The Station is a first-person alien mystery with an intriguing premise

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How would you react to the discovery of an advanced but violent alien civilisation in the midst of a civil war? That’s the question that opens the pitch for sci-fi explore-o-puzzler The Station, and it’s intriguing enough for me to want to check out the game based on that alone. You play as a recon specialist sent to investigate a supposedly undetectable surveillance station that’s cut off communication, where you’ll uncover what went down via the crew’s AR logs. It’s out now.

So, Tacoma with a focus on a inter-species ethics and questions about surveillance and the limits of moral authority? Yep, I’m on board.

It really does sound like it’s borrowing liberally from Tacoma: the blurb mentions that “technology has gone through a digital revolution and conversations, notes and even computers are experienced in full Augmented Reality.” I’m not complaining – Tacoma’s combination of environmental knick-knacks and recorded conversations was an excellent way to weave a story, and I’m pleased to see another game follow in its footsteps.

There’s a heavier focus on puzzling than in Tacoma, mind. “The secrets on-board the station will resist being uncovered and you must rely on your ability to identify and solve intuitive but subtle problems”, says the blurb, adding that “The Station itself is a puzzle to be solved”. I’m all for the side of puzzling that’s about piecing together a story, though I do hope the mechanical puzzles alluded to there don’t get in the way of that.

It’s the promise that “what players discover will challenge their view of surveillance, imperialism and moral law” that interests me the most, and it would be a shame if those discoveries are on the other side of a door that I can’t figure out how to open.

If this is your jam, so far I’ve seen the best explorations of these questions in books rather than games. The ethics of observing and influencing alien civilisations is at the heart of the Culture novels by Ian M. Banks, and the Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin has an interesting (if gloomy) take on how first contact might go. Oh, and if you’re worried that the discovery of alien life would plunge the Earth into a state of panic and uncertainty, a recent study found that most people would actually be quite upbeat about the whole thing.

The Station came out yesterday on Steam for £11.39/$14.99/€14.99.

31 Comments

  1. Mungrul says:

    This is a news post with a very literal headline.

    Sorry, a bit snide, but I do get a bit tired of the overly-descriptive, uninventive headlines on the majority of the RPS newsposts recently.

    I suppose I’ve been spoiled by Alice.

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      phuzz says:

      I tried to think of a better one, but so far all I’ve come up with is “Not Station-ary”.
      Turns out this wording thing is quite difficult.

    • int says:

      It’s fine. Sometimes I feel punished when I read RPS.

    • IbisMummy says:

      The Station tunes in on surveillance.

  2. televizor says:

    Three Body Problem is the second best sci-fi series I’ve read after Dune.
    It was an incredible experience, changing your view of the universe
    (for its explanation of the Fermi Paradox alone) and you can see the insane amount of documentation work Liu Cixin had to do an when writing it. Some characters are a bit stereotypes but I can live with that considering everything else you’re getting in return.

    • Ergates_Antius says:

      Read the first book, really didn’t like it. Probably one of the worst books I’ve ever read, certainly the worst in the last 10 years or so.

      The characters were barely even one dimensional. A lot of the time their supposed motivations either didn’t make sense, or were obviously stupid (like the environmentalist whose solution to humans destroying the environment was to invite an alien invasion….what?).

      All the stuff about the online “game” the main character plays (and which takes up a lot of the book) was just incoherent nonsense.

      There were also a number of grating holes too – like the main chars family, who are involved in the early parts of the book then just kind of vanish, like the author forgot he’d mentioned them.

      The dialogue was mostly awful too – some of it I’m willing to wave off as translation issues, but other stuff (like massive chunks of exposition being dropped in seemingly at random) would have been just as bad in the original.

      The most interesting bits were the bits about the cultural revolution (I.e. the background, not the main story).

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        alison says:

        I agree with the OC that this is a fantastic sci-fi. It is definitely not a character-driven series, though. It’s a big ideas sci-fi and pretty much only a big ideas sci-fi. In this sense it isn’t comparable to Dune, which leans very heavily on its characters and lore. Unfortunately, the first book doesn’t really get into the best ideas. I feel the series really peaks in the second book, where the more interesting ideas are explored. I also recommend the series, but it’s perhaps not one that will appeal to people looking for a compelling interpersonal plot to move it along.

      • Rindan says:

        All of your criticism are completely valid, but not the point. Liu Cixin writes in a really unique style. He focus on one thing very well and very tightly. In Three Body Problem he is focusing on Fermi’s Paradox and spells out a pretty brilliant answer. That core kernel of the story is brilliant. He sets up a scenario to showcase his answer to Fermi’s Paradox, and it is awesome in the details. Everything connected to that core nugget in the book is pretty damn good. He also explores the idea of how to fight an enemy that can see everything and is technologically superior, and his answer to that is pretty awesome.

        The problem with Liu Cixin is that he doesn’t give a single flying fuck about anything branching off of his core idea. The further from his core idea, the fewer fucks he gives. Characters, and character motivation are so far from his core ideas, that they are barely passing after thoughts. His characters universally suck and the motivations of people are nonsense, but that’s because characters and motivations have nothing to do with how cool this idea he has is. So, you shrug, enjoy the fantasy, and appreciate the larger idea that he is exploring with a little bit more care then he gives his characters.

        I’m not saying you have to like him, I’m just suggesting that if you want to appreciate him, trying to appreciate him as someone trying to tell you a cool idea with sloppy story. You should give his cool idea a listen. It’s generally pretty interesting.

        • Ergates_Antius says:

          OK, I can accept that as a *reason* – however, I don’t think I can take it as an excuse.

          If you just want to present your cool idea as an idea, and either aren’t capable or just can’t be bothered to write a readable engaging story around it, then maybe don’t wrap your idea in a 3-book series. Just write and essay, or a short story.

          I have the 2nd and 3rd book in the series, but I’m not going to read them. The first one was so bad that reading it was painful – I only forced myself to finish it on principle (as I’ve never given up on a book before). There are more well-written books out there than I will ever have the time to read – I don’t see the point in grinding through badly-written ones, no matter how interesting the core ideas are.

          • televizor says:

            Allow me to disagree with you.
            The environmentalist was inviting the aliens to Earth as a way to completely change the current society driven by the consumption of Earth’s natural resources.
            As soon as they realized this was a … let’s call it full on evil invasion (with the human race to be wiped out), they changed their minds.
            Also keep in mind that the invasion was going to happen hundreds of years in the future; they would be long dead and unaffected by the invasion themselves.
            Also I love the way that people were eased into the trisoloran culture by the VR game.
            The characters introduced in the beginning of the first book were there just for context, as was the Chinese Cultural Revolution. To show you how the … old woman, the one that contacted Trisolaris in the first place, was shaped by her experiences and to give some justification for her action.
            You are doing yourself a great disservice for not reading the rest of the trilogy, it really takes you places :)

    • Sleepery says:

      I have to agree, barely made it to the end of the book. It had an interesting premise but felt incredibly clumsy. Felt a far cry from Dune, that’s for sure.

  3. Excors says:

    If you think The Three-Body Problem has a gloomy view of our interaction with an alien civilisation, the other books in that trilogy extend the gloominess to a much vaster scale, and have a disturbingly plausible solution to the Fermi paradox. They’re great books but did make me worry a bit about the futility of existence.

    On the other hand, when scientists suggest everything is going to disappear into the quite-possibly-factual heat death of the universe anyway, we might as well spend the intervening years having fun reading about all the other unlikely ways we could end, so that thought cheered me up again.

    • MajorLag says:

      This is my big problem with the ideas presented in Liu Cixin’s and similar work. All this doomsaying about how the only practical thing to do is literally kill everything that isn’t you: survival is ultimately a pointless endeavour. If you place your survival as the ultimate goal of everything you do then you have already failed. It seems to me that an advanced alien civilization might also have advanced philosophical reasoning and thus have motivations beyond primitive, and ultimately futile, desires to simply survive. After all, if that’s really how we work, then why is anyone willing to sacrifice their lives for anything? And yet people do it all the time, for their family, for their nation, even for ideals.

      • Excors says:

        (Spoiler warning for major themes of the books)

        I think the issue is that if 99% of civilisations are peaceful, but 1% prefer to kill everyone else, then the 1% will kill the 99%, and now the 1% will be 100%. It’s much easier to destroy than to protect, so the aggressors will always win. The only way to avoid that is if precisely 100% of civilisations are peaceful, and that’s implausible in an infinite universe. It only takes one to ruin it for everyone.

        Natural selection doesn’t care if it’s marching towards a pointless goal; it’s simply a mechanism that favours those who survive over those who die.

        • Kollega says:

          Except this hinges on the idea that “good is impotent”, which is, frankly speaking, hogwash. There are nation-states in the real world that choose not to possess nuclear weapons, but could create them in short order if they ever decide to by using their technological and industrial base. The same logic is easily applicable to advanced space-weaponry.

          Consider this: even if we’re talking a completely peaceful society, there’s the fact that “A reaction drive’s efficiency as a weapon is in direct proportion to its efficiency as a drive.” – as Larry Niven once pointed out. And if there’s at least one civilization that doesn’t want to murder everyone, but has a technology level equal to or surpassing that of the civilization that does want to murder everyone (nevermind the scenario where 99% of spacefaring societies are peaceful and willing to defend that peace), well, I’m not writing everything off as a foregone conclusion.

          Make of that what you will.

          • lglethal says:

            I have to agree with Kollega here. Unless the society that wants to exterminate everyone else is significantly more advanced then everyone else I cant see it being succesful.

            I’ve always felt that the galaxy as described in the Mass Effect universe seems quite reasonable. Races that are definitely at times adversarial, but in general co-operate as they realise its in their interests. I’d like to think that if life exists in our Galaxy, then it operates very much like citadel space…

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            alison says:

            It’s been a little while since I read it, but didn’t the TBP series point out that ultimately all life will result in a conflict over limited resources? On a small scale you might be right that “good” is maintainable for a while. But over billions of years, assuming a species succeeds in lasting that long, eventually it will have to choose between expansion or extinction. It’s not an idea I am very comfortable with, but it’s certainly not far-fetched based on what we can observe even just in Earth’s short history.

          • Kollega says:

            And that would be a valid argument if “explore, expand, exploit, exterminate” was the only way to run a civilization. Which it isn’t, seeing as it’s possible to run a sustainable society rather than a growth-obsessed one, even with high technology. And that’s not even getting into the idea of alliances between species and civilizations. Or into the idea of using high technology to e.g. terraform barren planets so that you don’t have to fight over habitable ones.

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            alison says:

            I get the feeling we are talking at vastly different scales here.

            The Three Body Problem series discusses this entire cycle of our (theoretical) ten-dimensional universe. An important assumption made by Liu Cixin in the series is that this universe is a closed system with a definite endpoint. Alliances and terraforming are mentioned in passing, as is the singularity and pocket universes and other civilization-scale solutions to living sustainably, but those are just tiny specks in the greater scheme of things.

            I understood Liu’s point to be that if the universe is finite then by definition all lifeforms will end up (willing or unwilling) participants in a zero sum game that will always be won by physics itself. Hundreds of species go extinct every year on Earth alone. When humankind goes extinct, other species will care as little about us as we did about the millions that disappeared during our reign on this planet. If we get hit by a stray bullet fired by a species that itself went extinct before Sol was even formed, well, that’s just the nature of things.

            I think MajorLag came out of the series with the wrong message. I don’t think it’s about how we should all be cynically trying to dominate one another. I think the series is about accepting that the universe is vast and magnificent but that it, too, will pass.

          • Kollega says:

            You say “the universe is a zero-sum game”, I say “there’s that thing called the tragedy of the commons”. It’s also a “fun” way to go extinct, and way sooner.

          • Rindan says:

            Liu Cixin is posing a scenario. The scenario might not be true, but imagine for a moment it is. Imagine if the following things are true. There is a bunch of intelligent life out there. For whatever reasons, on the galactic scale, there is literally no defense. Once you have been space fairing for a thousand years of so, you can wipe out any other planet you see. What do you do? Liu Cixin’s answer is “shut up, don’t let anyone know you are there”. He answer that way because if offense absolutely always wins, it only takes one 1 crazy person in the neighborhood and you are dead.

            I certainly hope that isn’t true, but just suppose it is true. Suppose offense is absolute. Any space faring species can delete the other with no defense, and almost no warning. Basically, if someone knows where you are, they can kill you. Are you going to shout out into the void?

            It’s a fun, hopefully untrue whatif. Hopefully untrue because I think Liu Cixin might actually be right about the answer if it is.

      • Baboonanza says:

        It’s a perfectly valid philosophy, just like all the other ones. There is not objective ‘best’ and I would suggests that the philosophy any individual subscribes to has less to do with their logical reasoning than emotion, cultural background and all of the other factors that influence our unconscious mind.

        Personally I’m prone to solipsism and tend to consider the continuation of self (myself specifically) to be of the utmost importance. I might die for my children but for ideals or nation? No chance.

  4. automatic says:

    Most Sci-fi about alien species talks more about human relations with other humans than beings of different species. We don’t relate properly with different species of own planet, go figure species from other planets with intelligence and technology of their own. Aliens on these kind of games are usually xeno suits for different human cultures so the player doesn’t feel like a genocide if he decides to simply wipe them out. I hope the developers are considering these ideas too, since apparently there’s some acknowledgment of imperialistic politics. I will certainly check it out.

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    Waltorious says:

    If you want a gloomy take on first contact, try Stanislav Lem’s novel Fiasco. Then read all of his other writings.

  6. Vodka, Crisps, Plutonium says:

    For a game, boasting about studying the extraterrestrials’ way of living, that trailer surely looks a bit too anthropocentric. Guess that’s the point.
    Looking at the equivalent of contemporary, divided human race from perspective of an outside viewer has never been outdated so far, but unfortunately too many sci-fi classics have already shown, what happens when a completely independent from the situation outsider is trying to “enforce” their helpful solution on the locals.

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    SminkyBazzA says:

    Most of the reviews on Steam are about how it’s a bit too short at 1.5-2.5 hours long. I think this could have been mentioned here.

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    Leucine says:

    Well. That was a turgid disappointment.

    Tacoma it certainly was not, with horribly overwrought writing throughout and a twist that only ekes out as being slightly better than “it was all a dream”. I wasn’t expecting world-class material but I also don’t expect to be so insultingly patronised. And that wouldn’t have been quite as bad if the rest of the writing was at least serviceable. I wasn’t exactly expecting Tacoma (I had serious doubts it could match that) but Jesus, the characters couldn’t be any more flat if they were cardboard cutouts.

    If I’m appearing harsh it’s because I’m usually quite forgiving but in this instance I feel genuinely fucking cheated. I’d pay less for a schlocky sci-fi novel that at least would’ve had some effort put into it.

    • Vodka, Crisps, Plutonium says:

      So, it’s a kid’s first controversial sci-fi story, but without any color to target themselves to the right audience?

      • Inkano says:

        Wouldn’t even call it controversial, just yet another “Wars are bad, m’kay” type of story brought back from cold war era. Doesn’t try to be more complicated than that phrase either, hence only ~2 hours to complete.

  9. Rindan says:

    I don’t know guys. Can you really mix Warhammer 40K and turn based, squad based combat? It seems like such an unlikely combination.

  10. svejky says:

    Can we have a shout out for Peter Watt’s Blindsight as an amazing ‘first contact’ novel?