One thing that I’ve learned from the Vintage Game Club: the mechanics of old games don’t always hold up so well, and old adventure games are certainly no exception to that, generally making me bang my head against the wall (and not in a “proud to have finally figured that out” way) a few times during the course of them. So I was kind of nervous to replay Planetfall: it was my favorite of the Infocom games I played on my Apple ][+ growing up (and I played several of them, maybe a half-dozen or so?), and I was scared that I wouldn’t like it nearly as much this time.

It turns out, however, that Planetfall remains a thoroughly wonderful game, on both a mechanical and a humane level. So: go play it, everybody! (It’s even still available for purchase as part of the misnamed Zork Anthology at Good Old Games, though you’ll probably want to find the .dat file in that distribution and play it on a different interpreter.)

On a mechanical level: I freely admit that my personal history affects how I approach the game. I’ve been playing text adventures since before many of my readers were born (Planetfall in particular is older than some of you), so I’m used to the genre conventions; in particular, pulling out a pencil and paper to draw a map is part of the fun. And I literally can’t imagine approaching this game without that background; to make matters worse, I’ve finished the game a couple of times before (though my most recent playthrough was most of a decade ago, so the puzzle solutions generally weren’t fresh in my head or anything).

Having said that: I also remember thinking that Planetfall was relatively approachable when I first played it. (I did finish it, and this was in the days before walkthroughs being a matter of keystrokes away.) And the puzzle design seemed much less obtuse to me when I played it this time than, say, the puzzles in Grim Fandango. You’re wandering around a deserted research facility, trying to survive and fix broken machines; most of what you have to do makes sense in that context. Unlike more recent adventure games, you do have timers (for food and for health), but the game is generous on both fronts, so while I saved and restored fairly often because of that, I probably actually didn’t have to.

There are also a surprising number of red herrings: quite a few dark or locked rooms that you never manage to explore, several items that you never use. To my surprise, though, that didn’t bother me either. Which probably relates to the previous paragraph: if you’re in a broken down deserted research facility, it makes sense that you won’t be able to get everything working, and the accessible puzzle design means that you’re willing to forgive the presence of red herrings. In particular, I never had to play “guess the item” during the game.

Having said that: there’s one optional puzzle that I distinctly recall missing the key item for when I first played the game decades ago; and there were a couple of instances in this playthrough where I can imagine things going wrong if I didn’t notice/remember certain things. So I’m probably overstating the game’s accessibility. As it was, though, my playthrough went very smoothly; and there were places where the game gave you gentle nudges (e.g. during the fight inside the computer) if you didn’t figure out what to do immediately.

So: very good gameplay. But, of course, Planetfall is more famous for Steve Meretzky’s writing in general and for the character of Floyd in particular. (Incidentally, I had the pleasure of playing many board games with Steve while I was at Playdom: I can attest that he is very nice, very funny, and very tall in person.)

And that holds up great, too. Floyd is totally charming: from his showing up saying “Floyd here now!”, or getting bored and saying “Enough talking! Let’s play Hider-and-Seeker”, to the more idiosyncratic (and Meretzkian) bits of “Floyd chants the death scene from ‘Carmen’.” and (when looking at a bit in the game’s library describing Zork) “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.'” Also, his comments on saving and restoring games: “Floyd’s eyes light up. ‘Oh boy! Are we gonna try something dangerous now?'” and “Floyd looks disappointed, but understanding. ‘That part of the game was more fun than this part,’ he admits.”

The first of those is foreshadowing, of course: yes, we are going to try something dangerous. I knew Floyd’s sacrifice was coming, and I knew that it would turn out okay in the end, but it still got to me more than any game I can think of recently. The red herrings were very effective in that regard: if you so choose (and I did so choose!), you can spend a fair amount of time banging your head against a few rooms in the complex, hoping that they’ll find a way to protect your unexpectedly brave robot. I’d forgotten the details of what Floyd says there, too, but for posterity, here it is:

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.

I love the false bravado there, the fake insouciance of the “Hmmm… I know!”: none of the noble world-saving heroics (and occasional theatrically grand sacrifices) that today’s games give you.

Steve Meretzky wrote an article about the creation of Floyd; short and worth reading, in particular its final paragraph:

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the creation of Floyd was how easy it was. The entire code and text for the character, if printed out, would perhaps run to ten pages. What’s amazing is not that I was able to create a computer game character that touched people so deeply, but how infrequently the same thing has been accomplished in the intervening two decades.

In retrospect, there are a lot of ways that computer games could have evolved differently out of what I played as a teenager on my Apple ][+, a lot of threads that I wish had been followed up better. And games could still evolve differently: like Steve says, the creation of Floyd was amazingly easy even back then, and tools have only gotten better. Heck, maybe there are games out there today taking the best ideas from back then and improving on them: it’s not like I spend much time actually exploring independent games. Something to think about; and I should dive back into Infocom’s catalog sooner rather than later.

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