Breaking Space Station 13

Space Station 13 is a 2d online role-playing game that involves up to around 60 players all acting out menial & exciting jobs on a vastly interactive futuristic station, in rounds that generally last between 30-60 minutes. It is bonkers. Many stories have been posted about it elsewhere, some amazingly written. I want to talk about a particularly peculiar but interesting experience for me, from a game that is seemingly notorious for them.

For this round I’d rolled a Detective. Rolled in the D&D class sense of the word, not that I’d accosted a sleeping officer. One useless gimmicky thing the detective spawns with (aside from the ability to play the YEAHHHH sound effect from CSI Miami when putting on sunglasses) is a pair of “Virtual Reality” goggles. Putting them on transports a virtual representation of your character to a relaxing beach, whilst your actual character is rendered immobile and vulnerable in the real game world until you take them off again. Normally these are thrown in the trash at the very start to make way for more useful items, but before this could be done a voice entered my head.

“HEY DEVILISH”

Direct admin chat was being addressed to me (my character was called Devilish Whiskers, named so as I’d given him a fine moustache). Normally the shadowy behind-the-scenes admins only talk directly to you to punish you for breaking the spirit of the game’s rules or to ascertain if someone has messed you about. To be messaged at the start of the round I was a little bit worried.

“Hello?”
“Can you do me a favour real quick?”
“Sure?”
“Put on your VR goggles”

I picked them up and placed them on, and sure enough my character was transported to the sunny but useless beach. Not sure what the voice wanted me to do next, I picked up a volley ball and splashed in the sea for a little bit. For the look of the thing.

“Hang on a sec, going to try something and see if it breaks the game”
“Okay. I’ll carry on splashing for you till then”

Suddenly, a portal appeared on the beach. Stepping into randomly appearing portals in SS13 is usually a bad idea. They can either transport you to somewhere useful or off-limits 5% of the time, or there’s a 75% chance you’ll transport into the abyss of space to suffocate and freeze to death. The other 20% is teleporting into a wall and instantly dying which on the whole is a risk best worth avoiding.

“Step in”

Not wanting to disobey Game God I did as I was duly told. The portal ended up taking me not to the darkness of space but instead to my own Detective’s office. Next to my character who was wearing the VR goggles still and who was completely immobile.

“Cool! That worked.”
“What do I do now? What happens if I take the goggles off?”
“I don’t know. Try it!”

I took them off and the Virtual version of me vanished for me to take control of my original character again. I put the Goggles back on and stepped through the portal on the beach to end up in the office once more. Important questions raced through my mind.

“If I die as a virtual hologram, does my body die as well?”

Knowing if I was in a forgettable Bruce Willis movie was a top priority after all.

“I don’t think so, nope! Infact, strip your body”
“Excuse me?”
“Strip your body of all your detective stuff, and hide your body in your office’s locker.”

I ended up stripping my original character down to his underpants whilst I put on his clothes and took his items, before rolling my stiff detective body into an ID locked locker and securing it away. I rolled a Detective.

“Okay, you’re now a virtual detective. Go solve crimes but remember, keep your body safe!”

The voice left me behind and I tried to get back into the swing of SS13. I mean, I was still playing as a Detective, but only I knew what weirdness I’d just endured in the past 5 minutes and why I was a hologram walking about the station. My virtual status was a subject of much bemusement to everyone that I met, who were busy being wrapped up in the weirdness of their own rounds to suddenly have a holographic detective turn up and try to solve crimes. It didn’t matter to them that I was more useful than a garden strimmer and quite a swimmer.

Shrivelled up corpses had started appearing in the maintenance ducts around the station which meant a Changeling; a player who looks like just a normal character up until they assault you and drain your life essence after which they can morph into you. Tracking them down is hard and the corpses were piling up, but I felt fairly safe in that a changeling wouldn’t be able to kill me as a hologram. Well, possibly wouldn’t be able to kill me. And so long as I kept my body safe.

“HEY DEVILISH”

Admin God was speaking again after 15 minutes of no contact. I was in the middle of chasing a suspicious looking character through the dark maintenance area that I had a hunch could be the monstrous changeling. It looked like generic genetic crime would have to wait.

“I want to try something else. Go and get the locker with your body in and drag it back to here”

Hideous shape-shifting monster forgotten in order to feed my curiosity about what was going to happen next I dragged my body-locker halfway across the station. A security officer questioned me on the way about why I was acting suspiciously, but I told him it was fine officer I was just dragging my own body with my virtual body because a higher power told me to. This was accepted. I arrived back where I was originally contacted in Maintenance.

“Okay you know where the garbage chute is?”
“Yeah, I think so. It’s just south of here”
“I want you to take your body and throw it in the grinder”

The Grinder is just as it sounds. A conveyor belt leads to it which all the trash chutes on the station deliver garbage onto, that is then fed into the Grinder. Bodies that go through it tend to come out as a red gooey gibbed mess usually, but I placed trust in the voice.

Grabbing my naked body with my virtual one, I threw it onto the conveyor belt and watched it edge its way towards the grinder. It hit the grinder and became a fine red mist, but my virtual self didn’t vanish.

“Oh.”
“Cool!”
“That was my body wasn’t it?”
“Yeah but you’re still here! I didn’t think it’d work. Right, can you put these VR goggles on now?”

Still trying to process the fact I’d just murdered myself but was alive enough to regret it, a pair of VR goggles magically appeared out of the air next to me. I put them on and took control of a Virtual-Virtual version of me that was on a flashing blue neon map. Another portal appeared and I just walked through it, to end up next to my Virtual body. A spectator had come along at this point who simply said “The fuck is going on”. I couldn’t answer.

“Now I want you to throw your Virtual body in the Grinder”
“Haven’t I killed enough?”
“Trust me”

I repeated the process of stripping and murder that had gone on with my real body and threw my original hologram body into the grinder. Another pair of VR goggles appeared and before even being told I put them on to be transported to the same neon plane of existence and popping into the real world again as a Virtual-Virtual-Virtual Devilish Whiskers. My name was beginning to be a bit of a mouthful.

“Shouldn’t I just be Neo or something by this point? I seem to have conquered death in a virtual world.”
“Hey, you’re right! Give me a moment”

Before my eyes, my character’s clothes were replaced with a black trenchcoat and garments along with dark sunglasses, and my long name was changed to simply read “THE ONE”. A personal teleporter was also dropped into my inventory, allowing me to port around the station on a whim.

I was frankly amazed by the unravelling of all this. Space Station 13 has always been a inventive and mad place but it was impressive to see first hand an example of how game code and assets could be inserted during a round. Sometimes this creativity won’t be for any technical reason but because the admins themselves are bored gods wanting to tinker with their live creation. It was like watching a film be changed around you whilst having a direct conversation with the director, which I find is such an incredibly interesting & powerful avenue for games to explore.

I later asked the admin what he was doing and he said he was changing the code that linked the player character to their virtual one, and wanted to see how many extensions it could go through without breaking the game. He also had to draw quickly the black trenchcoat and create a whole new map level plane to transport the Virtual-Virtual version of myself to. All whilst a round with 45 other players was playing out around me, all of whom were none the wiser to this going on.

It’s for reasons like this that Space Station 13 has been such a strongly creative game. It is undeniably ugly and hacked together at times, but because of this it is incredibly robust to build upon. Crazy ideas can be tried out on a whim and scrapped without too much lost development time, plus fresh admins and creators are easily able to come in and add their ideas too. New things are still being added on a near-weekly basis even. The Space Station 13 you play today is the result of nearly 6 years of this collective mad bodging and stripping. It is the beauty of Sleep is Death but in an interactive game world, and the scope of Dwarf Fortress personalised.

I spent the rest of my holographic round porting around the station, trying to find people to confuse with my new almost deity status. By this point though the station had fallen into anarchy with a deadly uncaught changeling running around and all the security dead so the escape shuttle had been called. Using my new found powers I teleported to infront of the escape shuttle and walked onboard.

“BEHOLD. FOR I AM THE ONE.”

My panache for being a dramatic dickhead was rewarded by 3 people wearing paper hats robusting me around the head with fire-extinguishers until I fell into unconsciousness, then farting on my head just as the round ended. Which is as ever an important lesson – just because someone powerful in a world has taken an interest in you doesn’t mean other people have to indulge you if they don’t feel like it.