Most games can be easily sorted into categories. Shooters, room escapes, platformers… much can be gleaned about a game's content from its genre alone. Once in a great while, however, a different sort of creature comes along: a game so special, so different, that it defies categorization. Planetarium is one member of this exclusive club of wonderfully unique creations.
How to begin? For lack of a better description, Planetarium is a story-puzzle in twelve weekly installments, into which is woven a fantastical fable and many marvelous puzzles. Beholder, the British developer of Planetarium, has concocted an intriguing tale: a young girl, with no memory but perfect foresight, receives a love letter from far into the future. Together with her friend the Mathemagician, a genius with an aptitude for machinery and mathematics, she must travel towards the source of that strange missive, and in doing so, undergo a transformation that will alter her very essence.
Beginning the game is easy. Simply create a username and password, and you're set—you're not even required to submit an email address (By the way, did I mention that no ads appear anywhere on the game's website? I love it!). The moment that you register, the game has begun for you, although there is a slight catch. The ruling force in Planetarium is Time: the vagaries of time, its mutability and stony inevitability. This theme suffuses Planetarium's story, its puzzles and, as a natural extension, its rules and restrictions.
Only the first chapter of the game is immediately playable. The next chapter will be available a week later, and the third one a week after that; all in all, that means that Planetarium fully unfolds over a three-month duration. This period begins the moment that you register a username, so every player is on his or her own individual timeframe.
Another important note: Planetarium requires you to log in (even for a moment) at least once every 10 days, or your username will be frozen. I am not the most patient person in the world, and I must admit that at times this slooooowness drove me to distraction. In the end, however, the protracted pace of the game made it all the more rewarding.
Each installment consists of an illustrated scene and a significant amount of accompanying text, depicting another step in the journey of the unnamed girl and the Mathemagician. Three puzzles can be found in each chapter, by clicking on the appropriate hotspots in the illustration: a keyword puzzle (mainly riddles), a number problem, and a tricky "either-or" question. Cumulatively, these 36 problems are the game's Minor Puzzles; each solution that you enter goes into a slot in your Table of Solutions.
36 puzzles… that's quite a daunting task. The creators of Planetarium could be forgiven for recycling classic puzzles, and indeed some of them (particularly the riddles) may be familiar to you; however, most are unique to the game. Many of these thoughtful, often elegant problems require abstract, out-of-the-box thinking; others require the player to hunt through past or future installments for information (which means that not all can be solved immediately). While most of the puzzles do not require outside information to solve, you'll find that Google will probably be needed for a handful. All in all, this collection of puzzles is a pretty remarkable achievement.
That being said, those 36 puzzles are not what make Planetarium so memorable. The Minor Puzzles, in fact, are only the stepping stones to unlocking Planetarium's heart, its true mystery: the Major Puzzle. Never explicitly described, the identity of the Major Puzzle must be detected through clues and hints embedded in every conceivable place in the story. It's up to you to discover how to solve the Major Puzzle; but as the game's website notes, if any of your Minor Puzzle answers are incorrect, your answer to the Major Puzzle will probably be wrong as well.
After twelve weeks, you'll be granted access to the complete, illustrated solutions to both the Major and Minor Puzzles (thank goodness!), as well as the "xiii forum", where players can share their thoughts on the experience. But even this is ruled by time; one week after you gain access to the forum and solutions, your username expires and you may no longer see past the first chapter of the game. If you want to venture further, you must create a new account and once more endure the long weeks between installments. There's something poignant about knowing that your time in this game is ending, that its secrets will be closed off once more; even after the curtain falls, the ticking of the clock never ceases.
I could go on for quite a while. I could talk about the cleverness of the game's prose, the quirky beauty of the illustrations; I could expound upon the intricacies of the game's themes and the elegance of the clues. But why drone on about what you can discover for yourself? Planetarium is the best kind of entertainment in its purest, most unblemished form; it exists entirely for the enjoyment of its players, and has done so since 1999.
Create a username and password, and off you go on your twelve-week journey of whimsy and erudition. Don't be surprised if this brilliant, unique and beautiful game soon becomes one of your favorites.