I grew from a comforting world of pixelated blue skies, spunky anthropomorphic sprites and an somewhat naive optimism that the heroes would always prevail and save the day, to enter a brown, grittier future full of patches, micro transactions, download content, and the never ending barrage of first person shooters and Assassin Creed sequels created by companies who exist to suck out the colour, joy and creativity of the hobby we all love, or so it seems. For many thirty-something year old gaming pensioners like myself, the indie gaming movement has become somewhat synonymous with the innocent bygone days of gaming youth. Indie developers have championed the new and exciting against the Call of Duty‘s and FIFA‘s of the modern era. But whilst I love and embrace this gaming renaissance and spiritual awakening of games as an artistic medium, I am sometimes guilty of ignoring a game’s flaws just because of its indie credentials, almost as though indie games are somehow immune from criticism because at least they tried and created something.
There have been many thoughtful artistic indie games of recent generations, games which the bigger studios may never have taken a risk on; To The Moon, The Stanley Parable and Papers, Please are just a few great examples. Games which have broken my heart and caused me to question my own existence in ways films or books never have. Games which have unleashed the inner pretentious hipster within me as I type these heaven-sent words to you now.
And then there are games which clearly give the impression “Baby’s First Game”. Lifeless Planet feels like the latter.
This may come across as overly harsh; we all have a gaming idea within us, and with free software development tools, numerous publishing platforms, crowdfunding opportunities like Kickstarter and the growing support and popularity of indie games, anyone can make a game. YOU can make a game! Of course, making a good game isn’t as easy and for every great indie title out there are a hundred more amateur titles out in the wild, just take a look at Steam’s Greenlight page sometime. Amateur isn’t always a bad thing, you’ve got to start somewhere, yeah? But maybe, just maybe, you shouldn’t be selling your amateur experiments for £14.99 a pop.
Which brings me (finally!) to Lifeless Planet. An indie game which is certainly true to its name.
Lifeless Planet is a puzzle-based platformer/adventure game/walking simulator which follows a retro sci-fi-inspired story of an astronaut and his small crew on a one way expedition to an unexplored planet which is thought to be full of life. Complications arise and our hero crash lands, separated from the others. To his surprise, the planet is a barren wasteland completely devoid of land, and as our hero searches for his crew mates and extra oxygen to keep him going, he stumbles into what appears to be an abandoned Soviet town straight from the Cold War. As you wander the desolate wasteland, the mysteries of the planet and the Russian’s already inhabiting it are unravelled through left over voice logs, puzzles and the hero’s own thoughts.
Much of the gameplay is spent walking. And jumping. In your little space suit are thrusters to help propel you across many, many rocks scattered across the landscape and most of the puzzles involve working out how to jump from one bunch of rocks to another bunch of rocks. As you master the finesse of rock jumping, new dangers present themselves and you’ll get to jump over them in new and exciting ways. There are some basic puzzles in the game, such as the classic oh no, a blocked wall, however will I-oh, someone left behind some dynamite, how silly of them puzzle. Occasionally you will also have to search for oxygen. The game makes a point of rushing you to find oxygen, stating it will only last for eight hours as some kind of threat, yet running out of oxygen never actually happens. The game itself is shorter than eight hours for a start.
Many people who recommend Lifeless Planet do so based on the atmosphere it creates. The planet is barren, lonely, creepy and sometimes a bit scary, especially during the darker areas, but the only real risk of death is when you misstep jumping on a rock or whatever equivalent is in the area. The soundtrack occasionally compliments the atmosphere well, but at other times it feels a bit jarring. Any sense of atmosphere is ruined by the monotonous voice acting, the amateur 3D model of the strange woman you come across within the planet, the empty houses you can’t even enter and explore, the rolling landscape of rocks, the pointless unchallenging puzzles, the clichéd story… And the main character who tries to reel off his past but reacts to the horrifying events before him as though he just received a free coupon for washing powder through the post. The whole game seems to clash with itself and doesn’t quite know what to focus on, which ultimately creates an experience which feels superficial and unsatisfactory.
Which is a shame. Lifeless Planet starts off quite promising, but doesn’t seem to progress or even end in any meaningful way. Even the sections between chapters feel jarring, as you finish one chapter during the day in one area and then suddenly appear in a completely new area at night. As the credits rolled down and I stared at the names, thinking “Is that it?” I was surprised by just how many people had backed the Kickstarter of this game; six hundred and forty one. Three of those backed $1000 for this game. Whilst other indie games make me question reality in a meaningful way, Lifeless Planet questions my sanity in other ways. The game reminds me more of modern art; if you vomited over a A4 piece of paper and hung it in an art gallery, would people really pay £14.99 for it?
And then I feel harsh because this one developer poured his heart and soul into making this game, this experience.
Then again, indie games shouldn’t be given a magic card which makes them immune from criticism. There’s no life on this planet; literally.
Lifeless Planet was released June 6th 2014 for Windows/Steam and is heading to Xbox One.