Floyd the Robot and sacrifice in video games

While reviewing proposals for a new games journalism assignment in my video game culture and theory course, I found myself thinking about Floyd the Robot, from Planetfall.

Some students were commenting excitedly about the emotional impact of the airport scene in Modern Warfare 2 (you are infiltrating a terrorist cell, and the game requires you to go along with a raid on an airport, or else you get shot in the face).  I haven’t played the game, but I understand this scene is pretty brutal. On a much smaller scale, though I felt some of the same emotions when I was playing Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, and decided I might as well get this over with and start shooting the students.

The first few levels of SCMRPG! involved gearing up and setting up.  One tedious level has you evading several hall monitors to plant bombs in the cafeteria. When one catches you, you have to do a long sequence all over again.  This level was so annoying that I started to hate those little pixels.  That was really a brilliant design move, since it forced my attitude (as a non-violent person who was just as horrified by the Columbine massacre as anyone else) to align, even a tiny bit, with the attituide of the killers I was portraying.  A little later, when it was clear the game was expecting me to start shooting, I delayed for a long time, looking for any possible way to avoid the violence that the game insisted was inevitable.  Of course, I could have just stopped playing, but my goal was to study the game, so when I found a lone student in the parking lot, I clicked on him.  (I won’t spoil the game for you.. what happens next is a small thing, but it was yet another brilliant complication.)

But this idea of how moral angency changes in an interactive medium has already been raised, notably in the Infocom text adventure Trinity (1986), which requires the player to kill a skink (lizard). Since the whole game centers around the development and deployment of nuclear weapons, the game makes a powerful comment on death.

One of my students mentioned the sacrifice of the player’s companion pet in Fable 2 (2008), and I thought about the very similar effect that Stephen Granade accomplished with his text-adventure game Losing Your Grip in 1998 (in an early scene you name a pet, and then later, well…), which in turn invokes the player’s relationship with Floyd in Planetfall (1983).

I’ve already introduced some of my students to text adventures in another class (it’s part of an introduction to programming), but other than one or two games to sample, I haven’t really made room in this course for a close study of a classic text game. If I ever do, perhaps Planetfall would be a good choice.

At any rate, I found a few Floyd-related resources that were new to me:

“The emotions I (and others) felt with this supporting character is legendary,”  wrote one gamer on MobyGames, 16 years after Planetfall was originally released. “This has to be experienced to be believed. I don’t think anyone has come as close in any other game today.”1 In 2001, another gamer on Slashdot.org posted, “Are you kidding? Losing Floyd was probably the most emotional moment I’ll ever have playing computer games.”2 In listing his favorite titles on an adventure game newsgroup, another gamer posted “Planetfall – Floyd, need I say more?”3

 Perhaps a decade ago, nothing more needed to be said. But as computer games have progressed from diskettes to CDs to DVDs, a smaller and smaller percentage of gamers have played any text adventures at all. The features that made Floyd an endearing character are no longer widely known or immediately obvious. In today’s graphically- centric medium, character design is intrinsically linked with questions of physical appearance, costume design, and animation – all of which are aspects that Floyd wholly lacked. Writings about Planetfall tend to focus only on gamers’ reactions to Floyd’s death, but while that shows us the end result of his characterization, it does not explain how the bond between Floyd and the player comes to be.  “Floyd Here Now!” A Study of Planetfall’s Most Enduring Character (PDF)

And here’s an informative reflection by Steve Meretzky, who created the game (and character)

My goals with Floyd were to make him cute and endearing, in the way
that children and pets can be. My biggest surprise was that,
unintentionally, Floyd also turned out to be a very humorous character.
As some players began to point this out as the aspect they most enjoyed
about Floyd, I played it up even more. For instance, when you save the
game, normally an outside-the-gameworld activity, Floyd would respond:

Your game has been saved.
Floyd’s eyes light up. “Oh boy! Are we gonna try something dangerous now?”

Having made the decision to create such a single, deep character, I thought there would be the potential for emotional resonance
with the player, which I could take advantage of…