Planet of the Eyes is the gaming version of a short story, one that evokes my fondest memories of science fiction. A deep sense of wonder and adventure shine through what is essentially a distilled platforming experience. The whole thing took me about two hours to complete and I enjoyed every second of it because, like the best short stories, developer Cococucumber knows how to make something small like Planet of the Eyes feel incredibly deep.
The game begins with a crash landing on the titular Planet of the Eyes. You play as a robot who awakens in the midst of the wreckage, alone and adorable, and you go about searching for the man who made you. Your journey takes you through a number of distinct environments – from the crash site, to the planet’s water system, to some caves and on to more industrial landscapes – as you collect audio logs from your creator who has gone ahead without you.
The diary entries that serve up the game’s narrative are well written and acted, playing in the background of your journey and building a strong and emotional relationship between you and your proverbial father. There’s not much spoken dialogue – I’d guess less than ten minutes worth – but it’s effective, telling a rich story about purpose and free will and adding to the overall experience.
The controls, meanwhile, are appropriately simple. You can walk, jump, climb ladders, dance (optional), and grab objects. Planet of the Eyes manages to take these most basic platforming elements and craft puzzles that always feel fresh and challenging without the controller-chucking difficulty that has characterized a lot of recent high profile Steam releases. Each jump feels like you just barely made it, yet if you die – and you will die quite a bit – the checkpoint is never far away.
Trial and error is essential in Planet of the Eyes, and not just because the platforming is so well designed. The game features an abundance of fun ways to watch your little robo buddy die, and the forgiving respawn points make it feel like you have permission to explore death while you adventure in the game’s beautiful environments.
Those environments are the game’s greatest accomplishment. While the platforming provides the challenge and the narrative provides some necessary context and top notch golden age sci-fi metaphor, the distant world simply demands exploration. With help from a spacey synth score that lends an additional layer of mystique, the Planet is always interesting and truly alien. Whether it’s the many eyes that lend the rock its namesake, the vicious predators that stand in your way, or the alien technology you have to interact with on your journey, the main reason to keep playing is the joy of seeing what lies just beyond the screen’s limits.
Those limits, by the way, are always shifting to better present the onscreen image. Cococucumber knows exactly what it wants you to be looking at during any given moment, and I can’t say I’ve played a platformer that knows itself so well in terms of aesthetics. The visual storytelling is affecting every time the camera pulls back to reveal the majesty of a panoramic landscape or zooms in to emphasize the closeness of the space.
The use of framing is a small detail used to great effect, and that’s the best way to describe Planet of the Eyes as a whole. It is the very definition of elegant game design: a whole bunch of small pieces arranged so well that you don’t need anything bigger. It’s like that old science fiction short story you keep coming back to years later, because nothing else so simply captures that tone of wonder, adventure, danger, and space age optimism. Planet of the Eyes is something small that feels as big as your imagination.