It’s hard to know what to make of the weird gold rush of FMV games during the early 90s; rail shooters weren’t exactly popular outside of arcades. At the time, it probably seemed like an obvious choice to combine the digital powerhouse of cutting-edge special effects with interactive media like games… until it flopped, hard. Enter ROCKET SCIENCE GAMES, a company that, no joke, literally employed Elon Musk at one point.
More surprising than the indulgent expenditures in worldbuilding and setpiece cutscenes is the amount of talent involved in or in the proximity of LOADSTAR. There are names attached to it like Ron Cobb, Michael J. Anderson (famous for his role in Twin Peaks… and also worked on the ground support system for NASA’s Space Shuttle), and, yes, Rocket Man himself, Elon Musk, as a programmer whose exact role was unclear.
How on earth (or rather, in space) does such an eclectic set of unusually influential individuals wind up gravitating to such a underwhelming exercise in the outlandish world of FMVs? Likely, it’s because such games were the sort of endeavor that sounded great in the boardroom and on paper, but failed to withstand the test of time. LOADSTAR was not a particularly engaging title, fraught with obnoxious sound effects, a lackluster soundtrack on the PC, and extremely repetitive (yet visually impressive) CGI elements that only lasted for roughly an hour-long playthrough if you knew what you were doing.
Largely, the only thing it had going for it aside from its inherent visual familiarity to sci-fi fans of the 80s and 90s was the shockingly shlocky charm of the premise: You’re the titular Tully Bodine, a name ripped straight out of some kind of folk tale about a mythic truck driver, because that’s exactly what he is. It’s the sort of trope you’d come across often in made-for-television film or episodic content, yet somehow strikingly absent from game narratives.
Tully isn’t a prodigy star ship pilot, nor a hardened galactic war veteran, he’s an awkward looking frumpy everyman of the working class, merely hoping to score a slice of the pie and get lost in the day-to-day drama of his mundane life. He’s well-liked by his friends, and loathed by his cartoonish enemies, the latter seemingly determined to derail his exodus from the lunar surface to the high-paying destination for his unusual cargo, the Martian satellite Phobos.
LOADSTAR is ultimately entrenched in many of the sci-fi industrial design tropes of its era, the sort of tangible groundedness we’ve come to expect from the likes of the ALIEN franchise or OUTLAND. At the end of the day, it’s a story about people trying to do work in space and the incredible hazards they would face in doing so, meeting them head-on with a dull yawn. It’s utterly no surprise that any science fiction work derived from Ron Cobb’s legacy would have a recognizable flavor. It’s clear that all on the team who could aligned with the reality of space travel, and, as they say, wrote what they knew. Nothing in LOADSTAR would seem out of place in a NASA concept sketch for orbital outposts or lunar colonies.
If anything, knowing the origins of those more personality than human in our contemporary zeitgeist ensures we retain humble impressions of them. Elon Musk isn’t the world’s biggest brain; at one point he was just another programmer hacking away at a game destined for poor reception, cashing in on the latest fad in gaming. In a sense, LOADSTAR’s decision to pursue the extraordinary life of a very un-noteworthy profession is a reflection of the strange truth, that things are more interconnected in the most unimpressive ways than we would ever like to admit. In time we all learn that the most unusual and famous people amongst us often have the most humble beginnings.
And don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about Sewer Shark.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice