The Plane Effect 1

The Plane Effect Review

Clever but without depth

It’s not often that I find myself at such a critical loss as I seem to be after completing The Plane Effect. There’s a great deal to like about the game. It does so many things really well. The low-poly visual design is gorgeous, and makes striking use of an intentionally limited colour palette. (It’s not quite accurate to say that most of the game is monochromatic, but most levels are primarily framed in either black or gray, with a single bright contrast color. That said, even “bright” isn’t always the right word, say for a level where the use of purple as the contrast color is vivid without reducing the overall dark atmosphere.) 

The puzzles are clever and frequently unexpected. In a late stage where a series of window shades need to be opened to charge a grid of solar collectors, one shade refuses to open until the player collects the materials to implement a solution that’s reminiscent of the Gordian knot.

And yet, I’m not entirely sure that the game justifies the time it demands. Its willingness to embrace non sequitur in its storytelling leaves an impression of randomness rather than cohesion. While the unnamed office worker I directed was repeatedly haunted by spectres of his apparent wife and child that would appear and fade away, I was never sure what exactly he was trying to do beyond the demands of overcoming the immediate obstacle. Was he trying to escape from a Kafkaesque office environment? Was he trying to find or recover his lost family? Was he an automaton rather than a person, and if so, did that have any impact whatsoever on his status as an office drone or his connection to his apparent family?

Do these things really matter in a puzzle game, or are mood and a clever set of gears sufficient?

The whys and hows

If I come down leaning toward the negative on the second half of that question, I do have to acknowledge that “why” is a troublesome question for a lot of video games. Even as a critic I’m inclined to spend more time dealing with what is in front of me, and how exactly it does what it does, than in attempting to deal with why this particular story or system might be necessary at this particular time. (In part, because very few games can claim to be “necessary” in any meaningful sense, and because necessity is very rarely a useful limit on the existence of a cultural object.)

But even in The Plane Effect’s relatively short play time, I found myself asking why it had me spend a not-insignificant amount of time walking and driving in a straight line, simply to reach the next obstacle. Someone had to build that road, even digitally. It is an object of time and effort, and I’m not sure why it’s there. And if I’m not sure why the road is there, if I’m not sure what the destination is, then it leaves me to ask why the obstacles are there–and that’s a particularly dangerous question.

Without depth or soul

Puzzle games, maybe even a bit more than other genres, are explicitly objects of craft. Every part of a puzzle has to serve a purpose and fit together in a satisfying manner. When this is done skillfully, then it can sufficiently answer the question of “why” in and of itself. But purpose is not the same thing as meaning, and when a puzzle attempts to reach for a sense of meaning–to engage with the question of “why”–then it has to be judged by a different standard, and The Plane Effect isn’t quite successful on this level. It neither answers nor transcends the questions it seems to want to pose.

The Plane Effect is a fine and even beautiful mechanical object, but it doesn’t quite have a soul.

It is a shame perhaps, because with a bit less open space, without the spectres who are never quite made substantial, I think that the automaton might have been enough, regardless of whether or not there was a ghost in the machine.