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What a Difference a Robot Makes, September 4, 2021
If Zork I is Infocom's most iconic title and Trinity its most critically admired, then perhaps Planetfall is the most likely to engender sentimental attachment. Reviews breathlessly enthuse about its supporting character, Floyd, and rightfully so. I am fairly confident that Planetfall is the first bit of electronic entertainment to make people cry (excepting tears of frustration). Nothing can take such an accomplishment from Meretzsky or Planetfall.
It would seem, though, that attitudes toward Planetfall have shifted over the years. It is the second highest-rated Infocom title ranked by IFDB. If I am not mistaken it was, for a time, rated more highly than Trinity. Be that as it may, it has not appeared on a "Top 50 of All Time" list since 2011, while Trinity, Zork, and Wishbringer have endured. Stranger still, the once frequently-dismissed Suspended made the 2019 list. Were I still in graduate school, I would beg a site administrator to expose the raw rating data. When were these ratings for Planetfall entered? What is the historical trend? Since I am no longer in graduate school, we will have to settle for an obvious truth: tastes change, people change.
Then and now, Planetfall has had a lot going for it. You, the protagonist, are living on borrowed time and must (Spoiler - click to show)find a cure for the disease that is killing you. The setup instills Planetfall with something frequently absent from Infocom games: a sense of narrative urgency. As you explore a strangely abandoned alien science outpost, you solve an assortment of well-clued, satisfying puzzles. The gonzo hijinks of your robot companion, somehow, do not negate the empty outpost's ambiance of ominous desolation. The game's final set piece ending is truly exhilarating, Infocom's best so far.
Everything works so well that a player may not even notice how hard Planetfall works to--for lack of a better phrase--jerk them around. The inventory management implementation is rather extreme, even for Infocom. The game world is liberally populated with red herrings to clog up your limited carrying capacity. When you pick up one too many items, you drop not only the item you were attempting to carry but also drop another random item from your inventory. A long train ride separates two large areas--if you don't bring the correct items to the train you may as well restore your game. And you won't bring the right items. Really. You find a key and lock combination (Spoiler - click to show)that work far away from your current location. After you lug yourself, saddled as you are with food, sleep, and disease timers, across the entire game world (truly! end-to-end), you will discover that the combination is completely worthless. Elsewhere, It is likely that you will find yourself hungry and tired while carrying a large ladder--having dropped your food to free up carrying capacity--down a very long hallway. Planetfall is also the first Infocom game to incorporate sleep and hunger timers.
That this mix still succeeds says a lot about the creative powers of Steve Meretzsky. What other game could require the management and planning of Suspended without the satisfactions of a management and planning game, and yet enjoy the love of so many people? What is Planetfall's secret? It can't be the ending, (Spoiler - click to show)which stretches credibility so far that one of the "Eaten by a Grue" podcasters thought that it was a dying hallucination of the kind found in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." The secret is Floyd; what a difference a robot makes! His implementation is incredibly shallow--you can't ask him about anything and you can only get him to do a few things, and yet it really does feel as though he is your friend. He is the Eliza of computer game sidekicks. People who have written about IF academically tend to be interested in Floyd, and why wouldn't they be?
For its ability to rouse actual tears, Planetfall qualifies as too big to judge. Thus, I assign no rating to it. Even if, decades ago, you--tired, hungry, and sick--left the laser at the far end of the train tracks, you must still admit admit that (Spoiler - click to show)the scene outside the Bio Lab got to you.
Worth a look, if only to know what everybody else is talking about. Or was talking about. For many, it will be worth more than a look.
Edit: I should mention that I encountered a nasty problem with release 39. Dropped items did not appear in room descriptions. I'm not sure what triggered it, but I recommend playing another version.