Making a game that is critical of what we take for granted in capitalism seems like a Sisyphean effort, given that, more than any other art form, the entire industry is slavishly and unquestioningly devoted to capitalism. This same week people are out there buying a “Director’s Cut” of a game the director himself dislikes calling a director’s cut, while another bunch of people are buying a game published by a company that currently has multiple state and criminal investigations levelled at them. One of which for the horrendous treatment of the staff. But they still bought the game.
So when you’re introduced to your mute little salaryman in The Plane Effect, plugging away at his computer late into the night, the office bathed in the warm flow of advertising slogans from outside (which only make the pools of darkness seem more sinister), then it’s hard not to see this as a deeply introspective game that most people – including those that play it – will find too difficult to connect with. They see a man working late in the night and, with the deep level of tolerance that they have for developers crunching themselves to death and/or mental distress for our entertainment, they don’t see the cruelty behind this scene. As the person starts to experience what seems to be hallucinations and struggles to remember who their family is, many players are going to just shrug their shoulders because all that matters in the game that they play is how much fun the puzzles are. The Plane Effect affected me pretty deeply, and that’s for two reasons. Firstly as someone who works far too hard myself (it’s currently 9:00pm on a Friday night and I’m here, writing reviews), I do see myself in the avatar, and secondly, because the melancholic atmosphere in The Plane Effect is all the denser when you realise that most players will barely register the misery that drips from this experience.
Now, in fairness, The Plane Effect isn’t much of a game, and what little game is in there isn’t great. It plays out from an isometric perspective, but it’s really a “walking simulator” with a couple of interactive puzzles along the way. Most of those puzzles are a trail of breadcrumb stuff – flip a switch to get this key that opens that door – and there’s nothing wrong with that in concept, given that The Plane Effect is, effectively, a wordless narrative experience rather than a game. It never needed complex gameplay systems. Indeed, too much gameplay might have distracted players from the point, you see. The problem is that these puzzles are also obtuse and generally obnoxious. When you start playing you’ve got three options: play without hints, play with some hints, or play with a lot of hints, and I turned the third one on pretty quickly, because the slow movement pace of the main character, coupled with trial-and-error nature of the puzzles to figure out what goes where, became an aggravating process that crushed the game’s momentum. I love puzzles in games, but if you’re going to give me a 10-step locked box, the least you could do is make the logic of the puzzle clear, rather than rely on me being interested enough to poke and prod at things in the hope that the square pegs start slotting into the circular holes.
The good news is that the hints system isn’t very obtrusive. If you’re stuck, press a button, and a little line will guide you to the next step in the puzzle. Once you’re on location it’s easy to figure out where to go from there. If anything I think that The Plane Effect would have benefited from not trying to give players “difficulty options,” and simply made the all hints version standard. The help is there if you need it, or you can challenge yourself to play the whole game without a hint if you’re able to restrain yourself from pressing that button. The Plane Effect never needed to work any other way.
Putting aside the gameplay, though, The Plane Effect really is some powerful stuff, filled with dark fever-dream imagery and deeply unsettling melancholia that is designed to make you uncomfortable rather than sad. Within the first couple of chapters, your little salaryman gets swallowed up by a giant worm-thing and needs to wander his way through that worm’s innards, and if that doesn’t twig you that his mental state is in a very bad place, nothing will. When he encounters an area filled with staircases that would make M.C Escher proud, we’re meant to know that he’s losing focus, confused, and feeling impotent. We’re meant to feel deeply confused and alienated ourselves. We don’t know what kind of work he does, but the tiny cubicle he occupies suggests that he’s hardly the CEO, and what he does is probably quite mundane. He is, in every way, a plain everyman, and oddly enough that makes his fading memory of his family all the more tragic – we might never see the work that he’s doing, but it’s really difficult to imagine that it’s important enough to justify the personal cost. From a gameplay perspective, his slow amble might be annoying, but thematically the weight of it, the near death-march quality that it has, is evocative.
As you play you’ll hold out hope that there’s a happy ending in this all. After all, our everyman’s wildly surrealistic commute is heading somewhere, right? We’re helping this guy get back to his family. While he might be struggling to remember them while in his office, once he gets home it will all be okay, right? I’m really not giving any of that away – I promise you I’m not leading you to assume either outcome here – but at some point, I do think that it will dawn on you that this journey in itself, whether it results in a happy reunion with the family or not, is futile. You’ll remember that this commute experience is daily and not a one-off journey, and that there’s no escaping the misery, even if there is a brief respite at the end of each day’s gauntlet.
I think The Plane Effect struck me particularly hard because it is very personal to me. For a year, I worked in a job that I absolutely hated. Not in the sense of “this work just sucks,” but it was a hostile, abusive workplace that I would walk into at the start of the day already exhausted. I knew, standing at the office’s front door each morning, that as soon as I walked through those doors I was going to be pummelled by a combination of micromanagement, passive-aggressive criticism, a complete lack of ethics in dealing with outside companies, and then the reality that the work just sucked. On top of all that, we were all expected to compete to be the last one out of the office in the evening, and all of this got so oppressive that I got to the point that I started to walk home rather than using the train, just to clear my head. It was a two-hour walk. Eventually, for the sake of my mental health, I had to quit and get out of there… which I did before even having a new job to go to, the day after the bosses decided to caution me for taking a sick day because they didn’t believe that the medical certificate I had filed was genuine. I share this story because playing The Plane Effect brought back such overwhelming memories, not just of being ensnared within a mentally draining and slavishly capitalistic job, but more than anything else it reminded me of just how heavy the feet fell on that walk home.
Anyhow, I won’t forget The Plane Effect in a hurry. As a game it sucks, and I’m being blunt about that because I don’t think it matters. To me, a great work of art is one that encourages reflection, has an emotional resonance, and has a strong message and lesson to share. Set against that criteria, The Plane Effect might not be a great game, but it is a superb work of art. That is so much more important to me.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb