Sunday, April 6, 2014

Stranded

I hate to be so down on such a beautiful game, but I was pretty upset at Stranded by the end of the game.

The title refers to the astronaut you control, who is stranded on an unknown planet. You have supplies to last you indefinitely, but your ship is in pieces and you are unarguably grounded. There are local aliens are gigantic rock-robot-things. They are absolutely alive and intelligent. You see them breathe, move, and jump in the water for a quick… swim? Something. Despite their activity, though, they are inhumanly uncurious about the tiny human astronaut wandering around their planet and through their temples. It’s eerie how unmoved they are by your presence. As a stranded human, you are desperate to establish communications with them. They should be able to help you get off the planet, right? At the very least, it’s something to try. As you wander across the mostly barren plains, you don’t have a lot of options to choose from.

I don’t have a lot of patience for puzzles. If I feel stuck or frustrated, I have no problem referring to a step-by-step walkthrough. However, Stranded put me in the shoes of an astronaut encountering completely alien life. After poking around for some obvious solutions and coming up empty, I thought it was prudent to at least take some notes on my environment. Despite my aversion to detailed notes and other kinds of tedious work that I normally offload to the internet’s more dedicated puzzle-solvers, I figured a stranded astronaut with nothing better to do would absolutely start taking notes about their environment and the mysterious aliens that surrounded them. Out came the pen and paper, and I started mapping the locations of the aliens over time, what direction they faced, the runes carved on the temple walls, the sounds that each temple emitted when activated. I found matching sounds, matching runes, a thousand details that could be relevant when trying to unlock the mystery of the planet. To the game’s credit, there were a lot of details and distinctions. I felt like I was learning something about this planet and its inhabitants, even if I wasn’t sure how to apply it yet. It was progress for my doomed astronaut with nothing else to do with their time.

Eventually, your ship’s life support systems short out. Your time on the planet sharply reduces from “essentially unlimited” to “a matter of hours”. All of those clues gathered need to be put to use immediately, somehow.

Spoiler! The clues you gathered, the behaviors I observed, the runes on the temple, they didn’t mean jack shit. I walked into each temple, then I walked to a platform and clicked on the colored lights in no particular order, and then my astronaut was turned into an alien stone-robot thing. The game ended right then and there. My expectations were betrayed. The work I put into documenting and observing this planet was useless. My reward was a punishment. I didn’t unlock any secrets, I didn’t learn anything about the inhabitants, and I absolutely didn’t escape the planet. I just kind of…died.

My over-investment in the premise is probably my fault. I don’t mind a game with a dark ending, or even a completely nihilistic message. What happened was I got really excited at a chance to decode a truly alien civilization. I had high hopes, and I over-invested when I should have relaxed and enjoyed the ride. The fact that Stranded got such a strong reaction out of me is really to its credit for creating something that drew me so quickly and effectively. Also, to be fair, a story about an astronaut who valiantly tries to decode an alien civilization only to die without learning anything is pretty affecting. I just wish it wasn’t my astronaut’s story.

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