Monday 22 May 2017

Missed Classic: Planetfall - Leavin’ on a Midnight Train to Lawanda

Written by Joe Pranevich

Which bed to sleep in tonight?

Last week, I kicked off my explorations of Planetfall, the sixth stop on the “Great Zork Marathon.” The game opened with a brief on-rails sequence where I was taunted by a petty superior officer for not cleaning the floors properly, but quickly became something very different when our starship blew up. I fled in an escape pod and crash landed in an abandoned military base on an unknown planet with only a spare towel and some tasty goo to survive with. Don’t panic! As I explored the base, I discovered many locked doors and elevators, earthquake damage, and a new best front: Floyd, a helpful but childish robot who runs off at odd times and likes to write on walls with crayons. As I ended my last post, night had just fallen and I retreated to an empty dormitory to sleep. I’m running out of food but I had just discovered a key to the lower elevators. That’s where I’ll start today.

But before I go, a word of advice: if you haven’t played Planetfall before, you may want to stop reading and pick this up. I won’t have any of the best spoilers in this post, but this is a game that is worth experiencing for yourself unspoiled. Another challenge I have is properly communicating the tone of the game. Much of what I have glossed over, the mundane exploration of the alien base mixed and the slow realization that you will die without rescue, creates a tension that adds to the solving of typical adventure puzzles. It’s well-written in a way that I doubt I can capture very well. I’m having a ton of fun and I hope you do as well.

A subway tunnel to adventure!

Although I was excited to snag the lower elevator card last week, my joy was short-lived. The elevator took me down into a subway platform with a single train pulled into the station. I enter the train to discover that it requires yet another access card in order to get it moving. Smashing windows doesn’t help and there does not appear to be a way to work my way down the tracks on foot. Stymied, I take stock of the remaining mysteries to figure out what to tackle next.

Here are the puzzles I am trying to solve:
  • I need to find several access cards; these are the “colored rods” of Planetfall (to steal an idea from Starcross) and much of the base is locked to me. I have the “lower elevator” card, but I found other access slots for the upper elevators, the reactor elevator, the kitchen, and a teleport booth. Why this science fiction future still uses elevators and trains when they invented teleporters, I have no idea.
  • I also found two locked doors without cards: a combination lock in the rec center and a padlock on a door in the hallway near the dorms. The combo lock doesn’t seem to be solvable yet as there is no feedback that might allow us to zero in on a correct solution.
  • There is a machine that dispenses several kinds of acids, bases, and coolants in the robot repair area, plus a number of parts scattered between two maintenance rooms but nothing obvious to do with any of them.
  • The administrative area (north of the robot repair) has a hall that has been split in two by an earthquake and now features a chasm I cannot cross. It also has a crack in the floor containing a key but my fingers are too big to retrieve it.
  • A portable laser I found in the robot repair area fires colored beams based on a dial setting: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. None of them seem to do much, possibly because the laser’s battery is old and needs to be replaced.

I’ll spare you the random trial and error but I quickly gave up on brute forcing the combination and tried more destructive approaches. Neither acid nor lasers accomplished what I wanted but I did manage to melt the outside of the lock off. That leaves the key as the most likely puzzle to solve but neither Floyd nor I can reach in and the pliers are also too big.

I am so attracted to you.

The solution turns out to be simple: the “U-bar” that I discovered in one of the maintenance bays was a magnet! It seems obvious in retrospect but I spent far too much time on it. Using the magnet, I pull the key out of the crack. Just as I suspected, the key opens up the padlock in the hallway and I can access another maintenance closet, this one containing a can of Spam and an extensible ladder. The Spam could not have come at a better time: I’m out of food. Or it would have if I could find any way to open the tin. I’ll have to hunt for a can opener later. If I don’t find food soon, I’ll be dead.

I recognize immediately what I can use the ladder for: with it, I may be able to cross the large chasm in the middle of the administrative hallway. Since it is so big, I have to drop nearly everything to pick it up, but I manage to get it to the chasm and lay it across. The first time, I’m an idiot and forgot to extend it so all I get is a ladder at the bottom of a crevice. I try it again and now I have a rickety way across to a new section of the base! That reveals three more rooms: a small office containing access cards for the upper elevator and kitchens, a dark room (more grues!), and a planning room with a map of the complex. The latter is more proof that we’re only in half of the base with the “Lawanda” complex on another island. Once I figure out how to use the train, I should be able to get there.

In all of this puzzle-solving, I forgot to mention that I’m starting to feel feverish. Is it radiation poisoning? Something from the food? There’s nothing I can do now but I suspect this is a second time limit I will need to manage. I use the kitchen access to get behind the cafeteria and while I do not find a can opener, I find one better: a food dispenser! I fill up my canteen with delicious brown goo (eating a bit first) feel confident that at least I won’t die of hunger. (The classic Zork “diagnose” command is surprisingly useful this game.)

With nothing further to see in the kitchen, I make for the upper elevators next. That takes me to a tower at the top of the complex containing a helipad (with helicopter!), an observation deck, and a communications room. The communications room is the most interesting as I find both the outgoing and incoming message systems are active. For incoming, I press a button to hear the call for help from my own doomed ship before it exploded. The outgoing side is more pertinent as I learn that the planet suffered from a great plague (possibly what I am catching now) and the population wanted to warn everyone to stay away. So where is everyone-except-Floyd now? Are they all dead? That would be a dark place for a comedy game, but I don’t put it past Mr. Meretzky. In any event, no one ever received that message because the outbound system is broken and requires a “coolant override”. I try pouring a coolant in a nearby nozzle and it just breaks the machine worse so I restore and will come back when I have a gameplan.

Because races with teleporters need helicopters.

The helicopter on the helipad above is as non-functional as the train. I am told that I will need an orange key to unlock the controls. If I find one, will I just be able to fly to the other island instead of using the train?

Blocked in my explorations, I resume trial-and-error to find something that will budge but ultimately come up with nothing. I guess I’ll have to take the communication system brute force after all. Fortunately there are only a few options: four coolants marked yellow, green, blue and red; three catalysts marked as gray, brown, and black, plus buttons for an acid and a base. I end up cycling through all of them and on my seventh attempt I discover that the black catalysts solved the problem. Just as I started to ask what I missed that I had to brute force, a black light turns off on the control panel and is replaced by a yellow one. I head back down and grab the yellow coolant this time and that repairs the machine completely. It successfully sends its ancient distress call, but I am left to wonder: does that help me or hinder me? Sure, someone may find the message odd, but how many ships in that case would go to a known plague zone? I hope I did the right thing.

Unfortunately, solving that puzzle didn’t drop me with any new access cards or keys so I find myself stuck once again. I haven’t been updating you each time I eat or sleep, but it’s now morning on day four and I’m long-since subsisting only on the brown goo from the kitchen. With no better ideas, I replay the game from scratch both for in-game speed as well as searching for exits that I missed. I find a doozy: there is a fourth room in the administrative zone past the chasm and it’s not hidden at all; I just missed it. I also notice that if you hold the access cards at the same time as the magnets, the cards are broken. I love 1980s technology in the future! That would have been another clue as to the nature of the magnet, but I missed it. Oh well.

That room contains the long-awaited shuttle access card so I head downstairs to finally take the train. The controls seem easy enough with a lever to speed up or down. It’s a bit of a puzzle, but every few seconds a sign appears that tells me the speed limit or when it’s time to slow down. I follow all of the posted signs and soon arrive at the Lawanda Platform with no problems. Time to explore… next week.

Inventory: Lots of stuff squirreled away in the dorm, but I am carrying my uniform, scrub brush, and id card, the lower elevator and shuttle access cards, and a canteen of brown goo as I cross to Lawanda.

Time played: 6 hr 40 min
Total time: 8 hr 05 min


  1. No particular suggestions, but I've been really loving your Zork (and Zork-esques) runthroughs, and find reading them more entertaining than playing the games ever was for me. I always spent far more time struggling with the interface than I ever did actually solving puzzles.

    1. I am glad you are enjoying! After so many games, the Infocom parser is old hat now and I hardly even think about it. I wonder sometimes what thirty (nearly forty!) years of development could have done to these text-mode interfaces. Could we have had full native English? Or is this as "state of the art" as we could ever expect?

    2. I suspect if some of Google's technology were applied to text interfaces we could have quite natural English. Neural networks could take this kind of thing a long way.

    3. You might be interested of this online conversation, where Brian Moriarty has a discussion about parser with some of the big names of current interactive fiction scheme:

    4. And continuing from that conversation, you might want to read Emily Short's piece about parser in IF:

  2. Thanks for those Ilmari. But those both date back to the era when I was talking game design in these forums, and the people involved have a certain skepticism about the ability to meaningfully incorporate natural English that the last decade or so has really eroded. The neural network tools to do this kind of thing not only exist, they're largely in the public domain.

    I like Moriarty's point about the *attractiveness* of text interfaces but no one in that discussion seems to really know what he means or have any good examples, but it immediately brought to mind for me the use of text in Kentucky Route Zero, which despite being graphically gorgeous is at its heart a kind of text-based interactive fiction.

    1. But I also like Emily's point about more clearly indicating a limited range of valid interactions rather than trying to create the illusion of infinite possibility. Players don't want an infinite range of shallow interaction, they want an interesting range of meaningful ones.