Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice
When the Stars Align

Erin Hoffman | 19 Jan 2010 13:40
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Hailing Frequencies

What distinguishes Starflight's tone from other games of its day and ensured its longevity are the writing and design contributions of Greg Johnson. "Greg's personality is Starflight," Lee says. "It really comes through. His sparkling sense of humor and charming vision really capture the audience."

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Johnson received design mentorship from Archon's Paul Reiche throughout Starflight's development. Reiche told Johnson to "make a story network on a big sheet of paper," outlining major plot points and the in-game objects required to get between them. This paper map was one of the earliest sandbox story designs for a game, and gave Starflight its expansive, uniquely player-driven world.

Each of the aliens in Starflight has its own mode of communication, and this unique voice creates a vivid environment and a lasting impression. While navigating the conversation trees that allow you to collect story information, a cockroach-like Veloxi might say, "Our scanner is show you have most precious small egg of Veloxi grand lovely. You are return immediately, or Veloxi is declaring war. Agreeing?", whereas the peaceful Elowan might say, "If the minstrel's songs be true, the span of an ancient one's life was measured not in years, but in millenia, so long-lived were they." These simple but evocative touches, coupled with the expansive intergalactic history that shaped the story and world of the game, made Starflight stick in players' minds and hearts for decades after they played it.

"I knew it was a classic while we were building it," Tim C. Lee says, calling the game's ambition and complexity "almost hard to put into words." I asked Greg Johnson if he remembered feeling the same way. "I didn't know it would be a classic," he says. "I did think it was the most amazing thing ever, but I tend to think that about everything I make."

More than one fan agrees with him. As late as 2007, a reviewer on Mobygames called it "the greatest game of all time."

Legacy of the Stars

But even, or perhaps especially, in 1983, that excellence came with a price. "It felt like we were working on it 24 hours a day," Greg said, and Tim agreed. If they weren't working on the game, they were thinking about it, analyzing it, trying to make it better. Both men recall their time on Starflight as a surreal experience. Toward the end of the project, when he wasn't coding, Lee was reading Laws of Form by G. Spencer Brown - a book that had a reputation for cracking open programmers' minds.

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