I was not prepared for this.
(Warning: There Will Be Spoilers)
Planetarian takes place after years of warfare has devastated the Earth. A lone scavenger enters a long-forgotten city; hoping that the constant patrol of murderous war machines has protected some valuable junk he could sell to survive another day. Instead he meets Yumemi Hoshino: an android still active and still tending to her programmed duties as a tour guide for a (you guessed it) planetarium. Seemingly unaware of the desolation around her, Yumemi convinces the scavenger to stay and see something the young man has never seen before: the stars. What follows is, quite frankly, one of the greatest tragedies I have ever read.
Going point-by-point on the plot is a non-starter since the plot is very predictable and going through the plot or breaking down the characters spoils it fairly easily. Instead, I want to take a different approach to this and examine two different points. The first is on Planetarian’s predictability and second is the relentless drive of the tragic world Planetarian resides in. Maybe this way, we can all figure out how it managed to make a grown man cry…me. I’m talking about me.
Predictability is usually something I hammer on this very website because most games, especially in the EVN circle, use familiar tropes as a crutch to avoid actually writing a story and all of that messy originality getting in the way of our fanservice: the exact fanservice type will vary depending on your particular fandom. What interests me about Yumemi is that she is a character that has been quantified millions of time before, so she falls firmly into a predictable character path. Yet, instead of relying on the tropes that formed Yumemi to carry the game, here they use what we know is coming to anchor us to the plot.
Yumemi is ignorant of the nightmare that lies just outside of her doorstep and, because of this, is the last flicker of actual innocence to the best of the audience’s knowledge. In another writer’s hands, this would have been much more subtle to fit into the somber atmosphere, yet like with Alyx Vance before her, Yumemi’s personality is such a stark difference from her environment that you can’t help but be attached to her. Her endless optimism becomes endearing immediately because you know it’ll grow on our tough-as-nails protagonist and her determination to go on with a show that is nigh-impossible considering the circumstances keeps you playing to see if the Protagonist can actually pull off a miracle on her behalf.
This leads to the realization that, at some point, the last flicker of any source of hope eventually gets snuffed. Yeah: Yumemi dies. Realizing this as the Protagonist prepared himself for the light show, I figured I should probably pay attention a bit more to her banter since she wouldn’t be too long for this world. Boy, was that a major mistake on my part. Because while I knew she would die and I am on record as enjoying the suffering of fictional characters, here it isn’t because that suffering will lead to growth or a stronger tale in the long run. She dies for the same reason most characters in the Song of Ice and Fire novels die: GRRM wanted it to be that way. We’ll put a pin in that for now, but suffice me paying more attention to Yumemi led to me being surprised that the scene where the Protagonist sees the stars for the first time in his life was genuinely awe-inspiring and emotional.
Let me be absolutely clear here. From the moment of the star show to the actual moment the writer’s pulled the trigger, I had Yumemi on a death clock. And yet, when it actually happened, I still cried like a baby. Hell, I played the game several months ago and as I write this, I’m getting a little misty-eyed thinking about that death scene. I can only attribute this emotional attachment to the simplicity of Yumemi’s character, as I doubt a more complex or original character wouldn’t have evoked such a strong reaction.
So, should the writer’s be given credit for making the choice to keep Yumemi a simple and straightforward trope rather than try and create something more? I’ve been pondering this question for some time now and the truth is I don’t know. I don’t think it was lazy to have Yumemi be as she was in the game because of the story the game is trying to tell. And while her trope is common, I cannot imagine Yumemi being any different or more complex, which would by default make her unique to this particular story. Ultimately, it was that her trope was handled with understanding and not used as the game’s only card to play that allows the reader to invest so much interest in a character whose fate can be seen coming from a mile away.
This brings us to the second point of this discussion and that’s the tragic nature of Planetarian. As I stated earlier, considering Yumemi’s importance to the story, it can be reasoned that this entire story is built to garner just enough sympathy from the reader for her inevitable death. While there are some musing about the degradations of man and war near the end, they are too broad to be considered a narrative focus of the story. It’s just all of the small moments everything leading up to Yumemi’s death scene and I wondered then, and now, what anyone can take away from this.
The only answer I have is, as Clubber Lang once said; Pain.
True tragedies, like from Ancient Greece, inflicts a type of pain on your audience. This is sometimes misunderstood by immature writers and they begin inflicting useless pain to their characters and narratives in a misguided attempted to get the audience to care. I have no patience for that kind of useless pain. However, as a wise man once said, there is another type of pain: a slower type of pain. A type of pain that is like a stiletto slowly pushed into that soft area in your chest and stops just before the tips hits your heart. That pain where the audience cannot decide what would hurt worst: pulling it out, or pushing the rest of it in and it takes everything in them to try and block out the unbearable pain to try and make a clear decision and not totally succumb to their torture.
THAT type of pain is an art form. That type of pain takes both a certain level of maturity from a writer because you have to know when you’re being gratuitous or holding too much from the audience. It requires balance, timing and an understanding of your audience on a more psychological level rather than just ‘giving the people what they want’. It is a thin line to walk and it is actually understandable why most people won’t attempt it. Too much can (and HAS) gone wrong and left entire resumes in shambles when an author unwisely attempts to do it.
However, as Planetarian shows, the rewards for mastering that slow pain and inflicting it on your audience in just the right way makes your work much, much stronger. It is a knowledge that turns a one note, predictable story into a tale where every minute Yumemi didn’t die was a relief to this particular player and when the young girl finally did ripped me apart. The wounds created in the final, bleak moments of Planetarian was the necessary impact so many writers look to leave with their work and I sincerely hope this is something anyone interested in this medium will study because it is something that should carry on well beyond the current trends in visual novels in particular and gaming as a whole.
Using the absolute minimum, Planetarian crafted a fine tale. It kept it as simple as possible, yet used their talent to craft an excellent tragedy. That is a remarkable feat and one that has my total respect.
PRESENTATION & GAMEPLAY
As the only designed sprite, Yumemi looks as you’d expect a Key character to look by now. The value in her comes from her posture and subtle changes in the way she smiles. It amplifies the story and solidifies this as her story so good work there to whoever did her original design. As for highly touted Event Graphic work; yeah they’re as good as you may have been told. Not only is it exquisitely detailed, but they are all perfectly timed to fit in with the larger story, which gave it a stronger emotional impact that if they were just thrown in to relieve the constant stream of text. That’s just a sign of good direction so, again thumbs up there.
I do not speak Japanese so I’m going to assume that the voice actors did a fantastic job. Similarly, I am going to assume Sekai Project nailed the translation on the head with Planetarian. There were a few grammatical errors near the end, but by that time I couldn’t see anything on the screen anyway so we’re good on that. And finally, there are no major bugs or glitches to report so outside of creating a budget to add a fresh coat of hi-definition to the graphics, this is very well done. This is Key we’re talking about though, so that might have been a given.
While it’s advertised that it’ll take you four hours to play through Planetarian, I managed to get through it in two and a half taking my time. Currently, the game is available on Steam for $9.99 and while I have no idea if I’m going to put myself through it again, that is cheap considering the price much lesser games are selling for. Also keep in mind that this is a kinetic novel, so your best bet is to just turn on Auto and let the story play. Unless you just have a serious issue with that, you won’t even notice the time pass.
I was not prepared for this game. I was not prepared to care about such a simple character. I was not prepared to predict the game’s storyline so early. I was not prepared to be right about that prediction and what that would mean for this particular adult one cool Saturday morning. Planetarian is a testament to good writing; plain and simple. It has earned every accolade it has gotten in its ten years of existence and I am so thankful to Sekai Project for bringing this game to the West and giving us all a chance to experience this sad yet beautiful world.
Buy Planetarian~The Reverie of A Little Planet~ Here.