By Lewis Packwood
Douglas Adams dreamt up the Starship Titanic in 1982 as a half-page gag in Life, the Universe and Everything, the third book of the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy ‘trilogy in five parts’. The luckless vessel served as a warning that ships powered by improbability drives run the risk of having infinitely improbable things happen to them – like winking out of existence, for example. Many years later, in the mid-Nineties, Adams revisited the idea when he was casting around for something on which to base a CD-ROM game. The project eventually saw the light of day in 1998, emerging as a graphic adventure with a fancy conversation engine called ‘Spookitalk’ and voice acting by ex-Pythons Terry Jones and John Cleese, as well as Douglas Adams himself.
Starship Titanic, the greatest starship ever built, picked up speed, swayed a bit, wobbled a bit, veered wildly and, just as the crowd were about to scream out in disbelieving terror, it vanished in an event that would later became known as Spontaneous Massive Existence Failure (SMEF). But that was far from the end of the story. In fact it was just the beginning. The appearance – and disappearance – of this odd space vessel would inadvertently create an enduring meta-game that has no rules and no end, and that still lingers somewhere in a semi-abandoned car park of the internet.
As co-founder and creative director of developer The Digital Village, Adams was involved throughout the game's two-year development, but the script of the game itself was mostly penned by Neil Richards, Debbie Barham and Michael Bywater (who was allegedly the inspiration for the character Dirk Gently). A Starship Titanic novel was also commissioned to tie in with the release of the game – this was originally going to be written by someone else based on an outline by Adams, but eventually the Hitch Hiker scribe decided he would write it himself. Except that he didn’t. Living up to his reputation for seemingly infinite tardiness, Adams admitted just three weeks before the book’s deadline that he hadn’t written a thing, and in the end the novel Douglas Adams’s Starship Titanic was written in a furious cascade of words by none other than Terry Jones (who claimed that he wrote the whole thing in the nude).
And so, at the rear end of the nineties, both game and book made it onto shop shelves, the former housed in an improbably large and elaborate box in keeping with the spirit of PC games of the time, and the latter, one imagines, still warm from frantic typing. (Incidentally, the game itself was so delayed that the master discs had to be flown over to the publishers on Concorde to meet the deadline.)
But perhaps the Starship Titanic’s most enduring legacy is neither the book, which is now out of print, nor the game, which has been rendered practically unplayable on modern machines thanks to the relentless onward march of PC operating systems. Instead, somewhere out there in a cosy nook of the World Wide Web huddles a tiny community of like-minded individuals who took the idea of Starship Titanic and ran with it as far as their digital legs could carry them. They don’t just play Starship Titanic, they create it.
The original, very basic Starship Titanic website from before the launch of the game.
Before the version of the Starship Titanic website you see now, there was a more basic and entirely different version that was stuffed full of copy written by Bywater and Richards. This site was superseded by the newer, flashier version before the game’s launch, but it still exists if you know where to look.
The site was created by the Digital Village’s web developer Yoz Grahame, who vividly recalls his first meeting with Douglas Adams while he was fulfilling his unofficial role as kosher food adviser.
“The president of SSI [the publisher] was flying over, and the management were in a panic because he was Jewish and they didn’t know what food to get for him. So they asked me to go out and buy kosher food, and then I had to take him round the table and point out what food was OK for him to eat. Later on I overheard Douglas – who was famously a staunch atheist – complaining about the incident to Alison Humphrey, the web producer at TDV, saying ‘It’s the 20th century for god’s sake!' Alison replied: ‘It’s religion Douglas, it’s century-independent.’”
Yoz Grahame, who created the Starlight Lines employee forum in 1998. (Photo courtesy of Yoz Grahame.)
When he wasn’t advising on kosher food, Yoz was busy adding content to the nascent website, and one such feature was an employee forum for the fictional company Starlight Lines, the owners of the Starship Titanic.
“The idea was to present a read-only Senior Management forum in which you'd see some of the key backstory characters getting on each others' nerves. But we figured there should probably be a writeable forum for the lower-level employees, so I spent half a day hacking up a stupidly basic forum system.”
Fans who had signed up to the mailing list for information on the forthcoming game then received the following cryptic email:
SUBJECT: Confidential Titanic Project Area Access
TO: All Star-Struct Staff
DATE: Welday, 12th Voedio, 122 R.E. (25:06)
Following repeated requests from members of the Starship Titanic construction team, it has been decided to offer access to the restricted Titanic Project Intranet Website from the public-access site maintained by our agents Starlight Travel. The restricted internal site can with immediate effect be accessed from Starlight Travel's site without needing to go through the secure intranet system.
You will find the relevant links on the Starlight Travel home page and at the end of the ship's tour. Simply click on the logo beneath the line "Star-Struct Inc. (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Starlight Lines Corp.)" and you will be asked for your level 6 secure password, which is:
Please note that the links have NOT been highlighted, to prevent members of the public from tying up network time with hopeless logons or hacking attempts.
THIS PASSWORD AND ANCILLARY INFORMATION ALLOWS YOU ACCESS TO A SECURE AND CORPORATE-CONFIDENTIAL AREA. PLEASE KEEP THE INFORMATION SAFE AND DO NOT DISCLOSE IT TO ANY THIRD PARTY.
-- Dave "Steve" Stevedave (Corporate Code Team)
This was followed up with a second email apologising for the ‘accidental mail leakage’ and urging customers not to click the link, then a third email noting that Dave Stevedave had been demoted to Bilge Emptier Third-Class. Yoz recalls that “it worked fantastically – so fantastically that some people really did send the emails back, reassuring us that they hadn’t looked at the site.”
Yoz then quickly forgot all about the employee forum, but six months later he happened to take a quick peek. And there were ten thousand posts in there.
Bearing in mind that the forum was buried deep within the website and was (just about) password secured, this was a phenomenal result. But even more fascinatingly, the forum had evolved into an extension of the game itself.
Visitors to the forum had created fictional employees and passengers on the Starship Titanic and begun role playing as them. Someone would make up an implausible, Adams-esque scenario, and everyone else would react to it in character, resulting in some enormously complex storylines and in-jokes that developed and diversified over years. And this strange fictional world had appeared entirely spontaneously, without any input from Douglas Adams or The Digital Village. Indeed, Yoz was as surprised as anyone when he stumbled across it: “It was like ignoring the vegetable drawer of your fridge for a year, then opening it to find a bunch of very grateful sentient tomatoes busily working on their third opera,” he says.
Tony Marks bought the Starship Titanic game and discovered the forum fairly early on, although he found it utterly confusing at first: “To begin with, I wasn’t really sure what was going on, but when I took the time to try and assimilate what was happening, I found that there were a whole bunch of fairly well developed characters with rich personal backgrounds. At any one time there were maybe five or more individual story threads running, and I gradually found myself more and more immersed in the ongoing plotlines.”
Tony began posting as The Infomage, a character “who was loosely based on Q from the Star Trek universe – omnipotent but basically cavalier”. He fondly remembers playing pool with planets, as well as the time that a ‘dataside being’ called Quinrex set about digitizing the entire crew. But perhaps his favourite storyline was the one where the ship went back to the big bang and found a burger bar.
For Carolyn Wilborn there were too many fun moments to choose from – although she fondly remembers the First Gerbil War. Carolyn stumbled across the employee forum not long after its genesis when she was searching for the old Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy text adventure. She quickly adopted the character of Koenig @ Lamar Gwah de Loop, who she describes as: "a two-headed, very minor employee who was trapped in their office because the service robots had removed all of the deck flooring from in front of the door. I used to switch which name I put first in my signature depending on which head was ‘talking’ – Lamar was the left one.”
As in any good story, the characters developed over time. Eventually, Lamar and Koenig got divorced – Koenig got custody of the majority of internal organs, and later went on to become a pan-dimensional being. The Infomage, on the other hand, set up a successful data exchange business with his dataside alter ego, Image. A major event was the marriage of Goblin the tea-boy and Unidentified Girl in Pigtails, or UPiG. They went on to have have a baby boy called PiGPiG.
One of the Starlight employees’ favourite pastimes, when they weren’t slipping through realities or getting stuck in time loops, was Bok – a sort of cross between higher-dimensional chess and poker. In practice, the game was a bit like Mornington Crescent on Radio 4’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue – a seemingly incomprehensible game that evolves spontaneously. Common gambits included ‘The Doodlenut Draw’, ‘The Table's Gone’ and ‘The Royally Flushed Jabberwock’. Carolyn also fondly recalls the satisfying and long-lived pastime of fooling a hapless crew member called Bystander into entering an airlock and then flushing him into space, earning him the title ‘Most Evacuated Crewmember’.
Mornington Crescent, as played on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue.
Yoz puts the success of the forum down to how close-knit the community became. Because it was so hard to find, the number of active members was always very small, and that gave it cosy feel that was unlike the bigger, scarier forums and social networks that were developing at the time. It also meant the forum was fairly immune to trolling – the occasional rogue commenter who broke the fictional reality would be brushed off as an interstellar spam attack.
Perhaps surprisingly, one of the forum’s strengths was its simplicity. As a result of Yoz creating the forum in an afternoon with what he admits is “some of the worst Perl code I’ve ever written”, the original version was bare bones in the extreme, but this worked to its advantage. Tony Marks recalls that the lack of a ‘post preview’ button led to some entertaining storylines: “For example, we had a whole skit around dwogs (typo of dog) as well as deck paltes (plates). The joy of it was that someone would almost always latch onto any such errors and make something amusing of it!”
In fact, the community enjoyed the simplicity so much that they resisted any improvements. At one point Yoz added BBCode (Bulletin Board Code) to the forum, so that users could format text with bold, italics, and so on. To his disappointment, he found that hardly anyone used the new functions – it turned out that one of the appeals of being forced to use plain text was that people had to be much more creative in how they got their point across, in a similar way to how Twitter forces creativity by restricting users to a set number of characters. As Yoz points out, “Communities grow into the shape that they’re given… but they almost never work out the way you think they will.”
Following the demise of The Digital Village in the early 2000s, the future of the forum was put into jeopardy, to the alarm of its inhabitants. Carolyn Wilborn ended up writing a long and impassioned email to Yoz in defence of the forum. Here’s an excerpt:
Many, and maybe most, people watch TV to relax. They want to be told a story. All of this is well and good, but in my experience with the Forum, I saw something far more interesting. While the producers and programmers work to find a way for us to play with their creations, we are busy building our own. The StarStruct Employee Forum is interactive fiction. We didn't sit around and discuss what the game will be like or how we liked the book. We created characters, we put them on the ship, we invented storylines and conflicts, and we wrote a kind of story. It was often chaotic and frustrating, but it was (is) great. We evolved and matured as characters. We listened to the things others said they were doing and reacted or ignored them. We were invaded, we fought wars, we marketed products, we argued, we pretended to eat and to party. Maybe every story has to end, but I hope not.
Yoz ended up becoming the saviour of the forum. When The Digital Village died, he began hosting the forum himself, and he’s been its guardian ever since, keeping the domain name going and adding fixes when required. He later moved to Linden Lab, the maker of Second Life, and currently he’s at 18F (https://18f.gsa.gov/), where he’s engaged in the immense task of sprucing up the American government’s haphazard network of websites.
Despite the lengthy dedication of Carolyn and the other members, the number of people on the forum has gradually dwindled over the years. Carolyn herself eventually slipped away, although she admits she still thinks about the forum on occasion. Tony credits Yoz with keeping the forum going for much longer than he thought possible, and he says that despite several lulls and a whole series of SMEFs, there “still seemed to be a little life in it” before the most recent domain registration expired. Yoz has just finished setting up a new home for the site at http://starlightlines.net.
The relaunched forum at starlightlines.net.
But despite its diminishing stature, the Starlight Lines employee forum has endured far longer than the game it was inspired by. Yoz credits this partly to the “infinite possibilities” of this alternative reality game. Yet he also claims that the close-knit nature of the group was what kept people coming back.
“The basic, small-scale nature of it reminds people of when they first went on the internet, when it was a much simpler, friendlier place. There are still many, many communities like that out there.”
And somewhere out there, in between SMEFs and domain expirations, a secret society is still piloting the Starship Titanic.
We originally published this story in January 2015.