Star Control II: Why Can’t We Be Friends?

From The CRPG Addict


Home planet encounters make it clear that you’re not getting on the ground without going through a lot of combat first.

          

Star Control II is easily the most information-rich game that we’ve had so far. The two Starflight titles were well above the average RPG, but even they didn’t have half the dialogue and lore of this one. That’s good for me as a player, but not so much as a blogger–and perhaps not so much for you as a reader. I could describe what I did in the last six hours in about two paragraphs; what I discovered will take many more, and I’m not sure if you want entries that long. You’re going to get this one anyway, but I welcome your feedback on whether it’s too much.
Imagine when I get to the modern era and a game like Skyrim. The simple act of entering a dungeon, reading two skill books, killing a draugr, and finding a shrine to Clavicus Vile might take 10 minutes of game time, but I could get 10,000 words out of that with the associated descriptions and lore. As the genre has a whole becomes more information-rich, it’s going to be difficult to determine where to draw the line.
            

Even with the dialogue summaries the game provides, you have to take a lot of screenshots.

         

But I have no complaints as a player. One of the finest moments I’ve ever had with an RPG came with Morrowind about 15 years ago, the first or second time I’d played, before there were wikis all over the Internet that spoiled plot developments. One of the great mysteries of the game is what happened to the dwarves, whose ancient ruins dot the landscape, and I found myself more interested in solving that riddle than progressing with the next official quest. I looked at the map that came with the game, identified every little dome that even hinted at a Dwemer ruin, and started to explore them systematically. And the amazing thing is, my explorations bore fruit! The developers rewarded this kind of “side-curiosity” with enough evidence among the ruins that you can basically piece together the story (although you need some plot-related events to make it 100% clear).
Most of the time, your effort in an RPG rewards the character, which in turn rewards the player somewhat vicariously. When you have a curious player, however, and you reward that curiosity with information, you are directly rewarding the player. This is something that Bethesda does exceedingly well and, in my opinion, does not get enough credit for doing. Whether you like Fallout 4 for its RPG mechanics, you have to admire how information-rich its world is. Every building has a story to tell. You’ll stop by one building and read a computer log about how they were expecting some kind of shipment on October 23. You know that’s the day the bombs fell. A few hundred yards down the road, you find the remains of the truck carrying that shipment. It clearly ran off the road into a tree. There will be a skeleton a couple dozen feet beyond the tree, as if ejected from the cab of the truck. If you just tromp from quest to quest, blowing through all the areas in between, you’re cheating yourself out of a world of detail. 
 
Star Control II doesn’t quite reward random exploration this way. Particularly given the time limit, I don’t think you could solve the game by simply visiting random systems. You have to follow some kind of quest track. And I suspect that most of the information I’m discovering will turn out to be necessary, not ancillary, to the plot. I also prefer my plots a bit more serious than Star Control‘s. But even with all those limitations, this game is a welcome relief from era titles that are nothing but combat.
A recap is in order. I am a young starship captain in an era when the human race has become “fallow slaves” to the squid-like Ur-Quan, confined to Earth under a red shield that prevents off-planet travel. The Ur-Quan give conquered races a choice between “fallow slavery” and “thrall slavery” in which they fight for the Ur-Quan Hierarchy as battle thralls. I grew up off-world, son of a marooned group of scientists studying the ruins of an ancient race called the Precursors, and I’ve been able to stay alive because I’m flying a Precursor ship. Now based out of a starbase in orbit around Earth that the Ur-Quan mysteriously abandoned, I have been collecting advanced technology, improving my star-ship, and finding allies to throw off the yoke of the Ur-Quan.
          

My starmap has been annotating various territories as I discover them.

        

I originally assumed those allies would come from races that were part of the old Alliance against the Ur-Quan, but it’s becoming clearer that all races–including Ur-Quan allies and non-affiliated races–are up for grabs, partly because the Ur-Quan have been distracted by a distant war. This is the rundown of the races I have so far:
             
  • Androsynth: Old enemy of Earth because they had once been Earth’s slaves. They seem to be gone now, destroyed by the Orz who now inhabit their system.
  • Ariloulaleelay: An old Alliance race that mostly disappeared after the Ur-Quan victory. Classic “little green men” who may have been responsible for abductions and experiments on Earthlings in the past. Current whereabouts unknown. They may not live in regular space.

          

In fact, as we’re about to find out, they do not.

         

  • Chenjesu: Crystalline beings who originally drew Earth into the old Alliance against the Ur-Quan, now trapped on Procyon under a “fallow slave” shield, along with the Mmrnmhrm.
  • Kohr-Ah: Some new race that the Ur-Quan are currently fighting, distracting them from my attempts to rebuild the Alliance.
  • Ilwrath: Cruel spider creatures, allies of the Ur-Quan, whose only weakness seems to be a fanatical belief in their gods. The Umgah are currently exploiting that weakness.

          

“Subtlety” does not translate well in Ilwrath.

       

  • Melnorme: A neutral race that trades in information. They’re responsible for half my clues.
  • Mmrnmhrm: Robotic species, member of the old Alliance. Now trapped with the Chenjesu on Procyon under a “fallow slave” shield.
  • Mycon: Fungoid race allied with the Ur-Quan. I haven’t met them yet in this game, but they’ve apparently taken over Syreens’ old system, and I suspect they had something to do with the destruction of Syra.
  • Orz: Weird yellow fish-flowers who come from the same alternate dimension as the Ariloulaleelay. Seem to have destroyed the Androsynth and taken over their space. They appear to have allied with us, but it’s hard to understand what they’re saying.
  • Pkunk: An unknown race currently being attacked by the Ilwrath.

           

The Pkunk end up being somewhat weird, but no more than most of the creatures on this list.

       

  • Precursors: An ancient race within whose ruins the main character grew up. Members of the “sentient milieu,” Their technology built my flagship. Probably extinct.
  • Shofixti: Cat-weasel warriors given advanced technology by the Yehat. Destroyed their own star to avoid surrendering to the Ur-Quan. One lone male warrior with a thin hold on sanity still keeps a vigil from orbit. A group of females are possibly in the hands of a VUX admiral.
  • Slylandro: New to the galaxy, this race has sent probes all over the place. The probes, after first claiming to be on missions of peace, are attacking everybody. In the last session, I got a clue as to where they might be coming from. One of their damned probes is almost always on my tail when I sail through hyperspace.

        

Captain Chester has lost all hope when it comes to these probes.

        

  • Spathi: Race of cowardly mollusks who surrendered to the Ur-Quan despite having decent ships and technology. Now serve them as battle thralls. One of them was assigned to monitor Earth but instead joined my crew early in the game.

         

The Spathi have a particular outlook on life.

         

  • Syreen: All-female race of buxom sirens. Joined the old Alliance after their planet, Syra, was destroyed by what they thought were natural disasters. After they surrendered to the Ur-Quan, given a new homeworld called Gaia. Accepted fallow slavery (red shield) and unwilling to break their treaty.
  • Taalo: Another member of the “Sentient Milieu,” a cooperative of ancient races. Probably extinct, though I had this theory that they’re the “Talking Pets.” I have one of their artifacts, a stone that blocks psychic influence.
  • Talking Pets: Little frog-like creatures who do all the communicating from the Ur-Quan because the Ur-Quan feel it’s beneath them to speak directly to lesser races. Unknown if they have their own history or world.
  • Umgah: Blob-like creatures with a cruel sense of humor. Allies to the Ur-Quan. Lately amusing themselves by impersonating the Ilwrath gods with something called a “HyperWave Caster.”

            

These guys turn out not to be the likeable kind of jokesters. They’re just jerks.

          

  • Ur-Quan: Putative enemies of the game. They want to conquer every other race in the galaxy. They’ve been around a long time, as they were also “Sentient Milieu” members. Willing to let conquered races live out their own destinies as “fallow slaves” under red shields, and demand that the decision be put to a popular vote.
  • VUX: One-eyed, snouted race allied to the Ur-Quan. Humanity apparently insulted them the first time we met, leading to an enduring hatred. I hadn’t met them yet when this session began.

          

The VUX are maddeningly vague on the nature of the supposed insult.

          

  • Yehat: Race of pterodactyls who chose to be battle thralls under the Ur-Quan.
  • Zoq-Fot-Pik: Cooperative of three small races from one planet. Caught in the crossfire between the Ur-Quan and the Kohr-Ah, glad to ally with us in the last session.

                 
I’m going to relate what I found this session below, but as I do, it’s important to keep in mind that I usually only had a constellation, sometimes a star, as a hint. This means that for every encounter, I might have had to explore several stars and dozens of planets before finding it. Naturally, I mined those planets that had minerals and took life forms when I found those, but those tasks have become so rote and procedural at this point that there’s no point narrating them. I still haven’t found a “Rainbow World” yet.
          

I’ve learned to prize heavy “biological” worlds as much as mineral ones, as it gives me more to sell to the Melnorme.

         

As this session began, I had “to do” items related to almost all of these races, if only to make contact and find out where they stand. Because I was sick of spending so much money on fuel (I hadn’t even had enough money to purchase the “Fusion Blaster” the Melnorme gave me), I prioritized the locations closest to Earth, at least at the beginning, which is how I found myself in the Giclas constellation, looking for a rumored other neutral race. It turned out to be the Pkunk, a race of hippie birds who believe in reincarnation and positive energy and all that New Age stuff. My negotiations with the first ship I encountered went well, and they directed me to their homeworld.

The Pkunk are aware that the Ilwrath are only attacking them because someone is impersonating the Ilwrath gods. They didn’t seem to mind much. They happily agreed to join my Alliance, gave me an artifact called a Clear Spindle, and also gave me four ships (with crews) for my fleet. (I’m going to have to stop using my flagship for every combat.) Before I left, they predicted my future and said that the Ariloulaleelay would give me the ability to summon dimensional doors and travel in a way that’s even faster than hyperspace.
          

Well, that sucks.

         
The “other dimensions” thing gained even more traction with another visit to the Melnorme. I sold them the bio scans I’d made since our last contact and used my credits to buy plans for some kind of laser defense system for the Prydwen plus some information. One of the things they told me is that there is a “weakness in the division between dimensions” that manifests itself in between the Chandrasekhar and Columbae constellations on the 17th of each month (we’ll just ignore the absurdity of that).

My next trip, again based on proximity, was to the VUX (no idea why that’s always capitalized) worlds, hoping to find the Shofixti females and otherwise gauge their status. Conversations with the ships were mostly futile; the captains refused to explain the specific nature of the offense we gave them, only that they hate us forever, and even if they didn’t, they’d destroy us because that’s what the Ur-Quan want. One of them did mention that if I wanted to meet a “friendly” VUX, I should try Admiral Zex at Alpha Cerenkov. VUX encounters inevitably led to combat, so I didn’t stay in their system long.
          

Maybe I’ll just skip those planets.

          
At Alpha Cerenkov, Admiral Zex proved to be an affable, if perverted, member of the species. A hero of the earlier war, he retired to a hedonistic lifestyle years ago and seems to fetishize other races. He was willing to give me the Shofixti females if I could bring him some animal from a planet that “basks in the yellow light within the eight-star constellation of Linch-Nas-Ploh,” which he translated as “the snake-like creature who has swallowed the elephant beast.” Studying the star map, I think this probably refers to Lyncis, way up at the “north” edge of the galaxy.
           

Unfortunately, I think he means that last part literally.

          
I next went to the Yehat space nearby. When I finally encountered a Yehat ship, they were surprised to see a human outside the red shield around Earth. The crew of the ship I encountered was reluctant to kill me because of our former friendship, but their desires were at odds with the mandate from their queen to follow Ur-Quan orders. They seemed to respond when I told them that the Shofixti were still alive, but they demanded proof that I didn’t have.
            

At least they feel bad about it.

          
Around this point, I returned to starbase, where Captain Hayes told me that they’d received a distress call from the Zoq-Fot-Pik, whose home planet was under attack from a “black destroyer.” I bought an extra fuel pod, fueled, up, and headed for the ZFP homeworld.
          

While at starbase, I was able to buy the “Fusion Blaster” and “Point Defense” upgrades.

          
On the way, I encountered a Spathi ship in hyperspace. They said they wouldn’t attack but begged us not to tell the Ur-Quan that they’d let us go. Conversation with them solved one mystery: why they, as cowards, accepted “battle thrall” slavery instead of “fallow slavery.” They said they’d meant to do the latter, but the Umgah had interfered with the voting as a joke. I still have to visit the Spathi homeworld.
           

The Spathi and Tyron Lannister would get along.

       
The first major surprise came when I arrived at the ZFP world, encountered the black ship of the Kohr-Ah, and found myself speaking to an Ur-Quan! (Or, more accurately, to his Talking Pet.) It turns out that the Kohr-Ah are a faction of Ur-Quan, not a separate race. They call the regular Ur-Quan the “Kzer-Za,” and the two sides are fighting over “supremacy of Doctrine and possession of the Sa-Matra.” “We cleanse,” the captain explained. “You are the filth.”

When I asked why they were destroying us, he gave me a big info-dump of Ur-Quan history. It basically went that their species is hostile and territorial by nature. Even civilization among their own kind came late to them, and only with great difficulty, and it was even worse when they started to explore the stars and meet other races. Their only friends were the rock-like Taalo, “the only people we could stand with, or talk to, without the hunter inside us screaming, ‘Kill the interloper! Rip out its life!'” (Their description of the Taalo as sentient rocks makes me wonder if I don’t have a Taalo, rather than a Taalo “artifact,” on my ship.) Eventually, a psychic race called the Dnyarri wiped out the other “Sentient Milieu” races. They enslaved the Ur-Quan and used them to destroy the Taalo.
          

The Ur-Quan goes through his history.

           
Twist #2 came in further conversation. The Dnyarri are actually the Talking Pets! (At this point, my Taalo=Talking Pet theory was completely debunked.) They kept the Ur-Quan as slaves for thousands of years, experimenting on them genetically and splitting them into two species: green (“effete scientists and bureaucrats” and black (“the builders, the fighters, the doers”). The green became the Kzer-Za and the black became the Kohr-Ah. The Ur-Quan eventually discovered that excruciating pain could block the Dnyarri influence, so they created devices called “excruciators” to wear and thus maintain their independence.

Once the Ur-Quan achieved victory over the Dnyarri and enslaved them in turn, they decided they’d better destroy all other life in the galaxy to avoid ever being enslaved again. The Kzer-Za faction insisted that they only enslave or neutralize (i.e., fallow slavery) other races, while the Kohr-Ah demanded that they kill them outright. The schism led to the Kohr-Ah fleeing the galaxy until just recently.

The captain attacked when he was done with his speech. The huge Kohr-Ah ships fire giant throwing stars, which linger until something hits them. But you’ll be happy to know I was able to destroy the dreadnought with the BUTT missiles of the Spathi ship. I’ll talk more about combat next time, but suffice to say that I’m starting to get the hang of it.
         

The Ur-Quan dreadnought spams giant iron swastikas.

         
The ZFP were grateful for their rescue and gave me several more ships for my fleet. My flagship now has about as many escort ships as I think it can accommodate.

When the battle was over, I checked my notes and found that I was pretty close to a few other “to do” items. I started with the Umgah. I don’t know what I was expecting. Clearly, I wasn’t going to have an encounter in which they just handed me the HyperWave Caster with instructions on how to use it. Instead, in about six encounters in a row, they laughed at me and attacked. Each battle involved multiple Umgah ships. Their primary weapon has a limited range, but they have a special weapon that can suck you into proximity. I got pretty good at destroying them with the Spathi, but eventually the attacks became too much and I fled the system.
           

BUTT missiles home in on the Umgah ship while his weapon fires in vain.

          
The 17th of the month was near, and I was near the weak point in space, so I headed there. Sucked through it, I found myself in a place called “quasi-space.” Time passes there, but it doesn’t seem to use any fuel. The map showed a bunch of small blobs and one big blob. The small blobs were portals back to hyperspace, but the big blob was a portal to a planet.
            

Beyond hyperspace.

           
The planet turned out to be the homeworld of the Ariloulaleelay. The representative who contacted me explained a bit about the history of our two species, which came across as less sinister than I expected, although of course I was hearing his side. He suggested that the Ariloulaleelay had been guiding human development for a long time, and that they made themselves known, and joined the old Alliance, as a way of protecting us against other hostile species. When they were no longer needed because humanity was “safe” under the red shield, they disappeared for a while. I’m the first human to reach their homeworld. There was this chilling sequence, which may be the best RPG text so far in my chronology:
           

Part of what we do on Earth is for your own protection. There are parasites. Creatures who dwell Beyond. They have names, but you do not know them. They would like to find you, but they are blind to your presence, unless you show yourselves. The Androsynth showed themselves, and something noticed them. There are no more Androsynth now. Only Orz. Ignorance is your armor. They cannot see you now. They cannot smell you. Much of our work with your people involved making you invisible, changing your smell. If I tell you more, you will look where you could never look before, and while you are looking you can and will be seen. You do not want to be seen.

       
Traveling in quasi-space is how the Ariloulaleelay get around so fast. The alien said he’d give us a “portal spawner” so that we can use quasi-space, but we’d need to find a warp pod first. He suggested we’d find one on the wreck of an Ur-Quan dreadnought at Alpha Pavonis, not far from our current location. He mentioned that the Ariloulaleelay had recovered a Talking Pet from the same wreckage and had given it to the Umgah for care. He wanted us to stop by the Umgah and see how it fared.

We returned to hyperspace, sailed to Alpha Pavonis, visited the right planet, and got the pod.
           

My lander crew loots the wreckage.

          
At this point, I noticed that I wasn’t too far from Vega, which was one of the possible sources of the Slylandro probes. It actually turned out to be nearby Beta Corvi, but I found it. The Ariloulaleelay had said that the probes came from a world with no surface, so I hunted for a gas giant until I found the right one.
          

This looks promising.

         
I was surprised to find myself talking to a friendly group of gaseous creatures named “Content to Hover,” “Joyous Lifting,” and “Sullen Plummet.” They explained that they hardly get any visitors since the “Sentient Milieu” races were destroyed eons ago. (They went on for a while about a race that used to visit them called the “Shaggy Ones” that seemed worried about something and seemed to be seeking something.) Lonely and unable to leave their planet, they were excited when the Melnorme visited and sold them a probe.

In further discussions, it transpired that the Slylandro had mis-programmed the probe. It was supposed to seek out life forms and communicate as its top priority, but somehow “self-replicate” got set as the probe’s top priority, which means that it sees every ship that it encounters as a source of replication materials. Horrified, the Slylandro promised to try to recall the probes. In the meantime, they gave me a self-destruct code to use if I encounter any more. I thought these probes were the main quest, but it really just turned out to be a side quest.
           

The Slylandro reach a horrifying conclusion.

          
I end here, poised to swing by the Umgah (though I’ll probably just get attacked again) and then return to the Ariloulaleelay. I might need to use that portal spawner immediately because I’m running pretty low on fuel. I have three questions on my mind:
              

  • When I joined the Orz to the Alliance, did I give some unspeakable evil from another dimension access to Earth?
  • Are the Melnorme necessary? Meaning, are the clues that they offer exclusive to the Melnorme, or do they exist largely as a kind of backup in case a player spends more time randomly visiting planets than following the initial clues? It feels like most of the things they’ve told me have been double-confirmed in later encounters.
  • I’ve mostly been diplomatic in my encounters with other races, but there are also some very aggressive options. Is there a more aggressive path through the game? If I was better at combat (and enjoyed it more), could I be subjugating the other species? Could I beat Admiral Zex into submission instead of doing his quest?

                    

Captain Chester briefly considers a different path.

        
The game began in January 2155, and Earth is scheduled to be destroyed in January or February 2159. It is now November 2156, so I’m about halfway through my available time. I’m hoping this portal spawner allows me to accomplish more in less time. We’ll soon see!

Time so far: 21 hours


Original URL: http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2019/04/star-control-ii-why-cant-we-be-friends.html