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Stationfall

Stationfall

It’s all too easy to underestimate Steve Meretzky. Viewed from on high, his career is a long series of broad science-fiction or fantasy comedies — fun enough, sure, but not exactly the most challenging fare. Meretzky, it would seem, learned what worked for him in 1983 when he wrote his first game Planetfall and then just kept on doing it. The lukewarm commercial and critical response to his one great artistic experiment, 1985’s A Mind Forever Voyaging, only hardened the template that would hold true for the remainder of his career.

Such a dismissive summary, however, is unfair in at least a couple of ways. First of all, it fails to give due credit to Meretzky’s sheer design craft. By the time he entered the second half of the 1980s with a few games under his belt, he was second to no one on the planet in his ability to craft entertaining and fair puzzles, to weave them together into a seamless whole, and to describe it all concisely and understandably. Secondly, and more subtly, his games weren’t always quite as safe as they first appeared. Merezky often if not always found ways within his established templates to challenge his players’ expectations and give critics like me something to talk about all these years later: the endearing Floyd and his shocking death in Planetfall; the political statement in the era of Ronald Reagan and the Moral Majority that sex could be fun rather than dirty — arguably more effective in its easy-going way than A Mind Forever Voyaging‘s more hectoring tone — that’s embedded within Leather Goddesses of Phobos. Nowhere are Meretzkty’s talent for pure game design and his willingness to slyly subvert his wheelhouse genre more highlighted than in Stationfall, his game of 1987.

A sequel to Planetfall had been quite a long time coming. Floyd had offhandedly promised one at the end of that game, but any plans Meretzky may have had to turn it into a franchise were overwhelmed by Infocom’s need to get the next Enchanter trilogy game done, the need for a Douglas Adams collaborator, and soon enough by new ideas from Meretzky himself. After the Activision buyout, with Infocom in general becoming much more willing to mine their own past in search of that elusive, much-needed hit, he debated for some time whether to do a Planetfall sequel at last or a new Zork game. In the end Brian Moriarty took Zork, and thus the die was cast. Meretzky’s sixth and, as it would transpire, final all-text adventure game would be a sequel to his first.

Stationfall reunites you almost immediately with Floyd, the lovable robot companion who remains for most players the most memorable aspect of Planetfall. Your exploits in the first game led to a promotion from Ensign Seventh Class to Lieutenant First Class, but your actual duties aren’t much more interesting now than they were then. Instead of pushing a mop around, you now spend your days pushing paper around. Your assignment for today is to take a space truck from your ship to a nearby space station to pick up a set of “Request for Stellar Patrol Issue Regulation Black Form Binders Request Form Forms” — something of an Infocom in-joke, an extrapolation of Meretzky’s love for real-life “memo hacking”. You pick up a robot from the pool to help you on the trip, and, lo and behold, it turns out to be good old Floyd, whom you’ve seen “only occasionally since he opted for assignment in the Stellar Patrol those five long years ago.” When you and Floyd arrive at your destination, you find it deserted. Where has everyone gone? Much like in Planetfall, you will have to figure out what happened here and how to stop it from continuing to happen if you hope to escape alive.

Floyd is in as fine a form as ever. Some parts of his schtick are recycled from the first game, others parts adorably new.

>sit in pilot seat
You are now in the pilot seat. Floyd clambers into the copilot seat, his feet dangling a few centimeters short of the floor. "Let Floyd launch the spacetruck? Please? Floyd has not crashed a truck in over two weeks!"

>floyd, launch spacetruck
"Floyd changed his mind. Controls too scary-looking."

As in the first game, part of the genius of Floyd is that you never know quite what he really looks like. You hear at various times that he has legs, eyes, can cry oily tears and can smile, but you get no explicit description. This leaves each player to construct her own idealized image, whether based on kittens or puppies or children or whatever represents the ultimate Cute for her personally.

Floyd, of course, simply has to be in any game that dares to bill itself as a sequel to Planetfall. More notable is just how thoroughly Stationfall embraces the idea of being a sequel in other ways. The deserted planetside research complex has been replaced with a deserted space station, but otherwise the environments are remarkably similar. Like in Planetfall, you’re racing against a deadly disease that will kill you if you take too long. Other aspects of Stationfall are so faithful to the original as to feel downright anachronistic in an Infocom game of this late vintage. Hunger and sleep timers make their first appearance in years, and the environment is liberally sprinkled, although not quite so maddenly so as in Planetfall, with red herrings and rooms whose only purpose is to add verisimilitude. Among the latter, for example, are the ubiquitous “SanFacs,” included here just as they were in Planetfall as an answer for every kid who ever watched Star Trek and asked just where you pooped aboard the Enterprise. The returning elements are so numerous as to feel pointless to try to exhaustively catalog: the yucky but good-tasting goo that is the staple of your diet; the tape spools you use in combination with the library’s reader to ferret out clues; the magnetic key cards that are cruelly easy to corrupt and thereby lock yourself out of victory (one of my few quibbles with a mostly superb game design); the control-room monitors that helpfully break down the status of every subsystem into a simple green, yellow, or red. It’s all so similar that the differences, like the realization that your goal this time isn’t to actually repair the station, arrive as something of a shock.

Yet if Stationfall is by conscious choice a throwback, it’s also a testament to just how far Steve Meretzky had come as a designer in the four years since Planetfall. That first game he ever wrote can feel at times like it’s rambled out of its maker’s control, leaving its various bits and pieces to dangle unconnected in the breeze. Stationfall in contrast is air-tight; even its red herrings are placed with purpose. Meretzky knows exactly what he’s doing at every juncture, is in complete control of his craft; all of its bits and pieces fit together seamlessly. Particularly noticeable is just how much better of a writer Meretzky has become, the continuation of a trend that began to reach a certain fruition in 1986’s Leather Goddesses, the game for which Infocom’s unsung hero Jon Palace made a special effort to help him to “sensualize” his text. Almost entirely gone now are the off-hand, even lazy descriptions that creep into Meretzky’s early games, when he tended to tell too much and show too little in his hurry to get to the next really exciting part. I’m tempted to give you an example at this point, but, textual sensualizing or no, he still isn’t the kind of writer that dazzles you with his poetry. Stationfall‘s text is rather impressive in the cumulative. After playing for a long while, you begin to realize that its simple, sturdy diction has quietly given you a pretty darn good sense of where you are and what you’re doing.

Lest it all start to feel too dry, the robots are a constant source of amusement. I say “robots” here because early on you find another friend to join you and Floyd, a gangly, chatty metal nerd named Plato — C-3PO to Floyd’s R2-D2 — who proves almost as lovable.

"I am quite surprised to discover you here," says the robot. "I have not seen a soul for a day now, perhaps more. But look, here I am forgetting my manners again. I am known as Plato to the humans on this station, and I am most gratified to make your acquaintance."


Plato reaches the last page of his book. "Heavens! It appears to be time for another jaunt to the library. Would you care to accompany me, my boisterous friend?"

"Oh boy yessiree!" says Floyd, bounding off after Plato. "I hope they have copies of my favorite comic, THE ADVENTURES OF LANE MASTODON!"

Floyd really ought to go into advertising as a product-placement expert…

The remainder of this article will spoil the plot and ending of Stationfall (and Planetfall as well), along with a couple of the final puzzle solutions. If you want to experience Stationfall unspoiled, by all means go do so and come back later. The experience of playing with no preconceptions is well worth having.

And then, perhaps at about the point when you’re really starting to appreciate just what a well-crafted and charming traditional adventure game you’re playing, Stationfall starts to get deeply, creepily weird.

Like so much else in Stationfall, its darker shadings don’t arise completely out of the blue. Some of the same atmosphere of dread and paranoia was lurking beneath the surface goofiness in Planetfall as well; the background to that game was after all a devastating pandemic that was slowly killing you as well as you messed about with Floyd and chowed down on colored goo. Stationfall, however, slowly becomes darker and more subversive than its predecessor ever dared. To understand the difference between the games, we might begin by noting how their plots unfold. In Planetfall you can revive virtually the entire population of the planet Resida after discovering the cure for the pandemic that has struck it, effectively turning back the clock and making everything right again — including, as it turns out, the supposedly “dead” Floyd. In Stationfall, dead is dead; the crew of the space station is gone and they’re not coming back. It feels like the work of an older, more world-weary writer. Yet even that description doesn’t quite get to the heart of the tonal shift that Stationfall undergoes over the course of your playing. It becomes a comedic text adventure filtered through the sensibility of David Lynch, unsettling and just somehow off in ways that are hard to fully describe.

But describe it I must — that’s why we’re here, isn’t it? — so maybe I should start by explaining what’s actually going on on this station. In yet one more homage to Planetfall, it has indeed been infected by a deadly virus. This, however, is a virus of another stripe, computerized rather than biological. It infects any machinery with which it comes into contact, causing the gadgets that make life possible in space to gradually “turn against their creators.” This, then, is the fate that’s been suffered by the people who used to crew the station. As you wander about the station and time passes, you begin to see more and more evidence of the process that’s underway. The automatic doors, for instance, no longer whisk efficiently open and shut for you, but open “barely wide enough for you to squeeze through. As you do so, the door tries to shut, almost jamming against you!” (This progression doesn’t quite make logical sense, as the station has already killed its entire crew, but it’s so effective in context that I’m happy not to nitpick unduly.)

Creepiest of all is what begins to happen to Plato and your old buddy Floyd. The messages describing their antics begin to change, subtly at first but then unmistakably.

Floyd produces a loud burp and fails to apologize.


Floyd stomps on your foot, for no apparent reason.


Floyd meanders in. "You doing anything fun?" he asks, and then answers his own question, "Nope. Same dumb boring things." You notice that Plato has also roamed into view behind Floyd, once again absorbed in his reading.

"Let us take a stroll, Floyd," says Plato, tucking his book under one arm. "Tagging along after this simpleton human is becoming tiresome." He breezes out. Floyd hesitates, then follows.

It’s Plato who tries to kill you first, whereupon Floyd comes to your rescue one last time. But his resistance to the virus won’t last much longer. When you try to hug him to thank him for his deed, “Floyd sniffs, ‘Please leave Floyd alone for a while.'” He shows up from time to time after that, growing ever more rude and petulant. And then he’s simply gone, who knows where, doing who knows what. By now any traces of goofy comedy are long gone. Many players of Planetfall have described how much they missed Floyd after his final sacrifice for their sake, how empty and lonely the complex suddenly felt. Yet that feeling of bereavement was as nothing compared to the creeping dread you’re now feeling, waiting for Floyd to show up again, quite possibly to kill you, as everything around you continues to feel ever more subtly, dangerously wrong.

And then, if you survive long enough, you make it to the climax and you do indeed meet Floyd again, in another deeply unsettling scene that juxtoposes the old, playful companion you used to know with whatever it is he’s become: “Floyd is standing between you and the pyramid, his face so contorted by hate as to be almost unrecognizable. You also wonder where he picked up that black eye patch.” You can picture the old Floyd coming across an eye patch like that and putting it on with one of his squeals of delight. Now, though… it’s all just so wrong.

To win Stationfall you have to kill Floyd. It’s the strangest, most disturbing ending to an Infocom game this side of Trinity — far more disturbing in my eyes than that of Infidel, Mike Berlyn’s stab at an interactive tragedy, in that that game held you always at an emotional remove from the doomed persona you played, who was never depicted as anything other than a selfish jerk anyway. This, though… this is Floyd, the most beloved character Infocom ever created.

>put foil on pyramid
As you approach the pyramid, Floyd levels his stun ray at you, so you quickly back off.


Floyd fires his stun ray nonchalantly in your direction, laughing, as though taunting you. You feel part of your leg go numb.

>shoot floyd with zapgun
The bolt hits Floyd squarely in the chest. He is blown backwards, against the pedestal, and slumps to the deck.


>put foil on pyramid
The foil settles over the pyramid like a blanket, reflecting the pyramid's evil emanations right back into itself. A reverberating whine, like an electronically amplified beehive, fills the room. The whine grows louder and louder, the pyramid and its pedestal begin vibrating, and the sharp smell of ozone assaults you.


The noise and the smell and the vibration overwhelm you. As your knees buckle and you drop to the deck, the pyramid explodes in a burst of intense white light. The explosion leaves you momentarily blinded, but you can hear a mechanized voice on the P.A. system, getting slower and deeper like a stereo disc that has lost its power: "Launch aborted -- launch -- abort --"

The replica pyramids fade to darkness, and a subtle change in background sound tells you that the space station's systems and machinery are returning to their normal functions.

Still dazed, you crawl over to Floyd, lying in a smoking heap near the blackened pedestal. Damaged beyond any conceivable repairs, he half-opens his eyes and looks up at you for the last time. "Floyd sorry for the way he acted. Floyd knows...you did what you...had to do." Wincing in pain, he slowly reaches over to touch your hand. "One last game of Hider-and-Seeker? You be It. Ollie ollie..." His voice is growing weaker. "...oxen..." His eyes close. "...free..." His hand slips away from yours, and he slumps backwards, lifeless. One of his compartments falls open, and Floyd's favorite paddleball set drops to the deck.

In the long silence that follows, something Plato said echoes through your mind. "...think instead about the joy-filled times when you and your friend were together." A noise makes you turn around, and you see Oliver, the little robot that stirred such brotherly feelings in Floyd. Toddling over to you on unsteady legs, he looks uncomprehendingly at Floyd's remains, but picks up the paddleball set. Oliver looks up at you, tugs on the leg of your Patrol uniform, and asks in a quavering voice, "Play game... Play game with Oliver?"

I complained at some length in my article on Planetfall about the ending to that game, how it undercut the pathos of Floyd’s noble sacrifice by bringing him back, all repaired and shined up and good as new again. The natural first question to ask here, then, is why he’s not similarly repairable this time.

Setting aside such practical questions in the name of dramatic effect, I’m not entirely sure how to feel about this scene. Even more so than that of Floyd’s first death (itself a bit of one-upsmanship inspired by Electronic Arts’s early “Can a Computer Make You Cry?” advertisements), it feels a little manufactured. It’s as if Meretzky, having failed to stick to his dramatic guns the first time around, has decided to make up for it with interest by not only killing Floyd for good this time but by making you put him down yourself. On the other hand, the scene’s very tonal discordance feels part and parcel of the increasingly surreal journey the game as a whole has become. The appearance of a new “baby” robot that’s apparently supposed to make everything all better feels for me like the strangest element of all. It’s common in tragic literature going back to Shakespeare and well before to end an orgy of death and destruction with a glimmer of hope in the form of new life, a reminder that a new spring always follows every winter and that life in all its comedy and tragedy and joy and pain does go on for the world at large. Yet if that’s the intent here it’s handled rather clumsily. It just feels like Floyd is being replaced, and only adds to the Lynchian oddity of the whole experience. I suspect the weirdness of this final scene is due more to the tone finally starting to get away from Meretzky — aided no doubt by the fact that he was pushing right up against the limits of the 128 K Z-Machine, and didn’t have space to write more — than authorial intent. Nevertheless, effectively weird it is, the perfect ending to what’s evolved (devolved?) into a perfect horror.

One final oddity about Stationfall is how little discussion the strange, creepy, off-putting experience it morphs into has prompted. Janet Murray, the MIT and Georgia Tech professor who’s largely responsible for Planetfall‘s reputation in academia thanks to writing about it in her seminal book Hamlet on the Holodeck, appears not to even be aware of this second and final chapter to Floyd’s story. Most contemporary reviewers in the trade press likewise never hinted at the darkness that eventually envelops the game, probably because, pressed for time as always, they never got that far. Indeed, Stationfall must be the perfect test to see if reviewers have really played the game they write about. Only Computer Gaming World‘s Scorpia, although most interested as usual in giving puzzle hints, noted in passing that “there is one aspect of the ending that may give some people trouble.”

A subversive nightmare slipped into the garb of a middling fan-servicing sequel, Stationfall is in its way one of the most fascinating games Infocom ever published, evidence of a determination to keep challenging players’ expectations even as the curtain began to lower. In forcing you to kill Floyd, that most beloved personification of Infocom’s art, is Steve Meretzky making a statement about what the world was doing to Infocom through its increasing disinterest? That’s perhaps a stretch. Is the final effect Stationfall has on the player planned or accidental? That’s also difficult to know. All I can say is that it creeps me the hell out while still managing to be a superbly crafted traditional text adventure. I for one find it far more unnerving than Infocom’s ostensible first horror offering, The Lurking Horror, which was ironically released simultaneously with this game. Who would have guessed that Steve Meretzky could do scary this well? Who would have guessed from reading the box of Stationfall — “Floyd is back in the boffoid sequel to Planetfall.”; “The puzzles will challenge your intellect, the humor will keep you laughing, and Floyd will win your heart.” — that you’d end up creeping around the deserted station feeling like this? Many a horror movie starts under similarly innocuous circumstances, but the effect is lessened by the fact that the audience knows what they’ve signed up for, knows they just bought tickets to a scary movie. The question for them isn’t whether things will go south, but when. Playing Stationfall unspoiled for the first time is like walking into a Ghostbusters film that turns halfway through into the The Exorcist. A bait and switch? Perhaps, but a brilliantly effective one. Like, come to think of, much of Steve Meretzky’s career.

(Stationfall and most of the other Infocom games are available for purchase as part of an iOS app.)

 
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Posted by on September 10, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Planetfall

Steve Meretzky

Fair warning: this post spoils Planetfall thoroughly and aggressively. If you want to play it unspoiled, do so now. (Yes, it’s worth playing.) Then come back here.

A hapless lone spacefarer — that’s you — comes upon an aged but now decaying alien artifact. You must ferret outs its secrets, discover what it is and how it was meant to work, and finally repair its systems. When you succeed completely in this last the original inhabitants, who were only sleeping as they hoped and waited for someone like you to come along, are revived. You are rewarded for your efforts with fame and fortune on your home planet and beyond, along with the satisfaction of having completed another Infocom game.

Sounds like an Infocom game we’ve already looked at, doesn’t it? Stripped down to basics, it’s rather amazing how similar the plot of Infocom’s eighth release, Planetfall, is to that of their fifth, Starcross. Based upon my summary, one might ask whether Infocom was already running out of ideas. Yet few who have played both games have ever asked that question, at least in print, because when you’re actually playing them the two games could hardly feel more different. Planetfall, you see, marks the arrival of Steve Meretzky, who if (arguably) not Infocom’s best author was certainly the one with the most immediately distinctive voice and design sensibility. He would have a huge influence not only on Infocom’s subsequent works but on adventure gaming in general, an influence that persists to this day. For better (sometimes) or for worse (probably more often), we can still see his brand of madcap whimsy in new games both amateur and professional, both graphical and textual that come out every year. By now his influence is so pronounced that many designers, separated from Planetfall by two or three design generations, don’t even realize whom they’re copying.

I’ve already introduced Meretzky in a couple of articles on this blog. A self-avowed computer hater who was nevertheless chummy with the folks who created Zork at MIT and later founded Infocom, he got the adventuring religion when living as Mike Dornbrook’s roommate. He began to see the possibility of escaping the horrifying prospect of a career in construction management when he began testing Infocom’s games for money with Deadline in November of 1981. He then left construction behind forever in June of 1982, when he became the first salaried member of their new testing department. Meretzky was in Marc Blank’s words “so into it and had so many ideas” that it seemed only natural to let him try his hand at writing a game of his own. In the fall of 1982, at the same time as Stu Galley was starting on The Witness, Meretzky was therefore given carte blanche to write whatever kind of game he’d like. The project he began was a product of his two biggest cultural loves at the time: written science fiction, which he read virtually to the exclusion of anything else, and anarchic comedy on the wavelength of Monty Python, Woody Allen, and Gary Larsen.

Planetfall casts you as a lowly Ensign Seventh Class in the Stellar Patrol aboard the SPS Feinstein. The bane of your shipboard existence, the “trotting krip” on whom most of your diary (included in the package) focuses, is Ensign Cadet First Class Blather, who is afflicted with the megalomania of middle managers everywhere. The game begins on just another day aboard the Feinstein, with you wielding your “Patrol-issue self-contained multi-purpose scrub brush” on deck-cleaning duty and trying to stay out of Blather’s way. But then the Feinstein is attacked by forces unknown. You must escape in a life pod, which deposits you next to a research complex of some sort poking above the waves of an otherwise completely water-covered planet. It’s here that your adventure begins in earnest.

The comedies that inspired Meretzky to make Planetfall gain meaning and resonance by saying something about the world in which we live. Monty Python satirizes the hidebound British class system and the prudery of middle-class life; Woody Allen dissects the vagaries of love, sex, and relationships. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams, an author with whom Meretzky would soon be indeliably linked, reveals the manifold absurdities of human social mores, of religion, of how we perceive our place in the universe through his science-fiction comedy of the absurd. Indeed, it’s often been noted that the best science fiction is relevant not so much as a guidepost to the future as for the light it sheds on the way we live and think today. Taking a story out of the here and now allows an author to examine big questions with a clear eye that would be obscured by the vicissitudes of culture and prejudice and emotion if set in our own world.

Planetfall, however, doesn’t really try to follow in that tradition. Instead it appropriates some of the broad tropes from Monty Python or Douglas Adams without finding the kernel of social truth at their heart that makes them relevant. The closest it comes is some gentle satire of bureaucracy (the game is packaged in a faux-file folder stamped “Authorized For Issuance”, “Authorized For Authorization”, “Authorized For Rubber Stamping”) and the over-the-top gung-ho-ness of military-recruitment advertisements (“Today’s Stellar Patrol: Boldly Going Where Angels Fear To Tread”, “The Patrol Is Looking For A Few Good Organisms”). On the tree of satire, this is not exactly the highest-hanging of fruits.

Mostly replacing satire in Planetfall is a sort of good-natured goofiness. You can’t fault it for effort. The feelies in particular throw so many gags at you that a few of them are bound to stick. This bit is the one that always makes me laugh:

Planetfall questionnaire

In the game itself there’s one consistent source of clever humor, which we’ll get to in a moment. But other gags, like the distorted spelling of the aliens who built the complex, start to wear thin after a while. (“Xis stuneeng vuu uf xee Kalamontee Valee kuvurz oovur fortee skwaar miilz uf xat faamus tuurist spot. Xee larj bildeeng at xee bend in xee Gulmaan Rivur iz xee formur pravincul kapitul bildeeng.”) Meretzky was known in Infocom’s offices for his cutting humor, which he deployed against Ronald Reagan and his conservative revolution, against the occasional concerned parent who wrote in to accuse Infocom of preaching Satanism via Zork, against the hordes of be-suited businesspeople that Al Vezza began hiring as the Cornerstone project ramped up. It’s a shame the humor of Planetfall and his later games remained so relatively tepid in comparison.

Still, Planetfall has many other strengths to recommend it. It manages to be a beautifully crafted traditional adventure while also expanding the form in notable ways. It’s archetypical in its basic structure: a constricted opening act aboard the Feinstein and the life pod get you into the action, followed by a long middle section (at least 85% or so of the game) allowing for free, non-linear exploration and puzzle solving, which funnels at last into an absolutely cracking set-piece finale. You spend the first part of the long middle collecting information, gradually coming to learn that the aliens who used to live here are not dead but merely in suspended animation, having placed themselves there to avoid a deadly plague that was sweeping the planet and that will kill you as well eventually. It gradually becomes clear that you need to repair the planet’s malfunctioning systems and restart the central computer, which was on the verge of discovering a cure for the disease before it crashed. Repairing the systems is, once again, rather shockingly reminiscent of Starcross, requiring you to decipher simple alien machinery and status displays built around colored lights and the like. (Apparently red is the universal color for bad, green the universal color for good.)

In other respects, however, Planetfall departs radically from Starcross. For all that that game’s environment was infinitely more logical and designed than the world of Zork, it had an unreality of its own, an elegant adventure-game symmetry about it that was nothing like the real world. Each object had a purpose. You spent most of your time collecting and using a set of colored rods which each slotted into a single place. When you got to the finale, every object had been tidily utilized, every room explored and its puzzles solved.

Planetfall, by contrast, gleefully throws elegance and tidiness out the window. You begin the game with two red herrings already in your inventory, and the situation doesn’t improve from there. Planetfall has a dark area you can never explore because there is no light source in the game; an enticing helicopter for which there is no key; a pile of useless spare parts to go alongside the couple you actually need; a bunch of useless (in game terms) bathrooms. This sort of thing was unprecedented in 1983. Adventure games simply weren’t done this way, if for no other reason than designers couldn’t afford to waste the space. Predictably, it drove — and still drives — some players crazy. Now you can’t determine what might be useful for solving a given puzzle from what objects you haven’t used yet, can’t ever get a clear sense of just what still remains to be done and what is just a distraction. Yet it also goes a long way toward making Planetfall‘s world feel believable. Really, and Chekhov’s aphorism of the gun aside, why should every object in a world fall neatly into place by the end? (Perhaps the revelation at the end of Starcross that the whole experience was just an elaborate alien intelligence test, which I criticized in my review, suddenly makes more sense in this light.) Even the most often criticized aspects of the game, its rather sprawling map filled with so many empty or useless rooms and the necessity to eat and sleep, play into the new sense of verisimilitude.

This points to an interesting aspect of Planetfall: for all of the comedic trappings, the scenario and the complex that you explore are quite meticulously worked out. Most things in this world work as they should, sometimes to your detriment; try carrying the magnet at the same time as your magnetic card keys and see what happens. As you get deeper into the story and the tragedy that has happened here starts to become clear, the game deepens, the experience becomes richer. There’s almost a sense of horror that kicks in as you begin coughing and feeling weaker and weaker, and realize you are in a race against time — or, more accurately, against the plague. Here Meretzky departs sharply from Douglas Adams, who was never interested in worrying about the details of his stories beyond what was needed as a scaffold to support his humor. Planetfall rivals Deadline and The Witness as a lived fictional experience, with the added advantage that it’s not as necessary to constantly restart to see it through.

All of that would be more than enough for one game to add to the established adventure-game template. But of course there’s more. We haven’t even mentioned Floyd.

All of the Infocom games prior to Planetfall had contained non-player characters of one sort or another, but none of those characters had been particularly fleshed-out. Even the mysteries had suffered from the need to include several suspects, which, given the harsh space limitations imposed by the Z-Machine, sharply limited their depth. Planetfall, however, takes place, apart from the brief opening sequence, within a deserted environment. Meretzky realized that he could alleviate the resulting sense of sterility by giving the player a sidekick. Further, this character, being essentially the only one in the game, could have a bit more depth, allow a bit more room for empathy on the part of the player than had been the norm.

Floyd is a “multiple purpose robot” whom you find deactivated in a corner fairly early in your explorations. If you search him before switching him on, you’ll likely wonder why he’s carrying a crayon in one of his compartments. Boy, do you have no idea what you’re in for. Turn him on and he springs to life a few turns later:

Suddenly, the robot comes to life and its head starts swivelling about. It notices you and bounds over. "Hi! I'm B-19-7, but to everyperson I'm called Floyd. Are you a doctor-person or a planner-person? That's a nice lower elevator access card you are having there. Let's play Hider-and-Seeker you with me."

From now on Floyd steals the show. He gets all the best lines. Whenever Floyd is involved, Planetfall becomes as funny as it wants to be. And it becomes something more as well. You fall in love with the little guy.

>play with floyd
You play with Floyd for several centichrons until you drop to the floor, exhausted. Floyd pokes at you gleefully. "C'mon! Let's play some more!"


Floyd notices a mouse scurrying by and tries to hide behind you.


>sleep
You'll probably be asleep before you know it.
You slowly sink into a deep and restful sleep.

...Strangely, you wake to find yourself back home on Gallium. Even more strangely, you are only eight years old again. You are playing with your pet sponge-cat, Swanzo, on the edge of the pond in your backyard. Mom is hanging orange towels on the clothesline. Suddenly the school bully jumps out from behind a bush, grabs you, and pushes your head under the water. You try to scream, but cannot. You feel your life draining away...

***** SEPTEM 7, 11344 *****

You wake up feeling refreshed and ready to face the challenges of this mysterious world.
Floyd bounces impatiently at the foot of the bed. "About time you woke up, you lazy bones! Let's explore around some more!"


Floyd produces a crayon from one of his compartments and scrawls his name on the wall.


>get all
multiple purpose robot: You manage to lift Floyd a few inches off the ground, but he is too heavy and you drop him suddenly. Floyd gives a surprised squeal and moves a respectable distance away.


Floyd rubs his head affectionately against your shoulder.


>s
Machine Shop
This room is probably some sort of machine shop filled with a variety of unusual machines. Doorways lead north, east, and west.

Standing against the rear wall is a large dispensing machine with a spout. The dispenser is lined with brightly-colored buttons. The first four buttons, labelled "KUULINTS 1 - 4", are colored red, blue, green, and yellow. The next three buttons, labelled "KATALISTS 1 - 3", are colored gray, brown, and black. The last two buttons are both white. One of these is square and says "BAAS". The other white button is round and says "ASID".
Floyd follows you.

>save
Ok.
Floyd's eyes light up. "Oh boy! Are we gonna try something dangerous now?"
Floyd pushes one of the dispenser buttons. Fluid pours from the spout and splashes across the floor. Floyd jumps up and down, giggling.


>type 1
The screen clears and some text appears:

"Xe Zoork triloojee, an adventshur klasik, taaks plaas in aa deeliitful but daanjuris undurgrownd seteeng."

"Foor moor deetaald infoormaashun on xis tapik, konsult xe liibrereein foor xe aproopreeit spuulz. Tiip zeeroo tuu goo tuu aa hiiyur levul."
Floyd, peering over your shoulder, says "Oh, I love that game! Solved every problem, except couldn't figure out how to get into white house."


>n
Repair Room
You are in a dimly-lit room, filled with strange machines and wide storage cabinets, all locked. To the south, a narrow stairway leads upward. On the north wall of the room is a very small doorway.
Lying face down at the bottom of the stairs is a motionless robot. It appears to be damaged beyond repair.

>n
It is a robot-sized doorway -- a bit too small for you.

>floyd, n
Floyd squeezes through the opening and is gone for quite a while. You hear thudding noises and squeals of enjoyment. After a while the noise stops, and Floyd emerges, looking downcast. "Floyd found a rubber ball inside. Lots of fun for a while, but must have been old, because it fell apart. Nothing else interesting inside. Just a shiny fromitz board."

>floyd, get board
Floyd shrugs. "If you say so." He vanishes for a few minutes, and returns holding the fromitz board. It seems to be in good shape. He tosses it toward you, and you just manage to catch it before it smashes.

Meretzky may have devoted more text and code to Floyd than had been given to any previous Infocom NPC, but that doesn’t mean it adds up to all that much. Floyd has become a case study in creating more affect with less. In printed form, all of the code and text devoted to Floyd would fill less than ten typewritten pages. There’s also very little that you the player can really do to communicate with him or affect his behavior. All told, the gears ought to show through horribly, but somehow they don’t. Floyd’s childlike personality and diction makes it seem a little less weird that he rarely seems to fully understand you when you talk to him. And the relative dearth of text devoted to Floyd can actually work in his favor. We never learn clearly what Floyd actually looks like, although we learn that he has feet (because he can kick us when we fall asleep) and, most strangely, that he can somehow smile. I have a theory that we mentally replace Floyd the robot with whatever strikes us as most appealing — a beloved pet, say, or even a child. Here the medium of text, which lets us all create our own Floyds in our imagination, is key. It also makes what eventually happens to him all the more devastating.

There comes another point, like the last one shown above, where you the player are utterly stymied. Once again Floyd comes to the rescue… only this time he pays the ultimate price for his helpfulness.

>look through window
You can see a large laboratory, dimly illuminated. A blue glow comes from a crack in the northern wall of the lab. Shadowy, ominous shapes move about within the room. On the floor, just inside the door, you can see a magnetic-striped card.
Floyd stands on his tiptoes and peers in the window. "Looks dangerous in there," says Floyd. "I don't think you should go inside." He peers in again. "We'll need card there to fix computer. Hmmm... I know! Floyd will get card. Robots are tough. Nothing can hurt robots. You open the door, then Floyd will rush in. Then you close door. When Floyd knocks, open door again. Okay? Go!" Floyd's voice trembles slightly as he waits for you to open the door.

>open door
The door opens and Floyd, pausing only for the briefest moment, plunges into the Bio Lab. Immediately, he is set upon by hideous, mutated monsters! More are heading straight toward the open door! Floyd shrieks and yells to you to close the door.

>close door
The door closes.
From within the lab you hear ferocious growlings, the sounds of a skirmish, and then a high-pitched metallic scream!

>wait
Time passes...
You hear, slightly muffled by the door, three fast knocks, followed by the distinctive sound of tearing metal.

>open door
The door opens.
Floyd stumbles out of the Bio Lab, clutching the mini-booth card. The mutations rush toward the open doorway!

>close door
The door closes.
And not a moment too soon! You hear a pounding from the door as the monsters within vent their frustration at losing their prey.

Floyd staggers to the ground, dropping the mini card. He is badly torn apart, with loose wires and broken circuits everywhere. Oil flows from his lubrication system. He obviously has only moments to live.

You drop to your knees and cradle Floyd's head in your lap. Floyd looks up at his friend with half-open eyes. "Floyd did it ... got card. Floyd a good friend, huh?" Quietly, you sing Floyd's favorite song, the Ballad of the Starcrossed Miner:

O, they ruled the solar system
Near ten thousand years before
In their single starcrossed scout ships
Mining ast'roids, spinning lore.

Then one true courageous miner
Spied a spaceship from the stars
Boarded he that alien liner
Out beyond the orb of Mars.

Yes, that ship was filled with danger
Mighty monsters barred his way
Yet he solved the alien myst'ries
Mining quite a lode that day.

O, they ruled the solar system
Near ten thousand years before
'Til one brave advent'rous spirit
Brought that mighty ship to shore.

As you finish the last verse, Floyd smiles with contentment, and then his eyes close as his head rolls to one side. You sit in silence for a moment, in memory of a brave friend who gave his life so that you might live.

Apart only from the famous white house at the beginning of Zork, this is by far the most remembered scene from any Infocom game. It’s also amongst the most crassly manipulative. Meretzky admits that Floyd’s death was very much a calculated move. Having put so many “eggs in the basket” of Floyd, he asked what the best way would be to “cash in” on that connection. Thus poor Floyd had to die. Planetfall was in final testing when Electronic Arts debuted with the famous “Can a Computer Make You Cry?” advertisement. That made the death scene feel even more appropriate: “There was a little touch of budding rivalry there, and I just wanted to head them off at the pass.”

Perhaps death scenes are like sausages; it’s best not to see how they’re made. Or maybe it doesn’t matter. Floyd’s death still gets me every time, and it seems I’m hardly alone. Significantly, while Floyd’s death is generally described as taking place very near the end of the game, this isn’t always necessarily the case. It’s possible for him to sacrifice himself while there is still quite a bit left to be done before the end-game. Such a scenario might be the most heartbreaking of all, as you’re forced to spend quite a lot of time wandering the complex alone. Without Floyd, it feels sadder and more deserted than ever.

The significance of Floyd and the impact of his death was remarked early and often. Just weeks after Planetfall debuted, Softline magazine shockingly spoiled the game by printing Floyd’s death scene on the front cover(!). Inside was a feature article (“Call Me Ishmael: Micros Get the Literary Itch”) that struggled to come to terms with What Floyd Meant for the evolution of adventure gaming.

The rising level of sophistication in the adventure game — that most sophisticated of entertainments ever to pass through a central processing unit — has fain threatened to take it out of the computer junkies’ realm of private delight and toss it into the center ring of popular culture, along with books, plays, and movies. Can it absorb the culture shock and continue to develop and transcend standards that are already high, or will it be homogenized, simplified, and forced to satisfy the lowest social denominator?

Notably, Marc Blank and Mike Berlyn make a prominent contribution to the article, and here refer for the first time to my knowledge to Infocom’s games as “interactive fiction.”

Floyd was introduced to academia by Janet Murray in 1997’s Hamlet on the Holodeck. Since then he has been a football kicked around in a thousand debates. Some, like Murray, point to him as an example of the emotional potential of ludic narrative, while lamenting that there have been so few similar moments in games since Planetfall. Others, like the ever-outspoken Chris Crawford, point out that Floyd’s death is a pre-scripted, unalterable, non-interactive event, and use it as an example of the fundamental limitations of set-piece storytelling in games. It is, of course, ultimately both.

Less discussed than Floyd’s death — and for good reason — is his return at the end of the game.

A team of robot technicians step into the anteroom. They part their ranks, and a familiar figure comes bounding toward you! "Hi!" shouts Floyd, with uncontrolled enthusiasm. "Floyd feeling better now!" Smiling from ear to ear, he says, "Look what Floyd found!" He hands you a helicopter key, a reactor elevator card, and a paddle-ball set. "Maybe we can use them in the sequel...

Floyd’s death may have been manipulative, but this is the worst sort of sentimental pandering. It retroactively devalues everything you felt when Floyd made his sacrifice, turning a tragedy into a practical joke — “Ha! Got ya!” I unabashedly hate everything about it. It was added at the behest of marketing, who were in turn responding to distressed playtesters and were concerned about releasing such a “downer” game. As indicated by the extract above, the potential for a sequel starring Floyd was also no doubt in their minds; it had already become clear during testing that players responded to the little fellow as they had to no one in any of Infocom’s previous games. Marketing at Infocom was usually remarkably willing to stay out of the way of artistic decisions. It’s too bad they made an exception here, and too bad Meretzky didn’t stick to his guns and tell them no. As it is, Planetfall goes down as one of a number of Infocom games that fail to stick the landing.

Released in August of 1983, Planetfall was another solid commercial performer for Infocom. It sold some 21,000 copies in the last months of 1983, followed by almost 44,000 the following year, numbers very close to those of The Witness. That’s just a bit surprising in light of Planetfall‘s name recognition today; it stands as one of the best remembered and best loved of the Infocom games, almost entirely due to Floyd, while The Witness goes relatively unremarked except amongst the hardcore. Nevertheless, Trip Hawkins got his answer far sooner than he ever expected to, while today Planetfall‘s legacy as the first computer game to make us cry stands secure.

(I must thank Jason Scott for sharing with me additional materials from his Get Lamp project for this article. There’s also a very good extended interview with Steve Meretzky in Game Design: Theory and Practice.)

 
 

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