The Station is a game about walking around and picking things up. In space!
Essentially a linear tour of a space station called the Espial with a story cobbled together from audio logs and environmental objects, The Station is pretty much the definition of "not for everyone." At the outset, it's somewhat difficult to tell exactly what to expect from it. Its first few minutes seem to suggest some kind of sci-fi horror puzzle game, but its controls aren't built for action. You can't jump, for one, and the buttons that would normally be devoted to turning aliens into goo are instead used to pick up coffee mugs and turn them around. This simple ability to spin objects that you're holding goes a surprisingly long way to help the environment feel solid and sell that idea that you're interacting with things manually. Its graphics also call to mind the 3D adventure games of the '90s, with gorgeously rendered environments crammed full of fairly static but odd and appealing set dressing. While The Station quickly settles into a linear storytelling game with light puzzles, that initial sense of not knowing what to expect persists, keeping the player constantly on edge about what may be lurking around the next corner.
It's usually another coffee mug. The titular station is decidedly mundane compared to the settings of other sci-fi games. You'll find your share of warp drives and repair bots on the Espial, but they're far outnumbered by simple items from playing cards to pens to the aforementioned and ever-present coffee mugs. These simple elements help to ground the station in reality, making it feel like a place that’s inhabited by real people rather than a level that exists solely for the player. More importantly, the station's three crew members have their own bedrooms chock full of personal effects and character-building secrets. These are very much bedrooms rather than crew quarters; each one has a stunning amount of personal detail packed in to help flesh out its owner.
Further character development comes from the copious audio logs and written notes you can find from each character. The voice actors are bombastic but believable and you get a good sense of who they are from even inconsequential recordings. It makes sense that a lot of effort was put into these recordings, because the game is so reliant on them that poor performances would basically torpedo the whole project. Yes, audio logs have become nigh unto a scourge in the last decade of game design, but at least these ones have an in-game reason for existing. In the lore of The Station, each character is outfitted with a futuristic Apple Watch that records audio automatically whenever its wearer is afraid, exhausted, or otherwise stressed, and it probably still can't hold a decent charge. The player character uses an augmented reality interface to listen to these logs, which are all mercifully short and generally do a good job of advancing the game's story with a minimum of immersion-breaking exposition. This same AR device is used to view the game's map and see objectives in the environment, which goes a long way toward making the world seem cohesive and real. For example, when you come across a locked door, you'll often see what key or action is required to open it, giving you new objectives organically and in fiction.
Progressing through the game is rarely complicated, but the simplicity of the puzzles works in the game's favor in some ways. Rather than figuring out arcane sequences of triggers and rotating statues to open locked doors like in the 3D adventure games of old, you usually take fairly common sense steps to move through the ship. Finding spare parts for a maintenance robot means consulting an inventory manifest, for example, and the ship's crew members leave themselves hints to their locker combinations in their cabins, surely to the annoyance of their IT department. It all feeds back into what seems to be a mission statement for the developers to make the Espial as convincing and independent of the player as possible. What the puzzles lack in challenge, they make up for in veracity, making the "a-ha" moment of realizing a solution all the more rewarding.
I thought this realistic approach to puzzle design was excellent, but I can see how it might be too simplistic for some. However, puzzles take a backseat to story in The Station. The big picture is that the Espial's crew is secretly observing a newly discovered planet that’s engaged in civil war when they suddenly go silent, and you are sent to investigate. The story unfolds at a good pace, with the player driving the discovery of each new piece of information. It's much less concerned with delivering a thrilling plot than raising intriguing questions and creating compelling characters, and it succeeds on both fronts. The game asks you to consider the way that humanity thinks about other species, and what they may think of us in turn, as well as calling into question notions of intelligence and isolationism. It does have some surprises in store for those willing to explore a little outside the critical path, and while its final twist is heavily foreshadowed if you’re looking closely, it still lands solidly. My only complaint about the story is that it seems satisfied to raise a lot of questions without really providing much of its own viewpoint.
In regards to that twist, I do want to point out one particularly impressive bit of obfuscation the game pulls off. I'll keep it as vague as possible but if you've got a severe spoiler allergy you may want to skip this paragraph. Your main objective in the game is to find out what happened to the Espial's three crew members. At two points during the game, you'll come across space-suited corpses and see an on screen notification that you've figure out what happened to a crew member. Upon finding a third body, however, you don't immediately get that notification. You do get it just moments later, but doing so causes you to realize retroactively that finding those bodies was not necessarily how you found out what happened to the crew members. There were other indications in the environment that you were let in on but may not have realized their significance right away. It's a clever way of using the game's interface to mislead players that I just wanted to call out for how much it floored me when it hit.
All in all, The Station is a short but satisfying game. It can easily be finished in a single session, and that may actually be the best way to complete it. It's worth stretching out the runtime slightly by taking your time to really examine the nooks and crannies of the Espial. Just make sure you go in without the expectation of really captivating gameplay or a sweeping narrative. If most big-budget sci-fi games are sweeping space operas of galaxy-spanning consequence, The Station is an understated short story with a small scope that just might make you think about your place in the world.