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 out 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 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 Larson.
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 indelibly 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:
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 besuited 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 percent 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 never worried 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
It is a robot-sized doorway -- a bit too small for you.
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 very little that you the player can really do to communicate with him or affect his behavior. 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 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.
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.
The door closes.
From within the lab you hear ferocious growlings, the sounds of a skirmish, and then a high-pitched metallic scream!
You hear, slightly muffled by the door, three fast knocks, followed by the distinctive sound of tearing metal.
The door opens.
Floyd stumbles out of the Bio Lab, clutching the mini-booth card. The mutations rush toward the open doorway!
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.)
March 26, 2013 at 8:38 pm
Among other things: when did we learn that was Floyd’s favorite song? It certainly hadn’t been mentioned up to that point.
March 27, 2013 at 6:55 am
I can let this go. I sort of assume when playing a game like this that certain things are taking place behind the scenes, so to speak. (When do you go to the bathroom, for instance.) I include more conversation with Floyd in that category. The use of Floyd’s death as an *advertisement* is quite shockingly crass, however, and I’m surprised it’s not remarked more often. Maybe most of the people studying it today don’t have enough grounding in Infocom lore to know just what this non-sequiterish song that suddenly pops up is actually referring to.
March 27, 2013 at 1:29 pm
Yeah, I guess I took it as silly more than crass. As an advertisement, it’s pretty oblique; chances are those who know it refers to another game don’t need any enticement, and very few people who weren’t already aware of Starcross said “hmmm, this must be about a game I can buy.”
On red herrings: I can live with some of them, and I agree that, to a limited point, they enhance realism. The fake puzzles in Planetfall, however, seem more like baiting the player–the dark room with no light source, other than the lamp that can be retrieved only if you have a radiation suit, except there is no radiation suit, etc. The odd locked door for which there is no key, sure, if it helps set the scene; an elaborate string of tasks that doesn’t lead anywhere, no.
Put another way: as you say, there’s lots of stuff in the background of a game that goes unmentioned. The game’s world would feel very cluttered if it were all in there. Including stray stuff that actively misleads doesn’t really strike a blow for realism, for me anyway. Your mileage may vary.
March 27, 2013 at 1:50 pm
I actually wonder how many of these blind alleys are there by original intention, and how many are the product of running out of space or just the design getting away from Meretzky (it was his first game, after all). It’s easy to imagine him adding this stuff in good faith, then not having the wherewithal to wire it all up to the game proper, so to speak.
March 26, 2013 at 8:54 pm
Well-written and thoughtful as usual, Jimmy.
I recently read this post claiming that in the 1980s nobody cared about Floyd’s death outside of the Softline article, and that the modern use of it as a gaming touchstone is a fake nerd culture thing. Now, I know I reacted back in the day, but it’s nice to see additional data that other people (including Infocom’s own testers) did too.
March 27, 2013 at 6:41 am
Yes, rest assured, Floyd’s death was a big, big deal back in the day, even if it has become almost a cliche in our own time. Most of Infocom’s testers reacted strongly to it, and there’s no reason to believe that players who purchased (or pirated) the game felt any differently.
March 27, 2013 at 8:18 am
Ian, I wrote a rebuttal of that at the time. Basically, it’s fine to say perhaps Floyd’s death isn’t going to work as well now, thirty years of game evolution later, but to claim that it was *always* an empty scene – to virtually do the classic “gosh players were so silly back then” – is unfair.
March 28, 2013 at 2:47 am
Thanks, HM. I’m not actually convinced that storytelling in games has advanced as much as we’d like to think in the intervening 30 years, but that’s another argument entirely.
March 28, 2013 at 10:53 am
That’s a bigger discussion I’m not going to wade into here either =) But I think it’s fair to say a newcomer playing Planetfall fresh today might not warm to the death of Floyd as much because the “let’s kill a friendly character” trope has been regurgitated so many times over the years.
Plus, modern interactive fiction doesn’t have the same memory concerns and can afford to be more verbose (I was surprised Planetfall felt a bit lean when I replayed two years ago).
March 31, 2013 at 4:06 pm
Yup. At that time it was certainly a less common trope across all media, and as far as I’m aware was basically unheard of in computer games. Nowadays if a friendly character dies it just means Joss Whedon was involved somehow ;-)
March 26, 2013 at 11:37 pm
As you worked through the early Infocom canon, I found myself thinking that while I played through all three Zorks, I didn’t play through Deadline, Starcross, Suspended, or The Witness… and then Planetfall beat out Enchanter as “the next one I played through.” I had been contemplating whether Infocom began writing “beginner’s games” at a certain point, but then reminded myself I say “play through” because I kept turning to “The Lost Treasures of Infocom’s” hint book until at last that began to trouble me, and that I wasn’t playing in “production order.” It’s possible, then, that Planetfall resonated with me.
Pointing out the phonetic spelling did remind me of some criticism (mostly on gameplay rather than the story) of the game I once saw. Floyd’s sacrifice was something I remembered (although I’m not quite sure whether there was anything special about my emotional reaction), but I don’t think I was too bothered by his return; it’s possible that science fiction of the casual sort convinced me “robots” are thoroughly resurrectable…
March 27, 2013 at 7:06 am
I did say that Meretzky drives some people *crazy*, didn’t I? :)
Meretzky himself talked with Jason Scott quite a lot about how the earliest Infocom games are the hardest, and they tended to get easier and easier as time passed. So no, that’s definitely not your imagination.
This was a byproduct of more rigorous testing. The early games, up through about 1982, were played by perhaps two or three part-timers or friends before release. Later games were subject to an ever more rigorous testing regime, which began with as many as ten or so in-house testers and then branched out to several dozen or more outside volunteers. This gave much more opportunity for someone to get stuck on any particular puzzle. When that happened, there was a lot of pressure on the designer to somehow add clues or otherwise make the puzzle easier. Meretzky seems to be of the opinion that this process eventually went too far, removing too much of the challenge that was for many people the main reason they played the games. I can certainly see the trend he describes, but I’m not quite sold yet on that conclusion.
March 29, 2013 at 2:55 pm
Dude, Zork Zero was *hard*. Nord and Bert was REALLY hard. Meretzky was crazy. (Also, Journey was hard, but for unfortunate and annoying reasons.)
Also, I thought the Starcross plug was just a continuity-of-Infocom-universes thing, just like the grue. It doesn’t strike me as an ad at all.
March 29, 2013 at 4:10 pm
Well, it’s worth noting that Zork Zero did include an in-game hint system. As for Nord and Bert: I can see how it might be really, really difficult. I’m somehow just on its wavelength, and find it a delightful romp. But these sorts of puzzles I’m generally pretty good at. (Never fear, I’m terrible at plenty of others…)
More generally, I think Meretzky (and I) were talking about overall trends rather than parsing game by game. And even the later games that were self-consciously designed to be difficult, like Spellbreaker (and Zork Zero?) were difficult in a different, fairer way than, say, Zork II or Deadline. You won’t find stuff like Zork II’s baseball puzzle or the unmotivated digging of Deadline in the games post-1983.
March 27, 2013 at 5:21 am
Ha, my first encounter with the death scene was the parody in the classic Coke is It! If you thought the original was manipulative, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Also, regarding comedy: I don’t think satire or social commentary is an essential element of comedy. Important, yes, but good comedy can and has existed without it. A lot of good sit-coms don’t have it (this goes back to radio; the Jack Benny Program was not about the dangers of greed). Even the comedies that do tend to be pretty oblique about it, including your beloved Monty Python! I can understand being miffed at humor that disappears up its own zaniness, but I think that’s a separate issue entirely.
March 27, 2013 at 6:50 am
Oh, I don’t mean to say I think all good comedy has to be satire or social commentary. You’re talking to someone who loves the Muppets far, far more than any grown man should.
I do, however, think it’s notable that all of the inspirations Meretzky himself cited had a strong element of both at their core. (Not that Monty Python didn’t, as you say, also indulge in some absurdity for the sake of it.) Planetfall is so obviously derivative of these works, yet missing that core. To me, that can make it feel like rather weak tea by contrast, at least until Floyd arrives.
March 27, 2013 at 12:24 pm
Whoa whoa whoa. Sam the Eagle is totally satire and social commentary.
March 27, 2013 at 1:48 pm
Point granted. :)
March 27, 2013 at 9:08 pm
Planetfall goes down as one of a number of Infocom games that fail to stick the ending.
Curious what the others are, in your view. Hitchhiker’s certainly didn’t have much of an ending, and AMFV’s is somewhat problematic, ditto Starcross. Can’t think of any others with actively bad endings, though I never did finish Bureaucracy or Border Zone.
March 27, 2013 at 9:09 pm
Hmmm. Thought I turned off that tag.
March 28, 2013 at 8:32 am
Those were the ones I was thinking of, subject to later review — I’m playing most of these games now for the blog for the first time in at least ten to fifteen years.
March 28, 2013 at 12:06 pm
Ah, okay. Will wait to see your reactions. (On further reflection, Spellbreaker’s ending is clever but rather abrupt–the ending text really should have been longer than a few sentences–and there isn’t much of an ending to Suspended, other than “X thousand people died,” but I can’t think of any other bad ones. On the other hand, there aren’t many that do anything really interesting or surprising–Trinity, Infidel, one of the Plundered Hearts endings, and AMFV (even if problematic in its way) are the only ones that come to mind. And maybe Zork Zero.)
March 28, 2013 at 12:09 pm
One final thought: it amazes me that the same marketing department that insisted that Floyd be resurrected for the ending of Planetfall approved the ending of Infidel the same year.
March 28, 2013 at 12:22 pm
I’m not sure we should use the verb “insisted.” I think it was more a suggestion, to which Meretzky responded without even really giving it a lot of thought. That, anyway, is the impression I got from his Get Lamp interviews. I certainly didn’t get the impression that there was a prolonged struggle, as there was for example over the name of Spellbreaker, about which David Lebling is still somewhat embittered to this day.
March 28, 2013 at 4:48 pm
Right, I remember, though I’ve never understood why Lebling was so mad about it. “Mage” is better, but “Spellbreaker” isn’t a bad name. Maybe he felt it was a spoiler?
I also wonder whether there was a similar struggle over the ending of Infidel. Surely the marketing folks had some qualms.
March 28, 2013 at 5:03 pm
My understanding is he just really liked the unity of the progression of Enchanter –> Sorcerer –> Mage. It kind of conveyed a character’s advancement, D&D style, as each name implies a more powerful sort of magic user. (Perhaps notably, Lebling was the only implementor who had ever played much D&D.) “Spellbreaker” does spoil the ending in a sense, but it’s hard to see it as such until you’ve actually, you know, seen the ending.
On Infidel… stay tuned. More on that soon. :)
March 28, 2013 at 6:56 pm
Thanks for the memories. I’ve only recently rediscovered text adventures after years away, and finding this was a bonus. I still remember Floyd’s death with a pang.
Interesting that it was playtesting that resulted in the ending change. I became one of Infocom’s volunteer beta testers a few years later, and I don’t recall ever commenting on plots. (I do have a good story about changes to Bureaucracy, if you’re interested.)
I always assumed that Infocom’s games got easier and easier because the hard ones didn’t sell as well. I was disappointed about that, but YMMV. My text game baptism, after all, was playing the original mainframe Zork without so much as a hintfile.
March 28, 2013 at 11:47 pm
(I do have a good story about changes to Bureaucracy, if you’re interested.)
I hope he is, because I sure am!
March 29, 2013 at 8:15 am
All of the imps mention the huge role that testers played not just in finding bugs but with plotting and puzzle design. Maybe you just needed to be more forthright with your opinions. ;)
And yes, as Lisa says, would love to hear the Bureaucracy story. As you may very well know, that game had the most extended and troubled development of any released by Infocom. The Hitchhiker’s sequel had the most extended and troubled of any not eventually released by Infocom. Not coincidentally, both of these games involved Douglas Adams, the Great Procrastinator.
March 29, 2013 at 9:21 pm
At the time, of course, I had no idea about the problems with Douglas Adams and the development of the game — I wasn’t privy to them. The testing I was involved in for Bureaucracy was unusual: normally I was sent the materials and tested the game at home for a week or so, but this time I was asked to come in and spend a day on site testing, even bringing a friend and fellow Infocom devotee who hadn’t done testing before (presumably most of the testers weren’t available). I suppose they were pushing to meet a release date that, like previous ones, would not be met.
The game I tested was in my opinion better than the one that was eventually released. This version was held together throughout by a thread of conspiracy theories involving the Queen Mother (Elizabeth) — similar to ones that existed in the real world — and in the final part of the game, she did in fact turn out to be behind everything. It was hilarious. The gamer vilain from the released version didn’t exist.
When I saw the released version of the game, I was disappointed, and actually got in touch with my contacts to find out why the Queen Mother had been taken out. Turns out they were afraid that she would die shortly after release and they would look terrible.
Of course, as it turned out, the Queen Mother long outlived Infocom.
Jimmy, having read your evaluation of Bureaucracy, I may have to give the game another chance. I found it so much weaker than the version I’d seen that I was never really able to appreciate it.
March 30, 2013 at 9:11 am
Thanks for sharing that. And fair warning, I may hit you up again down the road a bit when I get to Bureaucracy on the blog. :)
March 30, 2013 at 8:41 pm
You’re welcome to. I’ll try to remember as many details as possible. (It was long ago, in what seems like another life, and besides the
wenchcompany is dead …)
March 30, 2013 at 9:01 am
I have a colleague going through thousands of scanned Steve Meretzky notes for all his created games for Infocom. He was a relentless note-taker and his design notebooks reveal an enormous amount of pre-planning of his games and how items in it are there towards a perceived world-building goal.
It is obvious, looking through his notes for Planetfall, that he was really bent on creating a major overarching timeline of all science fiction (Niven, Clarke, Bradbury) that planetfall’s events would also fit into. This also included Starcross.
So I am less inclined to think the Starcrossed miner song is an actual ad. I’m fairly certain it was meant as a callback.
March 30, 2013 at 9:21 am
Fair enough. I can see that my original interpretation may have been a bit overly cynical. I made a slight edit to the article to excise that little bit of snark.
April 1, 2013 at 10:20 pm
Meretzky’s 2008 essay from the Second Person book is available here: The Creation of Floyd the Robot in Planetfall.
I just finished Planetfall. I decided to play it when I saw this article. I’m relatively new to IF, but have a history with graphical adventure games. Here are some of my rambling thoughts.
It wasn’t as exciting as it was made up to be. Perhaps due to my modern viewpoint.
Note: I was already spoiled on Floyd after reading Twisty Little Passages not-to-carefully.
I found the many red herrings extremely frustrating. And if the game wasn’t enough, the InvisiClues also included them!
The fiddling around with access cards and inventory limits felt unnecessary. Why did I have to re-slide the cards so many times?
The only backstory comes from a few terminals in the Library. Which reminded me of The Dig, except that game also had a speaking character.
Floyd itself did not feel very fun. I guess it’s partly due to the game requiring lots of running around, and the automated, repeated responses get old real fast. In contrast, I remember enjoying the pig in Lost Pig. Perhaps because it was a shorter game, and perhaps because you had more interaction with it. It felt more lively.
Before playing, I imagined this game will be very funny. The intro was kind of funny, but that’s it. When I met Floyd, I imagined it would serve as comic relief, since the world is so barren, but there were only a few jokes (the Zork one and the rubber ball, quoted in the article, come to mind).
I totally missed Floyd having legs. I imagined it as an R2D2/Short Circuit type.
August 28, 2013 at 1:09 am
Regarding the distorted native language, that was intended to be humorous. It was just my idea for showing how the language had morphed during the eons during which the planet has been out of touch with the rest of human civilization, while still being readable by the player. It was inspired by an article that I’d read, although I don’t remember when or where. The article was advocating for a completely predictable phonetic version of English, and that’s the system I devised for the native languange. All single vowels are short vowel sounds; all double vowels are long vowel sounds; X (an unnecessary letter) is used for the TH sound; C (another unnecessary letter) is used for the CH sound; etc.
January 3, 2022 at 11:29 am
No way to guess which article(s) may have been read on this subject, but I do remember that Isaac Asimov wrote at least two articles about spelling “reform” not altogether dissimilar to the phonetic style used in the game.
One of those articles was entitled “A Question of Spelling” and was published in Popular Computing in July 1982 (later packaged with a series of essays published in 1983). Another follow-up article by Asimov on the same subject was published in 1986, so at least some folks in the sci-fi world were thinking about this at the time.
I certainly remember reading that first article and thinking “Gee, phonetic spelling makes sense BUT it looks absolutely ridiculous.”
January 3, 2022 at 7:31 pm
Probably it would look less ridiculous if we grew up with it and were used to it. There are quite a few things in English spelling as it currently is that are pretty ridiculous.
August 28, 2013 at 1:13 am
Regarding the song, Jason has it about right. I was trying to push a plan that would tie all of Infocom’s SF games together into something I called the Interlogic Future History Series. (“Interlogic” was a made-up marketing word, in vogue at that time, for the Infocom development system.) But the other implementors weren’t interested, and the idea never gelled. But having the reference to Starcross within Planetfall was a manifestation of that idea. It certainly wasn’t an “ad” for Starcross… that would have been a pathetically non-performing ad! Also… I believe that one of the things Floyd does at random times is “Floyd sings his favorite song, The Ballad of the Starcrossed Miner”. Or something like that. So Floyd’s death scene wasn’t the first time that the player heard of the song, just the first time the player saw the full lyrics.
August 28, 2013 at 7:50 am
Thanks a million for taking the time to comment!
I did a quick disassembly and text search of the Planetfall story file. I assume the bit you’re referring to is “Floyd sings an ancient ballad, totally out of key.” Afraid I never made the connection between that and “The Ballad of the Starcrossed Miner.”
August 28, 2013 at 1:15 am
Regarding red herrings, they were definitely intentional, not the vestigal residue of puzzles I didn’t have time to finish or rooms that I didn’t have space in the executable to include. I just thought that they made the world more real and more richly textured; the “everything has one and only one use” style of adventure game design seemed too sterile and tidy to me.
August 28, 2013 at 7:54 am
Fair enough. There is one useless room in Planetfall that actually has contents and a description, but to which it’s impossible to bring light. Thus the player can never read that text that is nevertheless taking up precious space in the story file. That kind of made me suspect it to be a vestige of a grander plan…
September 4, 2013 at 7:44 am
Interesting — I’m not sure why that would be the case. Maybe because of the danger of a bug, where the room would “think” it was lit, and try to print a room description, and crash if there wasn’t one? But in that case, I’d think that the room description would be as short as possible. Like “This is a boring room.” Especially since I can recall, toward the end, trying to squeeze out a couple of letters here and a word there, in order to keep the file size under 108K (or whatever the exact max size was, which I believe was driven by the Atari 400/800).
September 4, 2013 at 7:48 am
Actually, you made me curious, so I just searched the code. There’s a room called “Transportation Supply”, and it’s long (verbose) description is “You have just located a serious bug.” Is that the room you’re refering to?
September 4, 2013 at 8:15 am
Yes, that must be it. I may also have been conflating it just a bit with the Radiation Room, which you can enter but which kills you a few turns later. Obviously this can and presumably does fall more into the category of nasty trick than vestige of grander plans. :) Would still like to know what’s on that green spool…
In the original version of the game, it’s claimed that your uniform protects against radiation, making this room even more confusing. That was changed to (I believe) “mild radiation” in later versions, presumably for just this reason.
February 27, 2015 at 7:59 pm
Regarding Meretzky subtly tying together all the other Infocom SF games, I also noticed that he included a reference to the specialized robots of Suspended!
“Untoold senshureez agoo, entiir teemz uv roobots wur reekwiird tuu purfoorm eevin xe simplist tasks…wun roobot wud handul viszuuwul funkshunz, wun roobot wud handul awditooree funkshunz, and soo foorx. Now, xanks tuu advansis in mineeatshurizaashun, xeez tasks kan bee purfoormd bii singul roobots, suc az xe multiipurpis B-19 seereez.”
September 19, 2015 at 11:22 pm
I just finished playing Planetfall. Started yesterday. I was very curious to see how it would hold to up a modern-day player, who’s thoroughly enjoyed such titles as Mulldoon Legacy and Hadean Lands.
Well, it holds amazingly well! When I got to the end and realised that the light source was a total red herring, I found that hysterically funny; the ultimate in humour-by-perverting-player’s-expectations. Knowing in advance that I’d have several timers against me, I played in a save/restore loop, ever optimising, not wanting to put myself in a state where I simply would not have time to finish (as happened to me, quite dreadfully, with Fish!).
The result? I finished the adventure in a day and a half (in-game days). I understand there are a number of days which the adventure can span. This is one of the things I do so love about Infocom – their timers are not *prohibitive*. You *do* have time to explore; you just don’t have time to dally.
The game seemed downright easy, but intensely atmospheric. The sparcity of things to interact with only added to that. At no time did I feel the empty rooms were filler. On the contrary, since I was always very way of time passing, I thought they were designed to waste my time AND to create a feeling of real geography. “People lived here. They played games. Look, this is where they slept. Naturally, there were bathrooms too”.
I loathe red herrings. But somehow, in this game they didn’t feel like red herrings. They felt like significant substance that added to the atmosphere and the feeling of exploration.
I found also a bit of brilliance in the design. First day – getting your bearings, seeing to the immediate needs, possibly get started on fixing the enunciator. I started the second day fresh and hopeful, having mastered the complex and seen to the basic needs, and ready to board the shuttle to explore Whatever Lay Beyond. I went to the room that was my inventory dump and very carefully selected the items that I thought would be most helpful in my expedition. I was mostly right, though I could have left the fuses where I’d found them!
This was an amazing feeling. It was like “All right, I’m packed up, let’s see what else there is for me to discover!”. Somehow, Infocom games (for their most part) are the best at evoking these feelings in me.
The modern player can still enjoy Planetfall thoroughly, as long as they know they are expected to do some move-optimising. Compared to Hadean Lands, and other post-Infocom IF titles, it’s shockingly shallow – in that there are many empty rooms, and in that there’s little to interact with. But that does help you focus on what you need to focus on, and it’s never just filler. Filler gets annoying. These empty rooms are the equivalent of character-building in an NPC.
Really, I found it pretty easy. But very much worthwhile. Coming to the slow realisation of what’s happening; reading about the symptoms of Xe Dizeez; understanding what happened to the inhabitants of the planet and how the various malfunctions caused their current predicaments, and that they are currently waiting to die without even knowing it…
…I mean, that stuff was seriously, genuinely *creepy*. I was too spoiled to take much notice of Floyd’s death (but it didn’t leave me untouched, and afterwards the complex seemed a bit too desolate, too silent, too lonely), but the way in which the player discovers the backstory? And its implications, and the understanding of what’s riding on their actions?
September 20, 2015 at 7:36 am
Thanks for taking the time to write this! Now you’re ready for Stationfall. I’d be interested to hear about your experiences with that one…
September 20, 2015 at 11:03 am
I’ll be tackling others first. ;) Too much IF, not enough time to play it all, so I’ve a system for sorting the games out (alphabetical). It’ll be a while before I get to Stationfall – next Infocom game I’ll be playing is Plundered Hearts! Don’t worry, if I have thoughts of any Infocom game you’ve covered I’ll be sure to share them.
February 7, 2017 at 2:33 pm
My favorite Infocom games were the ones with worlds to explore. Planetfall and AMFV, in particular. For instance, I spent many hours making a map of Rockvil with every location on it (give me your email, and I’ll send it to you).
Planetfall was my very first text adventure, which I got when I was 11 along with Enchanter as pirated Atari disks. The concept was totally new — I didn’t have instructions or feelies (Enchanter’s file name was simply “Fork” after the staring location.
I love loved it, solved about 70% of it, then had to have the help of a hints book. Floyd’s death was heart-rending and, unlike you, I adore(d) the happy ending.
Someday, I will have a menagerie of 7 robots: Iris, Auda, Sensa, Waldo, Whiz, Poet, and Floyd!
April 6, 2017 at 4:09 am
I was very surprised by how well Planetfall holds up today compared to Starcross and Zork III.
The parser has an amazing array of unique & funny responses programmed in for even the most obscure (and useless) commands, and the game recognizes almost any noun that appears in its many place descriptions. Starcross, on the other hand, had an embarrassingly large number of unimplemented nouns (even as synonyms), including several objects listed as being right in front of you (most glaringly the “asteroid” which dominates your viewscreen during the docking sequence).
Planetfall also does far better in describing its many objects (in what seems to be a much larger game) than the bland and lazy “I see nothing special”-ness of Zork III.
While Floyd might be the main reason the game is remembered today, I think the broad allowances Meretzky made in anticipating player reactions played a big part in how they perceived it at the time. Even more impressive that it came from a first-time implementor!
July 29, 2018 at 10:17 pm
I was inspired by this post to try out Planetfall, and I found it to be as good as advertised.
One quick comment, though, about the red herrings. I didn’t mind the unreachable rooms or the unusable objects; they contribute to the overall atmosphere of the game and make it more realistic. However, the game manual specifically says “Most objects in the story that you can pick up are important for solving one or more of the puzzles you’ll run into.” By my count there are at least 10 items that are essentially worthless, out of about 40 total. Is that ‘most’? I guess it depends on the person…
Anyway, thanks for all your hard work, Jimmy. This is a great site!
July 30, 2018 at 5:36 am
Technically, in a game with 40 objects 21 useful objects or more constitute “most” of them. ;) But the text you’re referring to was generic, included with every Infocom game. Planetfall is an outlier in this respect; I don’t think Infocom ever made another game with anywhere near this many red herrings.
July 31, 2018 at 4:01 am
Ah, that makes sense.
One small typo, if you’re interested: I think Gary ‘Larsen’ should be spelled with an ‘o’.
August 1, 2018 at 12:56 pm
December 8, 2020 at 9:18 pm
ferret outs -> ferret out
be-suited -> besuited
December 11, 2020 at 9:34 am