“This game contains no tutorials or explanations. Part of the experience is to discover things for yourself” – Disclaimer before starting The Starship Damrey.
The last time I looked at the GUILD series was to wax lyrical about Attack of the Friday Monsters, a game I thought would never have been made in the way it was were it not for the funding and support of Level-5. With their help, creator Kaz Ayabe was able to create a game that he wanted to, and it was a near-unqualified success. But while that game exemplifies the highs of the GUILD experiment, The Starship Damrey shows that not all projects of this nature are created equal.
The start of the game shows a lot of promise, because of the disclaimer quoted above. For those not in the know, The Starship Damrey is a horror-adventure game, and starting one of those by promising the ultimate obscurity is a really good beginning. Here, you might think, is the start of another small, creatively-fulfilling premise. Sadly, this is not to be the case. The game opens with the main character awake in a cryo-stasis pod, with a few simple commands at your service; you can turn on and off the lights, unsuccessfully attempt to open the hatch, and boot up the computer. Within the first few seconds of booting up the computer, the game tells you exactly how to do boot-up system works. An inconsistent follow-through on its own premise will become a crucial theme of the game’s failure.
Eventually, through the computer you’re able to take control of a robot to guide you through the ship. Controlling the robot is similar to an old-school dungeon crawler; you can turn in four directions and go forward or back. The problem, of course, is that this style of gameplay is pretty outdated for a reason; it’s slow and clunky and the robot’s lethargic turn cycle does little to aid this.
The game is filled with “spooky” darkened rooms and corridors, and so the robot’s field of view is further constrained by the tiny torch light you’re given. Exploration of the surrounding area is encouraged, because you’re asked to both find items scattered on the ground, as well as exterminate “space leeches”, tiny sprites that litter the floors and walls. In order to free the robot’s view, you have to press the A button, then move the D-pad around while standing still. Halfway through the game, I realised that pressing the A button was an unnecessary step because simply moving the analogue stick would do the job for you, but because the game “contains no explanations or tutorials”, I was stuck playing it in a slightly tedious way. It’s not a game changer, but instead just a way in which the premise turns into an annoyance rather than a cool feature. When the game can’t teach you its own mechanics through gameplay, sometimes a tutorial is useful.
Tedium is an annoyingly common feature of The Starship Damrey, and to illustrate that, let’s look at two of its puzzles. The first is probably the cleverest puzzle in the game; there’s a robot blocking your way and attacking you, and you have to find some way to stop it. Looking in the game’s database you can find information that robots can’t handle temperatures over 200 degrees, so you figure you have to find something that will be hot enough to disable your robo-assaulter. While doing some exploring you find an empty cookie jar, and will hopefully figure out that by putting the oil you found earlier in there and heating it up on the hotplate in the common room, you’ll have a perfect weapon. I’m being nice here and assuming that you remember both the oil and the hotplate, and don’t have to go searching through every room before you figure out the solution. Either way, you first head down through the elevator to the oil tap. Then, you place the jar under the tap and fill it with oil. After leaving the room and heading back up to the second level, you realise that you didn’t take the oil jar with you; the game has a nasty habit of requiring you to examine objects multiple times before being allowed to interact with them, so you forgot that the oil tap had to be examined again before you could remove the jar. After traipsing all the way back to the oil tap, then back again to the second floor, then finally to the hot plate, you have to watch a stupidly long heating-up process before you have the hot oil weapon of your desires. And that’s the good puzzle.
The puzzle directly after this requires you to remove a pile of debris that’s blocking your way to the next room. In the nearby lab, you find an assortment of chemicals, and in the doctor’s study you find a recipe for an explosive mixture. Of course, in a sensible game, you’d have enough inventory space to carry all the necessary chemicals to the debris, then create the explosion there. But no, the robots on the good Starship Damrey are only capable of holding one item in their claws, meaning you have to slowly trundle from the lab to the debris three times before you can create the explosion. Unlike the previous puzzle, this one is as simple as they come, but it’s made needlessly tedious. What’s more, it highlights just how obnoxious only being able to hold one item at a time is. Not only does this simplify the puzzles and mean they can only be designed in a linear fashion; it also causes situations like the one described above. Those two are extreme examples, but the game isn’t long enough to let them become forgettable distractions. It’s a shame that some smart and some simple puzzles are bogged down by poorly streamlined game design to the point of frustration.
However, the imaginary defender of this game (I say imaginary because of the handful of people who actually played this game, I can’t think of any of them getting much out of it), might argue that the puzzles in the game are merely a conduit to the interesting and atmospheric story. I sympathise with this view to an extent; I’ve forgiven poor gameplay for a great story in the past, and had this game had a story worth experiencing, I might still have recommended it.
Sadly, that is not the case. The atmosphere of this game is as generic sci-fi horror as it comes – a dark and abandoned spaceship with dead crew strewn around the floor and a little girl hologram randomly appearing for the odd jump-scare. The scariest thing in the game is the sound that the space leeches make when you go near them, which is a bizarre and unexpected static-like screech. But the one weird sound doesn’t excuse the design of every corridor, robot and alien, which are all as stock as they come. The ship is comprised of endless grey corridors and big empty grey rooms; the robots are simple designs that could be in any sci-fi game, and the alien has literal glowing red eyes and a simple grey humanoid design. There’s so much fucking grey in this game.
As for the story, it’s remarkably obtuse until after the credits, when all is revealed. I’ll put a spoiler warning here for anyone seriously wanting to play this game, but for those who have been put off by my ranting; the game’s overarching mission is to free yourself from the pod you’re trapped in, as well as work out what’s happened to all of the crew members. The answer is amazingly boring; you’ve kidnapped three aliens in order to research them, and they ended up killing the crew. It’s not exactly 2001 (although the game does throw in a cheeky reference to that film). In the post credits stinger, it’s revealed that you aren’t a person in the pod, but one of the aliens, and that you’ve basically freed yourself in order to bring havoc to humanity or something. That twist is alright, but it’s awfully clued – there’s nothing to suggest that more than one alien was ever on board until the game tells you in the end. So while it may be shocking, it’s not satisfying.
Mercifully, the full game takes under 3 hours to complete, meaning you don’t have to spend more time than necessary in the Starship Damrey. It’s a shame that not every project would work out as well as Friday Monsters, but I think Damrey shows the limits of GUILD as much as Friday Monsters shows the strengths. Although the game has a bigger budget than it might have been awarded otherwise, it’s spent here on pointless cutscenes, rather than making the ship an interesting place to explore. And while a small-scale game can focus on interesting gameplay concepts that might not get funding elsewhere, like a game without tutorials, or an inventory, that doesn’t mean those ideas are worth pursuing. The Starship Damrey is an odd game in the GUILD series, because it feels as experimental as it is rote. However, with it out of the way, we’re free to explore the games that fall in between these levels of quality.