Planet Alpha's Vision of the Universe is Bright Rather than Bleak

By Aaron Potter on at

Shh... quieten down, and listen. If you're playing Planet Alpha, you might hear the reedy chirp of a fluorescent bush cricket. Possibly the faint bleeps and bloops as a rocket touches down nearby or, if you’re unlucky, the uneven rustling of a huge spider with territorial issues. Planet Alpha is all about creating small moments like this, where the player stops, takes their time, and soaks in these stunning alien worlds.

This is not the quest marker school of design, and it's an approach rare in modern gaming sci-fi. Most conceptualise alien planets with a kind of 'bigger is better' philosophy, having you quickly traverse vast vistas containing little pit-stops for combat and side-missions that keep the momentum going. Planet Alpha has a different idea. This game slows things down even when compared to other puzzle-platformers of its ilk, and reigns back any bombastic tendencies in favour of keeping faith in its small-sized but detail-rich environments.

You play as a gangly humanoid traveller, recently crashed down on the eponymous planet with a bump. One short intake of breath and a brush of the knees later and you’re off on a journey to see what mysteries await. The narrative is vague, with focus instead on the beautiful sights and sounds that tempt you further into environments. Each is more visually distinct than the last, moving from dank caverns illuminated by strange alien eggs to luscious purple-hazed skies filled with mysterious floating whale-things.

It's easy to look at Planet Alpha's aesthetic and only see some sort of cross between the pastel-like colour palette of No Man’s Sky and the style of Playdead’s Inside. There's probably more truth in the latter comparison, which is high praise indeed, because it has that same quality of using linearity and detailed environments in a consistent, focused and ever-surprising manner.

The style's vibrant colour palette also signals that Planet Alpha channels the more optimistic ideologies of space pioneers and the genre as a whole, and through its slow pace is trying to build on a sense of wonder. You could probably argue all day about which specific influences are the most important, but a biggie is the 1956 classic Forbidden Planet. Released at a time when most sci-fi films were generally made as low-budget B-movie pictures, MGM – a studio primarily known for funding musicals – took a risk on Fred M. Wilcox’s ambitious tale of a 23rd-century commander and his crew shooting off to explore a strange new world. Planet Alpha casts you in a similar role, entrenched in an equally incandescent vision of what space travel could be, and builds itself around that same human desire to learn more, to see more.

There’s no dystopian corporation in the background, no other humanoids to ruin the atmosphere, and no hostile alien threat. As an outsider you certainly soon realise that this fictional setting is populated by creatures, some clearly inspired by the likes of 1964 space flick, The Creeping Terror and its notorious carpet monster, and the kinds of movies you’d see in the seats of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Not since Ace Team’s Deadly Tower of Monsters have we got to brush shoulders with beings reminiscent of a simpler time in sci-fi thinking. But whereas that game heavily paid homage to the era’s B-movie sensibilities, Planet Alpha plays it straight to create a different kind of meaning and impact.

It's a vision of space travel where the universe is bright and hopeful, rather than dangerous and bleak. Perhaps it's an old-fashioned view, part of an era when man was yet to touch down on the moon and make that one small step: where the unknown was something that made the world's eyes twinkle. Planet Alpha never places a gun in your hand or asks you to kill, instead requiring you avoid hostile forces or use the local wildlife against each other. Even then, this is a puzzle-platformer where the puzzles are almost secondary.

It's sad that, as it draws to a close, Planet Alpha doesn't quite follow these instincts through and stay an ethereal experience – much like Kubrick’s 2001, it starts to bow down to the conventions set by its genre peers. The drive to include elements that a 'game' might usually involve – challenge, enemies, puzzle-solving – is almost the antithesis of the hopeful outlook that permeates the experience itself. What could be almost imagined as a mood-driven 2D walking simulator of sorts is, at times, knocked out of its own flow by stop-and-start stealth sequences.

Planet Alpha's imagined universe is not the only inheritor of this more optimistic strain of science fiction: the most high-profile modern example might be Christopher Nolan's fascination with the 'old school' mindset. In certain sections Planet Alpha will transport you to the odd pocket universe, not too dissimilar to where Matthew McConaughey’s Coop finds himself at the end of Interstellar. Here you’ll leap from platform to platform, eventually reaching the top to unlock further mysteries.

This indie title may stumble at times, but at least it has a sense of where it's going: and a starry-eyed optimism about whatever might be out there. Peppered in throughout this journey are moments of pure bliss, times when you just stop and stare at this place for a while, and lingering feelings of awe. Planet Alpha may be no giant leap for video games. But it's one small step in the right direction.

Planet Alpha is available on Steam, PS4, Switch and Xbox One.