US: 26 Sep 2014
The titular Verde Station of the game Verde Station is a small isolated space station that is to be your lonely home for two years. You walk around the floating structure, reading messages on terminals and watching the environment change over time. At a few points you’ll find some journal entries lying around that hint at a space opera far bigger than this tiny station you’re stuck on. The mystery begins: How does your lonely little station fit into that sci-fi epic?
Spoilers abound ahead.
The gimmick/hook to Verde Station is that you’re experiencing two years of isolation-induced madness in non-linear fragments. The game begins at the narrative beginning and ends at the narrative ending, but everything in between is broken up in such a way as to purposefully hide the true nature of the station and our time there. However, what makes the game work, what makes this story feel satisfying and not just manipulative, is that it tries to tell us the truth about our situation while also deceiving us at the same time. All the pieces are there for us to predict the twist ending from a mile away, but we probably won’t because we’ll be too obsessed with other perceived mysteries.
The biggest of those mysteries is the series of journal entries split across several floppy disks. They tell a grand story of an old colony ship that is passed by a second, upgraded colony ship from the same planet. Due to time dilation and improving technology, the ship that launched later is set to arrive at their shared destination sooner. How do people respond to that? Some are angry they’re no longer pioneers, some want to switch ships, and some are content to continue just as they are. But how does this relate to us? Was Verde Station part of that ship? Some terminals talk of a pick-up at a later date, so have we been left behind?
The story on the floppies is just that: A story. A retro-future ebook secretly stashed aboard the station for your reading pleasure. It’s fiction, and the game strongly hints that it’s fiction: One of our personal messages from the computer terminal tells us about a guy putting his favorite book on a new medium. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to realize this “new medium” is the floppy disk; this fits with the overall retro-future look of the Verde Station.
However, the non-linearity of the game ensures that we start reading the journal entries before we see the hint they’re fake, so we’re inclined to assume they’re real before we’re likely to assume they’re fictional. Verde Station knows that first impressions are important. Even if we know we’re receiving information in a disjointed fragment, we can only process things one piece at a time linearly. That means there will always be a “first fact”, some initial piece of information that forms a baseline upon which we build our beliefs. It’s easy to form that baseline, we do it instinctively, but it’s hard as hell to get us to change it, especially if it makes for a good story.
This is how conspiracy theories begin. This is how cultural lies take hold. This is how we fool ourselves. We trust in stories first, and facts second.
The story on the floppies is genuinely intriguing. It hints at a space opera occurring just outside our walls, an epic about humans experiencing the paradoxical wonders/horrors of the cosmos. It appeals to our ego, allowing us, for just a moment, to feel like we’re part of something bigger than ourselves; that the story of our lives extends beyond us. We naturally want more of this story, it’s just so much cooler than a story about a guy hanging out on a ship by himself. Unfortunately for us, the cooler story is fake, and this eventually results in us blowing ourselves out of an airlock because we ceased to believe in the reality of our situation.
Let me back up: This story within a story is just one of the many ways Verde Station messes with our sense of reality.
At one point in the game, if we’re looking in the right direction at the right time, we’ll see the space outside flicker like a television screen. Afterwards, there are a group of red squares hovering in the distance…almost like dead pixels. In the end, when we find the control room for Verde Station, we realize that the space around us is an illusion—a projected image of space we can change at will. We can change the color scheme of the cosmos, heck we can even put ourselves on land—sit ourselves next to a lake at sunset, or within the shadow of a large mountain. Clearly we’ve been lied to.
At another point, we get an email sent back to us because it failed to send. It’s just a creepy haiku: “Before me you stand / Your lifeless bodies waiting / My poor dead Angels.” Right afterwards we enter the greenhouse, and several dead trees have their names crossed out (because we named the trees earlier, probably in a fit of boredom) with “Angel” written above the erased name. Since we see the poem first and then the dead trees, this order of events suggests a threat and a follow through, which builds suspense because we believe there’s a malicious force aboard the station with us.
So we’ve got sci-fi epics, untrustworthy overlords, and possible hidden killers. That’s a lot of thrilling and mysterious stuff to justify our suspicions. So it’s only natural that when we find the external airlock, we open it, desperate to escape this giant lie. Then, we get sucked into space.
Our broken paranoid mind creates delusions, and the structure of the game helps sell those delusions to a rational player. The non-linearity works as a representation of my disjointed memories. I’m not sane, so I’m not properly remembering things or piecing together information.
The truth of the poem is that things happened in reverse order: We watched the trees die due to broken watering pipes, and then we wrote the poem as a eulogy. The truth is less ominous, more tragic.
The truth of the fake space panels is not fully explained, but we can intuit a benign purpose. Some of the images were of landscapes, so it’s safe to assume that, since we were originally going to be stuck on Verde Station for two years, the people in charge of the experiment decided to allow us some change in scenery. We were never lied to; we just forgot the truth we once knew.
Verde Station examines how we construct stories, and how those stories then shape our view of the world. The structure of the game is blatant manipulation, but that’s the point: We assume a certain level of cause and effect in the world, we allow those damn first impressions to govern our thinking, and it ruins us. We allow ourselves to be deceived because the deception tells a better story than reality. We want to be part of something bigger, we want to be a hero, we even want to be a victim—just anything but the boring truth. So we stick to our fake stories, our fake reality, despite any evidence to the contrary. I like to think of myself as a logical and critical thinker, but even I got swept up in the grand story of colony ships and new worlds, ignoring the more mundane but rational story of a man losing his mind. It took me a couple more playthroughs to realize I’d been following a carrot off a cliff.
We are creatures of story, especially when we’re at the center of it. We love a good narrative, even if it gets us sucked out an airlock. At least we died a hero in our own mind.