Every time I hear Infocom’s text adventure Planetfall brought up amongst gamers, usually my age or a bit older, someone inevitably brings up their relationship with Floyd – a little ‘bot that is your sole partner for the bulk of the game. Floyd follows you around the abandoned planet, making the occasional smart-assed comment, and helps with the occasional task. At a critical moment of the game, Floyd – and I quote wikipedia here – “performs the ultimate sacrifice and gives his life to retrieve the vital Miniaturization Card from the Biolab” [1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planetfall].
In recent years, Floyd dying in the Biolab has become a touchstone for gaming emotion. It is now often cited as a critical moment in the developmental path of gaming, along with (of course) Aerith dying in Final Fantasy VII. (For instance – in the comments area of 11 Nerdy Moments Guaranteed to Make You Cry a few people mention Floyd and effectively put it on the same spectrum as Spock dying in Star Trek and Gandalf dying in Lord of the Rings.) Character death is now a celebrated aspect of the gamer mythos. In this article I take apart what I see as false nostalgia that has sanctified one of the least important parts of Planetfall at the cost of missing the one thing that makes Planetfall stand out as one of the most important text adventures of today.
(If you care about “spoilers”, and haven’t, in the last 27 years taken the time to play Planetfall – now might be a good time to stop reading and start playing.)
Not a lot was said about this moment back in the 1980s. In fact, other than the occasional “Floyd was really cool”, almost nothing was said about Floyd prior to the emergence of the post-2005 gamer/nerd aesthetic. Even James A. McPherson’s (1984) Computer Gaming World review (p. 44) paints Floyd in a somewhat ambivalent light, suggesting that he is (at first) an annoyance, which the reviewer slowly grew to see as a companion.
... You will meet a robot named Floyd. In the beginning, Floyd might be a nuisance because of his incessant babbling, but as you have probably already guessed he plays an important part in the completion of the game. Floyd's interaction is a very unique concept in this game. It adds animation to the game without relying on graphics. (In certain parts of the complex I had already mapped I found myself hurrying through the rooms. As this left Floyd far behind, I ended up slowing down to wait for Floyd to catch up.)... The addition of Floyd the robot as your part- ner is a unique boost to the interactive nature of these games and I hope to see more of this type of creative innovation in future games.
Maybe McPherson did not want to ruin the ending for new players, but I don’t see anything approaching the histrionics of gamers today who think back to dear little Floyd. Floyd hardly figures into the review any more than an interesting gameplay innovation. What I’m getting at is that gamers have come, through a combination of blind personal nostalgia and participation within a cloistered gamer culture, to exaggerate the meaning of what is a highly overrepresented aspect of Planetfall. Floyd is not a compelling character, and barely amounts to a loyal dog that stays by your side throughout.
What I’m trying to say is that the vast majority of gamers have missed out on the most important part of the game.
The philosopher and phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard has something to say about “cosmicity” – the inconceivable vastness of the universe that we experience when we encounter a cosmic poetic image – in say, a poem. The first stanza of William Blake’s oft-quoted poem Auguries of Innocence is a standard example:
To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.
For Bachelard, perceiving infinitude in the miniature is essential to the growth of consciousness. Our world – quite literally – becomes larger as we imagine cosmic vastness. Simultaneously, as we perceive things in miniature, the geometrically tiny encloses something impossibly large. The examples of this today are innumerable – especially in childrens’ popular culture: Basil the Hare freely commiserates with the mice of Redwall Abbey in Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, Tuck Pendleton of Innerspace is miniaturized (along with his spaceship) and injected into a man’s body, or when Flynn is digitized and inserted into the ENCOM mainframe in Tron. In all of these, a leap of the imagination is necessary: I know that Basil is literally 50 times the size of Matthias in Redwall, but I imagine them to live in the same space. The imagination makes literal impossibilities fictional realities. And for Bachelard, who sees the imagination and consciousness as malleable parts of our human makeup, imagining the impossibly infinite is an expansion of our way of being in the world.
Becoming The Grain of Sand
Where does Planetfall fit in this? It is one of the few games that seamlessly integrates microcosmicity into its experience… so much so that the player can feel the mutual intimacy of the miniature and the vast. The scene happens after Floyd has retrieved the miniaturization card for you and died for his efforts. To get off the island, you must first fix a problem with the computer – there is a fault at Relay Station 384 on the computer’s motherboard. Here is what happens:
You - and the laser beam you carry - climb into a miniaturization booth and are shrunken to a being just a few microns across. The computer's circuit board becomes a gigantic maze of highways and platforms - copper traces, junctions and gates. Wielding the laser, you walk over to a nearby relay station and fire several times at a gigantic meteorite, sitting between the relay and the rest of the circuit, preventing it from functioning. The meteorite - an infinitesimal spec of dust to the naked eye - dwarfs you. You walk back to the entrance and encounter a microbe hell-bent on eating you alive. You fire at the microbe relentlessly, and your laserbeam has no effect on the montrosity. The laser is growing hot in your hands. Finally, frustrated, you throw your laser over the side of the platform and the microbe chases after it into oblivion. You run back to the entrance, and you are re-atomized into your former size. All of this happens in a few nanoseconds.
Compare my description above of what I see as the most important scene in the game – of being de-atomized and shrunken, destroying a particle of dust with a laser, and being chased by a gigantic microbe – to the oft-spoken sentiment “Floyd’s death made me sad.” I don’t dispute that Floyd’s death was saddening – what I dispute is that his death carries much significance for us as people. I don’t think about Floyd at night, before I go to bed.
What I do imagine is being shrunken to the size of a butterfly’s eyelash, and running around in a labyrinth of tunnels and junctions. In other words, the simple emotion of sadness does not lead me anywhere new – it is just what it is. But microcosmicity… the experience of vastness in an impossible small space… is a new experience and opens me up to new kinds of imagining.