Art and words by Stephen Beirne. This piece is community funded. If you like this article, please consider supporting my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.
[Minor spoilers for Terminal, a game by Menesetsu.]
My favourite part of most sci-fi films is right at the start before the crew of the space ship stir to life.
In these scenes we’re given wonderful shots of the ship gliding through the empty blackness of space and interior stills of the control room and empty corridors and the med bay. Everything’s sterile of life and tranqui, the peacefulness of the interior defying cosmic indifference beyond the ship’s hull. We see the presently interchangeable crew members sleeping in stasis tubes, dreaming sweetly, trusting their lives to the protection of their metal eggshell. The air is silent but for the engine’s hum.
This serenity invariably breaks when a computer monitor flicks alive. Lines of text chirp across the screen, and like a contagion inviting movement and change, provokes whirling of further machinery each rousing one another to action. Code begets information begets interpretation, and so awakens the burgeoning of consciousness of computers and, in moments, their operators.
In seconds the quiet status quo crumbles and is replaced by chaos. The crew are ejected from their pods to address whatever minor catastrophe precipitates the plot.
It’s scenes like this just before we’re told of what disaster has befallen the crew that entice me more than anything, when the air is filled with so much potential. The delicate horror of the unknown hangs still unruined by the trite in-film explanation to quickly follow.
But within the tension extends the excitement of the mystery, the thrilling weightlessness, a craving for knowledge dangling on the other side of this heartbeat, and the exhilaration of feeling the threads of possibility coiling outwards as of yet unplucked. It’s a joy in itself, this hunger grasping for a reality to replace the broken one.
Menesetsu’s Terminal, a Ludlum Dare text adventure, suspended me here for hours. Truth be told, I’m a little stunned as to how it managed this—it’s giving me no small amount of trouble in writing this, since in articulating what Terminal achieves I find myself stumped by the contradictory fact that it is a horribly broken game.
In Terminal we play as a space station operator tasked with organizing traffic around our port. Although this is our job description, throughout the game we’ll only actually deal with one ship, so in the game’s present scenario this means waking the crew of the damaged Cygnus from cryostasis and ordering them via command line to prepare their vessel for docking.
Fantastic premise. So far so good.
The first screen we see tells us to type MAN for user instructions, which gives us a deceptively short list of possible actions, largely revolving around telling person X to do action Y at subject Z, and sources of information relating to the ship’s current state, such as the condition of each of its crew members, its navigation system, and the cargo bay. On the first day, the ERRORS screen warns us each crew member is still in stasis and since there’s a command to WAKE them we know straight away what to do.
From here it gets complicated. On the second day, our monitor informs us of the updated condition of the ship: the scientist’s gone mad, there’s a fault in the navigation system, and the captain is missing. Of our action commands we have HEAL X Y, REPAIR X Y and RESEARCH X Y, so for instance, inputting HEAL MEDIC SCIENTIST tells the medic to tend to the scientist. That’s one error down.
The problem arises in trying to figure out who should repair the navigation system—Cygnus’ technician, scientist or operator. We can only give each crew member one command per day and then we’ve to move to the NEXTDAY to see if our orders met with success. If we can’t repair the navigation system in three days, the ship crashes into our station and everyone dies. If we send someone an order they’re not equipped for, they injure themselves while failing to perform it and eventually die.
On the other hand, if we manage to fix the navigation system, we can strike it off the list of ERRORS and focus on the next priority. Every day there are new ERRORS—this is the worst built ship in the world.
This being the gameplay setup, the task for us as the player boils down to figuring out whose job it is to sort out each malfunction and mystery threatening the ship, accomplished by trial and error across several playthroughs.
As it turns out, it’s the PILOT who can REPAIR the SYS_NAV, but if we don’t get this on our first attempt we’ve lost our sole opportunity since the pilot goes missing on the third day. I never figured out how to successfully LOOKFOR missing personnel. Or rather, I never figured out how the game wanted me to LOOKFOR missing personnel, since in some playthroughs I did manage to locate both the captain and the pilot, only without the ERRORS screen copping onto this fact. Because the problem of the missing pilot was never ticked off the list it persisted well past the deadline, taking up screenspace that should have been dedicated to the next hazard engulfing the ship.
In this single example are two of Terminal’s gamebreaking flaws, which by their same nature are simultaneously its greatest strengths: our difficulty in using our console both to understand the problems facing the Cygnus and to communicate our commands to enact each solution. It’s through its bugs and design errors that this game repels the player, trending each scenario into a hostile, frustrating struggle with our extended cyborgization via technological interdependence, although I bristle at indicting these qualities as failures on the game’s part given the thematic cohesion they bestow.
What we experience is a multi-channel communication breakdown between the game and ourselves, to the same tune of the catastrophe now facing the crew of the Cygnus. A network forms between the four parties within this narrative: the Cygnus, its crew, the player as operator, and our space station console. A compositional analysis shows the console embodied visually on-screen as an in-game entity; the operator’s terminal is a component of Terminal, not Terminal itself, and in this lies our first hint towards the game’s insinuations on technology.
Mechanically it becomes a game of functions: as operator it is our function to collate information given to us by our console and interpret from them commands; as crew it is their function to enact these commands, resulting in feedback (crisis averted or crisis continues); as ship the Cygnus’ function is to be repaired and maintained by its crew and communicate its status to our console; as operator’s station our console’s function is to interpret the Cygnus’ signals into ERRORS and relay our instructions back to the crew.
Both operator and crew are reliant on an obtuse mediator to relate to them the problem being faced and the paths that must be taken to solve it. We are to the crew of the Cygnus as our monitor is to us—the honeyed twist is in becoming a computer to the Cygnus crew, we inherit a profound inability to comprehend We are the human manifestation of the Chinese Room. A meadowed android.
The beautiful cycle of mutual reliance transforming each party into cogs in an incomprehensible machine is not lost on Terminal—hence the digital command line nature of our communication with the Cygnus’ crew. By this way the four parties are layered as relational agents in a distorted hierarchy, dehumanising the Cygnus crew by use of the machinery dialect and dehumanizing ourselves through functional and thematic simpatico with our console.
The frustration this breeds when time and time again the Cygnus crashes home, time and time again our misapprehension is definitively proven, is for us the face of cosmic terror, where in the depth of space nothing becomes knowable. So cursed by our ineptitude at solving the crisis onboard the Cygnus, knowledge of the origin of its trouble evades us, perpetually postponing the moment of realization which would normally put an end to our fear of the unknown.
Ironically, over the course of all the hours I played Terminal, this suspended state of chaos and confusion eventually becomes the norm. Inside the pangs to decipher it and solve the mystery of the Cygnus, I found a slight sense of peace in the reverberating hum of my terminal and its echos of radio static.
And I quit.