Steve Meretzky’s Planetfall would prove to be funnier and more emotionally engaging than any other Infocom game to-date.
Two prefatory remarks:
- MoCAGH does not have the complete folio scans available, so I will have to refer to grey box materials. If someone knows where I can find the folio manual, etc., please let me know in the comments or email me: email@example.com.
- This essay contains open gameplay and story spoilers, up to and including the end of Planetfall. If you want to discover these things for yourself, play the game (necessary resources posted here) and come back afterward!
Establishing the Comedic Context of Planetfall
The front cover of Planetfall is a visual joke, and one that might take a moment to sink in. A person wearing a green (approximately the green of US Army fatigues) uniform with red highlights at the neck, belt, and cuffs appears to run toward the viewer. He wears a red helmet with a shining visor and silvery chin protector.
Over his left shoulder is a moon, and from its top-right position of the image it punctuates a field of stars. Lines behind this uniformed man end with bright points of light. They appear to be shooting stars, racing forward from behind him. It is a scene of action, a proclaimed dynamism of purposeful movement. So familiar-seeming is this visual rhetoric that no-one can be blamed for, in a moment of mental shorthand, seeing a rifle cradled butt-to-stock.
The gag is this: it is not a gun but a mop in his hands, and this spaceman’s heroically forward propulsive movement has pushed a mop bucket into a dangerous teeter. We see, amidst all this excitement, a sloshing bucket in the second before it tumbles, spilling soapy water everywhere. The text atop the scene differs between the folio and grey box editions. The folio reads:
STELLAR PATROL: SPECIAL ASSIGNMENT FORCE
But even your expert technical training
won’t save you now.
Meanwhile, here is the modified text of the grey box:
Stellar Patrol: It’s not just a job–
It’s an adventure!
It’s a change typical of the grey box rereleases. The marketing department had determined that comedy and fantasy were traits preferred by Infocom customers, and the grey box reprints were opportunities to bring this market data to bear. The results were often unfortunate, as the new content often felt mismatched with source materials. The most egregious example is the silly “Frobozzco International Report, 778 GUE” packaged with Zork III, which simply adds insult to the injury of its bungled conclusion.
However, the change makes sense here because the accompanying pack-ins are unambiguously comedic. The jokes are rather weightless, eschewing satirical bite for what Jimmy Maher calls “good-natured goofiness.“ They are an extended riff on the promises vs the realities of military enlistment. One section lists and describes recruit-level jobs, then names their civilian equivalents:
Mess Service (MS)-MS’s control every aspect of the chow detail-from the ordering of supplies through the serving of well-balanced, appealing meals prepared in artificial-gravity ovens. Excellent equilibrium is necessary. Comparable civilian jobs: scrap metal recycler and faith healer.
I think these jokes–which are quite clever–landed differently when I first saw them in 1993. Today, it’s hard to see enlistment separated from the realities of class or financial pressures. Moreover, the human costs of decades-long military engagement in the middle east certainly complicate this 1980s delineation of “good” and “bad” assignments.
Still, the brochure, with its oily knack for euphemism, is funny, as is the Douglas Adams-flavored enlistment questionnaire at the back of the brochure. Perhaps most charming of all are the postcards, which possess a new, sentimental warmth in our post-mail world. They are all “regulation size” and could be easily mailed. Each applies the rhetoric (visual and textual) of a tourist promotion and features an otherworldly destination. The set accentuates the Federation’s exaggerated promise of travel and adventure.
The packaging complements the mostly humorous tone of Planetfall. Perhaps it insists, when things grow serious, that Planetfall is still light-hearted. Perhaps it makes–and keeps–a promise about the game’s ending.
In Space, No One Can Hear You Smile
The story of Planetfall begins on paper or–in these post-paper days–in a PDF file. Several handwritten pages of Stellar Patrol stationary document the protagonist’s enlisted life immediately preceding the game’s events. Besides serving to characterize the protagonist as a frustrated new recruit who appears stuck in a dead-end assignment with an antagonistic supervisor, we also get a sense of the sprawling, military bureaucracy that has become his whole world.
I say “him” because the “blank slate” protagonist is once again not completely blank. A training film is titled, “Shoreline Shirley: How to Guard Against Contracting Alien Diseases,” which seems to reflect assumptions regarding gender, etc.
As the game begins, the protagonist has received 100 demerits and two shifts scrubbing Deck Nine, “the filthiest deck on the ship.” There he is: Deck Nine, scrub brush in hand. There aren’t too many things to do. Wander too far and the protagonist–let’s call him the “Cadet”–is ordered back by a stock blowhard supervisor type. The penalty for disobedience is getting locked in the brig just before the ship explodes.
Players can wait, though I generally choose to scrub the floor. After a couple of turns, a slime-dripping alien happens by, and it is the Cadet’s responsibility to clean up after him. (Un)fortunately, the ship begins to explode before the slime can be cleared away. While the next several moves are not terribly interactive, they do feel momentous. It’s reminiscent of the Human’s trip to the Artifact in Starcross. While the player is not in control, that only serves to generate suspense. I’ve heard others express frustration with Planetfall’s opening, but I think it’s very effective.
In this case, the Cadet is lucky to be on Deck Nine, because an escape pod is nearby. It is no exaggeration to say that he has escaped at the last possible moment:
Escape Pod This is one of the Feinstein's primary escape pods, for use in extreme emergencies. A mass of safety webbing, large enough to hold several dozen people, fills half the pod. The controls are entirely automated. The bulkhead leading out is open. The ship shakes again. You hear, from close by, the sounds of emergency bulkheads closing. >enter web You are now safely cushioned within the web. The pod door clangs shut as heavy explosions continue to buffet the Feinstein. >look through window You can see debris from the exploding Feinstein. You feel the pod begin to slide down its ejection tube as explosions shake the mother ship.
Just as in Starcross, the next several turns are on rails as the craft flies toward its destination. In this case, it is an apparently habitable planet. The pod lands in a sea or ocean (unlucky) right next to a research base of some sort (lucky), and, should the player properly time their commands, the Cadet will soon have made not only planet- but landfall. A plaque near a balcony reads:
SEENIK VISTA 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. [SCENIC VISTA This stunning view of the Kalamontee Valley covers over forty square miles of that famous tourist spot. The large building at the bend in the Gulmaan River is the former provincial capitol building.]
There is no valley, though, nor is there a capitol building:
>look through window Water. Lots and lots of water.
Climbing a set of stairs, the Cadet finds himself in an eerily quiet complex designed to house a great many people in dormitories. There is a mess hall, which implies that the facility has a military affiliation or purpose. Exploring further, this location, which must have once housed hundreds of people, is abandoned. There are no bones or signs of struggle. Everyone is simply… gone. The civilization to which this building and the plaque belonged appears to have vanished.
It’s a creepy, drab place, and for want of a better idea–there is no apparent way to contact Stellar Patrol–the Cadet wanders about, in search of problems to solve. He’s hardly a problem, but one early discovery is Floyd, a famously endearing sidekick character that was likely–at the time of his debut–the most emotionally affecting character in an American video game, ever (as always, I welcome your counterexamples!). I’ve tried, asking in a few venues, to gather player impressions of Floyd, but it’s surprisingly hard to find a self-sustaining Infocom conversation that isn’t about coding or puzzle design.
So I’ll ask you, reader: how did you feel about Floyd? Did you consider his characterization a transformational moment in video games? I played Stationfall before Planetfall–for whatever reason, the local hackers weren’t passing around copies of Planetfall–which meant that Floyd’s big moment (more on this later) didn’t affect me much. I regret that it happened this way, because I lost a chance to weigh in on an important conversation. It seems to be a “you had to be there” moment.
Unlike most players, I knew Floyd already. I knew the sorts of things that he said and did. But others have observed–and I feel this to be true–that he is a foil to the drab isolation of the game world. Floyd is youthful and energetic. He’s cheerful, even. Meanwhile, the game world has been abandoned for so long that even the geography around it has changed. It is like an empty tomb.
The Cadet, Floyd in tow, reaches the second half of the complex, which is dedicated to science labs and computers. He begins to feel sick, and the game cleverly leaves his illness as one of many hidden truths to be teased out of the game environment. One of the things that Planetfall absolutely gets right (Besides the puzzles. In terms of batting average Steve Meretzky was Infocom’s best puzzle designer, even if other Implementors had some higher highs) is the way information is managed in the game. While Planetfall is not a quote-unquote “mystery,” it is a kind of mystery. It offers the satisfaction of finding clues, and there are opportunities to deduce elements of whatever disaster befell this planet.
Once the mystery of the complex–and of the illness–is solved, the player finally has clear objectives. He must repair certain systems, and ultimately fix the computer that is working on a cure to the disease–it is stuck at 99.985%. This last part–repairing the computer, may be the best endgame in the Infocom canon (we can debate Trinity when the time comes). First, we have Floyd’s sacrifice (Jimmy Maher discusses it in detail here). Then there is the cool factor of shrinking to microscopic size in order to clean (ironic, considering the beginning of the game) a relay on a microchip which culminates in a shootout with a microbe! Next is a harrowing sprint through the biolab filled with the monsters that killed Floyd.
At the last possible moment, the Cadet reaches an elevator leading to a rather explosively improbable happy ending. Blather (the Cadet’s supervisor) has been demoted, the planet has been saved, countless people climb out of cryosleep immediately, the cadet is now a Lieutenant, on and on. And yes: Floyd isn’t dead after all.
I like Carrington’s (Eaten by a Grue) take on the ending. It is like the movie Brazil (his comparison) or “An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge” (mine). The ending feels like a dying man’s hallucination. Or maybe it is a dream–this is the first Infocom protagonist who dreams. Perhaps, by the end of Stationfall, he will wake up. It doesn’t really matter, though. The game is so charming that Meretzky gets away with it–for my money this bit is the funniest in 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 paddleball set. "Maybe we can use them in the sequel..."
Yes. That damnable helicopter card.
Speaking of apparently useless phenomena: in the third and final essay in this series on Planetfall, I examine an unpopular innovation new to Infocom. It seems no one can stand the protagonist’s need for nourishment and rest. Perhaps we would be happy to see these sleep and hunger timers gone. Don’t they get in the way of good old fashioned video game fun? It may seem that sleep and hunger are poorly considered attempts at simulation, but perhaps there is something more at work. What if the timers make a bad video game but good art? Which would you choose? I doubt my answer will surprise anyone, but ultimately each must answer for themselves. Stay tuned for the shocking conclusion to our three-part series in Intentionality and the Gamification of Tedium: Planetfall.
Want to talk? Grill me about Infocom trivia? Chide me about my dislike of The Witness? There are tons of ways to reach out. You can comment here, sure. But perhaps you’d like to call me out on Twitter: @GolmacB. Then again, you could email me. golmac.@golmac.org. We may read your comment/message on the podcast, unless you say not to.