More on Starflight and Further Thinking about My Obsession and Obsessiveness, at Times a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Essay  

As of Thursday, August 10th, 2006, I have been semi-obsessively trying to buy (again, I owned it from 1986, year of its release from the great computer game company Electronic Arts) the game, preferably the exact version of it I once owned and spent many late nights clutching to my chest. A copy was just up on eBay (where else?), and I had to bid on it. I like bidding on eBay. It pleases me. There is the thrill of the chase, the competition with others, the great hope that you've discovered a bargain, something many others are looking for but no one else has noticed. This is the thrill of the vintage store, of those who get up Saturday mornings at 6am to troll garage sales for booty, of those who scour the St. Vincent de Paul on Division for buried treasure.

If you care about Salvation Army and some discussion of the urban situation of Grand Rapids, keep reading. If you don't, turn to page 41.

Division is one of the most unfortunate streets in my fair city, home to Tini Bikini's (you can guess what this entails), and many places far more run-down as you move South from the center of the city. You pass a Goodwill, not a particularly great one, but the one that's opposite Vertigo records, the best record store in the state and possibly the middle of the country, and a number of homeless shelters, missions, soup kitchens, then the Hispanic auto repair shops, the clubs where the few people who get shot in Grand Rapids get shot in Grand Rapids, and once you get past those, you will run eventually into Saint Vincent de Paul (and a Salvation Army only a block or so further down).

Saint Vincent de Paul stores are normally second or third-fiddle to Salvation Army, with their questionable politics and unfortunate prices on books, and Goodwills are usually my number one store, and I suppose if you count the Alabama Thrift Stores (renamed a few years back to America's Thrift Stores) in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, AL, then Saint Vinnie's is number 4 or even further down the list. And here the store is not so great—far more run-down than the ones I've been to in other cities, and much messier. This implies greater possibility for good finds. They keep the computer equipment that the other thrift stores in the area will not take. Upstairs there are boxes of hundreds of mice, the computer kind, tangled together like one of those ever-increasing balls of twine. Maybe forty monitors stock the shelves, and there are only two or three computers there. Hundreds of 5.25" disks. Cables to things that haven't been made in fifteen years. It is kind of great. And I search there, periodically, for old software, primarily for Starflight.

I haven't found it yet. The software they tend to have around is mostly 1993-2002, the sort that's not yet old enough to be interesting or collectible, that is not sufficiently removed from our present computing, technological state for us to reminisce over it, for us to become attached emotionally to it. It doesn't mean anything, at least not yet. Give it a decade and then we'll talk.

So: online, you'd think. And eBay. I bid on a Commodore 64 version of the game, complete with manual and code wheel (this last is the essential thing for me:

— if you'd like to hear more about code wheels in games, keep reading; if not, turn to page 160.

In the early-to-mid-eighties, copy protection was increasingly being incorporated into games in various ways, some more intrusive than others. Some software came on disks that were difficult to copy because of irregularities in the disk formatting. Some made you look up words from the manual: what word is on page 112, first paragraph, third word? You can imagine how irritating that can be. The copy-protected disks weren't as intrusive in your gameplay, but if a disk went bad or was accidentally written onto, you were out of luck. You could, however, copy most copy-protected games with programs like CopyIIPC, designed specifically for this function, to "back up" your own disks, though really most people used them to copy games; this was well before the distribution of copy-protected software over the Internet, though a few years later I discovered bulletin board systems (BBSes), some of which catered to software pirates such as myself.

The code wheel was a semiobnoxious form of copy protection; the game would ask you to type in a code from the wheel, and the smarter games incorporated this into gameplay, so you'd have to type in the coordinates from the code wheel (or starmap, or whatever) to hyperjump, or something similar.

Still, the artifact of the code wheel is an increasingly cool thing, partly because of their ingenious construction. There is of course a long tradition of decoder or promotional wheels for agricultural companies and such, and historically there were star charts. The technical term for these wheels is a volvelle. For more on this, read Jessica Helfand's good book on the subject, Reinventing the Wheel.

) and star map, probably. And of course I lost. I was in it by myself for a day or two, as you often are on eBay sitting pretty at $1.99, with a maximum bid of $15. I wasn't really all that interested in this c64 version of the game, though. It's hard to say why, since modern computers can't play it anyway, and besides, though I was always a PC guy, rabidly so, like the people you know who hated macs, who loathed Amigas, who could not tolerate a Commodore, in graduate school I converted to the Mac, becoming an evangelist for it.

And I have a copy of the game that works on my machine. I found it online, the game being so old and not available anywhere, you can find downloadable copies of it along with software that works to bypass its copy protection. So why even bother to buy the physical game itself?

What I want is the artifact of it. And the c64 version didn't pass muster. If I could have got it cheaply, it would have been okay, a temporary slaking of the thirst, one scuffle won among the larger war. Predictably someone else came in, with a handle of vintageclassicgames, and I knew I was sunk. I bid up to $19 before I gave it up. Here is the cover art, evocative, even beautiful, at least to me:

The game originally sold for $30 or $35, I think. That was in 1986. There was no way I was up for paying more than $20 for a cut-rate version of a now-unplayable game purely for nostalgia value. Of course you can buy a "500 Home Run Club signed ball", signed by Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Mike Schmidt, Reggie Jackson, Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, and Ernie Banks, on eBay for—well, bids start at $1749.99, though it comes with a holographic certificate of authenticity. So maybe I shouldn't feel so bad.

Other auctions I have recently lost were for lots of 8" floppy disks to replenish my stock, and punch cards, to give you an idea of the shape that I was in, increasingly obsessing over vintage computer supplies.

There are a couple dozen copies of Starflight for the Sega Genesis, a later iteration, which comes in a cartridge, something I have even less interest in than a Commodore 64 game. At least a Commodore 64 was a computer. The difference is in having a keyboard, is in having applications for it besides video games, besides pure diversion. If you have a computer, you can justify it for business use, or to help you organize your recipe collection (true! this was a selling point for computers in the 80s, and maybe before, though I have never seen a computer in a kitchen except maybe in episodes of one of the Star Trek spinoffs), or to help your daughter with her homework, etc., etc., ad nauseam. A video game system, well, that's not so easy. It's pure diversion, escape. There's no real rationale, and that's a little scary. I can't handle it, at least not at this point in my life, being a bit too much of an addictive personality.

This is the version I desire:

Note the beauty of the floppy itself, its form, its seeming flimsiness. Bits of metal, sort of, magnetically aligned into meaning, into data. And the sleeve, impossible to tear, made of Tyvek or something with a similarly futuristic space-age name. The sleeve is slippery. If you've ever touched these old sleeves, you can remember the sensory memory of it, the hushlike sound they make as you run your fingers across them.

And then you have to turn away.

The more I searched for Starflight on the web, the further I went into the esoteric websites found past Page 20 of Google's search results. I began running across other games, each one sparking a synapse, or a group of them, some giving me real pleasure. I stumbled on a Starflightish game called Sentinel Worlds I: Future Magic, which it appears I loved. And later, Star Control 2, a game in the lineage of these others. I was getting emotional flashbacks as I remembered how much I loved playing video games, never mind the crappy graphics, EGA (Enhanced Graphic Adaptor) if you were lucky and CGA (Color Graphics Adaptor) if you weren't. The narratives embedded in these games meant a lot to me, more than novels, more than stories, more than the Bible, more than my parents' stories. And I thought now that this was sad, more than a little troubling.

Or maybe it says something about the power of narrative, any narrative sufficiently detailed for someone—in my case a kid—to get attached to, to get buried completely in. Maybe swallowed up in would be a more apt metaphor, because these things did (do, really) consume my life. Which is why I don't, and cannot trust myself to, own an Xbox 360.

What I wanted was the artifact, the code wheel. The packaging—flat and square like vinyl, another fetish object for collectors: lots of room for artwork and text, misleading screenshots and pictures of the development team:

Aside from the now-unfortunate moustache on Alec Kercso that has not aged very well, it's a great shot. It's a great shot anyway. What is the control room they are in? Is it a set? A commercial airliner, maybe, shot from within after dark? The space shuttle? How did they get access to it? Narrative is draining everywhere, coming out of it. Note the patches, which reproduce the Starflight logo. Nicely done.

The odd thing is that games like this, that came on a pair of 360k disks, were essentially the product of one small core group of developers, or really (in the case of the King's Quest series, one of the most popular adventure game series of all-time, essentially the brainchild of Roberta Williams) the product of one mind. Compare to games now, with their casts of thousands of programmers, and it's easier to think of these older games like novels, as opposed to the film crews required to produce games now. I don't want to be overly nostalgic, but there is a sort of mediating force involved in the huge production budgets of contemporary games that encourages a kind of mediocrity. For instance, most games you play now are clearly derivative of 80s and early 90s games (in terms of the gameplay). Play Halo 2 and you have to go back to Wolfenstein 3D or Doom. Play any of the massively multiplayer online role playing games (World of Warcraft, Ultima Online, Everquest, etc.) and those reduce to MUDs and MOOs. Any dungeon-adventuring game can be reduced to Ultima, or maybe Temple of Apshai. The gameplay is slicker, maybe, but it seems to me substantially the same.

Of course there are anomalies, too, the genius of games like The Sims that emerged seemingly out of nowhere, and I suppose the idea of hooking up a whole bunch of Quake players to let them challenge each other and blow each other up in new and enterprising ways is a kind of genius. And Second Life, an online world that is not really a game in any way.

The more you investigate these things the odder and deeper they get. There are hundreds of Starflight websites online, and millions of fans, probably. The fans have banded together to write a sequel, with the blessing (and the copyright!) of the original development team and software company. Starflight III: Mysteries of the Universe is currently in (slow, since it's all volunteer) development. When I run across a site like this with its amazing cadre of devoted fans, so devoted that they are actually cobbling together their own game!, I don't know whether to be sad or to exult. It's like Don Quixote, maybe—a shared and voluntary delusion. Who among us are really the fools?

I admire them, and the more you read, the more hyperlinks you start to rabbit-hole, the further away from the regular world, the old world, meatspace as some call it, and the further it starts to seem away from me. Given time enough, I could lose myself again in games, I think. A college girlfriend bought her father a copy of Age of Empires for the new "family" computer circa 1997. He had never played these games—any game—before. Soon he was staying up all night to play, to strategize, and he'd call in sick to work. This went on. She and I broke up eventually, and that wasn't all that neat or clean, and I lost myself, and lost track of her and her father's spiral into this other place. I'm not sure what to make of it. I don't condemn entirely. I know how it is, or how it can be.

Perhaps the Simon Quernhorsts among us, those who are developing new Atari 2600 cartridges 20 years after the demise of the system, after the Atari 2600 (the VCS, the Video Computer System) went defunct and became old tech, a leftove—perhaps they know something that the rest of us do not.

Back to narrative and its draw: of course the world of Starflight, and its stories, its races and their political maneuverings, has spawned its own extended, growing world of fanfiction, some of it overly sexualized, pornographic really (see: "The Adventures of Captain Lance Hardthrust in Sector 69", featuring willing women, barely-disguised rape scenes, and a weird self-consciousness or irony on the part of the writer about the actual sex scenes, or a reluctance slash inability to describe the actual sex, if you want to call it that, in the visual world of porn; see this sex scene: "Admiral Racki: This isn't a social call. Captian [sic] Hardthrust: Sure it is. [Grabs the admiral's boobies.] [Cunnilingus, fellatio, cowgirl, reverse cowgirl, spooning, money shot.]" Holy crap! This is notable both for its self-awareness, the denotation of various sexual acts, as if the citation, iteration, of those acts is enough to titillate, as if this story is meant to titillate—and the self-conscious nature of it, running down the porno checklist, is really bizarre—and then there is the sheer concision of the scene, if that's what we can even call it at all), as some fanfic is and as some bad sci-fi is, but some more straightforward: I read a dozen first-person narratives of space exploration within the confines of the Starflight world before I had to stop. Maybe read is the wrong word. The stories are, de rigeur, filled with Class 6 Plasma Cannons and alien races and such, the usual staples of hack sci-fi. These fans are living within or between these created worlds, and creating more at the edge of the crumbling universe. They're filling in the holes left by the developers in the game, and creating new ones to tumble down. It's exciting, really, seeing all these stories in the process of creation, even if the literary snob in me turns up his nose at this kind of uncontrolled production.

I have options here—every subject I look at is ripe with opportunity. Do I branch off to talk about the actual story of Starflight, or is that boring slash dangerous? Do I track down some of the actual fanfic writers, journalist-style, for an interview? This is essay as Choose Your Own Adventure, as that other sort of invented narrative.

And what differentiates this missive, a sort of paean to the game, from these other attempts to memorialize the work, if it's fair to call Starflight a work at all, not being Literature with a capital L, or at least not probably? All are written in the void (this essay written on a webpage, not in Word or on a typewriter, one of the first things I've done in this way—composed entirely in Dreamweaver, if you're interested in its originating technology, a technology far beyond the old world of Microsoft Word 2.0 that I owned in the mid-eighties, pre-windows, pre-graphic interface, pre-AutoCorrect and -AutoSummary and all the goodness that corrects your prose, red-underlines your grammatical errors and faults in style (and here's a screenshot of Word 5 , which is significantly more advanced than Word 2 or 1, which didn't even have spell-check. It should give you an idea of what it looked like:

). All of these memorials are written into the void, except I don't have the cojones to post this on the message board website (I wonder how long it will take to make this through the Google filter and float up to the top) and actually ask for responses, unlike these other authors (kudos, then, to them).

As for me, I am debating trying to beat Starflight 2, a game I much looked forward to when I bought it with my paper route money, given my enjoyment of the original, though I don't think I got very far on it at the time. Not sure why. Did something wane within me (did my devotion falter)? Or did the game seem too similar to the original, or did it just not cut it with me? I was playing other games then, and maybe I had found another world to conquer, or maybe that's too much, a leap into grandiosity.

Skip twenty pages and a week or so. I receive my IBM PC copy of Starflight in the mail. I buy it for $30, more than I wanted to pay, but increasingly worth it. I buy it in the name of art, in the name of providing more material for the book, for my memories, for the website. I figure I can take a deduction on my taxes maybe. So now I have excellent scans here, to bolster my case, to show it off. It is a prize, my prize. It even smells like it did, feels like it did, or so I think to myself, and it's impossible to make sure, clearly. I have the artifact.

In the game one of the major goals was to collect artifacts from the surfaces of worlds you could explore across the galaxy. You could sell some of these for a profit. Others were functional. A short list: Black Box, Black Egg, Bladed Toy, Buttoned Box, Crystal Orb, Field Stunner, Focusing Stone, Glowing Disk, Hot P. Y. T. (we have our in-jokes, don't we), Humming Gizzy, Octagonal Lens, Quivering Lump, Ring Device, Shimmering Ball, Surprising Utensil, Tesseract, Wee Green Blobbie, Whining Orb. The Black Box was a world-destroying bomb. Much of the other stuff was just worth selling or trading to different races. Some were necessary to completing the game. And others just made you more bad ass.

At the risk of taking this a little bit too far, maybe I've internalized these goals, these ideas in my adult life. Maybe what I am doing now is a version of that part of the game: explore, collect artifacts, buy and sell them at the marketplace / the trading post / eBay. This is one kind of human behavior. But which is more important, worthwhile? The exploration or the artifact collection? I'd like to say the exploration is where it's at. Even the discovery of artifacts, each one with its own explosion of pleasure (example: I bought two dozen baby doll heads at St. Vinnie's last week, and am still sort of thrilled with them). Finding is better than buying, collecting. Finding is a kind of collecting. Think photo safari instead of hunting safari. Yet I won't deny a desire to hold the artifact, to lay its packaging open before me. It is a return to memory, and to an important time in my life, in my development, to an experience that meant a lot to me.

And like most obsessives, I return to these things when I need them.

There's this website I'm looking at as I write this essay, the "Starflight Command," which lists all possible artifacts and alien races, homeworlds, tips, and such. And it's maddeningly incomplete. Several pages are missing for artifacts that I don't quite remember. They sound familiar, but I want—again—to find out what it is they do, what they are good for, even if they're virtual things embedded in the physical thing, the magnetized media of the game. I click on one of the alien races, the Thrynn, and the page is blank. There is no page for some of the artifacts. It is another blank space on the map for me. What it means is that I must return to the world of the game, and explore it again, this time from the inside.



Starflight images are scanned from my copy of the game. The MS Word screenshot is taken from Dan's 20th Century Abandonware, a kind of museum for applications and utilities from the past (no games). Thanks.