In 'Lifeless Planet' We're Not Forced to Wander Aimlessly in Search of a Plot
Lifeless Planet uses minimal details to establish a compelling mystery, to subvert our expectations, to create dramatic tension, and to guide exploration.
Lifeless Planet and Stranded approach a similar concept in two very different ways. Whereas Stranded tells us as few details as possible in order to let our imaginations fill in the blanks, Lifeless Planet takes a more conventional approach to its mystery that grows in scope with each new twist. However, despite these very different design philosophies that don’t invite comparison, the two games have very similar beginnings that do invite comparison. I wrote previously about how Stranded is too minimalist for its own good and how it fails to establish mystery, atmosphere, or a desire to explore. Lifeless Planet is Stranded done right, at least for the first hour, before it goes off in another direction. That first hour is similarly minimalist, but uses its minimal details to establish a compelling mystery, to subvert our expectations, to create dramatic tension, and to guide exploration.
Lifeless Planet immediately creates a compelling mystery. The game opens with you standing on the surface of an unknown red planet, your space pod sits in a smoking crater where it crashed, and a desert stretches out around you in every direction. It's clear right away that you're stranded and alone. This opening moment lives up to the name Lifeless Planet, and at first, this seems to be the game equivalent of Andy Weir’s novel The Martian, in which a stranded astronaut tries to survive alone on Mars. However, when you examine your crashed pod, you find a log file that reveals some of the backstory of the planet and talks about it as if it were habitable. Specifically, the words "lush greenery" are mentioned, which could not be further from what lies before our eyes.
Within a minute of starting, the game uses its title and setting to establishes one context and then immediately subverts that context. This unknown planet is lifeless, but it’s not supposed to be lifeless. A mystery is immediately established, and it’s a compelling mystery for the player because it impacts us directly. Plants provide oxygen and we need oxygen, so we need to find out what happened to all the plants.
(It's also nice that the mystery gets deeper as we get further into the game, but by that point, there's so much more going on in Lifeless Planet that it becomes unfair to compare it to Stranded.).
Exploration is thankfully easy. Our character moves pretty quickly considering he's encased in a bulky spacesuit, but I'll happily trade that bit of dissonance in lieu of trudging through a visually unappealing environment for prolonged periods of time. More importantly, Lifeless Planet succeeds in giving our exploration direction and purpose. There are footprints leading away from our crashed pod, giving us a very clear path to follow. The desert expanse is used to establish setting and reinforce the lifelessness of this planet, but it's not allowed to interfere with gameplay. We're not forced to wander the desert aimlessly in search of the plot.
However, that path forward is not always so obvious. After following the footprints for a minute or so, the environment changes, and the desert becomes a collection of boulders and rocky outcrops. The footprints disappear, as there's no more sand, but the game trusts the player to continue in that same general direction because... well, we have no reason not to. Soon a blinking light appears in the distance, guiding us to an oxygen module and some more sand where more footprints can be found. This second path eventually leads us into a valley that serves as a linear corridor directing our progress.
The game is always guiding us, but it's also constantly changing its signs to the player. From footprints, to lights, to level design, this variety teaches us to pay attention to the environment because it will always tell us where to go in some form or another. This purpose distinguishes exploration from wandering.
All of this contributes to an oppressive and creepy atmosphere. We're clearly alone and stranded and the hints of life that do exist only remind us of our isolation: Sure, we might not be completely alone on this planet, but we're alone right now. That begs the question, what happened to the life that was once here? Our loneliness foreshadows danger, which makes every shadow on the horizon frightening and intriguing. The environment itself is harsh, but the very things that make it harsh are the things that lead us to potential safety: The windless desert sands provides a path, and the sheer cliffs funnel us through the valley. Then there are the signs of human habitation: The houses, fences, and oxygen modules, familiar icons from earth that shouldn't be here -- but are here.
This planet is portrayed as a lonely place that might offer companionship, a frightening place that might offer safety, and an alien place that feels familiar. It's a constant contradiction, and that makes it a fascinating place worth exploring. Either for an hour -- or several.