What’s the line between human and machine? If an artificial intelligence were created that seemed so natural and lifelike that we treated it as human, would there effectively be no difference between that artificial life and a natural one? And do these questions even really matter?
If there’s a mandatory reading/playing list of visual novels, Planetarian would have to be on it. First released in Japan on PC in 2004, this kinetic novel has gotten both fan and official translations on several platforms and is now widely considered a classic of the medium, and rightly so. This isn’t my favorite VN, but it is one I enjoy and respect a whole lot, and it takes on the above questions in a unique and interesting way.
Before I begin my look at Planetarian, however, I want to lay out exactly what approach I’m taking with it. I initially tried to write this as a normal review, but then I kept writing until I had a whole damn treatise on the thing. So it’s full of spoilers, both for Planetarian and a certain popular sci-fi film with some surface similarities that I contrast it with, one that took a promising premise and managed to completely shit it up in its last ten minutes (and one that was marketed partly through a harebrained scheme using a fake Tinder profile to catfish SXSW attendees. Okay, it’s Ex Machina.) So if you want to go into either of these raw, here’s your warning.
I do want to persuade people who haven’t experienced Planetarian yet to check it out, though, so here’s a one-sentence no-spoiler review: if you like the idea of a short post-apocalypse sci-fi story with excellent characterization, voice-acting, and music, but no branching decision points or route because it’s a kinetic VN, you should like it. I think the ending of this work is pretty well known by now since Planetarian has been around in various forms for 16 years, but I still feel the need to put a warning up here. It’s only a few hours long anyway, so it’s not a huge time investment.
The basic premise of Planetarian is that the world has gone completely to hell. About thirty years after a nuclear war and its aftermath destroyed almost all of humanity, Earth is only inhabited by still-operating autonomous weapons and a scattering of human survivors doing their best to live off of the ruins of their dead civilization. A constant radioactive downpour simply called “the Rain” makes this new world even more difficult to live in. In the midst of all this misery is our unnamed protagonist, simply called the Junker, a man who makes a living off of salvaging useful scraps from the old world to trade with: parts, food supplies, and the extremely rare and valuable preserved packs of cigarettes and bottles of liquor. Junker is exactly the kind of protagonist you’d expect to find in a post-apocalyptic work like this. He’s tough and battle-hardened, always armed and on the lookout for valuables and potential enemies, both mechanical and human.
At the opening of Planetarian, Junker has come across a “sarcophagus city”, a settlement that has been heavily fortified against attack. Unfortunately, those defenses weren’t quite enough: the city was abandoned by its population long ago, left to become yet another ruin. This is an opportunity for Junker, who thinks he may be able to salvage some useful items here.
There is one other being still operating in this dead city. Her name is Hoshino Yumemi, a robot built in the form of a young woman. Despite the fact that the city had been long since destroyed and emptied of its population, Yumemi still works for exactly one week per year as the receptionist, usher, and hostess of the Flowercrest Department Store’s planetarium, spending the rest of her time in sleep mode charging at a station that’s still working off of a trickle of power somehow still available from a nearby vacant military installation. Since the outbreak of the global war and the exodus from the city, however, the planetarium hasn’t seen any business — not until Junker arrives there looking for shelter.
Junker is shocked to find a young woman alone in this ruin and immediately suspects a trap, but he soon realizes that Yumemi is just a robot who has been operating autonomously all this time. As Yumemi herself explains, she was left in charge of the planetarium while the human staff were out. Since the day they left the city almost thirty years ago, she has carried out her duties to the best of her ability for the one week per year that she’s able to operate. And what luck — she happens to be freshly recharged and active when Junker arrives. Yumemi, seemingly oblivious to Junker’s appearance and all the destruction around her, processes him as a customer, greets him warmly, and tells him that in honor of his status as the 2,500,000th customer the staff has prepared a special projection that she intends to show him. She then offers him a makeshift bouquet made of wires and junk she found lying around, apologizing profusely and explaining that the florist’s shop downstairs had unexpectedly closed for the time being. She also admits that he’s not really the 2,500,000th customer, but she’s rounding up because there hasn’t been much business lately.
Junker naturally does not give a shit about any of this. After trying without success to explain to Yumemi that he’s not a god damn customer, he lays out his supplies and equipment to dry, then drifts off to sleep in one of the planetarium’s seats. When he wakes up, Yumemi is still around performing her duties, and she cheerfully greets him, addressing him as “Mr. Customer” (or okyakusama, a term like “honored guest” that doesn’t quite translate because we don’t have a similar term in common use in English) and doing her best to serve his needs. Of course, Yumemi can’t really serve Junker’s needs. When she offers him a refreshment, he asks whether she has any liquor in sealed bottles, and she tells him there are liquor shops on a lower floor. Tragically, that lower floor is completely flooded and inaccessible, so Junker can’t even have a nice drink to calm him down.
Yumemi continues to insist that she’ll show Junker the projection, and he finally gives in to her demands if only to shut her up. However, there’s a problem: the projector is broken. No big surprise, since the planetarium has been inactive for nearly 30 years, but Yumemi is seriously distressed when the projector doesn’t move or respond at the start of the show. Since she was built to be a sort of greeter/hostess and not a maintenance worker, there’s not much Yumemi can do to fix the giant machine, and so she asks Junker if he can repair “Miss Jena” as Yumemi refers to it.
This leads to the first of two fateful decisions Junker makes. By deciding to help Yumemi out, Junker takes up valuable time and energy that he admits he should be using to get the hell out of the city and resupply. He’s established that the planetarium and attached mall don’t have anything of value to him. Yet he stays and starts working on Jena, an extremely complex piece of equipment with a bunch of small moving parts that hasn’t been maintained for three decades. Meanwhile, Yumemi can only stand by and express her concern. She clearly feels bad about asking a valued customer to repair one of the planetarium’s machines and tries to help Junker by asking him if various tools might be useful, but it’s obvious she wasn’t designed for that sort of thing, so she steps back and lets him work.
After a couple of days of work, Jena is finally repaired, and Yumemi is able to run the special projection she had planned. Junker is still anxious to get the hell out of there, but once the lights dim and Yumemi starts her presentation, he’s drawn in. So much so that when the power fails for good shortly after the projection starts, Junker asks Yumemi to continue her monologue as he closes his eyes and uses his imagination to fill in the visual gaps.
If you’ve read Planetarian already, this may seem like a weird statement, but this scene provided the biggest emotional punch for me as Yumemi talks about the birth and growth of the human race and of its reaching out to the stars through the space program. The same space program that was in progress when the global war began 30 years ago, destroying its base on the Moon, grounding its spaceships, and and eventually killing the great majority of humanity. It’s all the more heartbreaking because, despite the fact that she’s a robot, Yumemi seems genuinely proud of humanity’s growth, just as though she were human herself. But her information is painfully outdated. Junker knows the truth of the matter all too well, but he lets Yumemi finish without saying anything about it.
When the show is over, Junker is ready to leave. But not without Yumemi. This second serious decision puts Junker at yet another disadvantage — Yumemi doesn’t seem to understand how dire the situation is outside the mall and planetarium, and she’s already told Junker that she’s not designed to handle rough environments or to move very quickly. Junker nevertheless doesn’t want to leave her there, and presses the facts on her that the planetarium won’t recover its limited source of power again and that she’ll never see another customer show up. Yumemi still seems optimistic despite Junker’s warnings, so when she offers to walk him to his car, a sort of post-apocalypse combat vehicle, he takes her up on her offer and decides to bring her along with him to a nearby inhabited settlement.
Getting to his vehicle is no easy matter, however, and it’s even more difficult when he’s essentially doing an escort mission. Yumemi trips several times and admits that she hasn’t been very well maintained lately. But she still keeps her spirits up, pointing out popular restaurants and attractions around town and printing coupons from the port in her ear for him to use, apparently not recognizing that that they’ve all been long abandoned and lay in ruins. Eventually, after several breaks to let Yumemi recover and prevent her from overheating, they reach the city wall, close to Junker’s car. A giant tank with a massive gun sits at the entrance of an opening in the wall through which they’ll have to pass, but Junker believes trying it would be suicide — despite the end of the war, the automated weapons deployed back then are still active and will attack anything that moves. So Junker tells Yumemi to hang back in a relatively safe place while he tries to destroy the tank with a grenade launcher.
Junker’s grenade is unfortunately a dud, and the tank turns its gun on him. He manages to escape and mostly disable the machine against all odds in the game’s only action scene, but it’s still barely functional and is about to kill Junker when Yumemi steps between them in a dramatic Tienanmen Square moment.
Yumemi tries to send the tank an electronic signal to get it to stop attacking, but in its final moments it shoots its gun directly at her.
Yumemi is torn apart at the waist, but she’s still able to function for a few minutes, just long enough to show Junker some of her memories recorded in her eyes: of happy guests, adults and children, telling her how much they enjoyed their time at the planetarium, and of the rest of the staff being forced to evacuate the city and saying their painful goodbyes to her. She then reveals that she realized long ago the planetarium was finished, but that she was happy to see one more customer show up. As she finally shuts down, Yumemi opens the port containing her memory card, and Junker takes it and seals it in a waterproof case, resolving to find a new body for her somehow so she can live again.
And that’s Planetarian. Quite a sad story in typical Key style — this studio is well known for creating melancholic visual novels. As miserable as the whole thing might seem, though, the story of Planetarian is not a hopeless one. Yumemi’s body is destroyed in the end, but her mind essentially lives on, waiting for Junker to find a new vessel for it.
What’s more interesting to me than the ending is the relationship created between Junker and Yumemi, a human and a robot. From the beginning it’s no secret that Yumemi is not a human, and a lot of her mannerisms reinforce that. When asked a question she doesn’t know the answer to, for example, she’ll tilt her head a bit and then deliver word-for-word the same response about not being able to make contact with some control center that she’s programmed to message in such cases. Her insistence upon carrying out her regular duties in a workplace that’s clearly been abandoned and left to rot for thirty years also seems kind of inhuman. A human would have left the planetarium behind long ago, just as Yumemi’s coworkers did, but she keeps performing her programmed duties faithfully.
But there are things about Yumemi that also seem strangely human. One of these is her extreme talkativeness. Yumemi simply won’t shut up. Junker is clearly annoyed by this and tries giving her a command to stop talking — a command that she acknowledges for about ten seconds before breaking it and asking him a question, after which he gives up trying.
Yumemi explains that this chattiness is caused by an error in her programming, one that was never fixed because the staff of the planetarium thought she was cuter for it. She refers to herself as “just a little broken” both because of that design flaw and her recent lack of maintenance. Certainly, Yumemi doesn’t act like a perfectly honed android of the kind you might see in some other sci-fi works, but these imperfections made her seem all the more human to me. She also constantly shows genuine concern for Junker despite having just met him, asking if he’s feeling sick and offering to call the mall’s medical center that she doesn’t realize is now abandoned. Indeed, Yumemi seems determined to help Junker out and tend to his needs as the “customer” he is, even when he insists he’s not one.
Considering all this, it’s not a great leap for Junker to start thinking of Yumemi as less of a machine and more of a human, at least in terms of how he treats her. The pair have the kind of chemistry where one complements the other — Junker’s bitter, harsh, practical attitude with Yumemi’s optimistic and cheerful one — and they start to have real conversations by the end of his stay at the planetarium. The first time I read through Planetarian, I thought it was a bit weird that this extremely pragmatic guy would decide to bring a slow, partially broken robot along with him through the streets of the city, where autonomous, heavily armed tanks were still operating. Junker wonders that himself and doesn’t seem to understand exactly why he’s doing it. But there has been a connection created between the two when the final part of the VN begins, to the point that I can believe Junker simply couldn’t allow himself to leave Yumemi alone in the now unpowered mall to shut down — effectively to die, left to be “harvested” for her parts by other junkers as he puts it.
This is where Planetarian totally departs from a lot of other modern sci-fi. When I watched the 2014 film Ex Machina a while back, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Planetarian and how completely different each work was in spirit, despite the fact that they both deal with human/AI interaction. Ex Machina takes place in a near-future Earth that’s still thriving, in which the eccentric genius CEO of a massive search engine company has built a line of realistic androids. Said CEO rigs up a fake contest to select one of his employees, a coder/programmer type named Caleb, to spend a week at his high-tech, high-security mansion in the wilderness. There Caleb gets the chance to run a series of tests by having conversations with Ava, like Yumemi an android in the shape of a young woman. Ava seems to be curious both about the outside world, which she hasn’t seen, and about Caleb himself. She also comes off as having an almost human-seeming sense of humor and a pretty sharp wit. After a few days of testing, Ava tells Caleb that she knows he’s attracted to her, that she’s attracted to him, and that she wants him to help her break out of the CEO’s mansion and escape.
Despite their efforts to conceal these parts of their conversations, the CEO realizes what’s going on, but in a double-twist Caleb reveals that he outsmarted the CEO by secretly fucking with the power system so that he’d be sealed inside his own high-security bunker of a house without being able to get out while Ava and Caleb would run away together. CEO tries killing the plan by ordering Ava to go back to her room, but she and another android get the better of him in a fight and stab him to death. We’ve seen him act like a real asshole to them throughout the film, so sure, this makes sense. However, in a final betrayal, Ava traps Caleb in the house and escapes without him, leaving him to die as well. The end.
Does this remind anyone else of those old creepy Svedka ads? Is it just me?
What message is to be taken from Ex Machina exactly? Caleb admittedly didn’t think through his actions fully, but he was motivated by a desire to help Ava escape because he essentially saw her as human, or at least as a being deserving of human rights. While Caleb did mean to seal the CEO into a virtual tomb in the course of his plan, he also found and watched tapes of said CEO treating the androids like garbage during tests and generally being a dick, and he also knows of his plan to erase Ava’s memory at the end of this testing phase. So his feelings are a bit understandable. However, the relationship Caleb thinks he has with Ava is pure fantasy. She’s been manipulating him this whole time, and far from being grateful for his help, she traps him and effectively murders him at the end of the film for no clear reason that I can understand, other than director/screenwriter Alex Garland wanting to throw a final twist in to shock us.
At first, Ex Machina left me asking “so fucking what?” The actors are good (Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac as Caleb and the CEO, for you Star Wars sequel trilogy fans if there are any left, and Alicia Vikander as Ava) and the look and feel of the movie in general are pretty nice, so I can’t exactly call it total garbage. But the writing. The first 100 minutes of the movie now seem entirely pointless, with its attempts at making me feel bad for the plight of Ava by making her come off as self-aware and sympathetic — such a being would have at least recognized Caleb as her ally and let him live, even if she’d been manipulating him up to that point. But no, turns out she’s nothing of the sort, more of a HAL from 2001 sort of character. Only 2001 took the time to establish HAL as a scary psychopath sort of AI making the course of the story believable, whereas Ex Machina just throws us an ending twist without bothering to set it up in the slightest.
So the message I’m forced to take from Ex Machina — because there clearly is a message in there; everything about the film suggests it’s meant to be taken as Serious Art instead of a basic horror movie — is that we can’t trust those god damn androids because there’s no way they’ll treat us with any care or affection despite what we might think. This is a depressingly pessimistic message. That’s fine with me; I’m a depressingly pessimistic guy myself, so I get that.
But what I can’t forgive is the sheer dishonesty of it. Ex Machina presents a dark future without any real argument to back it up. While many critics and fans have praised Ex Machina, I believe Garland completely screws up its treatment of its central human/AI relationship, which is quite an unbelievable and stilted-feeling one created to express the message, when the message should instead flow naturally from a believable story. Planetarian also depicts a dark future for humanity in its global war and post-apocalyptic setting, but in creating the relationship between Junker and Yumemi it doesn’t try to pull a cynical trick on the reader. Yumemi is exactly what she seems from the first time Junker meets her — an android who likes the company of both her machine and human colleagues. She has fond memories of working with the planetarium staff and helping customers and has a desire to continue her work.
Whether that’s because she’s programmed to do so doesn’t seem to matter anymore, at least not to Junker. By the end, he doesn’t see her as a mere piece of machinery. Yumemi herself, while conscious of the fact that she’s a robot, doesn’t want to be separated from humans. This is the meaning of her saying “please do not divide Heaven in two”, one of the game’s best-known lines — when she asks whether Junker has ever prayed to God, a weird sort of theological question comes up about whether there might be a separate God of Robots. Yumemi says her coworkers told her that robots get to go to their own Heaven when they shut down, but because she doesn’t want machines to be separated from humans, she prays that they can all go to the same Heaven.
This is where I think you can find the optimism in Planetarian. It’s a sad story with a bitter ending, sure. But there is hope in the end, both for Junker and Yumemi, and maybe for both humans and machines beyond them, living in the world together. Yumemi sees both organic humans and other, non-humanoid machines like Jena as her friends and colleagues, and she even says Junker shouldn’t blame the tank for what it did — in the end, it was simply doing its best to carry out its duties faithfully.
This view is very different from the one given by works like Ex Machina, in which humans create technology that ends up destroying them of its own will. In those works, there’s an assumption that any form of advanced AI will necessarily be separate from the natural world. Humans are animals, androids are machines, and there can’t be any meaningful emotional relationship between them. When a well-meaning character like Caleb foolishly believes he’s created one with an android like Ava, she ends up betraying him. She can’t empathize with him, and he was stupid to think he could empathize with her. Planetarian, by contrast, does not make any such assumptions. Humans started the global war that wrecked civilization. They used technology to do it, but the story doesn’t give any indication that the AI employed in the war rebelled against their human creators or did anything other than follow the orders given to them.
I’m not saying a robot apocalypse will never happen. But it seems both disingenuous and lazy to just assume that advanced AI will definitely turn against its creators when you’re putting together a work of fiction, or that they’ll even necessarily see themselves as that different from their creators.
I wrote at the start of this post that Planetarian isn’t my favorite visual novel. While I don’t have any problem with kinetic novels, I prefer VNs that give the player dialogue and action options and branching story paths. And I don’t know if writer Yuichi Suzumoto is responsible for this or if it’s the translation, but the prose occasionally gets really awkward — just see the above screenshot for an example. Thankfully it doesn’t happen that often, but those instances stick out and hurt an otherwise good game.
But I’d still rank this pretty highly among the VNs I’ve played. A good story can end with disaster and total despair, but the way it gets to that ending is important. Planetarian doesn’t take the same straightforward, lazy “technology is bad” route that Ex Machina and many other modern sci-fi works go with. And it’s not afraid to express the hope at the end that maybe things won’t be so miserable one day, and what the hell is wrong with that? Nothing. In real life, people keep hope alive even in the worst of circumstances, so it’s not a sin to give your audience some hope as well, despite what some writers and directors seem to think.
And that’s true even if that hope directly follows a tearjerker scene. I mean, I didn’t cry when Yumemi got blown up. Really, I didn’t. I just had bad allergies that day. You know how that pollen is in the spring.
I hope I’ve represented Planetarian well enough here. It also has anime OVA and film adaptations that I haven’t seen, but I’ve heard good things.
I also want to note that I’m not trying to do a “western vs. Japanese take” comparison with this commentary. Reading back through it, all the crap I dumped on Ex Machina might make it seem that way to some people, and everyone knows I’m a degenerate weeb after all, but it’s not the case. I only meant to highlight two approaches sci-fi writers have taken with regard to human/AI relationships and how I think one is more natural and honest than the other. If you want proof of my sincerity, here you go: the Spike Jonze movie Her does thousands of times better at this than Ex Machina, and it involves an actually believable romance between a human and an AI character if that’s what you’re looking for. 𒀭