Plane Walker

by Jack Comfort


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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Several parts come off flat, November 22, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

I played Plane Walker through with a walkthrough during IFComp. It was pretty wild and confusing, and yet, I thought there was something there. I hoped there was. Perhaps without the walkthrough I would've gone nuclear. But I'm glad it's there. Some people may be purists and say a walkthrough doesn't count. I like it as evidence the author tried to figure out and explain what was going on to people who might miss it. Unfortunately, the walkthrough is a bit plain (heh,) but after two playthroughs I had a better idea of what was going on. Perhaps I have a sympathy for games with weak blurbs and walkthroughs because I may rely on walkthroughs, myself. But the walkthrough was there, and it evidenced some level of rigor, and I think I saw that rigor the second time through. It actually leads you in the wrong direction, and when I discovered the right thing to do, I felt smart.

The table is set for so much more. The game name is clever, given the plot. You move from walking about a plane to (sort of) walking about, well, the plane of complex numbers. This gives very strong _A Beauty Cold and Austere vibes_. That was a big-idea general game that very effectively looked at stuff like basic graph theory and gave enough space for possible sub-games or spinoffs that discussed trickier mathematical ideas in detail. For instance, you could discover how to derive the Quadratic or Cubic formula. Or you could have a proof of sorts of the Checkerboard problem (I wrote an EctoComp game called The Checkered Haunting which tried to,) or maybe a look at induction or strong induction.

And I felt sort of bad when Mike Spivey asked me “what more would you do with this/what would you add?” after I sent a transcript. My answer was: yes, this is out of the scope of ABCA, but I'd do stuff like show how the quadratic or cubic formulas got derived. I don't know how, because it's hard, but if it could be done, that'd be cool. This sort of thing in a blurb might leave people running and screaming for the next game, but it would definitely attract certain people or make them realize okay, I need to buckle down here. IIRC, Mike responded "yeah, that'd be neat, but it'd be hard." But I think there is a lot you can do with probability or whatever that'd go beyond a story problem, and so forth. And ABCA covers a lot of basics and opens the door to much more that could be done.

But it's all a bit dry with Plane Walker. And the first impression it gives when you have to guess the verb a bit to short out a passcode keypad is unfortunate, though things pick up from there. You find a textbook, read it, enter a chalkboard, and flip to the right page to move forward in the game. There are a few aliens around telling you you have a mission, but I was unable to read between the lines. There's a dungeon area where you clean off a pickaxe and break down walls. There are also some classroom doors which the game says you should be able to enter, but you can't. Eventually you make yourself two-dimensional, which is kind of cool. (This spoils nothing, as the way to go 2-D is unusual.)

Unfortunately, though, Plane Walker seems to rely too much on the “intuition” part of “nothing but amnesia and intuition,” and I was left confused. Since the walkthrough was just commands, I wasn't even sure what my mission was. I floated around a lecture hall and read textbooks. This all should have had a more explicit, point but it didn't. I had a few moments where things seemed pretty neat, though in one case, I completely misunderstood what was going on in a puzzle. I thought you had to tie a rope around yourself to fetch a key around a bend, but instead, you got the 2-D puzzle above. On reflection, I can't remember why the rope was necessary.

Still, there are neat harmless trippy bits as well as good cluing of what doors will be available later in the game, as you wander the university hallway. Which is nice--the names are a bit drab (e.g. East Hallway) though the game is not too intimidating.

Every year IFComp throws out a game or two where I'd love to sit down and say "Oh, THAT'S what they meant to do!" But sadly they never get updated. With Plane Walker, which is indeed such a game, I'm glad I took the time to write out a map for others to look at, so I could at least figure out some of it. This is such a game, and unfortunately, having some math background left me unable to understand or appreciate what the author was getting at. I was waiting for it to work, and even a walkthrough annotation would probably give me a few real a-ha moments. But, in contrast to Codex Sadistica and some heavy metal terms I knew nothing about but was able to follow, this gave me imaginary numbers and I wasn't able to.

Looking at others' reviews, I am not alone. Some of the puzzles felt like some of my first-draft games before I realized, oops, I forgot to make this-or-that clear, or I really should throw in another example, and no, it won't spoil any puzzles. Plane Walker certainly arouses my imagination and curiosity more than easy-reading cliches, and I applaud the author having vision, even if they didn't communicate it well. There seemed to be jokes just waiting to work, but they never did. I'd love to see that vision fully formed. I'm glad I took a more careful look to see some of it, but a lot is too far buried. That said, playing it with a walkthrough was a positive and harmlessly trippy experience.