Right: last week we talked about The Novelist, and how it makes you kinda fight against really common human constraints like not having enough time or emotional energy. I suggested that it was really good at dealing with the concept of failure, because it basically makes you pick the failures that you want to accept. It gives you three options, and lets you pick two at most, leaving the person behind that third option inevitably a little hurt. Today I want to chat about a game that’s at the opposite end of that spectrum: Planet Alpha.
Planet Alpha is a 2018 game from Team17. It’s a 2D sidescrolling puzzle platformer, and it’s really pretty and not super good. Think a very pretty, bad version of Limbo. I’m gonna do a twofer on this – we’ll talk about theme this week, and next week I’ll go over some of the gameplay elements that’re actually kinda interesting. In terms of plot, Planet Alpha follows an astronaut on an alien planet. It’s all very pretty and floral, and then some fuckin’ robots turn up and fuckin murder everything. Robots, man. There’s some pretty strong subtext about colonialism and the experience of being colonised: there’s a bunch of nature, it’s all in harmony, and then those robot fuckers turn up and wreck everything. There’s some mining stuff that goes on, suggesting some of the resource exploitation that historically took place, and at the end of the game everything is deforested and blown up and fucked. That’s the arc of the narrative.
And alright, that’s all fine. Nothing really much to say – it doesn’t really take the story anywhere, doesn’t have anything to say about that whole phenomenon, but whatever. The problem that I’m seeing, more broadly, is that this portrayal of the colonial experience kinda clashes with the structure of a video game. In a video game, you have a very straightforward win-loss binary – that’s sort of the key difference between a game and something more like interactive fiction or whatever. (You can read more about this kinda distinction over here.) Basically what it means from the player perspective, though, is that there’s always a way to win. It doesn’t matter what you’re facing, what you’re fighting against – there’s always a win condition. If you fuck it up at one point or another, it drops the game back 30 seconds and you start again. You see these big sweeps where all the robots are wandering around looking for people to kill (as below), and regardless of how bleak it looks, you know that there’s always going to be a way through. A route will always exist. It’s set up so that if you try hard enough, you’ll be able to make it – which is not really an appropriate structure for representing the experience of being colonised. It’s a little too easy.
That’s not to say that no game would ever be able to deal with these kinds of topics, of course. If you had a game that ended exclusively with fail-conditions – think Tetris, where it’s only ever a question of how long you hold out for before you lose. That might be a better game structure for dealing with some initial violent first contact, where indigenous people just get munted by dudes with guns and vast technological superiority. I dunno – it just seems a little glib to have this structure of ‘oh, yeah, it’s bad or whatever, but you’ll be fine, there is absolutely a path whereby you can make it’ when you’re dealing with a game about colonialism.
I guess there’s a broader point here about how tension works in the video game medium. When you’re watching a film, for instance, sure, you basically know that the hero’s going to make it to the end and it’s all going to be fine. We know that, just like we know that you’ll be able to win a video game if you try hard enough. But I think the difference is that in films, you’re sort of going ‘How are they going to get out of this?’, while in video games it’s more like ‘What’s the pathway that the developers have laid out for me to get through this area?’. They’re very different thought processes – and the suspension of disbelief operates in different ways for each one. You know that the hero is going to win in both cases, but in a film you can kinda kick back and enjoy the ride, whereas in video games you’re pretty actively involved in trying to unpick the game’s structure in order to move forward. It’s especially pertinent when you’re dealing with a puzzle platformer, where it’s half a game of figuring out how to tug blocks around so you can climb up onto some ledge. You don’t have any opportunity to wonder whether or not the hero’s going to make it: you’re too busy looking for the way forwards. And that task of looking is predicated on the fact that a way forward will exist, in some form or another, somewhere in the nearby terrain. It’s not really possible to have that base assumption and also suspend your disbelief about whether or not the hero will be able to make it to the end.
That said, I guess the other point is that there’s questions about what ‘winning’ the game actually looks like. If beating the game means getting to this final scene where the robots catch up to you and murder you, then there’s something potentially valuable in there. You’d have to figure out what you wanted to do with the conflict between the structure of your game and the arc of your narrative, but okay, there’s something in there. In Planet Alpha, you get to the end and the robots have nuked everything and the whole planet is fucked. And either you start the game again from the beginning – there’s some fucky time loop nonsense – or, if you’ve managed collect these four random little artifact things, you take off in a rocket ship and then all the grass and shit just kinda, uh, grows back? And everything is fine. I don’t know man, it’s not a great game. It is pretty though.