Lifeless Planet is a beautiful object.
It’s graphically “simple” in the contemporary world of both prestige and grungy independent game development. The astronaut you play as is this wonderful almost-lump that can double jump by using his astronaut jet pack (my technical lingo here is lacking). You progress through this wonderful science fiction story that has all of the elements of the most beautiful Ray Bradbury tale, and I was legitimately impressed with how the game’s simple plot beats slowly cohered into something that I was legitimately interested in. Simple science fiction always has a way of racing toward the mean of silliness, or triteness, or finger-wagging political statements, and Lifeless Planet manages to avoid all of that in order to prod at something wonderful.
At least all of this is true through how much of Lifeless Planet I managed to play. Because no matter how much I love all of those elements, they cannot carry my interest for a long time. A double jump (plus long jump, plus robotic arm) is not enough to capture me for several hours. A simple mystery, something that I could read in twenty minutes in any of those beloved Bradbury collections, isn’t enough to keep me invested over four or five hours.
I did it to myself. I played half an hour of Lifeless Planet and was so engaged that I was recommending it to people. I sold it like this: “it’s this short, tight hour-long thing that really tells this great story.” I thought for sure that I understood the structure of this thing, and I idly searched it on HowLongToBeat to make sure that I could complete it before going to sleep–if it was another 30 minutes I would attempt it, but if it was another hour I was going to wait.
Five hours. I couldn’t image how the game could sustain for that long, or worse, how my interest could hold that long. And as soon as I got to the puzzles where I might have to use a robotic arm to solve a puzzle, I put the game down. The proliferation of mechanics, scenarios, and plot grandeur filled me full of dread. I put it down.
The difference between today and the game’s release window in 2011 is that today that kind of game is not only possible but existing everywhere. The “vignette game” (as Nina Freeman calls them) has proceeded from periphery to full genre, and we’re better for it. Lifeless Planet could be this amazing hour experience where a player wakes up, finds an abandoned town, and then travels deep into the planet for plot revelations.
But instead, in the interest of the general ideas of what a game is meant to be, Lifeless Planet stretches, adds mechanics, escalates the plot, and generally just continues. And I’m sure that’s great for some, but something I increasingly value in games is tightness, a kind of strict coherence, and the languid proliferation of Lifeless Planet goes the other way.
Speculative theory: a world where we could take the elements of a game and reorient them to make fan cuts in the same way that films can be recut toward different ends.