Ridley Scott’s Alien films have been touchpoints for all kinds of video games. Even if you discard the many licensed Alien games dating back as early as 1982, any horror game with science fiction elements will be compared to those films. A modern example is the Dead Space series. But this kind of thorough cribbing extends back further than I’d personally expected, to 1989’s Project Firestart, a Commodore 64 game by Dynamix, Inc.
If Project Firestart only borrowed visual or thematic elements from Alien it wouldn’t be remarkable. You know a horror game from the ’80s is supposed to be scary because it tells you so. There’s a concept in architecture of buildings that are “ducks” versus buildings that are “decorated sheds”. A Duck is a building shaped like a duck, while a decorated shed is a rectangle that has a sign that says “quack” outside. On the Duck/Shed spectrum, Project Firestart is as close as I’ve seen a horror game get to a Duck in the ‘80s.
It accomplishes this by demonstrating an understanding of how horror movies are paced. It tightens the vice slowly over the course of its run. It demonstrates danger by showing you piles of piles of bodies and letting you wonder “what did this?” for a while. It puts you in a situation where inaction is a choice with deadly consequences.
Given all of this, I’m shocked the game isn’t more well known. It did not pop up in my research several years ago when I was making my list of games to cover in retrospectives. Gary Butterfield, my friend and podcast co-host, brought the game to my attention after it was featured on the AV Club as a forgotten horror classic. It’s also a prominent feature in IGN’s History of Survival Horror, where its lead developer Jeffrey Tunnell shares details about the game’s troubled production. Outside of these sources and some helpful YouTube longplays, details on Project Firestart are scarce. So I will try my best to encapsulate it for you.
The instigating incident of Project Firestart is a sci-fi staple: industrial malfeasance. It’s 2061 and a research vessel called Prometheus, stationed off of Titan, has gone silent. The ship’s mission was to research how to make more durable and compliant miners and supersoldiers by hybridizing humans with an alien fungus. Just your run-of-the-mill, super advisable crimes against humanity. Predictably, the creation turned on the creators.
We play as Jon Hawking, an agent of the United System States, sent on a mission to assess the situation, recover scientific data, and arm the ship’s self-destruct sequence. Hawking has two hours to accomplish this before the USS does the needful and nukes the Prometheus from orbit (or should I say “in orbit”?).
This time limit figures prominently into gameplay, but in an unexpected way. The critical path is quite short, and even if you allow ample time for exploration, you’re unlikely to butt up against the deadline. So the clock’s overall effect is fairly soft, aside from its constant presence on the screen as reminder to keep moving.
The clock matters because it ties into the game’s event system, in which things will happen at appointed times regardless of your presence. Periodically, as in Maniac Mansion, the game cuts away to show something happening elsewhere on the ship. Naturally, these scenes show catastrophes, and introduce new wrinkles you will need to address or adapt to.
The early going of the game is eerily quiet. After you get your mission briefing, you dock at the Prometheus and start poking around. Very early, you discover a man who scrawled the word “DANGER” in his own blood before dying. Next you find the remains of a massacre outside of an elevator, giving the chilling implication that if the doors opened a little sooner, the scientists might have had a chance to escape.
The opening of the game lets you draw your own conclusions as you explore the ship, so you can build up the threat in your head before you ever see it on screen. Monsters will reveal themselves in one of two ways. As you wind your way toward the labs where you find the research tape you’re looking for (alongside a deceased scientist and a mangled specimen in a tank), you’ll trigger an event that makes hordes of them spawn when you try to get to the ship’s bridge.
More startling is the other way the monsters will make themselves known… by just showing up. At a certain point the monsters stop caring whether or not you’ve found the tape, and they come looking for you. When this happened to me, I was admiring the ship’s arcade, really appreciating how much effort Dynamix put into making this dead space feel like it was once alive.
“Oh neat, air hockey!” “Chomp.”
The combat in the game is an obvious (and oft-remarked-upon) antecedent to the survival horror combat we know and love. Agent Hawking is a hotshot, but his usual cannon is a little too big (and a little too loose) for a mission in a pressurized vessel. So he’s relegated to using wimpy energy weapons with limited range and nil stopping power. Your enemies, the green fungus zombies, don’t break their stride when you unload into them, so combat is a dance of tactical retreats to gain safe distance.
Ammo is scarce. Each gun has a finite amount of charge, and after that’s gone the gun is useless. Replacement guns can be found in realistic places throughout the ship (security stations, armory lockers, corpses of soldiers) but they aren’t plentiful. Also, you can only carry two guns at a time, so there’s no roving surplus of armaments to fall back on.
Health is scarce too, but less so. Wall-mounted health kits are scattered around the ship, again in realistic, Space-OSHA approved places (outside of bathrooms and kitchens, by elevators, etc). One kindness the game extends to the player is the Med Lab, where a special rejuvenation machine will fully heal you, as long as you’re hurt enough.
This paucity of resources will feel very familiar to modern players, but you have to imagine it was especially novel back in the days when sci-fi themes in a game instantly meant run-n-gun. Your disempowerment is compounded by the surprising fact that monsters can pursue you through doors. This threw me off, because in a pre-Resident Evil 3 world, that just doesn’t happen. After the first monster caught me with my drawers down, my sense of security instantly evaporated. Nowhere was safe.
I cite Resident Evil 3 deliberately, because another threat that shows up after a time is an invincible mutant that chases you throughout the ship. This white mutant appears after about a half hour, and it’s heralded by some cutscenes of the mutants attending to a large egg.
This monster is impervious to your lasers and it runs as fast as you do. Once it’s on your ass, you have to drop everything and deal with it. Hopefully you’ve been paying attention to your surroundings, because you have to lure this monster into dangerous places, and either destroy it or incapacitate it by using the ship’s machinery.
The most obvious solution is to lure him into a room with bad radiation shielding and open a shutter, frying the creep to a crisp. More mechanically tricky murders involve locking it into a laser prison, or detonating an armory full of explosives (you have to fire your gun while standing by the door, so you’re thrown clear). You can also lock him in the kitchen’s walk-in freezer, or blow open a steam valve to boil him.
At first blush this feels cheap. This thing can (and will) kill you so quickly it might as well be an instant death. And those are no-nos. The means I describe above don’t scream out to the player, and won’t be obvious outs when the pressure is on.
With those caveats, it’s hard not to admire the inventiveness of this design choice. In my writeup on _Friday the 13th_ I describe how essential the Nemesis is to horror, because it forces you to think around corners. With this white super mutant, the designers of Project Firestart take an already disempowering situation and force you to reimagine what can be a weapon, since your already-paltry weapon isn’t good enough. It’s creative and it forces the player to be creative, and it makes you feel like that horror movie protagonist who uses his brains to surmount a challenge of infinite brawn.
A story that simply goes “man with gun avoids being eaten” is pretty hollow. Sophisticated monsters act as proxies or symbols for a human force we recognize or feel. These monsters don’t rise to that level of sophistication, so it’s a good thing there’s some human drama on offer too.
In the early-to-mid game you’ll start seeing cutscenes of the cryogenics lab on the Prometheus. There are two pods: one is empty, the other holds a woman named Mary. If you do nothing, she will die in that pod after the monsters get to her. After a certain point, the lab unlocks and you can wake her up.
She was injured prior to the catastrophe that killed everyone else on the ship, and she only survived because she was locked away. To get the best ending, you need to rescue Mary. by leading her to the waste disposal room and jettisoning her into space in a trash pod (which seems disrespectful, but any port in a storm I guess).
This leaves us with the mystery of the unoccupied pod. Other cutscenes reveal its inhabitant waking up and skulking around the ship. This ignoble specimen is Dr. Annar, the man whose hubris led to the catastrophic failure of the titular “Project Firestart”. He also took refuge in the cryo-pod, and his goal is to make sure you don’t escape with evidence that would damn him.
His acts of sabotage are hardly covert. When you get the tape and arm the ship’s self-destruct mechanism, you have to return to your shuttle to make your escape. Problem is, Dr. Annar has rigged it to explode. As you search for a secondary escape shuttle, Annar powers down the ship’s lights. This leaves you vulnerable in the dark, feeling around for a way forward until you get to the power generator and light things back up.
The blackout and the nemesis are two major events that raise the stakes for the player, making things more dangerous, making you feel more disempowered. When you finally get onto the escape shuttle, you rightly feel like you’ve conquered hell. But as you pull away from the Prometheus, Dr. Annar reveals himself. He’s stowed away in the shuttle, and he holds you up at gunpoint, saying you’ve outlived your usefulness after helping him escape. You make one final action as a player: pressing the button that makes Agent Hawking tackle Annar, disabling him.
The ending that plays out after this depends on your actions aboard the Prometheus. If you fail to recover the tapes with the research data, you’ll be chastised (although the knowledge of how to create infinitely-reproducing monsters seems like it should be turned to space dust, but, y’know…). If you get the tapes, you’re commended on your bravery. Regardless, the Prometheus explodes, hopefully containing the threat forever.
If you saved Mary, she makes an appearance in the ending. Her trash pod has been scooped up, and she’s forever (and romantically) grateful to you for rescuing her.
And that’s the end.
Jeffrey Tunnell, the game’s director, is very bitter about the way Project Firestart shook out. The production process was difficult, and he feels like Electronic Arts didn’t do enough to promote the game upon its release. Additionally, Firestart’s extended development time led to it coming out extremely late in the Commodore 64’s life cycle, well past its “use by” date.
In spite of the C64’s technical limitations, the presentation of Project Firestart is very admirable. Individual sprites and backgrounds are very 8-bit, but a lot of effort was put into designing the environment to feel varied and realistic. Rooms are present even without direct gameplay consequences. There might be nothing to do in the ship’s engine room, but it’s there to let you know it’s there.
The game is also semi-isometric in places, giving you opportunities to evade monsters that are hot on your tail by juking around them. This depth and variety also plays into how big the ship is. There’s a lot of ground to cover, and figuring out how to do so efficiently is a core element of the gameplay.
They also accomplish a lot with very limited text. Outside of the lengthy briefing scene, there’s very little dialogue. Instead, exposition is provided by poking around in computer logs. There aren’t very many of these, but they will feel instantly familiar to modern players.
Finally, the game’s audio is sparse to a very good effect. Your footsteps are the only sound for the majority of the game. When enemies are nearby, it hits you hard with a throbbing drone. And when you succeed in fighting them off, it rewards you with a fanfare. Given that this was advertised as “More than a game… A Horror Movie in Outer Space!”, it’s good to see designers understand the power of silence.
Project Firestart surprised me. I didn’t expect it to feel as familiar as it does. Given that, in large part, Hex Crank is all about tracing the genealogy of horror games, Project Firestart is the motherlode. There are many elements present here that I thought only surfaced much later. My reading has never revealed a direct citation of Project Firestart as the inspiration for any other horror game, but I think that speaks more to its overall obscurity than any lack of quality or inventiveness on the game’s part.
Phillip K. Dick is the sci-fi writer who has had the strongest influence on Hollywood movies, and Ridley Scott is the Hollywood director who has had the strongest influence on games. Within a very short window of time, he released Alien and Blade Runner, two movies that countless games hearken back to. The cover of Project Firestart will lead you to believe it’s just paying aesthetic lip service to its inspiration, but if you spend any time with it, you’ll realize that its creators had a very good understanding of their source material… no matter how shameless they were in borrowing from it.