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After spending some time with games without stories, I needed something to ease my way back into story-heavy games. I ended up selecting another title from my backlog, one that is much more like what I thought In Ruins would be: a game about wandering through a beautiful landscape, with a story that is mostly told rather than played. The game, of course, is Lifeless Planet by Stage 2 Studios. I didn’t use a hyperlink there because the game’s homepage actually contains spoilers for the game, which is unfortunate. So be warned before you click on the following link to the game’s page.
Lifeless Planet is a game about an little astronaut who lumbers around the gorgeous vistas of the titular planet with a pleasing low-gravity space waddle. As he explores, of course, spoilers happen. I will endeavor not to spoil anything about the game’s story here, because the surprises it offers are a huge part of the game’s appeal, but I will discuss how that story is told, along with all the other things the game does well.
OK, just one, tiny, extremely mild spoiler about the story, one that is revealed within the first few seconds of the game. I was expecting that the story would begin in a cliched manner, with the astronaut discovering that this supposedly lifeless planet is not lifeless at all, but is inhabited by deadly aliens intent on hunting him down. But I was pleased to discover that the premise is the opposite. Probes and other observations indicated that the planet should be teeming with life, which is why so much money was spent on a manned expedition there. But upon arrival, the astronaut and his team find a lifeless wasteland instead. What happened?
To find out, the spaceman must space waddle to the best of his ability, and head off exploring. Thus begins a linear story, in the style of a recent crop of games that detractors refer to as “walking simulators”. These games are categorized by beautiful environments that the player must travel through, usually in a straight line, and often with a story that is discovered or directly told. I haven’t played many of these types of games, but I enjoyed Lifeless Planet a lot. While it is clearly a linear game, it does an excellent job of establishing a sense of place, and the illusion of a long trek across an alien world. There is always a single path to follow, and while it is most often an literal trail with no other options, there are moments that are much more open, with the path not immediately obvious. At their best, these places are excellent simulacra of vast deserts or huge craters, feeling impossibly huge. There are even some things to discover if players poke around beyond the main path, but I never felt much compulsion to do so. It’s a linear game, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but these open areas do wonders towards making it feel like a real place instead of a corridor.
There are other tricks at play as well. The landscape is rendered out to a huge distance, providing appropriate views across the planet’s surface as the astronaut explores. The slight blurring at the edges of the screen, which evokes a curved space helmet, also helps with this; distant objects don’t need to have high detail to fit with the scene when they are out of focus anyway. Lifeless Planet is also an excellent example of how to play to the strengths of a linear design. Since players will all follow the same path, scenes can be staged without having to take control from the player in a cutscene (although there are a few of those in Lifeless Planet). The game’s score, provided by Rich Douglas, is excellent and placed perfectly to accentuate key moments. It’s so much more affecting to crest a hill and be treated to a beautiful view across the landscape, timed to a stirring strain of music, than it is to watch a canned cutscene, and Lifeless Planet is full of examples of this technique.
But it’s not all just waddling around and being treated to pretty views. Unlike many other games of this type, the astronaut protagonist spends a lot of time jumping around too. With the lower gravity on this planet plus a jetpack that provides a double-jump, the spaceman is able to leap across chasms and rocky outcrops to get to his next objective, and spends a surprising amount of time doing so. Those who are looking for a peaceful space jaunt may be disappointed when Lifeless Planet starts acting like a 3D platformer, but honestly the jumping is rarely challenging, and is often an exhilarating way to travel, especially during the sections when the astronaut is able to power up his jetpack for some really long jumps. These segments are — lamentably — very obviously gated, with a tank of jetpack fuel conveniently lying around right before the astronaut faces difficult terrain, and just as conveniently running out as soon as he’s passed the obstacles. But I enjoyed them a lot so I didn’t mind too much.
While I’m on the subject, Lifeless Planet suffers from a few other weaknesses. The astronaut occasionally runs low on oxygen, but this has little meaning, because there’s always a resupply station or other means of restoring his oxygen within view. To be honest I’m not sure why it was included at all, barring a certain moment later in the game. Also, for every incredible view and breathtaking landscape there are plenty of comparably ugly ravines with generic rocky textures stretched awkwardly across them. At these moments I felt like I was playing a much older game. Fortunately there’s always more prettiness around the corner, as the early deserts give way to glaciers or areas of high geothermal activity. I did also find the game ran slowly in certain areas, even though my hardware should have been able to run it without any problems. This apparently only affects a small fraction of players and can be addressed by turning off some of the fancier graphical effects, but I just played through it.
In practice, the exploration and pretty views can’t be separated from the story, which I can’t write much about without spoiling it. Suffice it to say that there are some surprising early reveals that take things in very interesting directions. These guide the astronaut’s further waddlings, and most of the tale is revealed by the things he finds. The design of the locations, then, has a huge influence on how well the story resonates, and for the most part it does an excellent job. The pacing suffers later in the game, where there are many long jumping sequences with few new revelations, and I’m not sure how I feel about the ending. But the early parts are fantastic and easily justify my time spent playing. It was a pleasure to explore such a beautiful place, taking my time to marvel without having to worry about imminent danger. If you’re in the mood for some peaceful exploration and mystery, strap on your space suit and jetpack and give it a try.
Really, all else is incidental: it’s all about the waddling.
Lifeless Planet is available from the SPOILERIFIC game page linked at the top of this post, as well as from GOG and Steam, who also seem intent on spoiling things. Sigh. Apparently there’s to be an Xbox One release of the game soon, with some upgrades which will then come to the PC version as well. Not sure when that will arrive.