Some relevant background info (warning, Harry Potter 7 **spoiler** included): Before reading my reaction to Floyd, you should know that I find Jar Jar Binks amusing, that WALL-E is one of my all-time favorite movies, and that I cried when Dobby died in the last Harry Potter book (a fact I very rarely admit). Clearly I like annoying sidekicks/robots.
The odds were definitely in Floyd’s favor leading up to our first encounter and the little robot did not disappoint. I found myself bored and frustrated throughout much of Planetfall–I turned to the walkthroughs very early on–but Floyd did a lot to alleviate these feelings. With him around, the game felt much less monotonous. This is clearly intentional as Floyd’s flamboyant mannerisms and dialogue are in stark contrast with Planetfall‘s no-nonsense prose. Perhaps because of this, Floyd was the only aspect of the game that I bothered imagining in my head–the rest remained white text on a blue screen (in case you’re wondering, my Floyd could pass for WALL-E’s older brother). I found Floyd’s corny sense of humor endearing and his clumsy, obstructive nature to be very much in-line with Dobby’s benevolent misdoings.
My time with the robot was fairly short (I died of starvation and could not bring myself to “restore” one more time) so I turned to the readings to fill in the rest of Floyd’s character and was sorry to hear of his “death.” Simply reading about his sacrifice had an emotional impact on me–the mark of an effective character, especially one that exists solely in a text box. Floyd’s character arc seems surprisingly well-plotted and his personality was incredibly fleshed out, considering the limitations of the format. It was very clever of Meretzky to make the main NPC a robot–any other choice would be at odds with the repetitive command format of the game.
As mentioned before, I found the rest of Planetfall to be generally dull. I was impressed by the comprehensive universe and even the format in general, but just never felt particularly passionate about the game. I can understand its appeal (especially during the time of its creation), but I have never really been a computer game fan, so Planetfall didn’t have much of a chance with me. That being said, I think Meretzky did great with the resources he had, but too little of the game exhibited the spark that Floyd provided.
To improve this brand of interactive fiction, the obvious first step would be to expand the game’s vocabulary. As many have mentioned, too many of the game’s skill requirements come from guessing the right verb to use. Developers should incorporate a large amount of synonyms for as many command words as possible. Additionally, the game should come with a vocabulary list for players or an “option” command that gives players a list of possible moves. Similarly, a few strategically placed word puzzles could be incorporated to unlock hints.
As far as storytelling goes, I would incorporate a large amount of prose at the beginning to set up an intriguing story before forcing players to engage with this completely unknown world. A major turn-off in Planetfall was the feeling of being plunged into a universe that I had no idea how to interact with or what I was meant to achieve. I would have also liked more prose to be incorporated throughout the game (just as video games transition to movie mode, these game could have brief periods of “book mode.”) This would allow for more engaging, descriptive storytelling that is not as daunting as Planetfall‘s open-ended format.
In terms of characters, I think that the best route is to limit the story’s cast to the player, a sidekick, and some off-screen background characters (villains, family, etc.). Too many characters interacting at once could easily inhibit a player’s progress and enjoyment due to the demands of dialogue and character development. Having said that, I do think that having an NPC sidekick is necessary to make the game more dynamic and involving. Instead of focusing on one sidekick, however, a few well-developed characters could rotate in and out of the game to avoid a scenario in which a player is stuck with a sidekick they hate (a common complaint of Floyd).
With these changes, I could really see this type of interactive fiction become a successful book equivalent to video games (an interactive novel rather than an interactive movie).
(Slightly) Relevant Link: Spike Jonze directed an amazing short film called “I’m Here” about two robots who fall in love. It’s available on the film’s official site and on YouTube. Here’s the trailer if you’re interested: