April 17, 2004

Planetfall review

Not impressed.

Note: The following is a cross-post of a review I wrote on MobyGames of Planetfall, an Infocom interactive fiction / text adventure published in 1983.

The Good

Floyd seemed like an interesting character; he was very lively and interacted with the world around him.

The Bad

The game’s geography is sprawling. I play through my text adventure games by first exploring all the rooms I have access to and getting a "lay of the land", and then I start thinking about solving puzzles. Most Infocom games I’ve played separate the geography into nicely manageable "chunks" of 5-10 rooms that are separated by puzzles, so you can’t explore further than your current "chunk" unless you solve a puzzle. As such, there’s a constant stream of exploration intermingled with puzzle-solving, which is fun. Even the games which defy this and place you in large environments, such as Trinity, are still fun because the geography is interesting and unusual.

Planetfall’s rooms, however, feel utterly uninspired. It feels like generic science fiction, and many rooms are replicas of other ones; there’s tons of restrooms, for instance, and they all have the exact same descriptions. On the one hand, this adds a sense of space to the facility you’re exploring, but on the other hand it makes it feel a lot more monotonous, overwhelming, and boring. So I found myself essentially making a map for way too long and wandering through rooms that all seemed the same (for the most part).

Not only were the rooms boring, however, but the objects and puzzles were too: doors were locked by means of padlocks, number dials, and keycard slots; the facility was littered with elevators and vending machines and other generic, uninteresting interactive objects.

You need to eat and drink in this game to stay alive. In The Lurking Horror you have to drink caffeine to stay awake, but this adds to the tension of the atmosphere; here it serves no purpose that I can see. They might as well have modeled biological functions as well, at least that way the bathrooms would be useful for something.

This game is a parody, and one of my problems with this style of story is that it essentially beats you over the head with comedy. It’s very similar to the way some ultraviolent movies can get tiresome; Planetfall just threw so many jokes at me so frequently that I quickly got desensitized to it. Even Douglas Adams’ humor has this effect on me to some extent, but what makes his jokes more interesting is that they often double as social commentary or are interesting in some other dimension, whereas much of Meretsky’s humor is just general silliness. It often feels like he’s trying a little too hard to be funny, and many of the jokes fall a little flat or are too similar to each other, as opposed to, say, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which there’s a much better diversity of humor and most jokes are laugh-out-loud funny.

This isn’t to say, though, that there aren’t any utterly hilarious jokes in Planetfall; it’s more that it just gets tiresome pretty quickly.

Being one of Infocom’s earliest titles, the parser isn’t as good as the one in later games like Wishbringer or Trinity. Most annoyingly, it won’t disambiguate between nouns (it just picks the first one it finds if there’s any ambiguity).

The Bottom Line

Please take all of what I say with a massive grain of salt, as I haven’t actually finished this game; in fact, I didn’t get very far at all, not because I got stuck, but because the game just got very boring and playing it felt more like a chore than a game, even with Floyd by my side.

If you’re looking for a funny, unique sci-fi adventure, I would recommend The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy instead; although I did find that game to be a little on the frustrating side at times, it was consistently funny, interesting, and challenging.

© Atul Varma 2020