You never can say which experiences will stick with you and which will not. AAA games created by hundreds of people may barely make a dent in your psyche, while a small indie title made by a handful of developers may stick with you for days, weeks, or even years.
The Station is one of the latter. Though it has a fair share of technical and design issues, ever since my first play through I haven’t been able to get it off my mind. Even after running through its roughly 90 minute story several more times, my appreciation for it has only deepened.
This appeal comes almost entirely from the story, which is smart, thoughtfully constructed, and thematically rich. The game takes place entirely on a space station which has been sent to another galaxy in order to observe a newly discovered sentient civilisation. You play a rescue operative who has been sent to respond to an S.O.S signal sent by the station after its stealth system fails, revealing the station to the planet below. You traverse the ship, reading and listening to recordings left by the crew, in order to piece together the events leading up to the station's failure.
Now, if you played Tacoma last year, you probably have an eyebrow quizzically raised right now, because the premise of these two stories is startlingly similar. I had the same consternation as the game set itself up, but as the story unravelled, I came to discover that even though these two games start in the same place, they quickly take divergent paths in the form and style in which they tell their stories.
For instance, multiple times throughout your exploration you will be confronted with space-suited figures as they travel through parallel rooms or outside the ship. Are these figures the occupants of the station, or invading aliens from the planet below? These questions and confrontations give the game a tension and impetus that is generally lacking in the "walking simulator" genre.
The station had three occupants who you get to know better through emails, notes, and voice recordings as you explore. Though not examples of the finest character writing and performance in this genre, these messages are effective in helping you get to know these characters, as well as their motivations and inter-personal relationships.
More successful are the game's thematic explorations, which focus on ideas such as ethics in science, the nature of sentience, and the commonality of existence. It sounds hoity-toity, but in their execution, these are some startlingly affronting and illuminating things to consider. For instance, the primary concern for this crew is if it is ethical to be spying on this sentient civilisation, instead of greeting them and attempting to share knowledge and technology.
The primary argument against this is that this civilisation was in the midst of a global war when they were discovered, raising questions around their civility. So, much of the game's writing centres around the complex and fascinating ethical and practical discussions of what is the right and wrong thing to be doing in this situation.
Though this thematic exploration is interesting and engaging throughout, it is the climax of the game in which you can really understand just how poignant these discussions are. The payoff here is deeply rewarding, and it was only on multiple playthroughs that I began to realise just how well constructed the trail of breadcrumbs that leads to this climax is.
Unfortunately, despite how well the story is constructed, the rest of the game does not share the same level of polish. Considering the scale of this project and team, there is an understandable lack of production quality in elements such as texture fidelity and audio production. Less defensible are some of the game design and technical issues.
Playing the game on PS4, I had a number of technical hiccups. Mainly, I was plagued by a consistently poor framerate, which was noticeable in corridors and bordered on stuttering in large open rooms. The game also crashed multiple times throughout my sessions, which was particularly annoying as it only has manual saving, and two of my crashes happened during a save, sending me back to my previous save.
The game also includes several puzzle mechanics which undermined my immersion because they were so illogical. None of the puzzle mechanics were particularly well conceived or executed, but there were a couple which were baffling – not just in their poor design, but also in how ridiculously inconsistent they were with the world. The worst offender was a puzzle in the station's mechanical bay, in which I had to follow a chart which gave me icons for the y and x axis for a grid on the wall, and required me to figure out which section of this grid I needed to retrieve, before inputting the result into a computer. Wait, what?
If there was a computer involved, why would this chart not be programmed with these coordinates so that you can just click on what you need and have it automatically retrieved? This is a space station after all, so there is an inherent expectation of sound and consistent logic for this feat of science and engineering to even exist. Obviously, the answer is that they needed to beef out the game with an arbitrary puzzle mechanic. But it is a shame that they would include something so blatantly logically inconsistent.
Ultimately, The Station is a very good science fiction short story in a fairly messy video game package. But that doesn’t mean I wish it existed only as short story, because there are definitely aspects of the narrative experience which are far more effective in this interactive form than they would be otherwise. Despite its flaws, this is a game which has really stuck with me, and that I am sure I will continue to ponder for a while longer yet.