Written by Andy Chalk
Humanity's first mission to another world has gone horribly wrong. The ship has crashed, its crew scattered and lost, and the planet, thought by scientists on Earth to be teeming with life and hope for a better future, is an arid wasteland. But as you struggle to come to grips with hopelessness, you make the most amazing discovery of all: you are not the first to arrive, and you are not alone.
Lifeless Planet is a journey to another world that becomes a journey into the past, as you learn that the Soviet Union somehow arrived first and established an advanced scientific outpost. But how did they get there—and where did they go?
"I love science and science fiction, and especially games that bring these themes into the experience. I really enjoyed the LucasArts adventure game The Dig, as well the classic cinematic platformer Out of This World, aka Another World," creator David Board explains. "I grew up in the '80s and very much remember the intrigue and intensity of that era. I also really enjoyed The Twilight Zone and Cold War sci-fi B movies. I think they really conveyed the combined sense of optimism and dread of what science was capable of in the hands of humankind, and I'm trying to channel some of that old-school sci-fi drama in this game."
Board is essentially a one-man show at Stage 2 Studios, the indie operation behind Lifeless Planet, and he's been working on the game for roughly three years. He's a website designer by trade but games have been his passion since the early 1980s, and Lifeless Planet is a reflection of his love for those early adventure games and the fear of nuclear annihilation that pervaded the post-war years.
There's a pulpy feel to Lifeless Planet. An astronaut on a distant world, a lost crew, and a bizarre mystery with echoes of home: It could be a drive-in movie, or an episode of some forgotten 1970s television show. The gameplay in the Early Access version feels perfunctory: the platforming is simple, levels are linear, and the puzzles come across primarily as a way to insert variety into the action. I occasionally found myself confronted with a blocked passage, for instance, but my absent Soviet hosts had been kind enough to leave dynamite lying nearby. Problem solved!
The Early Access release covers only about the first third of the game, and Board says the difficulty does ramp up somewhat as it progresses, although he's taken pains to ensure that it doesn't get out of hand. "Some sections get harder later on, but by then you will have gained more skill," he said. "I really want people to finish the game and play through the story and not get stuck. I've taken the same approach with puzzles."
The story really is the thing in Lifeless Planet. The original idea was to create a conventional platformer, but "the story took off and took over," Board says. "It's just one of those ideas that clicked, and there's no doubt now—that's the part of the game that most resonates with people."
There are aspects that feel contrived, like the jetpack that functions or fails as the story demands, and I spent an awful lot of time just walking, taking in the sparse sights but not actually doing anything—although that's a perfectly reasonable itinerary under the circumstances. But that emptiness also served to intensify the excitement of discovery, and while I was walking, I was also thinking.
That, for Board, is the goal. "My personal philosophy is that narrative games should have challenges, but the moment I spend too much time in one place, the magic starts to fade for me," he says. "I love really challenging action games and really challenging puzzle games, but this game is about story. I want challenges along the way, but I don't want to extend gameplay by making things unnecessarily tough."
The Early Access demo is quite short—no more than two hours in length—but it includes only the first six of roughly 20 chapters (the Early Access page says 20, while Board describes it as "about" that number), and although they're the "most polished" of the bunch, there are still a few refinements to be made. And while it appears to answer Lifeless Planet's first and foremost question—yes, there really is a Soviet base on another planet—the mystery grows even deeper by the time the demo over. Playing it now, in other words, won't spoil you for the full release; if anything, it will have the opposite effect.
Board says he hopes to have Lifeless Planet ready for full release in May.