Planetfall and the unique challenge of digital canonicity.
A word of warning: this essay contains gameplay and story spoilers for Planetfall, up to and including its ending. Additionally, this essay spoils the ending of Trinity. If you have not yet played these games, it may be best if you return at a later date.
Points of Departure
It is 1996. A reader loves nearly all of Slaughterhouse Five, but they do not care for the ending. It would be better, they think, if Edgar Derby did not die at the end (believe it or not, this is not a spoiler). They write their own ending and print it on custom-sized sheets of paper. Then, they tear out the back pages of their paperback edition and staple their own ending to the cover.
It is 2019. A reader loves nearly all of Trinity, but they do not care for the ending. It would be better, they think, if the protagonist had simply rid the world of nuclear weapons forever. They could then return happily to America, having survived an incredible adventure. Since this reader has the source code and a compiler, they rewrite the ending and compile a new story file.
It is 1983. A high school student makes a ROM dump of Jumpman Jr in order to share disk copies with their friends. They sign their handiwork by adding a graphic and codename to the loading screen.
It is 2021. A fan transposes images and text to a text-only document in order to make a game accessible to a wider audience.
It is 1935. An artist makes a near-perfect copy of the Mona Lisa, only the subject is wearing sunglasses and has a cigar in her mouth.
It is 2016. A hobbyist downloads a trainer program for Dark Souls that allows a player to grant their characters superpowers and unlimited resources. The Dark Souls series is famous for its uncompromising difficulty.
It is 2023. A fan remake of the 2002 remake of Resident Evil is released to mostly positive reception.
It is 2018. An author writes a Naruto fan fiction featuring a romance between their favorite characters. It is uploaded to a fan fiction community that hosts thousands of fan-written stories.
It is 1977. A group of wisecracking MIT students begin work on a fan-made sequel/tribute to the first widely played text adventure game. They call it “Zork.”
It is anytime, anywhere. The relationships between audiences and artists are elastic and permeable, and it is not always clear what–if any–special considerations art might deserve. Digital media–including Infocom games–pose new questions due to novel technologies and the internet-connected subcultures that use them. New and old points of discussion might include distribution, copyright law, constructive vandalism (as in the crackscreen example above), program and/or program data modification, tributes, fan fiction, and parody. There are doubtless many others.
Planetfall‘s Linearity and The Timelessness of Zork
As I am fond of pointing out, time does not really flow in most Infocom games. Instead, there is a phenomenon we may as well call “Zork Time.” Rather than having a single, unified timeline, Zork I has timers:
- The candles can only be lit a set number of turns (after the Adventurer touches them).
- The number of turns that the lamp can be lit is limited
- A timer dictates how long it takes to fill and empty the reservoir.
- The control room will flood (and remain flooded) if not repaired in time.
I’m sure there are other examples. Please feel free to mention them in a comment! Zork Time is event-centered. A player acts, and a timer begins ticking away turns. The reason, so far as I can tell, for implementing Zork Time rather than a unified timeline is simple: it wouldn’t add anything to the game. Additionally, ADVENT, which first established the conventions of text adventures, did not have linear time. Why would Zork?
Zork Time has seen tweaks and embellishments for specific games. Both Zork III and Starcross experimented with timers that affected the entire world, creating an illusion of unified time. Deadline would be the first Infocom game to simulate linear time as we experience it, incorporating global, reactive scheduling for character behaviors and world events. Because actions and events occur independent of player action, the game world is placed in an ambiguous, or quantum state. While The Witness implements Deadline‘s model of unified time, it rarely seems important.
That brings us to Planetfall with its radical new approach to time. While both Zork Time and Linear Time models dictate changes in the world and its objects, Planetfall‘s model has internal–not external–implications. That is to say, it is the protagonist‘s own body and not the world that changes as time passes. This isn’t clear at first. We discover, perhaps with some annoyance, that the Cadet must eat and sleep. There are bathrooms and beds and, rather than filling out the realistic necessities of, say, the Robner estate, these novelties imply a new and significant reality: the protagonist has a body. He eats, sleeps, may–off camera, naturally–use the bathroom. For the first time, an Infocom protagonist is embodied in a meaningful way. Sure, the Adventurer and the Human can experience bodily death, but there is no persistent sense of embodiment (In Zork I and III, the Adventurer can be wounded in battle, but he heals after a number of turns. In any case, woundedness is event-based and therefore participates in Zork Time).
Most important: the Cadet gets sick. Planetfall does not merely feature embodiment as a new kind of simulation. Embodiment is, in fact, the central problem of the plot. The protagonist must find a cure to a disease before it kills him.
>diagnose You are a bit sick and feverish. You feel well-rested. You seem to be well-fed.
A feature of the story of Planetfall is that the protagonist’s body deteriorates over linear time. Realizing this physicality implied a new requirement. Since the Cadet’s illness progresses over a period of days, this time must be marked in the game world. Hence, sleep becomes a necessary part of the simulation.
You begin to feel weary. It might be time to think about finding a nice safe place to sleep. [after a number of turns] >lie down (on the bed) Ahhh...the bed is soft and comfortable. You should be asleep in short order. >wait Time passes... You slowly sink into a deep and restful sleep. ***** SEPTEM 7, 11344 ***** You wake up feeling refreshed and ready to face the challenges of this mysterious world.
Because simulating the effects of time on the body is central to the story of Planetfall, the protagonist must also eat:
A growl from your stomach warns that you're getting pretty hungry and thirsty.
The belief that eating and sleeping in Planetfall are mere ancillary tedium is a misunderstanding. Simulated embodiment is core to its story and is the primary source of narrative propulsion in Planetfall. Awareness of the Cadet’s body is a constant source of pressure on the player.
I have read arguments that eating is only implemented as way to impose a time limit in the game, just as lamp batteries limited the number of turns in Zork II (we can debate whether the canteen has meaningful utility after reaching the second complex another day), but this isn’t true. Stretch things out far enough, and the Cadet dies of the Disease. Food only delays the inevitable. This is fitting, since eating (and sleeping) are both expression and consequence of a new demarcation of linear time: the deterioration of the embodied Cadet. For the first time in an Infocom game, the world resists change while wreaking change upon a protagonist.
Perhaps, in Planetfall the video game, the body is as inconsequential as it is for some virtual reality avatars–merely implied by a pair of hands. Planetfall the text, on the other hand, never lets you forget that time destroys all.
Final Thoughts on Planetfall
I played Stationfall and Enchanter before playing Planetfall, and that led to a “This again?” reaction to its timers. While the passing of days matters in Stationfall, embodiment does not. Sleep serves to mark the passing of time but has no other apparent narrative significance. If the player is stingy with their food, the game ends anyway. As in Planetfall, hunger does not function as a time limit. I saw no point to the mechanic, because, so far as I can tell, it has none. Similarly, eating in Enchanter has no purpose, nor does it ultimately impose a time limit. Sleep serves an important function because it marks the days and provides hints. However, in both cases the protagonist’s physicality does not matter, and I assumed the same would be true for Planetfall.
The result was that I saw no value in sleep or hunger timers in the text of any Infocom game. The order in which I played these games made all the difference: I assumed that what didn’t matter in Stationfall wouldn’t matter in Planetfall. It didn’t help that I saw video games as mere amusements at the time, and the idea of artistic choice or intentionality in Planetfall would never have crossed my mind. I have to admit that, even as a college sophomore double-majoring in English and Philosophy, I had a rather limited conception of art. I may as well say it: I was an elitist and an intellectual snob.
It is likely no surprise that I enjoy Planetfall more than I did all those years ago. I appreciate its escalating sense of desperate urgency that pushes the player forward, and the strange tension between the protagonist’s deterioration and Floyd’s constant silliness. The puzzles, compared with those in Zork, are consistently well-clued and organic to the world. I even accept the tedium of embodiment as essential to the story of Planetfall and its themes.
Still, it may or may not be easy to forgive the pointlessness of the dial door, or the inevitability of traveling to the second complex without all of the needed items. Some questions one must answer for oneself.
Planetfall is, then, a well-considered and well-implemented game. Its chief weakness is its ending, which feels out of place in a story paced out with such care. As many have pointed out, it was not Meretzky’s original ending, which was changed based on tester feedback. Perhaps this is another point of consideration: what are the implications of creating something that is both consumer product and art? In the field of video game development, this must be a constant source of pressure. Perhaps, as an audience, we sometimes feel it, too.
As a Gold Machine first, both Gold Machine and Gold Microphone will tackle the same game at the same time. Will this combination be fun and interesting? Or will I simply repeat here what I say there? Stay tuned for a Machine/Microphone team-up: Enchanter!