He, Robot: A Critical Introduction to Planetfall

What a difference a robot makes.

Planetfall (1983)
Implemented by Steve Meretzky

Packaging, Documentation, and Extras

Planetfall folio packaging (retrieved from MoCAGH)
Planetfall grey box packaging (retrieved from MoCagh)
Planetfall Japanese packaging (retrieved from MoCagh)
Planetfall Invisiclues map (retrieved from MoCAGH)
(For best results, open MoCAGH images in new tab)
Planetfall Invisiclues format in Z-code (read with an interpreter, retrieved from IDP)
Planetfall: The Obsessively Complete Infocom Catalog
Planetfall: Nathan Simpson’s List of Infocom Bugs

Specifications

(Courtesy of the Infocom Fact Sheet and this forum post). For comparison’s sake, Zork I‘s specifications follow in parentheses (this idea comes from the excellent Eaten by a Grue podcast).

Rooms: 105 (110)
Vocabulary: 669 (697)
Takeable Objects: 45 (60)
Size: 109.3KB (76KB)
Total Word Count (outputted text): 23,198 (14,214)

Opening Crawl

PLANETFALL
Infocom interactive fiction - a science fiction story
Copyright (c) 1983 by Infocom, Inc. All rights reserved.
PLANETFALL is a trademark of Infocom, Inc.
Release 37 / Serial number 851003

Another routine day of drudgery aboard the Stellar Patrol Ship Feinstein. This morning's assignment for a certain lowly Ensign Seventh Class: scrubbing the filthy metal deck at the port end of Level Nine. With your Patrol-issue self-contained multi-purpose all-weather scrub brush you shine the floor with a diligence born of the knowledge that at any moment dreaded Ensign First Class Blather, the bane of your shipboard existence, could appear.

Deck Nine
This is a featureless corridor similar to every other corridor on the ship. It curves away to starboard, and a gangway leads up. To port is the entrance to one of the ship's primary escape pods. The pod bulkhead is closed.

Nostalgia, or Truth and Subjectivity

It is hard to know how much to invest in polls like the IFDB’s “Interactive Fiction Top 50 of All Time.” While I’ve mentioned that Suspended made its top 50 debut in 2019, Planetfall hasn’t appeared on the list since 2011. I don’t advise reading too much into these phenomena, but I do not always take my own advice. Regular readers should know this well. I am tempted to say, with little evidence of any kind, that Planetfall is a nostalgic title in a genre that grows less and less nostalgic for the 1980s as the years pile up.

What do I mean by this? So far as I know, there is no ready demographic information to prove this, but I believe that, over the years, more and more fans of interactive fiction are not old enough to have played Infocom games in their original context. Of the admittedly small group of people listening to Gold Microphone on Spotify, 60% fall into the 45-59 age bracket (sadly, I am among them). That leaves a younger 40% (including Gold Microphone co-host Callie, who had never heard of Zork before running into me).

What does it mean for a game to be nostalgic? At an online forum that I frequently lurk, I bristle when someone suggests that love for, say, Final Fantasy III/VI is fueled by nostalgia. It can be a cowardly way to tell someone that they cannot think objectively. And yet, some gaming moments truly are nostalgic. This distinction is important. For the purposes of this discussion, gaming nostalgia is the recollection of a moment, or scene. I consider them singular, unrepeatable pockets of time. They may be milestone events in which our expectations of gaming as a medium are expanded. While I can argue–one hopes objectively–for the quality of Super Nintendo Entertainment System Final Fantasy games, I admit that my love of a particular scene, “The Dream Oath Opera,” is nostalgic.

Nostalgia owes no proof to anyone. It is not the subject of debate, because it exists outside the realm of logic. It is a moment of pure subjectivity. The subject’s experience is its only argument. If I were to say, truthfully, that an SNES game enlarged my idea of the emotional power of video game spectacle, who could say that it didn’t? Even now, 27 years later, I watch it and my eyes mist over–I do not exaggerate–this is the subjective truth of nostalgia. The ingenious structure of a play within a play, which affords a ready excuse for characters that are merely types, is the perfect scaffolding for Nobuo Uematsu’s masterfully expressive score. In that moment of subjectivity, mine and mine alone, I said to myself, “I can’t believe this is happening.”

As I watch the scene again–I cannot say how many times I have seen it–I am Kilgore Trout speaking with his author:

Here was what Kilgore Trout cried out to me in my father’s voice: “Make me young, make me young, make me young!”

Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

I think many practitioners of agentic reading (it is a better fit than “interactive fiction” here because it is reader-centered) have nostalgia for a specific moment in Planetfall. I will not say which one, because this is a spoiler-free introduction, but I believe it affords an opportunity for a similarly singular moment for readers. And, of course, they are right to feel nostalgic, because, as the sole owners of their emotional lives, their vote is the only one that counts. No matter how many years pass, Planetfall will be the first interactive text to grant such a moment. For some, it will always be, in its own sense, that one game.

This, of course, is the transformational power of art.

A silver, humanoid robot and a smiling young girl sit at opposite ends of a square table. Scattered and stacked on the table are blocks with letters on their sides. The two are happily playing with the blocks.
Robots are our friends.

A Critical Introduction to Planetfall

1983’s Planetfall was Steve Meretzky’s first game, and the beginning of a fruitful and well-regarded run as a developer at Infocom. It is almost certainly most famous for its supporting character, a robot named Floyd. He is undoubtedly a nostalgic figure who raised expectations of non-player characters in video games, both in terms of emotional attachment as well as narrative import. I challenge readers to name a more affecting character in a video game that preceded Planetfall (seriously! let me know if you can think of anyone).

Besides his crucial involvement in key story elements, Floyd offers color commentary on player action throughout the game, which has a significant effect on Planetfall‘s atmosphere and tone. He isn’t much of a conversationalist–there was likely no space in the story file for dialog–but, as was pointed out here, his reactivity as a character is very convincing. I may as well quote myself (I am kamineko):

The secret is Floyd; what a difference a robot makes! His implementation is incredibly shallow–you can ask him about anything and you can only get him to do a few things, and yet it really does feel as though he is your friend. He is the Eliza of computer game sidekicks.

There is more to Planetfall than Floyd, of course, and not all of it is fun. It appears that Steve Meretzky, in the name of “realism” (there are bathrooms, an Infocom first for a science fiction or fantasy world) requires that the player deal with eating and sleeping. Moreover, there are items scattered throughout the game that have no utility. I suppose this is “realistic,” too–I don’t use most of the objects lying around my house to solve puzzles. There is probably a conversation to be had about the value of realism in Infocom games, perhaps science fiction games with talking robots in particular.

There have been efforts, over the years, to make Infocom games more “palatable” to new players by removing certain mechanical elements (changing stories, fortunately, hasn’t garnered a lot of interest). This work has been performed by people of goodwill. The question has to be asked, though–are the hassles of Planetfall artistically intended? If so, it is my opinion that they should remain as-is. I do not support negating any artist’s intention, even if it seems misguided. This seems an interactive fiction-specific endeavor. I am not aware, for instance, of John Donne scholars getting together to make his poems more enjoyable.

I am not sure how to articulate this, but doesn’t it seem that declaring something art is also a declaration of responsibility? One is not merely saying, “this thing is art,” like one would say, “this table is flat.” It is also a promise to treat the object as one treats art, even if, were we the artist, we would do things differently.

For this discussion, I think intent is the key, and I consider Planetfall a special case. In my final essay of this series, I will argue that inconvenience, needling, and busywork are, in fact, core to the experience of Planetfall, even if nobody likes it. The second essay, as always, will deal with the text itself.

Note: it was brought to my attention yesterday that the site’s contact form was not working. Apologies to everyone who has tried to get in touch! The issue is fixed now. As always, comments and tweets (@GolmacB) are sound alternatives. I am also reachable at golmac@golmac.org.

3 thoughts on “He, Robot: A Critical Introduction to Planetfall

  1. “(there are bathrooms, an Infocom first)”

    What about the ones in Deadline and The Witness? Though I guess Planetfall had the first ones in an Infocom game not set in the real world.

    1. Oops. Yes, that’s what I meant. I’m not sure why the expectations were different, but I think players would have found the real-world homes of the mysteries less convincing without bathrooms. The Starcross artifact, on the other hand, was built to house up to four alien races and there are no sleep quarters, restrooms, or facilities for food preparation. There is the biome/inner ring for hunting and (presumably) fruits/vegetables, but it is not clear if Gurthak ever leaves his web to find food.

      I don’t think these are problems in Starcross. There were limits to what the game could simulate, and those limitations were generally accepted back then. At least, that is how I felt at the time.

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