You'll need a pen and paper to survive this upcoming space mystery

The ship is crippled, but I don’t know how bad. The crew is missing, but there’s nowhere they could have gone on this blocky mining vessel. Staring into the unpleasant glare of a CRT console, I’m on a bridge I don’t belong on with a station I have no business operating. I’m Cooper, the ship’s cook, and right now I’m the only person who can keep the MRS Tartarus from dying frozen in space.

The titular ship is the stand-out character of the upcoming space game Tartarus. It’s a hulking, dank pile of wires and pipes, a deep-space submarine punctuated by beige MegaPixel monitors and cluttered databases drawn in thick green monochrome type. The art style is clearly inspired by Alien and the bridge of the Nostromo. 

If all Tartarus had to offer was a Nostromo-lookalike environment, I wouldn’t find it very interesting. But on the Tartarus, the retro sci-fi aesthetic has a big effect on the puzzles that Cooper has to solve to survive. Righting a wounded spaceship is primarily an engineering problem, and the control hub of the ship routes through a primitive command line operating system. Rather than stacking crates or fighting monsters, puzzles in Tartarus are solved by exploring dense file systems and executing unknown programs.

Operating systems

It’s tempting to call it hacking, but I do have permission and a password, so it's a little closer to the original meaning. Command line systems around the ship hold massive directories of folders and files, but without the benefit of a graphical user interface—so it's time to remember DOS. To see your options, type DIR. When you see a folder you want to explore, type CD (change directory) HYDRAULICS, then type DIR again to see what’s inside. If I hit a dead end, I have to type CD.. to back up.

I quickly found out that Tartarus comes with very few of the creature comforts that I’ve come to rely on in puzzle games. I had to OPEN PRESSURES.TXT, grab a notebook and a pen to copy down important hydraulic values, then find my way to the system controls to reprogram a set of misfiring pistons. 

Navigating through unfamiliar systems takes a lot of trial and error, and I found it maddening and difficult. A couple of times I felt sure that there was no solution and my demo build had hit a bug. Then I’d try something different, break into a new section of the Tartarus’s operating system, and fix the problem. Looking down at my sheet of scratch paper, it was one of the most satisfying victories I’ve had in a puzzle game in a long time.

 Lost in translation

Tartarus is still at an early stage, and it shows in a few places. Abyss Softworks, the Istanbul-based dev team making Tartarus, doesn’t have their Turkish-to-English translations locked all the way down, and the voice acting was a little hard to follow in places. In some ways, though, these problems fit in seamlessly with the fiction of the retro sci-fi world. Old computer systems are clunky, and garbled intercoms can be hard to parse. Grammar and spelling errors in the command line reminds me of trying to install a new CPU cooler with an instruction booklet printed in Taiwan. If the Tartarus is a spaceship built by an international crew, quirks of grammar just help sell the backstory.

My early build of the demo was short, so I didn’t get to experience very much exploration of the Tartarus itself. What little I did see on my crawl through the ventilation shafts between the galley and the bridge was cramped, dark, and a bit monotonous. None of the devs have mentioned anything about first-person combat, so I’m assuming that the parts of the game that don’t happen in computer terminals will be more Gone Home than Aliens. As much fun as I had solving command line puzzles, I hope the rest of the Tartarus is more interesting than the slice I got to see in the demo.

Still, what Abyss has put together so far is promising as hell. I found the bewildering, baby-lost-in-the-woods feeling to be overwhelming, but conquering the problem made me feel resourceful like the stranded astronaut in The Martian. None of this is my job and I’ve got half of the tools I need to do this right, but damn it all, I’m going to figure it out through sheer stubborn cussedness. That’s a feeling I haven’t gotten from any other game in a while.

Tartarus hasn’t been released yet, but it has a placeholder page live on Steam. The developers are aiming to release the game before the end of the year.