Planet Alpha: Background Stories

Let’s keep going with Planet Alpha. I bagged it a bit last week for having some poorly thought out themes, and this week I’m going to bag it for its gameplay. I was looking up its year of publication, for when I was giving it a quick bit of context, and came across this PC Gamer article, where the short blurb review describes it as “an unexceptional puzzle platformer.” And, uh, yeah, that’s about right. The game does do some really cool stuff though – let’s start off talking about some of the cool shit.

Firstly, it’s really good with depth. There’s you, running along your little 2D path, and then there’s a shitload of stuff in the background. And it’s cool stuff! Look, there’s some dinosaur-looking fucker just hanging out and being a chompy chew. There’s mountains and flora and cool shit. It’s all happening. There’s a few screenshots from last week that also operate in a similar way – yeah, let me chuck this scene in again.

There’s robots, and they don’t really interfere with you walking along, but they’re there and they give context to what’s happening. I really like the idea of the story happening in the background while you’re just kinda passing through – it’s a great way to run a game that’s really just about enjoying how pretty everything is. It’s a very tourist-y game, if you like – it’s a game about looking at shit, and it’s a game that uses depth to push the shit you’re looking at out of the gameplay space and into more of a ‘purely for looking at’ space (for more on this idea, check out this article). They could probably have used it a little more extensively than they do, to offer more plot development, more fleshing out of the storyworld, but what’s there is pretty good.

The one really stand-out instance for me was this climbing instance, above – you’ve got the two sides of the cavern, you’re just climbing away, and there’s some big-ass station thing in the background that’s floating and spinning and lighting up all fuck-off colours. The action that you’re performing is pretty menial – you’re just pushing the up button to climb – so you’ve got time to look at that background space and get a bit more of the story. Amazing use of that technique.

In fact, I guess most of my complaints about the gameplay are that it’s not smarter about using this kind of technique. The game ends up dragging a bunch, with all these artificial extensions that aren’t taken as an opportunity to add anything. For instance, you can see the grey rock in the image above. You’re expected to grab it, haul it over to the outcrop on the right, and use it as a step to help you clamber up where those purple flowers are. It’s a very artificial delay – there’s no real drama or excitement going on, it’s not a moment of tension. There are no emotional stakes involved in this activity. If there was something special going on in the background, something interesting or particularly worth looking at, that kind of menial task might be okay – but there’s not really anything. This isn’t early on, by the way – I think it’s 80-ish% of the way through. We’ve seen mountains and grass. Mountains and grass are very well established. We’re not getting anything out of this lengthening, and so it comes across as frustrating and empty – a task for the sake of having a task, rather than as a vehicle for story.

Other, similar frustrations exist throughout. For instance, while you’re mucking around in the robot base, you come across this pillar of flame. You can’t see me, uhh, I’m hiding behind that rock face with the green glass or whatever it is. I’m hiding from the robots. In order to get past that flame pillar, you have to double back, climb up some pipes, grab a container while the robots aren’t looking, push it all the way back to the pillar of flame (still avoiding robots), and then block the pipe so you can get across. And, like, okay, maybe if there were some interesting developments in the background or in the environment detailing, it would be an acceptable maneuver. If the robots started off doing one activity, and then changed to something else when you were sneaking back – it might be an opportunity to give you insight into why they’re doing all this, or to give you more grizzly examples of robots doing awful things to the wildlife. But no: there are three robots, and they all just patrol back and forth in front of piles of animal bodies. Again, nothing’s really being added. We’re being forced to run back and forth through this area, and there’s not really any value in it. There’s nothing extra that we learn. The robot up the top with the container isn’t even doing anything interesting – he’s just hanging out in front of another massive pile of bodies. So why include him at all? Why not just have the flame on a timer, so that the player can run straight through?

You’ve almost got to think like a tour guide, with this sort of game. If your gameplay’s a bit weak, tell an interesting story. You’re climbing up some ivy? What does it involve? Pushing the up button? Right, well, put something interesting in the background, because that’s fucking boring. Same goes for the robot death factory: if there’s twelve rooms, we need twelve steps in the robot death factory production line. The bodies get dumped, they get sorted by species, and then there’s ten rooms of different types of gutting and cleaning different animals, each more depraved than the last. This kinda thing does happen to a degree – for instance, you find some big fuckin alien bug tied up in a big room, and you release it and it runs around and smashes all the robots before giving you a little alien bug thankyou and setting off for greener pastures. Great set piece. Again, really the only complaint is that there’s not more of it. You can only pass through so many rooms filled with the same dead bugs before it starts to wear a little thin. Making you run back and forth through the same room, with no extra development or reward along the way, is just one particularly pointed example of that bigger problem.

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