Not every masterpiece gets recognized. Sometimes the greatest creations linger in obscurity. Such is the case with the 1989 survival horror game Project Firestart, a game that Penny Arcade once described as “the survival horror template in its entirety.”
Designed by Jeff Tunnell and Damon Slye, the game places you in space aboard a ship called the Prometheus as you attempt to find out what has become of its crew. The Prometheus had been engaged in an experiment project combining human DNA with that of alien fungi (because what could go wrong?) and has ceased all communications. In addition to learning the crew’s fate, you must gather research logs and ultimately destroy the ship. Your weaponry and ability to defend yourself are limited, which is bad news, because there are creatures stalking through the ship.
The game begins slowly. In a retrospective piece published years after Project Firestart’s release, Tunnell stated, “”I didn’t want it to be that much of an action game. If you gave the guy a whole bunch of guns it would just turn it into a platformer and that’s just not what we wanted it to be.” Instead, you explore the ship getting hints as to the grisly fate of its crew. As you collect data, you are free to roam throughout the ship. The game’s audio and visual elements combine to create a feeling of isolation and claustrophobia. To make matters worse, when creatures do appear you can either move or shoot, but not both at the same time. In addition, it takes multiple shots to defeat one of the creatures and the space available to avoid them is often limited.
As an added twist, two members of the crew survived. Dr. Annar, the scientist leading the research, and Mary, another scientist on the project. Both were placed in cryo-sleep, from which Annar awakened. The game has a variety of possible endings, some of which are directly impacted by Dr. Annar and Mary and your interactions with them.
Work on the game began in 1986, but it was not officially finished until 1988 (a particularly long development by the standards of the day). By the time of its release, both Dynamix and Electronic Arts had moved their resources to other projects and, despite positive reviews, the game went largely unnoticed. Tunnell moved on from the project, never looking back. He even left it off his official gameography.
It was an undeserved fate for a game that foreshadowed so many games to come.