Have You Played… Starship Titanic?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

Starship Titanic didn’t work. It was Douglas Adams’ second foray into the world of gaming, following Infocom’s infamous Hitchhiker’s Guide in 1984, and it was a far wider miss. Released in 1998, it managed to contain dead ends, abysmal puzzles, horrid pre-rendered graphics, and a text parser that was spectacularly dreadful. But still, Douglas Adams!

Okay, I confess, there’s a dreadful ulterior motive for my mentioning this game. It’s a gargantuan namedrop. At the time of its release I was at university, and was “Comedy Editor” of the student newspaper. This primarily involved sitting in the tiny cupboard newspaper offices when I was supposed to be in lectures, and getting into the union comedy nights for free. I was asked by someone on the paper team if I wanted to interview Douglas Adams about the game. Er, yeah, I said. Yes, I’ll do that.

So there we go, I got to speak to Douglas Adams on the phone for about half an hour. He was astonishingly lovely, so very generous with my 19-year-old questions that he must have answered ten thousand times, and seeming to genuinely enjoy regaling me with tales about how he’d been writing H2G2’s radio scripts in the BBC toilets, while the recording of the episode he was still writing had already started. I distinctly remember asking him about a photo I had in a book, of him and Terry Jones nude in a bathtub together, and his brightly recollecting the circumstances. I think we briefly mentioned the game.

I think I just did that too.

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27 Comments

  1. gbrading says:

    Douglas Adams was taken from us far too soon. :(

    Starship Titanic was an ambitious game, and yes it was ultimately a failure but I’m nonetheless glad that is now available to play on GOG for those who so wish. The dialogue system was especially ambitious.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Slarnos says:

    A girl I met while working a campus job in college let me borrow her copy of this game for a while.

    Getting it to run at all was the first challenge. This was around 2005-2006, and my Windows XP machine did not play nicely with Starship Titanic AT ALL. After messing around with several third party patches and fixes for outmoded video rendering programs I finally was able to play the game. I found the game to be good looking (though ultimately the visual design outstripped the systems that ran it) and otherwise merely okay. Then I hit the point where you swap disks, the game crashed hard, and I never finished it.

    Technically speaking, Starship Titanic was Douglas Adams’ THIRD foray into video games; he wrote the 1987 Infocom game “Bureaucracy.”

    • Premium User Badge

      tigerfort says:

      The question of whether John forgot Bureaucracy, or merely preferred not to remember it, no-one but John can answer. But unfortunately it was much funnier as an idea (or a one-liner) than as an actual game. The H2G2 Infocom game is very hard, frequently unfair, and nonetheless well worth playing; Bureaucracy … is much worse in every way, and really not worth the effort.

      There were also various abortive attempts betweentimes; assorted people at Infocom spent time attempting to work on a “Restaurant at the End of the Universe” game, with, um, limited co-operation from DNA.

      • Premium User Badge

        Slarnos says:

        Having played Bureaucracy, I have to agree. It very quickly wears through the veneer of how funny it is that it’s so “annoying” to being actually annoying and unfunny. If they’d stopped at the bit where you’re finally able to leave your street I would perhaps remember it more fondly. Unfortunately, that’s the end of the first major puzzle, and it’s the best one of the bunch.

      • Catiline says:

        I prefer to believe that Infocom’s Bureaucracy was actually written by the ghost of Franz Kafka, wearing Douglas Adams like the roach-thing from Mystery Men wore his “Edgar suit”.

    • Baf says:

      Well, it’s kind of questionable whether he actually did any writing on Bureaucracy, beyond pitching the concept, which the finished version strayed pretty far from. The Digital Antiquarian has a fairly detailed history of the project that attributes most of the writing to Michael Bywater.

  3. Pantalaimon says:

    Yeah, it was a strange one. Battling the text parser to communicate with people was a game in itself. I always wondered if any of that was intentional. Probably not that fun but I have fond memories of playing it my dad.

    If nothing else it gave me the strongest desire to do the dialogue system properly in my own stuff. Not yet attempted. One day.

  4. WorldMaker says:

    I remember rather enjoying this game at the time it came out, hard crashes and bugs withstanding. It was the sort of game I’d prepare for by buying the official strategy guide. I remember the official strategy guide added it’s own humor into the mix. Also, the best part of Starship Titanic was the novelization, which was a quick hilarious read, and the audiobook of the novelization which was also great. One of the few books I’ve read multiple times and listened to an abridged audiobook of that same book. (I seem to recall my audiocassette of the novel was a feelie for buying the game, novel, or some combination of both.)

    • Coming Second says:

      Yes! The novel, written by Terry Jones I believe, was a lot of fun. Also as you would expect of a game of this vintage, the manual was also a lovely piece of work. Don’t think I even played the game, but have fond memories of it nonetheless.

    • Scurra says:

      My favourite bit about the novelisation was that they posted the entire content to the website, but with the words sorted into alphabetical order.
      (Also, the website(s) that went with the game deserve a mention too: it was one of the earliest “alternate reality game” although not in quite the same way that modern titles took the idea.)

    • skorpeyon says:

      Thank you for reminding me that there is a novelization! I’m quite certain I had owned it at one point, yet completely lost it, and I need to reaquire it now. I loved the game, mainly because anything with the specific type of quirky humor Douglas Adams was so well-known for is something I’ll take on any day. It may have been quirky, buggy, etc, and I may have needed a guide in order to figure out what the hell to do, not because of difficulty, but because of a lack of desire to literally click every single thing everywhere since there wasn’t the best of guidance in the game, yet I loved it.

  5. MiniMatt says:

    Reads like a 42/10

  6. Jeroen D Stout says:

    I remember this very fondly. One of those bizarre games that still makes sense on some level. Very amusing and strangely nostalgic.

    Of course also a game for which you need to get your friend who already played it on the phone.

  7. Knurek says:

    Actually, it was his third attempt – he also penned

  8. Imbecile says:

    I misread this as the starship turnip.

    That is all.

  9. frightlever says:

    JW opened the interview by asking Douglas Adams, “Do you think you’re a pathological liar? None of the stuff in your books is true, is it?”

  10. dareth says:

    Starship Titanic! As a kid, I played this game to exhaustion. Especially the elevator bot. I still think it might be one of the prettiest games ever made.

  11. CdrJameson says:

    There are some good ideas/gags in there – I like the room choosing sequence, and confusing the bomb – but it really is hidden in a lot of crud.

    You can read J.Nash’s view, for a donation in the tramp’s hat

  12. FaceHaver says:

    I was always a fan of the music that played in the bar. Rather generic (probably intentionally so), but it establishes a particular atmosphere very effectively.

  13. Buggery says:

    It was a lovely game. Not a good game, by any means, but certainly lovely. I enjoyed exploring and gently working myway from terrible, poky little starship rooms into much nicer suites, talking to robots and generally faffing about. The puzzles were all garbage, which is a bit of a problem in a puzzle game. But it was fun, and I’ll dig the box out (for the 3D glasses) to look over it and consider downloading it from GoG again at some point.

  14. Konservenknilch says:

    It was alright, but nothing outstanding. There was potential for more, I think. I remember using a walkthrough a lot because of the terrible puzzle design.

    Read the novel as well, which was also rather meh. I mean, the writing was perfectly fine, but a series of fetch-quests makes for a rather poor story.

  15. skorpeyon says:

    I am jealous, one of my main goals in life after first reading H2G2 roughly 20 years ago was to one day meet Douglas Adams, hopefully get to speak to him for any short amount of time. The day I heard he’d passed away I was downright depressed that I never had that opportunity, and that we would never be able to read anything else penned with his particularly amazing brand of humor. I still have multiple copies of H2G2, one for my son when he’s older for certain, another to loan to anyone I befriend who hasn’t read it yet.

  16. TheTingler says:

    John, I’m officially envious of you (I was anyway, but more so). As a writer myself the two biggest influences of my young reading/writing life was Douglas Adams and Stephen King. I’ve managed to meet Stephen King but I’ll always be regretful about never even seeing Adams, and you got to have a pleasant conversation with him.