Seems I’ve gone and gotten myself into a pickle.

I shouldn’t be alive, what with me being a lowly space janitor and all. (Okay, the text in Infocom’s adventure title from 1983, Planetfall, says that I’m technically “Ensign Seventh Class,” but I figure that’s just fancy space-talk for “mop-and-bucket guy.”)

The ship I was on, the Stellar Patrol Ship Feinstein, exploded. The next thing I know, I’m in an escape pod, landing on the last planet that anybody would want to crash upon: a planet plagued by plague, marauded by mutants, and whose celestial orbit has decayed to the point where there are endless meteor strikes.

On the Feinstein, everybody’s either dead or in suspended animation.

The computers are all busted.

The robots are all in pieces.

Well. All the robots except Floyd.

Goddamn Floyd.

***

I didn’t know robots could be so stupid. But they can be. Case in point: Floyd.

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I found him in the robot workshop, powered off. I thought, “What the hell,” and turned him on – after all, a robot is a creature of cold efficiency, laser-honed logic and deadly data. I could use his help.

When Floyd awakened, he bounded over to me and said, “Hi! I’m B-19-7, but to every person I’m called Floyd. Are you a Doctor-person or a Planner-person? That’s a nice lower elevator access card you are having there! Let’s play Hider-and-Seeker you with me.”

Okay, I figured, this robot’s obviously got a busted fromitz board.

I left, heading northwest.

***

He won’t leave me alone.

Floyd follows me everywhere. I go into the mess hall, into the machine shop, into the medical lab, and here comes Floyd. He’s got ADHD, this robot. Who programmed this damned thing?

“Hey, wait for Floyd!” he cries.

Then he pulls out a crayon, writes his name on the wall.

He searches himself for rust. He oils his joints.

He exhorts me to play a game of Hucka-Bucka-Beanstalk. (I’m pretty sure he just made that up.)

Floyd wanders, natters, babbles. He runs through the first 600 digits of Pi as I’m trying to find food. When I pick something up, he cranes his neck to see what I’m doing. He yammers about that time when he bruised his knee. Then he yawns. He yawns.

What robot yawns?

What robot bruises his knee?

This little dude is irritating. Like a horsefly that won’t stop batting itself against your head. Then, just when I think I’m getting used to him, he wanders away – “Floyd going exploring. See you later!”

Then I’m alone.

And I feel lonely. Once more, this place feels sterile and dead.

Of course, it isn’t long before Floyd returns. He bounds into the room: “Floyd here now!”

I’m happy and exasperated at the same time.

***

It occurs to me that he’s not stupid. He’s just got the robot brain of a five-year-old child.

He wants me to tickle him, so I tickle him, feeling like a dumb-ass because I am tickling a goddamn robot. But Floyd? Floyd loves it.

I play Hider-and-Seeker with him, and we run around like that until I’m exhausted. He doesn’t care. He’s a robot. He pokes me: “Let’s play some more!”

I don’t want to play. So I punch him.

He loves that, too. He bolts around the room. “Oh boy oh boy oh boy! I haven’t played Chase and Tag in years!”

I tell him I’m not playing, but he doesn’t seem to grok my lingo.

So I kick him. That gets through.

“Why you do that?” he asks. He looks stung. “I think a wire shaken loose.” Then he goes off to the corner and sulks.

Crap. Now I feel bad. Stupid robot.

***

He’s not entirely useless.

I need him to go through a robot-sized door and get me a fresh fromitz board. He does it. He doesn’t do it immediately; no, the little asshole finds a rubber ball in there and has to bounce it around for a while.

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Still. He does the task. And it’s a necessary task, too. Only way I’m getting off this station is with his help, I realize. A little voice in my head whispers, “Then, you’re doomed.” But I tamp it down and move on.

Floyd, of course, follows.

***

We find other robots. They’re defunct, but because of Floyd, I think of them as “dead.”

He doesn’t care for Achilles, a robot that “wasn’t friendly.”

But he laments the loss of Lazarus, a medical robot who was his friend.

It leaves an unsettled feeling in my gut.

***

We enter a bio-lab. Once more, I need Floyd. I can’t move on without his help.

The lab is home to a bunch of angry mutants. Problem is, the mutants are home to a particular access card I need. Floyd wants to go in and retrieve it for me. I tell him no. But he’s insistent.

“Robots are tough. Nothing can hurt robots.” He obviously doesn’t remember Lazarus or Achilles. But he seems so sure. “You open the door and Floyd will rush in. Then you close door. When Floyd knocks, open door again.”

Fine. I do it. He rushes in.

I know instantly that I’ve made a terrible mistake.

Floyd screams.

Then: three knocks accompanied by the sound of tearing metal.

I open the door, and Floyd tumbles out – and I shut it again so the mutants don’t follow, and for a moment I think, whew, we’re all clear.

Except, Floyd is hurt. Loose wires. Busted circuits. Leaking oil like blood.

He lays his head in my lap and tells me, “Floyd did it. Got card. Floyd a good friend, huh?”

I sing him a ballad. His favorite.

Then he smiles. His head lolls to the side.

And like that, he’s dead.

***

That moment is a critical one for videogames. It’s a moment that both pushes you deeper into the experience and brings you out of it at the same time.

On the one hand, this text-only puzzler-slash-adventure game suddenly becomes something bigger, greater, stranger. Oft-cited as one of the first video game moments that made people cry, it’s an early foreshadowing volley against Ebert’s eventual criticism that games cannot be art because there you are, no longer playing a game as a third-party but experiencing it as a prime inhabitant.

On the other hand, you move outside the experience, hyper-aware that without you realizing it this game has given you one of the most interactive characters yet seen. For a robot, Floyd is awfully human, and he isn’t there just as a tool to be used. He wants to play. He cries oil when you tickle him. He seems purposeless and irritating, but then not only does he become necessary, he becomes endearing.

***

Fact: Floyd is the first and greatest sidekick in videogame history.

We should sing hymns in his honor, and paeans to his sweetness.

It’s surprising, given that Floyd appears halfway through the game and dies long before its conclusion. His brief appearance in Planetfall does not change his vaunted status.

A sidekick feels purposeless, but the hero is nothing without him. A great sidekick is not only necessary for the hero to complete his quest but humanizes the hero, too. Batman seems the perfect warrior, so why does he need Robin? Because Robin will save his life. And more importantly, Robin will anchor the Bat to Bruce Wayne, keeping the hero grounded, keeping him human.

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Floyd does that: not only is Floyd critical in your quest, but above all else Floyd takes a faceless, character-free character on a ruined planet and gives him (you) purpose and humanity. You are forced to care one way or the other about Floyd: by forcing you to form an opinion – and further, experience an emotion – the game moves beyond one of systems and brain-teasers.

In Floyd is the DNA of Halo‘s Cortana, Clank of Ratchet and Clank, the dog in Fable 2, or even the pink-hearted Weighted Companion Cube in Portal – all human-seeming non-humans, sidekicks that teach us to not only care about our own survival, but the survival of others. These are sidekicks that help us, that challenge us, that irritate the shit out of us, and that, ultimately, redeem us.

Floyd was the first to bring humanity to video games. Your humanity.

You cry like a slapped Girl Scout when he dies.

I mean, I didn’t cry.

*nudges snotty, tear-soaked tissues under the desk*

***

For the record, Floyd was almost right – nothing can hurt robots. At the very end of the game, the last thing you see is Floyd bounding toward you. He tells you that he’s feeling better now, and then hands you a helicopter key, a reactor elevator card, and a paddleball set, and he says, “Maybe we can use these in the sequel.”

And there again, an otherwise sterile journey is punctuated by a spike of joy mirroring the grief that struck us earlier.

We are sad to lose our sidekick, but at the end, so happy to see him once again.

Chuck Wendig wrote this article after completing a fresh play-through of Planetfall, which can be found online here. And yes, he thought about tag-teaming it with Stationfall, but it’s best we just don’t talk about that…

Real-Life Sidekick

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