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Robert Mariani
7 Mar 2022

The Stone-Soup Video Game

Space Station 13 is an accident, a masterpiece, and a living urban legend.

The Stone-Soup Video Game

The space station’s ambient hum is broken by a dull thud in the distance. My bomb exploded in a maintenance tunnel tucked behind a wall near a junction of the main hallways, where people can see it.

Nobody is panicking or hurt or even mentioning the incident over radio chat. The explosion wasn’t big enough to cause a hull breach, so the fifty-ish crewmen could go about their business as usual. That’s important; I don’t want to hurt anyone just yet. I dispose of the remote detonator and walk portside to repair the damage: a wall-section blown apart, floor plating scattered, and a mechanical door spitting sparks.

I’m a changeling, a body-snatcher that perfectly imitates anyone that it captures and devours. My mission: kill and absorb Clark Fraser, the shaft miner. Since the beginning of this crew’s shift I’ve been wearing the disguise of a human station engineer, and I’ve needed an excuse to get access to the mining outpost to find my prey.

I make my way to the station’s HR chief, the Head of Personnel. A clown tries to slip me by throwing a banana peel in my path. I move to evade it. He honks his horn at me. I arrive at the HoP’s line; he’s sitting next to computer terminals, separated from me by a desk and thick sliding-glass window. I lie and say that an explosion similar to the one heard nearby also happened on the mining outpost, down on the volcanic planet that we orbit, and ask for the appropriate access on my ID card. I touch the window, it opens with a pneumatic hiss, and I put my card on the table, hoping that he takes it. He does nothing for a moment. The station hums its refrigerator drone. I worry that the HoP might actually bother to verify my story. He doesn’t.

I move through the now-accessible cargo bay, past technicians pulling crates on and off a conveyor belt. I tap on a computer terminal to call the mining shuttle and the cargo techs don’t ask any questions. The shuttle arrives, I board, the engine fires, and in a few moments I’m greeted by the characteristic murmuring wind of the ashen planet.

The airlock opens. In front of me is a miner in his atmospheric hardsuit, loading ore onto a conveyor belt to be processed. His ID card reads: James Batten – not my target. I tell him that I’m here to do some maintenance, and I disappear behind a mechanical door to a sealed skywalk, walking over glowing lava to the rarely trafficked side of the little outpost. I enter the comms room and it’s brimming with the clicks and whirs of electronics that relay radio chatter back and forth from the outpost and the main station above. With a few prods of my multitool I modify the relay’s settings so that the crew on the station can’t receive messages from this mining outpost, but the miners can still hear the mother station and communicate with each other. They can’t know that they’ve been cut off from the outside world.

James Batten is still by the conveyor belt, alone, and I need genetic material to further evolve. I morph my human arm into a hulking blade-appendage and charge him. I kill him in a few strikes, but he lives long enough to shout, “HELP. MURDER” into his radio headset. Only the two other miners can hear him. They say they’re coming back to help, and call in vain for security’s help from the station. I twist my flesh to copy James’s form and vocal cords perfectly and put on his hardsuit, in case the others are naive enough to buy the story I tell over the radio: “False alarm! I think I’m hallucinating.”

An eerie moan rises on the wind. Sheets of burning ash blacken the horizon. Everyone outside needs to seek shelter from the planet’s fiery storm or die, hardsuits be damned. Taking advantage of this happy accident I use my wire-cutters to disable the two entrances and also weld them shut for good measure. As I finish up, Clark Fraser runs toward the entrance with his comrade behind him. They see the welded door and freeze. They put two and two together and alert the station that there’s a changeling on the mining outpost, thinking that they can be heard.

Embers glitter in the air on sheets of charcoal wind, and their suits begin to smolder. They try to smash the reinforced windows with their oxygen tanks. The windows are strong, and the two miners manage only to leave a few cracks before their charred figures collapse. Clark Fraser is dead.

Returning from the adrenaline hyperfocus of the kill I realize that the station’s radio chatter has become chaotic. Disaster has struck. Meteors have hit the station, and a clique of hidden cultists having carried out a series of stealthy assassinations, sabotage, and forced conversions, until their numbers were enough to stage an open uprising. 

I remember the most important part of my mission: escape alive. I return to the station to find an abandoned cargo bay. The escape shuttle is en route, and everyone is getting ready to evacuate.

I run starboard down dark corridors of dead and flickering lights. Dozens are scrambling for the exit, some literally tripping over each other. The clown plays Moonlight Sonata on a piano he’d apparently dragged into the escape hall. Bodies lay scattered, some alive, some dead, some in-between. An electronic display on the wall reads: “CULT SUCKS.” With a thundering blast a bomb goes off, shattering the escape hall into space and killing me.

***

Space Station 13 is the kind of PC game that you hear honest-to-god insane and incredible stories about. As a player, you find yourself working a shift on an isolated space station represented in a 2D top-down view. You join a round and pick a role – such as engineer, cook, security guard, janitor, scientist, or clown – and perform a variety of tasks and interact with the other players on board. 

What you can do in the game is nearly limitless. The environment is modifiable and destructible, and there are complex atmospherics and electrical systems. With the right tools, you can construct a new wing of the station, or build a bomb that decompresses a department. Virologists can create a disease that spreads among players and turns them into furries, medical doctors can replace limbs with superior robotic equivalents, janitors can clean up the resulting messes, and miners can explore off-station worlds. In the backdrop of this, a lucky few players will begin the round as disguised antagonists tasked with causing mayhem, quiet or loud.

All of these are separate but interlocking types of gameplay are what makes Space Station 13 great. A multiplayer stealth game only lives up to its potential if other players’ gameplay doesn’t revolve around looking for and expecting you. Only if they are playing a game different from yours can they be caught off-guard.

In my “changeling” story told above, which actually happened in a round years ago, the shaft miners that I sabotaged and hunted were not expecting me. They picked their job to play their own game where they explore, mine ore, and discover aliens and artifacts. Such a game is not Among Us; it does not start and end with finding a murderous impostor, and the miners’ jobs were not to weed me out because it was unclear that there was anyone to weed out. The round mode is randomly and secretly selected from a pool including modes that don’t necessarily cast players as stealthy killers, such as a destructive meteor shower, or a rogue AI that tries to HAL-9000 the crew. 

Nobody is safe, but nobody is necessarily unsafe either, because each round is spectacularly different from the last. This atmosphere of slow-burning paranoia is an essential to making the gameplay of Space Station 13 true to its sci-fi bricolage setting that takes inspiration from every corner of pop culture. The changeling mode that I played is lifted from John Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece The Thing, and even Space Station 13’s moody synth soundtrack is a callback to it. If the story of a hidden killer stalking the crew of a spacecraft reminded you of Ridley Scott’s Alien, it’s not a coincidence.

Space Station 13 is different from any other game because, like so many other great things, it was an accident. The distinct-but-interlocking kinds of gameplay point to an open-source development history where distinct-but-interlocking internet communities maintain their own codebases where they cook up new gameplay elements for themselves. When a community wants something new or wants to change something old, they change the code themselves. If those changes are good, other communities adopt them, resulting in a stone-soup video game that inherits extraordinary immersion from its mechanical depth. The game’s headless development is also reflected in its tone, varied between different servers and even within rounds, swinging wildly between the mood of a deadly sci-fi thriller and a 4chan shitpost

It’s easy to find these communities buzzing on their Discord servers about the latest mechanics, art assets, code refactors, or game modes implemented by another community, discussing how these innovations fall short, or how they should be adapted for their own game servers to run. If a playerbase has a sufficiently strong internal disagreement about which features to implement – or if personal drama unfolds – one faction will fork the codebase and the community splits accordingly.

No other game in existence has this kind of dynamic. I talked about it with MrStonedOne, who has hosted the popular /tg/station servers of Space Station 13 since 2015.

“I don’t even know of any other open-source project that has the remix diversity SS13 has, outside of Linux,” MrStonedOne said. “Most open-source projects get, like, hard forks, where a fork just becomes ‘the new version,’ or maybe one or two forks that add or change minor things but don’t always get updated. The closest you can find to what we have is the modding communities of some games, where popular mods all go through similar remix cultures before a single winner comes out. SS13‘s thriving upstream/downstream coalition is very unique in that there is no winner, no movement towards one ‘main’ version.”

Cross-fertilization of code and ideas is the rule, which results in a genealogical diagram that looks something like the Hapsburg family tree. But at the root of this tree, a long time ago, was a single codebase of a very different game.

***

The unparalleled variety of Space Station 13’s gameplay gives mute testimony to a long history that isn’t obvious at first glance. The graphics look like they come from the Super Nintendo era, the result of constraints rather than a quirky stylistic choice; the platform that it runs on, BYOND, is from the Windows 98 era, making it ancient technology by internet standards.

BYOND first billed itself as an easy way for programmers to build graphical multi-user dungeon games. It comes with its own proprietary programming language, it’s own map-making tools for creating 2D game-worlds, and provides a pre-baked solution to the frustrating networking and interface aspects of multiplayer game development. 

BYOND also provides a hub interface to browse the games developed on the platform, listed by active-player count. Always at the top is Space Station 13, with active players in the thousands and dozens of different servers hosted by a variety of online communities. But on the game’s hub only a single developer is listed: Exadv1.

In 2002, an individual going by the handle of Exadv1 read an article outlining a framework for using cellular automata to simulate fluid mechanics in video games. He’d never seen a game do this before, and was inspired to replicate the decompression scenes from his favorite sci-fi movies. On February 16, 2003, Exadv1 released Space Station 13 as a closed-source, multiplayer atmospherics demo. He continued development for a few years after that, adding some of the social-deduction and disaster modes that came to define the game.

Space Station 13 in 2006.

Exadv1 stopped being involved with the project some time before 2008. Details about how exactly the game became open-source are murky, and the true history is obscured by a confusing multitude of dead links and semi-legends. Three stories are the most popular:

  • The code was stolen from Exadv1. In some versions of the story, it was a literal flash drive stolen by a friend.
  • The game was decompiled; that is, reverse-engineered using special software.
  • Exadv1 handed the code off to someone, who eventually released the code. 

In a 2017 interview, Exadv1 does a little bit to set the record straight, but admits that his memory is hazy. He says that the last two stories are true: an individual named HobNob decompiled the code and improved it to create the foundation of what we have today, and that he also voluntarily gave the actual source code to another user named AZA.

HobNob had been tinkering with decompiled code by December 2007, when he discussed it on a Something Awful post with other “Goons” (Something Awful users). New functionalities were rapidly added to the codebase, and thus “Goonstation” began its journey to become the grandfather of every Space Station 13 version that has existed since.

AZA, who considered himself the new steward of Space Station 13, initially threatened legal action against HobNob, according to a Something Awful post citing chatlogs from a now-dead forum, before softening his stance. Within a month AZA would collaborate with HobNob and to release a fork called OpenSS13, which went nowhere and produced no descendents. The uncompiled source code handed off by Exadv1 seems to have never actually been used again.

Goonstation indeed has the prestige of being the “classic” Space Station 13 experience. They mapped out stations still used today, wrote the game’s backstory, picked up Exadv1 himself as a developer, and added the iconic clown role to the game. The clown made its debut as a special role used by server administrators to punish rulebreakers but was added as a standard one when players came to enjoy the punishment, and has since become the game’s unofficial mascot.

Goonstation was the only game in town, because their code was kept closed-source for years following the decompilation. This became something of a sore issue with the broader Space Station 13 community that grew to have an open-source ethos as its beating heart, and licensing disputes over various codebases still persist in 2022. Goonstation threw the community a bone in April 2010, with an open-source release of a version of its code. 4chan’s /tg/ forked this codebase into its own /tg/station, which is to this day the game’s most popular variant.

So, as with everything else related to internet culture, Space Station 13’s true birth can be traced back to Something Awful and 4chan. And with these two communities a golden age began and dozens of other pre-existing internet communities made codebase forks and fired up servers of their own. Goonstation remained closed-source (besides a few leaks) until 2020, and during that time “the Gooncode” acquired a mythical reputation among the rest of the community as feature-packed and extremely sophisticated. The game saw a meteoric rise in developer contributions and media attention, and concurrent player counts rose to the hundreds and then to the thousands.

Space Station 13 as implemented by Fulpstation in 2022.

But even in the primordial days of 2007 players were clamoring for Space Station 13 to be ported as a standalone platform over frustration with the limitations and performance of BYOND. Not a single attempt so far has succeeded, which the community attributes to “the Curse,” a tongue-in-cheek evil power that’s responsible for these failures. But it looks like the curse could be broken soon.

***

Three open-source remake attempts are still making progress today: Space Station 3D, Space Station 14, and Unitystation.

I spoke to John Buratto, who is one of the leaders of the Space Station 3D (SS3D) remake project, which attempts to capture the spirit of Space Station 13 with modern gameplay principles and professional-looking graphics.

SS3D started as the hobby of a single developer who began the projects by posting snippets of his work in 4chan threads in 2017. After three months of hype and development work that developer disappeared with the source code. Nothing was left except a Discord server and some 3D assets. By mid-2018, a fresh team of contributors picked up where the original developer had left off, and started implementing his assets on Unity, a professional video-game engine.

“What we have and it is a real problem is the ‘development waves,’ where we have three months of active and steady development and then we fade into darkness and inactivity,” Buratto said. I asked him how the development cycle returns to its high-energy phase.

“Usually some developer with passion for SS13 randomly finds us, most cases in the weirdest way possible. In my case I was randomly browsing Reddit and found a post about this SS3D project and it caught my attention instantly,” Buratto replied.

One problem with remaking Space Station 13 is that the game lives and dies by its network effect. Without a teeming community of dozens of cross-fertilizing cultures and hundreds of independent but collaborating developers, the game stops moving. And, like internet culture itself, Space Station 13’s natural state is changing and becoming: if it stops, it dies.

Developers at all three projects agree that this organic remix-culture dynamic is crucial to breaking the Curse. One problem is that no communities seem interested in migrating to a remake from Space Station 13, since the original game benefits from the inertia of content that’s been accumulated and reworked for nearly two decades. To take advantage of this, Unitystation, started in 2016, tries to replicate Space Station 13 as closely as possible in Unity.

“The beauty of being a remake that sticks closely to the game it’s based on is we basically have everything planned out for us,” said Jack Trachea, a high-ranking Unitystation team member. “If there’s something that needs doing, we often go to /tg/’s code and look at how they did it and replicate that in Unity.”

Where SS3D and Unitystation are games, SS14 is a game and a game engine. Contrasting with Unitystation’s conservative approach, the SS14 team built its own open-source engine from scratch to radically extend the original game’s open-ecosystem philosophy. Its own platform is invisible and foundational enough to be a general-purpose tool for creating 2D games that don’t necessarily have anything to do with SS14 itself. 

SS14 is built to create the same dynamic SS13 has: many forks/codebases with many different features and differing gameplay, but sharing a game engine and a server hub,” an SS14 contributor named Paul told me. “We are currently just trying to build a generic base off of which other servers can build, while also improving on shitty parts of the SS13.”

SS14 was started by Goonstation developers in 2011, abandoned by 2015, and revived by its current team in 2017. The furthest-along of the remakes, contribution frequency has accelerated starting in 2021, following the release of its playable alpha version on Steam.

The relationship between the three remake projects is, perhaps surprisingly, neither rivalrous nor collaborative. Unlike with Space Station 13 servers, code doesn’t easily transfer between these rather isolated projects. The only link that exists between remake attempts are a handful of developers that contribute to more than one project. Everyone is, however, cheering for any – or all – parties to finally break the Curse.

Buratto and so many others volunteer chunks of their lives to give Space Station 13 a platform they think it deserves. Their motivation is made clearer by the fact that the SS3D and SS14 Discord servers both have channels dedicated to the long tradition of players telling gameplay stories like the one I began this article with, all of them deliriously unique. Read enough of these stories and you’ll start to see, between the lines, twenty years of strata: tinkering, burnout, forum drama, code heists, inside jokes, dead links, abandoned GitHubs, and, throughout it all, an undomesticated spirit of joyous creation.

“I don’t know any other game that does this kind of stuff,” Buratto said.

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