He himself had to check the source code for some things.)

The first thing I missed was that the titanium armor lets you go back to the sandstorm that melted the wrench from last time, and enter it. I admit a failure to visualize; I didn’t think of the sandstorm being an extra “room” it was possible to enter.

You’re right on top of a dangerous whirlpool of sand. The sand is swirling fast enough to grind anything.

Obvious exits: South

You are in the sandy whirlpool. Visible items:

Piece of silicon.

Obvious exits: Up

Technobabble Moment #2: Once you have the silicon you can take it back to the vacuum oven, turn on the oven, and end up with … still the silicon, but also some transistor crystals.

Through a window in the door, you see a red glow.

The glow from the oven window ceases.



You are in the vacuum oven. Visible items:

Piece of silicon. Transistor crystals.

Technobabble Moment #3: You can then take the two items and MIX which obtains a computer chip, which is then usable at the chip shunt. This fixes the inactive red and gold buttons. The gold button fires a missile which flies harmlessly into space, while the red button complains the engine isn’t working yet.

A missile streams out from this space ship, and travels harmlessly into space.

Technobabble Moment #4: To fix the engine requires dropping the bottle with fusile deuterium, getting out the lightning rod and typing THROW ROD.


It flies into the air, catches a bolt, and brings it down to the bottle.

The bottle becomes a “reverse-charged bottle” in the process.

Technobabble Moment #5: Now the bottle can be inserted into the empty drive box at the engine, and the engine is now described as full of antimatter. So (begin Trek monologue here) fusile deuterium combined with lightning obtained by throwing a lightning rod should generate sufficient antimatter to run the drive, Captain! (end Trek monologue)

A tunnel of seemingly infinite length forms in front of your ship, and it is suddenly whisked into it. Stars pass by at tens of thousands of times the speed of light for a few minutes, and then the “limbo” travel draws to a close.

This flies the ship into a confrontation with the enemy! Fortunately, we have the arsenal of freedom:

A missile streams out from this space ship, and misses the enemy ship!
The enemy ship returns fire with its own missile!
Your point defense laser system knocks it out of the sky just in time before it reaches you!

A missile streams out from this space ship, and scores a direct hit!
In a soundless concussion of light, the entire enemy ship is enveloped in a thermonuclear fireball!
You’ve made the systems safe for peace! … For now.

This would have been mostly satisfying without the technobabble blitz. The usual “fix” would be to add more description to the various items so that, e.g., it’d be clear that the lightning rod was a thing you throw. I realize intent was likely to force the player to experiment; while experiment can on occasion be satisfying, the overall narrative effect was of the main character blundering into a working ship.

From the first-draft script for Voyager’s episode Parallax, season 1. You can see the use of (TECH). Image originally from an eBay auction.

Posted July 3, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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7 responses to “Interstellar War: Safe for Peace

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  1. Actually, I’m not sure you’re being quite fair here. Deuterium is the principal fuel of fusion reactors — two atoms of it fuse to form a single helium atom — and while the phrase “fusile deuterium” is new to me, it’s actually quite a neat hint, by analogy with “fissile uranium”. And the superheated plasma of a fusion reaction is kept contained by a “magnetic bottle”. Admittedly it’s not an actual bottle, just a magnetic field acting as a “bottle” in the sense of a container, but it’s the standard jargon. So the idea of capturing fusile deuterium in a magnetic bottle make perfect adventure-game sense; and so does the idea that that deuterium-in-a-bottle could be the power source for the disabled engine.

    • It’s not absurd, but neither is actual Trek technobabble. I certainly get what the author was going for, but despite it being a logical world universe idea, there isn’t any indication to the player before the fact what things are supposed to do.

      • OK, but neither is there typically any indication to the player that this mysterious “key” object can be used to unlock doors. You’re expected to bring that knowledge to the game. Is it completely unreasonable to expect the player sometimes to have more esoteric real-world knowledge? I don’t think so.

      • TBF, if it was just the bottle I wouldn’t have even pointed it out, but it was the start to a sequence of very odd manipulations.

    • I’m fine with the fusile deuterium and the magnetic bottle (which is a term I knew), although the idea of carrying such a bottle around is a little odd, but throwing a lightning rod to transform the stuff is just weird.

      • Yeah, I got no argument with that :-)

      • Hi, this is Roger M. Wilcox, author of the Interstellar War adventure game back in 1981.

        Sometimes I want to whack my younger self on the head and yell “What were you thinking?!”. Hitting a magnetic bottle with lightning to turn it into a “reverse-charged” magnetic bottle? Putting this into a “drive box”, and now all the deuterium is magically transformed into antimatter?!

        And let’s not get into that other adventure of mine where you turn crude oil into gasoline by putting it in a “churn.” Gasoline isn’t butter! C’mon, kid, I know Wikipedia didn’t exist in 1981, but would it have killed you to crack open the Collier’s Encyclopedia your parents had at home and look up how gasoline is actually made?!

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