Planetfall / Infocom (1983)
|Infocom .z3 file. Originally appeared on the PC and the Apple, eventually ported to every system in the world and then, with the rise of IF Interpreters, every platform in the universe. The full list is: Amiga , Apple II , Atari 8-bit , Atari ST , Commodore 64 , MS-DOS , TRS-80 , TI-99/4A , Macintosh
Written by Steve Meretzky, you can learn more here.
[this review contains mini-spoilers]
The other day, I was seriously jonesing for some sort of sci-fi adventure game, and went over my rather meager stockpile of games looking for something to fit the bill. I didn't find it. And I didn't really have time to play anyway, because I needed to help clean the dining room.
There is a divider between the dining room and the living room in our house, which sooner or later ends up as a repository for piles of random crap which we're too lazy to figure out a decent place to store them. Deep in the middle of one of these gargantuan random stacks, I found an old CD with some nearly illegible handwriting on it. It said: "Infocom + other IF"... It took me a while to remember where this particular disc had come from and how I happened to be in possession of it, but when the lightbulb finally went off, I remembered: Roody Yogurt gave this to me when we first (and last) met, in Las Vegas! (In the Monte Carlo Brewpub, specifically!) Well, how about that.
I had never completed an Infocom game, nor did I think I ever would, but I did know that Planetfall was on that disc, and even though I knew I'd eventually get sick of it and quit, I thought, hey, what the heck, I haven't played IF in a coon's age, let's GIVE IT A GO!
This was not the first time I'd tried Planetfall. I tried it first about fifteen years ago, I think, and then again about five years ago. I vaguely remember the experience being similar both times, and remember quitting both times at about the same place, and not too far into it either.
Well, I was younger and dumber then, I'm sure I won't have that problem this time...
The beginning of the game was that kind of eerily familiar, like when you hear a song that you know you've heard before, but all of the notes and words still seem new. I got in the escape pod, landed on the planet, scaled the cliff wall to get to the building, and set out on my adventure.
Hey, this isn't so bad. It's actually kinda fun and cool! Why did I quit this? I'm exploring around, seeing some cool sights, enjoying the trip. What's not to like? Sure, there's that hunger bit, which is extremely irritating, but I'm willing to overlook that to have a grand, fun sci-fi romp!
This is a machine room. There's a machine here. There's also a flask, a pair of pliers, a laser with an old battery, an old oil can, and 90-ohm bedistor, a metal bar shaped like a U, and on the machine are nine buttons, one green, one brown, one red, one blue, one black, one gray, one purple, and then a square one and a round one.
This is a slight exaggeration, but only very slight. And friends, I can tell you with 100% certainty that this is the exact moment, and the exact room, where I quit both other times. The hunger thing is annoying enough, but then when you throw a speedbump like this into the game, essentially saying "okay, enough enjoyment, now it's time to get bogged down into something you might find on an SAT or something", then that's it. Screw you guys, I'm going home . For christ sake, the buttons are all labeled "acid" and "base" and "catalyst"... What is this, a game, or a chemistry exam?
My finger lunged toward the "q" button, but then I realized... hey, I'm at work, and have nothing better to do, so let me just screw around with it just a couple minutes more.
Eventually I found where that machine was supposed to be used, though, and just as I completed the first task with the machine which I was sure was just the beginning of a long, arduous, painful, exasperatingly annoying series of tasks before I could get on with the unknown other 99% of the game... it said "good job", and let me go.
When reviewing Dan Schmidt's For A Change, I describe a moment where you make a certain discovery which changes your whole outlook on a game, a moment where you go from approaching the game with trepidation and confusion, to the realization that, oh, this actually isn't so complicated, this isn't actually so difficult. It's just a fun adventure game. Getting past the Machine Room was that moment.
And right after that, I found the thing which removes the "hunt for food" task for the rest of the game.
From then on, the game just flew by. There are, I would wager, about four or five real "puzzles", and in retrospect, none of them are particularly hard. About 48 real-time hours (maybe 4-5 play hours) after I started the game, it was over. It is an adventure in the classic style... find this, go use it over there, go to the next place, wash, rinse, repeat.
A few things surprised me about the game, one largely regarded as a true Infocom classic:
1. I was surprised how small it was, both in terms of game-length, and in terms of game environment. Planetfall attempts to paint a rather epic picture of a planet in a far-off galaxy, and the story of the planet, spanning thousands of years, and your heroic attempts to save it... but the entire game really just takes place within the confines of two science buildings, neither of which has more than about 20 rooms, and I would guess nearly half of those rooms are irrelevant to the story (there are, by my count, six bathrooms, none of which anything works, or happens, in.)
2. Maybe it's a case of over-hype, but "Floyd", your famous robot sidekick throughout much of the game, was much less... I don't know the word, much less endearing, or interesting, than I had been led to believe. I know everyone loves Floyd, and the scene where something unfortunate happens to him is often called one of the most emotional moments in gaming, but it just didn't have that effect on me. I mean, for an NPC, he's kinda cute, and the things he says are occasionally, slightly amusing, the first five or ten times he says them at least, but other than that, he feels like sort of a non-factor. He really only comes into play twice, and one of those during the "something unfortunate". Perhaps that scene itself didn't move me because while it is meant to happen near the end of the game, you are not prevented from getting to that scene much earlier, and so if you play the game a certain way, you may have just met him before the unfortunate thing happens. I dunno. Floyd. I can say that many years ago I played through the first half of Stationfall (and will again soon), and found Floyd a much more interesting character in that game. So perhaps I was jaded.
A few things also impressed me about the game:
1. It is an inspiration to any budding IF author who, like myself, is afraid of the development process because he does not feel prepared to describe in flowing terms the player's environment, or does not have the creative or vocabularic capacity to paint pictures with words. In Planetfall, the descriptions are remarkably sparse and simply written, but the game world feels no less fleshed out because of it. Your mind is left to fill in the blanks, and it does so quite well, so while all of our internal "pictures" of the planet of Resida probably differ remarkably, they are also no doubt just as remarkably well-defined.
2. It is, like all of the Infocom games, tremedously well implemented. This, more than anything else, is my greatest complaint with modern IF. We've got all the fancy tools, and the avant-garde concepts and the grand visions, but we still can't seem to write a game without bugs and inconsistencies and things not described and verbs guessed at and what have you. This is an overgeneralization, as there is some quality implementation still going on, but it was a pleasure to once again play a game where I was not afraid of running into the "fourth wall" around every corner. Resida was a lovely place to explore, and I was never taken away from it.
So, that's it. My first completed Infocom game. It wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. Although, seeing as how it took 25 years to put to bed, I would say it was hard enough.
THREE STARS (***)
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