Review: Planetarium

Planetarium web page

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Pretty good
Very easy to medium-hard
Very good (web interface)
Sort of contrived, but good
Forgiveness rating
You do not need to solve puzzles to advance.

Continuing in my tradition of breaking tradition, we have... a web-based puzzle game.

Look, it's a computer game, okay? You play it with a computer. The back end is a Perl program, looks like. You think it doesn't belong here, complain to the management.

Planetarium is a bit of surreality... I want to call it a fairy tale, but really it isn't. A girl (who can remember the future instead of the past) and a mathemagician (who achieves the same effect by the precision of his computations) set off on a journey. They are drawn by a mysterious love-letter that the girl received. We poor readers don't know who sent it. The girl and the mathemagician, however, with their different insights into fate... well, the story goes on.

I won't say it's a brilliant story. Planetarium is cleverly contrived, with events and connections ticking back and forth through its twelve chapters. But it's more a travelogue, a recounting of encounters. I didn't feel any, any shape to the story -- no engagement, tension, and resolution. Yes, mysterious things occur, and you gradually figure out what it all means. But that isn't reflected in what the story is about.

Maybe it's... inevitable. When the characters know everything that is going to happen, for sure they're not going to feel any tension. So maybe that's what comes across in Planetarium. Consistent, perhaps -- but not my favorite artistic effect.

I don't mean to trash the writing, mind you. I'm just kvetching that I have more-favorite stories on my shelf. Planetarium is an eminently amusing read, with a wry turn of phrase that skips deftly between philosophical musing and wit. The format allows all sorts of digressions and ramblings, and I enjoyed them all. And there are hidden correspondences, large and small. Everything is carefully fitted back together with the structure of the work, which is the structure of the puzzle within... more about which later.

Format? The story is divided into twelve chapters. Each part has a single illustration (hand-drawn by the author, Dave Whiteland) and several chunks of text, describing various things in the illustration. Click around to find out what's what. It's a typical hypertext exploratory mode, although less interactive than most computer games.

Planetarium is actually closer to the classic puzzle-books (Masquerade, Maze, the bee book) than to a computer game. It's a story with puzzles embedded in it; but you don't have to solve the puzzles to see the whole story. Puzzles are not barriers to advancement.

Instead, Planetarium paces itself by -- ahem -- clockwork. The first chapter is always available. However, to become involved, you must sign onto the web site (free registration). One week after you first sign on, part 2 becomes available to you. Every week thereafter, another part is made accessible, until you have all twelve. In the thirteenth week, you get to see the puzzle solutions, and the game tells you how well you did. That's it.

So, as I said, getting stuck is a meaningless concept. Every chapter has three puzzles -- one whose solution is a word, one whose solution is a number, and one whose solution is a choice between two alternatives. But you don't have to solve the puzzles as you encounter them. You can leave a puzzle until later; you can jump back to earlier chapters to fill in or change solutions.

(The game keeps a scorecard of solutions that you've entered, but it doesn't check whether you've gotten them right. That's left until the thirteenth week, you see.)

Got it? Yes? No?

No -- because in the best tradition of puzzle-books, those 36 puzzles are just the leadup to the real puzzle. (The "major puzzle", as Planetarium calls it.) And the major puzzle is never described at all. At various points in the game -- I won't say where -- you have the opportunity to enter your solution to the major puzzle. Finding it, discovering the rules, and solving it are entirely your own business. If you're right, the game will tell you so at the beginning of the thirteenth week. If not, you'll have to read the solutions revealed at that time.

I love puzzles like that.

(An interesting paradox of "standard" computer games -- both textual and graphical: Just by being interactive, they exclude this kind of puzzle almost completely. A computer puzzle is one that you can play with. It interacts with you, hey? You try solutions, feel out the rules; and when you solve the puzzle, lights flash. That's how you know.

(But a puzzle-book puzzle can't be interactive. It must be constructed so that when you solve it, you know by the pure unassailable knowledge that you've grasped it. The pieces fit together and the answer makes sense. No trial-and-error work, no anticlimactic stumble over the solution. You've got it or you don't.

(And that's why I love puzzles like that.)

I spent a fair amount of time working through Planetarium. An hour, perhaps, in each weekly play session; and quite a bit more in the twelfth week, as I struggled to put it all together. (Fortunately that was Thanksgiving weekend, and I had the time.)

The puzzles vary widely in difficulty. Many of them are old chestnuts; the author obviously went through a lot of puzzle books. But just as many are original. (I was particularly pleased by the verse-riddles -- a hard form to do well.) The nature of the puzzles is an even wider variety. I'd say about a third of the puzzles are pure logic, a third are obscure knowledge, a third are riddles and sideways thinking, and a third are clues hidden around Planetarium itself. And believe me, clues are hidden in just about every way a clue can be.

(Yes, yes, I can add. The categories overlap. (When is a clue a slipwise-thinking puzzle? When it's hidden in such a weird way that I stare at the clue suspiciously for ten minutes and never notice it.) (Or, when it's ajar. Hmm.))

So I scribbled, did Web searches, paced around, and checked my old Martin Gardner books; and I solved just about everything. I only got stuck on two minor puzzles, and when friends gave me hints on them, I rolled my eyes and said "Shoulda thought of that." Not that I'm really embarrassed. With this many puzzles -- this many kinds of puzzles -- almost everybody is going to run into their own blind spots at least once. Work with a friend.

The interface has a peculiarity or two. Most importantly, the author is providing a thirteen-week experience, and it's thirteen consecutive weeks. You must log into the web site at least once every ten days, or else your registration is deleted. You don't have to spend any length of time -- you can take one glance and leave the chapter for later exploration -- but you do have to take that weekly glance. I can see the necessity, and it does make for a real sense of involvement; but some people probably have logistical problems.

A smaller annoyance is that when you log into the site, your access cookie expires after one hour. This means that in the middle of a long play session, you click on a link and are abruptly thrown back to the login page. Only a few seconds' interruption; but still an interruption. And yes, several of my sessions lasted more than an hour... even aside from the long Thanksgiving Afternoon of the Major Puzzle. Doubling the limit to two hours would help a lot.

What have I missed?

Planetarium has no advertisements. The author hates them. I hate them too. If every puzzle-page I'd read had had an Amazon banner at the top, I probably would have packed it in about week two. Planetarium is provided as true freeware, for love and ego points. Hallelujiah.

The rest of Dave Whiteland's web site is the same, by the way. I recommend a look around. He has a couple of Web comics, or graphic novels if you prefer. (I particularly enjoyed the "Alphabet for Geniuses".) And his upcoming work looks fascinating -- a dynamic, audience-influenced story called "Six Beasties". I anticipate, I keenly do.

Also, he's into aikido. Yay!

Conclusion: Invest a three-month span of playing time, and you get a well-drawn, delightfully-written walk through a landscape of puzzle and mechanism. Go for it.

Availability: Go to the Planetarium web page. It should remain functional for the foreseeable future.

System requirements: A color display, and a graphical Web browser that supports cookies, tables, forms, and imagemaps. There is no Java, Javascript, or frames. Display of animated GIFs is useful at one point, but not strictly necessary (I'll even tell you where -- it's the solution scorecard page). I used iCab, my favorite Mac browser, but the standard NS/IE biumvirate will certainly work too.

Footnote: I wrote this review before my twelfth week was up -- I had a solution, but it hadn't been checked. But, you see, I was sure that it was correct... and indeed it was. My thirteenth week starts tomorrow, but several people's started yesterday; and some of them got it right. The author then checked everyone's scorecard to see who also had the solution. I'm on the list. Huzzah for me -- and for a puzzle whose solution feels right.

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