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Space Station 13: a multiplayer space station simulator about monkeys, insane AI, cultists and paperwork

I don't know where to begin. Maybe here: there's a bus-sized, chitinous space-demon tearing our space station apart, oxygen is being haemorrhaged through gaping holes on either side of the blood-drenched corridor in which I stand alone. Pressure is dropping quickly, the air around me begins to freeze. In my radio I hear the relieved chatter of the lucky few who'd made it to the escape shuttle in time, little consolation to those left behind. Rescue is impossible, and now I'm not sure what will kill me first: being spine-jacked by this otherworld horror, or the ice-cold deathgrip of space itself. Space Station 13 has fallen prey to a cadre of cultists. They had summoned the foul demi-god that, in just a few moments, will bloodily separate me into my constituent limbs. What can I possibly do?

I pick up my mop and swab at a blood-puddle. Because that's my job. I'm just the janitor.

The last thing I did before the space demon turned me into a fleshy casserole is sneeze. I think my character had a cold. Once you're dead you can hear the chatter of everybody else in the game. I soon realised that the victorious escape shuttle had been watching my indifferent response to the appearance of the inter-galactic demon, and my subsequent death at its razor sharp claws.

"Ha, he sneezed," wrote one onlooker.

"Janitor don't give a shit," exclaimed another.

I was thrilled. He called me a janitor! The other station staff had seen that I was a janitor. They'd watched me proudly hold my mop and dutifully pull my yellow bucket along behind me. They'd spied the galoshes that I'd specifically worn to more efficiently carry out my job. To them I was a janitor. I was Space Station 13's janitor. I was their janitor. And that felt rewarding. For a new player, Space Station 13 isn't about surviving whatever arcane peril the game injects into the simulation, it's simply about successfully carrying out your duties, earning the respect of your peers and not thoroughly frustrating other players with your incompetence.

Space Station 13 is a bit like a multiplayer Dwarf Fortress in space, a game in which you control a single character fulfilling a single role upon a prebuilt and fully functioning space station. This station is divided into different sections and different roles, all viewed in a single, 2D tile-based overview: you have engineering, botany, science, personnel, security, maintenance, cargo, medical, recreational, command, even the station's AI-commanded cyborgs, even the station's AI itself, all staffed by real players. Your collective goal is to survive whatever secret catastrophe the game mode dictates at the start of the round. Games last up to about an hour. They are fun.

How your experience plays out is largely dictated by the job you're given. For example, if you're cast as the station's AI you're given control over a team of player-controlled cyborgs, whose initial objective is to assist humans in all of their endeavours: primarily maintaining security by stunning and handcuffing unruly station staff. As an AI you must abide by Asimov's laws, unless the station is battered by an ion storm, which could rewire your programming and give you a hidden agenda to murder all organic life. Otherwise, a saboteur may gain access to your systems and upload his own laws before you can interject or alert security to the breach. Mostly however, I've seen the AI's time taken up by mundane requests over the station's radio.

You can think of Space Station 13's AI as the ship computer from Star Trek, responding to requests to locate certain items or staff, or to open locked doors. "AI, door please," is one of the most commonly heard phrases over the station's general radio. There's a heavy roleplay slant to the game, meaning that the player cast as the AI can't broadcast dick jokes or start arbitrarily shutting off power to parts of the station. They can refuse to open doors if they believe doing so would threaten the safety of other humans. To do your job well in this game is to do it in such a way that nobody questions the string-pulling human controlling the character. That means AI is one of the most difficult positions to play in Space Station 13, as you must be faultless, courteous, clinical and efficient. As a reward, you get to look like SHODAN.

If you spawn as a janitor, on the other hand, you're allowed to roleplay being a little bit crap at your job: which is simply to keep the station tidy. That said, you can't (or at least shouldn't) do things that janitors don't do. You should run away from fights and report suspicious activity. You shouldn't start investigating cultists or going on spacewalks. You should replace burnt out lightbulbs and set mouse traps. You shouldn't break criminals out of jail or disobey the head of personnel. A janitor is expected to janit, nothing more, nothing less.

When I started my job as a janitor, the station had already run into some trouble. For reasons unknown to me, a spacesuited person jabbed me with a syringe almost immediately, incapacitating me and causing the screen to dim like at the end of a Warner Bros cartoon. He then dragged me away to some a darkened corner of the station to have his way with me. I suspect he may have been a changeling whose intentions were to absorb me with his big changeling lips. Bad guys such as changelings are randomly chosen at the beginning of a round, and are given objectives to kill specific personnel around the station.

Oh! Here's something I learned about being a janitor since I played this round. You have a mop bucket, which you fill with water. You dip your dry mop in this bucket to wet it, then you use the mop on the floor to clean up spills. That takes time and creates momentarily wet floors, on which other players can slip and injure themselves (yes, really). However, you've also got a limited supply of Space Cleaner, which is a spray bottle that instantly cleans people, surfaces and objects without leaving a slippery residue. On a dirty station, you'll soon run out of this stuff.

You can get more by mixing ammonia and water in equal measures. To get ammonia you have to visit the chemist and request it. If they're playing "correctly", the chemist should ask you for a requisition form stamped by your boss, the head of personnel. Once the paperwork clears, the chemist will give you the ammonia you need. The chemist is a real player. Giving you ammonia is part of his game. The head of personnel is also a real player, and his game is (as far as I can tell) stamping forms and ordering you around.

Meanwhile, I haven't been absorbed by a changeling. A security officer stumbled across our sordid scene and arrested my abductor. Prisoners are held in the brig either indefinitely or for a matter of minutes. In cases where the perpetrator is unclear, detectives can investigate crime scenes, gather evidence and charge suspects. In another game (in which I played a cargo technician) a space-clown threw a pie at my face and a passing detective asked if I'd like to press charges. I didn't, to his irritation ("Damn, I really want to smack that clown," he sighed), and instead I called the janitor to come clean up the creamy mess.

In a janitorial stupor I rise to my feet and find my way to the station's tiny custodial closet, where my janitoring tools are kept. Here's where I can begin helping the station, which is apparently already mostly dead and overrun with cultists. There's ritual and regular blood everywhere, so I have a lot of cleaning up to do.

The arrows keys move your character around. Otherwise Space Station 13 is effectively a point and click. Select an empty hand and click on an object to interact with it. Select a hand with an object in it to use that object on whatever you clicked. In my closet I click the bucket to pick it up, and then use it on the water dispenser to fill it. I click the mop bucket to fill that. I click the mop on the mop bucket to wet the mop. I right click on the mop bucket and select 'pull' to have to bucket follow me around, and I'm ready to go. All I need to do is click on stains to clean them. I am pro. I move on to the next blood splatter, bucket in tow. Being a janitor is easy. I am the best at it.

I slip on the wet floor I've just made.

Slipping is mostly harmless if you're a janitor and you've only inflicted horizontality upon yourself, but if the head of security faceplants in a wet corridor he will very likely have you locked up. This is why your custodian's closet is stocked with wet floor signs. These not only warn other staff of slippery flooring, but act as a sort of personal insurance policy for janitors. Just like in real life, really. But there's no way I should be slipping on floors. I'm a janitor. Surely I've got professional, anti-slip janitoring shoes somewhere in my closet?

Of course I do. Searching through my locker reveals a hazmat suit and a pair of galoshes. I take the boots, assuming that they afford me some anti-slip qualities. I've researched the shoes since to find that galoshes are envied across the station: they're they only shoes that prevent slipping, and slipping can be caused by all sorts of unexpected spillages, not just my soapy mop-water.

Rummaging around the closet for more stuff, I also discover a box of lightbulbs, both fluorescent and... roundy. Space Station 13 isn't just a game in which you can change lightbulbs, it's a game with two different kinds of lightbulb. I wouldn't have to replace any bulbs in this round, but in another I received a request from the station's barman to fix a blown bulb in the mess hall. "Is it a long one or a roundy one?" I asked over the PDA personal messaging system. It was a long one, he clarified.

You don't need bulbs to win Space Station 13, replacing them is just something to do, a beautifully mundane and unimportant task to get on with. Personally I think it makes the janitor's role all that more special. The game's wiki says the job was once a punishment role, but I find it weirdly rewarding to play.

Still, no matter how much blood I mopped up, no matter how many bulbs I replaced, the cultist's dark leader still arrived. Here he is about to murder me. You will notice I am still performing my duties admirably.

Hold on, that's the wrong image. Sorry, that's from the time a rogue geneticist turned me into a monkey for a while. Ignore that. Here's the devourer of souls encroaching on our mortal plane.

I don't know enough about Space Station 13 to suggest how this might have been prevented. There are only a handful of game modes: cultists attempting to summon their hell-lord, traitors attempting to detonate the station's nuke, rogue AI murdering all carbon-based lifeforms, but so many different roles in play that it's difficult to devise an overall strategy to tackle the problem facing the station.

Luckily, unless you're playing as the captain or another important section head, you only have to worry about your own job, your own tiny corner of the station. Space Station 13 plays out like a great board game, where it matters not who is victorious but that everybody had a fun time playing their part. When I played as a cargo technician, I observed my quartermaster giddily filing paperwork and revelling in the staggering bureaucracy of his profession. Other players would queue at the cargo hold's reception desk to request the materials they need to do their own jobs. Here's actual dialogue between two players in Space Station 13. This is the game, as she is played:

  • Charles Mindington asks, "yes can I help you?"
  • Jonah Danum says, "i am on a personal mission"
  • Charles Mindington says, "alright."
  • Jonah Danum says, "to get the Roboticists some batterys"
  • Jonah Danum says, "god knows they need them"
  • Charles Mindington says, "the roboticists need to use our systems"
  • Jonah Danum asks, "mm?"
  • Charles Mindington says, "they can message us for batteries"
  • Jonah Danum says, "okay then"
  • Charles Mindington says, "then we can fill out the paperwork"
  • Charles Mindington says, "thank you sir"
  • Charles Mindington asks, "yes can i help the next person?"

The next person in line was a member of security staff who warned Mindington that a suspicious character had been skulking around nearby, trying to surreptitiously jab people with a poisoned syringe. If Mindington saw anything, instructed the officer, he was to report it to security immediately.

Minutes later a strange figure strolled into the cargo bay reception area. He looked like a fat Walter White, covered head to toe in a bright yellow hazmat suit and wearing what looked like a plague mask. He seemed confused. He was holding a syringe. Mindington turned to me and whispered, "remember what that guy said about that dude injecting people? I think this is him." Well, quite.

Mindington kept him talking while I called security. I'm not sure if fat Walter White was ever caught, as he left our area before any police arrived, but I wasn't concerned. Arresting madmen was somebody else's job. I had work to do, stamping manifests and dragging supply crates in and out of the shuttle, sorting requisition forms, making photocopies and filing paperwork. That's far more thrilling than any number of trans-dimensional Cthulus or syringe wielding maniacs.

To play, start here, read this and watch these. Space Station 13 is obtuse and players can be unforgiving of newcomers' mistakes, but the handful of hours required to understand how everything works will unlock one of the strangest and most brilliantly tedious games you've ever played.

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