Electron Dance
7Jun/11Off

Always Floyd

This is the second article in the Where We Came From series.

I didn't give in easily, trying again and again to find another way to recover the access card. Maybe I could use the magnet through the crack in the adjacent Radiation Lab? No, RESTORE. Perhaps the breastplate of Lazarus might protect me? No, RESTORE. The laser could take out a mutant or two? No, no, no. And so I reluctantly continued the game on the back of a solution I had been handed on a silver platter. The card was mine. And Floyd was dead.

Games are adept at stimulating excitement, panic and euphoria, but are troubled by more complex, intimate emotions such as sadness or regret. The first game I recall plumbing these particular depths is Planetfall (1983), a warm, juicy slice of interactive science fiction from Infocom. Penned by first-time IF author Steve Meretzky, it toys with gamer preconceptions in many ways. However, Planetfall is the subject of many blog posts because of Floyd. Always Floyd.

The story goes that you joined the Stellar Patrol to see the galaxy but end up mired in janitorial duties aboard the starship SPS Feinstein. Without warning, explosions riddle the Feinstein and you high-tail it out of there via an escape pod – just in time to watch the Feinstein explode. The pod dumps you on a nearby planet but you soon discover evidence of a previous civilisation... and find yourself exploring a vast, abandoned complex filled with gadgets and advanced technology.

In the game, you're completely alone until you happen upon a deactivated robot.

When switched on, the robot introduces himself as Floyd. Floyd’s personality is best described as an excitable young child. He likes to run into a room shouting: “Floyd here now!” When you ask him to go somewhere, he gets embarrassed about his terrible sense of direction and asks instead, "Tell Floyd a story?" And he'd rather play with a rubber ball than get you that vital Fromitz board.

During my game in the eighties, there was one point when I needed a new access card to make more progress but, despite searching under every desk and bed, I couldn't locate one. I was stuck. Then Floyd, spotting me swipe an access card through one of many slots, piped up: “Those cards are really neat, huh? Floyd has one for himself--see?”

You bastard! I’ve been looking for that everywhere!

While Floyd made me smile in the beginning, as my game drew on he became a constant buzz in my ear, a buzz I eventually screened out. It was like he wasn't even there any more.

Then we reached the Bio Lab. Inside, another access card which Floyd said we'd need to fix the computer. But with "shadowy, ominous shapes" moving about in there too, Floyd said he should go in and get it as it was too dangerous for me. I thought: he’ll be okay, he’s a robot, made out of tough robot metal.

But when I sent him in, it was horrible - all screams and tearing metal. Floyd made it back out with the card… but he was done for. The text explained that I held him in my arms. Sang him a ballad. Watched him die. Floyd, this bouncy robot child, had been torn apart by monsters. I remember feeling numb.

Many old-timers relate stories of crying when Floyd perished. I was around 14 at the time and didn't cry for Floyd. In fact, I was convinced I’d made a mistake; Floyd’s death could surely only be the result of player error. But with so much grand wordage invested in his death scene, slowly I came round to consider that… maybe… this was what I was supposed to do.

When I eventually walked away from Floyd's lifeless remains at the Bio Lab airlock, the game had changed. That buzz in my ear was missing. The world of Planetfall was empty and lonely. Floyd's death was the first moment in video games which moved me.

Since Planetfall, there have been other tragic moments for players to indulge in. Final Fantasy VII, the death of Aeris. Dreamfall's Faith. Alley's tale in Adam Cadre's Photopia. My own personal weakness is Planescape: Torment, Deionarra's sensory stone in the Sensate Hall. I watered up over that one, good and proper.

Still, in recent years, the death of Floyd has been derided as a sideshow, a distraction from the cause of truly great game-making.

Raph Koster:

“…many of the peak emotional moments we remember in games are actually “cheating” — they’re not given to us by the game at all, but by cutscenes. The death of Floyd the Robot in Planetfall is an example of a cheat like this; so’s the death of Aeris. Both are cutscene moments ... and not gameplay moments.”

Chris Lepine:

“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.”

Chris Crawford also talked the incident down. In his book Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling he wrote, “players were overwhelmed with the moment’s emotional power [as] there was nothing players could do to avert it”. As Emily Short explains, Crawford used this to bolster his argument that interactive fiction is incapable of interactive story-telling as the player has no real control over the narrative.

On a three-hour replay, I was struck how limited Floyd was as a character, and how sparing the descriptions of Planetfall were (memory had coloured it in with richer prose). The game also requires more maintenance than you might expect – hunger and sleep will mar your progress and using any elevator or teleporter requires two full sentences to be typed followed by several turns of waiting. The old battle with the sentence parser is still in evidence and I needed a walkthrough, just once, to reword GET KEY WITH MAGNET as HOLD MAGNET NEAR KEY.

But Steve Meretzky, who now works at social game developer Playdom, wrote in 2008:

“Perhaps the most amazing thing about the creation of Floyd was how easy it was. The entire code and text for the character, if printed out, would perhaps run to ten pages. What's amazing is not that I was able to create a computer game character that touched people so deeply, but how infrequently the same thing has been accomplished in the intervening two decades.”

It doesn’t matter whether you can theorise it into nostalgic innocence, Floyd's death was still a potent moment for those that played through it during the eighties. It defied the prevailing perception that gaming was good for nothing but action and puzzles, an unexpected display of human emotion in an industry more famous for broken joysticks than touching stories.

And to this day, developers are still trying to make their players cry.

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Comments (17) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Superb article. I had a long comment written but then realised you already had it covered. Nice work.

  2. An excellent article indeed. Besides, I can never read enough quality stuff about Infocom games.

  3. Excellent article. Makes me wish I had played more of the Infocom games. I’ve come into a love of text adventures recently, but I missed so many of the historically important ones – I was playing games back then, but wasn’t allowed to buy them. The text adventures from my youth were typed into BASIC from My First Computer Program books at the local library.

    I have a lot of respect for Raph Koster, but that article you link pushes a lot of my buttons. I always find that view, that non-interactive (or not-interactive-ENOUGH) content can be cut entirely without affecting a game as a whole to be infuriatingly reductive. When he says “many of the peak emotional moments we remember in games are actually ‘cheating'”, he is in my opinion taking exactly the right premise and drawing exactly the wrong conclusion. These are the moments we remember. There is no cheating and there are no rules, there is what sticks with us after we put the game down and what doesn’t.

    Elsewhere in the article he makes the point that Half-Life 2 would make a terrible movie if it were directly transcribed, then rolls from that straight to the conclusion that only the shooty bits matter and it could have been white boxes bouncing around on orange cubes for all the rest of it and the game would be no different. For me, the interaction and the artifice together make something that is completely unlike either and you can’t lose that sense of transportation to another place or write it off as “spectacle” any more than any other part.

  4. Good read as always. I very rarely played any text adventures and the only ones I did got me killed very quickly in-game and frustrated in real life.

    There have been a few moments that have generated true emotion in games. Most of them haven’t been during cutscenes though.

    It was really funny playing Halo: Reach again recently, but with someone who has to watch every cutscene. Almost all the significant characters die during them with no hint at where they have gone during the game. For the chronic cut-scene skipper than I am it was a very disjointed experience, I kept going: ‘Oh that is what happened to him, I did wonder why I didn’t see him again.’

    From that perspective the emotional impact did feel like cheating because I didn’t care and it only would have hit me hard if they had done it while I was playing, the experience was there for me to watch not interact with. That said, if I liked cutscenes maybe it would have mattered.

    By no means would I say that it always cheating (the Soul Reaver stuff really got to me) but more how invested in the experience I am (FF and Halo = not at all).

    @Switchbreak, I wish all the non-shooting in Half Life 2 had been boxes bouncing around, it would have made for a very jarring and sureal narrative. Some kind of surealist take on the FPS genre.

  5. @Chopper: Thanks!

    @gnome: Your first comment around these parts, gnome, welcome! We’ll be departing adventure shores now probably until the penultimate article, the fourth interview.

    @Switchbreak: Replaying Planetfall, despite all the little foibles, made me want to play more. In the 80s I played the Zork Trilogy, Wishbringer, Planetfall, Enchanter, The Lurking Horror and the infamously difficult and treacherously irrational Hitchhiker’s Guide. That leaves plenty to have a stab at, like Planetfall’s sequel Stationfall, the murder mysteries, the remaining two parts of the Enchanter trilogy, A Mind Forever Voyaging… I could be very busy.

    The trouble with typing in the early BASIC text adventures is that you read every secret of the game as you typed them in!

    IF A$=”MOVE TABLE” THEN PRINT “A hidden trapdoor!”

    On the Raph Koster thing. I understand the importance of why cutscenes should be made interactive, and this was something that was thrown out during IGDA writers’ panel I attended last year. But on the other hand, the origin of the cutscene was as a reward – they were great technical feats that made the players marvel at the graphical splendour. When they eventually became commonplace, most developers never seemed to realise the novelty was DEAD. Cutscenes had to be good instead of the tepid, ugly dialogue that haunts games such as Lost Planet.

    Cutscenes as reward are, for me, far better than god damn achievements to work for. But they have to be interesting. I coveted every single one of Thief’s intermission briefings and cutscenes. They were absolutely awesome. Even the few cutscenes in STALKER were surreal and also worth the wait.

    @badger commander: Text adventures were an acquired taste, there were plenty of computer owners that never got into them even at their peak. Still, there was plenty of crap too. I wrote one in BASIC called Computer Adventure. This was crap. Then I wrote another one in BASIC, and the descriptions in DATA statements filled up the entire memory before I started coding the parser or game logic. That one never got finished. So it was crap.

    You’ve sort of made my point – cutscenes are bad only because they’re not worth the time invested in watching them. When the plots are little more than stereotypes dancing through regurgitated Hollywood tropes the only thing you can hope for is that they look darn pretty.

    @all: If no one has seen it – have a look at the HAWP on text adventures.

  6. I wasn’t around for the old Infocom adventures, but each one I’ve played through in recent years has been a unique pleasure. They generally lack the conveniences and frills of modern IF, but their freewheeling sense of experimentation and wonder is enormously charming even today. I just played through A Mind Forever Voyaging earlier this year and would definitely recommend it if you’ve got the time.

    @switchbreak: Totally agree that we shouldn’t be placing limits on what’s kosher to include in a game, and that artifice and interaction together make for something larger. Rather than eliminating cutscenes altogether, I’d really like to see more games take notes from Braid’s attempt to have the jumpy bits and the talky bits comment on and reinforce each other thematically.

  7. Hi Prettiest Boy! I’m really feeling like going back to the Enchanter trilogy again, I was stuck early in Sorceror. Definitely think its high time I conquered that one. And “their freewheeling sense of experimentation and wonder is enormously charming even today” is a beautiful way of putting it.

  8. “and barely amounts to a loyal dog that stays by your side throughout.”

    Isn’t this an utterly catastrophic argument? What could possibly be *more* moving than the death of a loyal dog? It is a theme as ancient as art itself, and one of the oldest stories to make people cry.

  9. Hello Jonas, hope you’re recovering from your recent bouts of ill-health. Perhaps all that Terraria is doing you some good.

    I remember the story of Gelert, told to me in school when I was around 6 or 7, about how a man kills his loyal dog Gelert who he thinks has killed his child. It’s quite a horrible story for a young mind, to be honest. It’s the absolute reverse of happy ending. So, yup, I can imagine the death of a loyal dog to be quite tragic.

    Maybe I handpicked the quote too well, but Chris was gunning more at the simplicity of Floyd than the implied fiction – that he mechanically reduces down to a dog that follows you without question and is less of the interactive companion that you might expect. I don’t totally agree with what Chris wrote (one of the drivers behind this piece) and he recently tweeted that he took a particularly hard line on Floyd to make his point that nostalgia might be lending too much gravitas to certain shared gaming memories.

    Floyd wasn’t as well-written as I remember – I think we’ve become used to a broader spectrum of interaction and “barks” in games – but the moment still works. Not sure if it would really grab a modern audience, though.

  10. It would be positively heartbreaking as a short film, I’d imagine. Especially if it was animated and presented like a children’s movie.

  11. Argh! Spoilers! No! My eyes! Curses!

  12. Jakkar!!! I knew someone would chastise me for spoiling the secret of a 30 year old game.

  13. I was planning on staying out of this one, only because I felt that I couldn’t add anything to Joel’s excellent article. But I should reply to Jonas, if only to qualify what I meant by “barely amounts to a loyal dog that stays by your side throughout”. I can expand on Joel’s (very appropriate) interpretation of what I meant by it.

    The literary theme of losing a faithful companion (especially an animal of some kind), or a companion losing her/his caring master, is rich indeed. No one would contest that as a familiar and powerful trope.

    But what I wonder is: how well does Planetfall express or take advantage of that literary theme?

    Some of the best stories about animal-friends and their masters involve the theme of total devotion and loyalty that come from long periods of emotional and physical attachment. Usually, it is years or decades of closeness. Ged’s otak in The Wizard of Earthsea (if you’ve read it) is there with him for the duration of his quest. The wizard Erasmus has his familiar Fenrus in Quest for Glory 1 (or was it the other way around?). Fry has his faithful dog in Futurama, which stays loyal to him until its own demise (which is one of the saddest moments in cartoon history, for me). In the bittersweet tale from Tokyo, the dog Hachiko returns to the home and train station of his master, waiting for his return, years after the master has died.

    So does the protagonist live in a close emotional relationship to Floyd? Do Floyd and the protagonist enact everlasting changes in one another during their relationship? How much time do these characters spend with one another?

    In my case, the answers to the above questions are: not really, not much, and not a very long time. Floyd is not my confidant or silent friend, nor do I desire to confide anything in him or listen to his story (he does not have one anyway). Floyd does not ‘build his relationship with me’ over time by gaining my trust, nor do I gain his. I may have re-activated him, and he must have sacrificed himself for me, but to “save one’s life” there must be trust and gratitude expressed. In my play-throughs of the game, I spent (in-game time) three or four days on the planet. Is that enough time to develop a strong emotional connection to a companion?

    All of this, for me at least, says that Floyd is not a very interesting character – at least when I compare him to the other pet-friends whom I have become attached to in other films/books/stories. Sure, I can exaggerate his importance by imagining another story, one in which the protagonist and Floyd are tightly intertwined, sharing a life together before losing each other – one that draws deeply on the ‘loyal dog’ theme. But in that case, it wouldn’t be Planetfall.

    Chris

  14. Chris, thank you for testing the lengths of the WordPress comment system =)

    I’m not responding specifically on Jonas’ query but more on my own. Where I diverge from your take on Planetfall is on using a “loyal dog” narrative to frame Floyd, because I don’t think that’s what really affected me.

    As touched on in the article, Floyd is just this “presence” that gets in the way and occasionally makes you laugh – his reveal of the access card, for example. He’s so persistently there that you come to rely on him as background noise in this dead place. And he’s harmless really – I always saw him as a child rather than a dog. You don’t really need to interact with him very much at all.

    So the moment in which he is ripped out of the game, this harmless child, and leaving you with nothing but the noise of your own footsteps, is affecting.

    Thus: it’s not the sacrifice and bond that moved the player, but the unexpected, lonely vacuum his absence created.

    Still, I don’t think I’d have pondered this deeply on the meaning of Floyd unless you’d contested the prevailing wisdom.

  15. I’ve never played a text adventure for any decent length of time. I used to watch my uncle playing The Hobbit on his Spectrum 48k but I was too young then to appreciate the power of the written word over flashier visuals (such as the Transformers game he had). I also think I would be the slowest text adventurer ever; I had to pause that HAWP video just now because I couldn’t read it fast enough — very funny though.

    I always saw cutscenes as a reward and I think for me they sort of ceased being that shortly after Final Fantasy VIII, which is funny given that the FF series hasn’t really moved on a great deal since then and Square are still pumping everything they’ve got into their FMVs.

    I want to write something here about Koster’s point on emotional cutscene moments but my head’s turning to spaghetti. At what point do you say the game gave you an emotional moment and not a writer or cutscene? When it’s dynamically generated? Because, while that sounds great to me, I’m not sure it’ll be able to achieve what a good writer can.

    Anyway, great piece Joel. Onward! ;-)

  16. My GOD, Gregg, are you really going through WWCF? I don’t believe it!

    Don’t worry, I’m coming back to Raph Koster. Soon. But my point is basically this: it doesn’t matter how much you theorise or pontificate or denigrate- if people felt something, you can’t make them unfeel it. The source of those feelings are kind of irrelevant to the player.

  17. Stumbled on this – just a note you can get all of the infocom games on your Ipad for ten dollars.

    Lost treasures of Infocom.

    They are as good as they ever were.


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