Impressions: How To Fly A British Space Caravan Into Battle
These Are The Voyages Of The LHS Bikeshed
The LHS Bikeshed is a project that has transformed a battered old caravan into a space shuttle simulator. Players enter the caravan, take a seat at one of the three stations and prepare for launch. We sent Brendan and some old friends along to see how well they would fare in the dark reaches of space.
There is a story about Captain Cook that tells of some South Pacific islanders who could not see his ship even though it was on the shore right in front of them. The story goes that the islanders couldn’t perceive the vessel because it was so far beyond their comprehension. The story is, of course, rubbish. But something very like it happened to me when I arrived at the latest Wild Rumpus in London. Outside the event hall a large screen had been erected on the building’s wall, where a game with a spaceship was being projected. The spaceship was flying through a wormhole, as far as I could tell. I looked around, and asked someone: “I don’t get it. Where is the controller?” They gestured to the big black caravan I had been standing next to the whole time and said: “Uh. It’s that.”
The LHS Bikeshed was once an old banger of a caravan that has since been salvaged and re-engineered, Scrapheap Challenge style, into a life-sized three-person space shuttle simulator. On the outside, it looks exactly like a caravan (with a sci-fi paintjob). On the inside, it is all low-fi consoles, chrome switches and ridiculous fonts – more evocative of Red Dwarf’s Starbug than NASA’s Discovery.
There are three seats – pilot, tactical and engineer – with the engineer working behind the others, facing starboard. At the back is a door labelled ‘Transporter Room’ but precisely what is behind this portal is not known at first glance. The pilot gets a joystick, a thrust lever and a handful of switches (engines on/off, hyperdrive charge, blast shield up/down, landing gear up/down, etc). The pilot’s job is very much a flight simulator.
The tactical station, next to the pilot, is in charge of fending off incoming missiles and keeping tabs on what is happening around the ship. To do this they have to stamp ID codes into a keypad, obtain a lock, and fire. Should things get overwhelming for the tactical officer, there is a panic button that drops a smartbomb wiping out everything in the ship’s immediate surroundings. But there are only six of these smartbombs on board.
The engineer, meanwhile... well, this is where things get silly. The engineer’s control station is a cluster of switches, knobs, buttons and flickering lights, all important in some abstract way that nobody, not even the engineer, will understand. There is also a ‘Do Not Push’ button, which you should not push. The person lugged with the engineer role is in charge of divvying up power to the other stations, keeping the ship’s mad circuitry in working order and – most importantly – making sure the reactor stays on. If the reactor fails, the ship will power down completely turning all screens black and leaving the three of you adrift in space with any number of threats bearing down on you, at which point the pilot and tactical officer will turn around in their seats (which are adjustable) and shout endlessly at the engineer while he or she desperately flicks the five blinking starting switches in an attempt to reboot the ship. Common phrases heard at this point in the simulation include: “COME ON”, “LET’S GO” and “AAARGH.”
There are some tentative plans, say the men behind the machine, to include a Comms Officer with their own station, raising the ship’s roster to four. The bell which will ring in most PC gamer’s heads right now is labelled ‘Artemis Bridge Simulator’. But the caravan also has a lot in common with Space Team, an iOS game about shouting at your friends played over multiple devices, not to mention a lot of the idiotic joy of Space Cadets, a board game set on a Trekkie-like bridge. The creators acknowledge the influence of all these things but the signature difference they have gone for is very important: the Bikeshed is funny, in a very ‘British sitcom’ way.
My first trip aboard the caravan was accompanied by one of the creators explaining the safety instructions stamped on the inside of the entry hatch. The diagrams are a little obscure, but we were given a brief translation. It was very comforting to know, for example, that “should the ship crash land in water – there are no life jackets – you will drown.” I had already told my tactical officer, Lt. Leigh ‘Smartbombs’ Alexander, to keep an eye on our impertinent crewmate– Junior Engineer Quinns ‘Nicknameless’ Smith. Meanwhile, I would pilot the ship smoothly from one objective to another. In this case, the simulation was a training mission. We simply had to fly up to some jumpgates, park inside the circular warp field and engage the hyperdrive. Simple.
I eased the ship out of the landing bay and retracted the landing gear. Once I got the hang of the radar field on my console (displayed in the Elite fashion with neon green hoops rolling over one another) I drifted gently toward the jumpgate and came to a stop. We charged the drive and slapped the big red button in the centre of the cockpit to engage the warp. Weeeeee!
“That was easy!”
Our guide (one of the dev team) then told us that we were approaching a planet. “But don’t worry, the hyperdrive will automatically slingshot us around it. We’ve done this a thousand times and nothing has ever gone wrong.”
A siren. A crash. A giant planet appears in front of us. Something has gone wrong.
We were each quickly told what we had to do. My job was to stop the ship from overheating as we glanced off the planet’s superhot atmosphere by rolling the ship around and distributing the heat. But the power was down elsewhere. Lt Alexander and Engineer Smith were shouting at each other about wires or something. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Lt Smartbombs leap out of her chair and start fiddling with some other part of the ship’s interior. But it took all my concentration just to keep the ship rotating. Then, inspiration.
“I have an idea!” I said, mostly to myself.
I slapped the blast shield down and pegged my nose forward. This way, the shield would take most of the heat! The hull would be fi – No, that’s not working. And now I can’t see anything. I put the blast shield back up and looked around in panic. The temperature was reaching critical levels. The ship had begun to fill with smoke. Real smoke pumping out of the walls. I did not know what to do.
“Get out of here!”
It was our guide. He foresaw our destruction and (perhaps not wanting the game to end for us so soon) he slapped the big red hyperdrive button. Whatever my tactical officer and engineer had done back there, they had fixed the power problem. We shot off into hyperspace again. I felt a pang of failure and embarrassment at not realising I was responsible for getting the jump drive charged and ready. But we had 30 seconds in hyperspace to chill out and get our breaths back.
“Okay,” said our guide, “We should be coming out to the last training area now. Just navigate through it and we’ll be on our way.”
By the standards of the first training area there should have been nothing but empty space between us and the next objective. Which made it somewhat surprising when we dropped out of hyperspace into the middle of an interstellar battlefield. House-sized bits of debris flew around us and Lt Alexander went berserk, slapping code after code into her console fending off missile after missile. A strange man appeared on our Comms screen to tell us that we would soon be destroyed, then our training officer from home base appeared on the screen and asked where the hell we were. I veered and veered around the debris and shouted at Engineer Quinns to give me more sensor power. I had no idea if this was going to help but it was a dangerous situation and it felt like I should be shouting.
Our training officer came back on screen and told us there was a jump gate nearby – get to it! I turned toward it and whacked my thrusters to max power. This was good: it meant that we would reach the jumpgate faster. This was bad: we ran full speed into an on-coming piece of debris.
Spinning out of control in the LHS Bikeshed is one of the most distressing things the pilot can encounter. You completely lose your bearings, as both the radar screen revolves manically and space goes whirling past on the windshield in front of you. To make matters worse, the windshield is now badly cracked. We have begun losing oxygen. Lt Alexander is running out of smartbombs. I have no idea where we are. But we can still do this, we can still make it back.
My screen goes black. The reactor has shut down.
I slapped the dashboard in frustration. The silence that had fallen upon the ship was eerie – even the fans distributing the smoke had stopped. The only things with any life in it were us and the five blinking lights that engineer Smith was assaulting in a panicked rage – the reactor switches. They went red. They went orange. They went green. He’s done it! Well done, Quinns ‘Power Up’ Smith!
The reactor started up. We heard the vroooom of the core powering up. Our screens came to life – a blue screen that read: “ShipOS – loading...” with a progress bar swiftly filling up. Come on! I slapped the dashboard again.
Finally we were up and running. Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go. I started to find my way back toward the jumpgate. Behind me the engineer communicated mostly in panicky snarls. Lt Alexander was hollering about something bad. I focused on just getting us to the gate. Then, more debris. We span out of control AGAIN. The feeling is sickening. This is more than just motion sickness – it’s failure. I didn't evade the debris in time. This is all my fault. But maybe there is still ho–
The ship went dark.
“AAGHH, NOT AGAIN.”
I sat back. It’s okay, I thought. We have recovered once before from reactor failure. It wasn’t so hard. But what’s this? The computer’s voice was still alive – a classically feminine AI voice – she might have been saying things throughout the whole mission but it was only now, in the creepy silence of total engine failure that I heard her melodic, soothing tones. She was so beautiful, maternal, caring.
“Collision alert,” she said.
I looked to Leigh. I looked to Quinns. Their eyes said it all.
Complete silence enveloped the ship. The windshield went black. A single static message glared back at us.
“YOU ARE DEAD.”
It was only afterwards, in our excited unofficial debrief that we learned what each of us had to weather while the others were engaged in some life-or-death struggle with controls. The engineer was constantly being warned about intruders trying to beam aboard. With the use of some deft knob-twiddling Quinns had to interfere with their signals and keep the bad guys out. This is what awaits behind the transporter room door should the engineer fail and an enemy get aboard. One of the devs puts on a helmet, grabs a Nerf gun and busts into the ship, shooting everybody dead. (There is one last measure the engineer can take against an intruder, which is to turn round and pull the switch that activates the transporter room airlock, ‘flushing them out’ into the cold of space).
I learned on a second playthrough that, at one point, the tactical officer has to get up and manually re-wire the ‘power conduit’ which is hidden behind a panel overhead. This explained why Leigh jumped out of her seat part-way through the simulation. She had to actually FIX something. Likewise, the engineer and tactical officer never really knew that I was struggling to keep the ship from overheating when we were crashing through the planet’s atmosphere – they were too busy with their own problems to see the temperature rising on my screen. This separation of roles makes the simulation great for repeated play and specialisation. If future scenarios take advantage of this in the same way, it will make for a wonderfully varied experience. The difficulty can be ramped up or down fluidly because, behind the scenes, the creators simply need to push any number of buttons on a tablet to determine how rough or easy a time the players are having. Note the button marked: ‘kill ship’.
The creators – denizens of London’s communal workshop, the London Hackspace in Hackney – put the caravan together in a couple of months but have been steadily refining it over the course of a year, taking it to Maker Faires and events like the Wild Rumpus in an effort to both show it off and playtest it. (They have even developed the code as open source, available here for techies). Many players get about as far as we did. The final stage of the scenario is a docking procedure, in which you have to re-enter and manoeuvre within the tight corridor of your mothership.
From reports, there is nothing for the engineer and tactical officer to do at this stage, so they simply turn and put all eyes on the pilot as he or she sweats it out, trying to shift the ship by tiny increments into the narrow mouth of the docking bay. I am partially relieved we did not survive to this stage.
But maybe you could do better? The LHS Bikeshed folks (Charles Yarnold and Tom Wyatt being two of the team, pictured above) will undoubtedly be showing this beast off again in the UK, somewhere. They also hold sessions every Tuesday evening at the London Hackspace (a kind of woodwork, electronics and coding workshop that bears an unsettling resemblance to Dr. Kleiner's lab). In this way, they double up play sessions as tests. If you fancy yourself as a spacer of renown, look them up to organise a sesh or follow them on Twitter for updates. I wish you all the luck in the world. May the stars shine brightly on you and fill your life with fortune! *
*Current success rate among cadets is 8%.