If you watched Sony’s Gamescom press conference, you’ll have briefly seen Puppeteer in action. It looks mental. An unashamedly theatrical 2D puzzle-platformer with flamboyant artistic direction and voice acting straight out of a pantomime, it’s the brainchild of director Gavin Moore and SCE’s Japan Studio. It’s a beautifully imaginative game that plays with the form and conventions of theatre and puppetry to distinguish itself in gameplay terms as well as stylistically, born of Moore’s desire to create something that could capture the mind of his own son.
It’s a dark fairy tale story, beginning with the abduction of a boy’s soul by a malevolent bear-king who lives on the moon. Young Kutaro, the protagonist, finds himself transported into the body of a wooden puppet. The presentation of this puppet play is luxuriantly over-the-top, with red velvet curtains that flutter and billow with the action on the stage and an unseen audience that gasps and laughs at key junctures. “Kuuuutaro! KUUUUUTARO! Will you be my friend?” bellows the imposing, red-eyed Moon Bear King, in a stage voice that booms from the speakers, before biting Kutaro’s head off and discarding his body. From there, you have to find different heads for Kutaro to wear, each of which can be put to use in different situations.
At this point, near the beginning of the first act, Puppeteer looks like quite a simple 2D puzzle platformer – but the longer you watch it for, the more nuance it reveals. Towards the end of the first act, after Kutaro has escaped through the basement and kitchens of the Moon Bear King’s tower and climbed back up to the top, he finds himself in possession of a magical pair of scissors that lets you cleave through the fabric of the sets, cutting shapes out of cloth puppets or props. We’re shown only the most basic application for these magic shears, as Kutaro cuts through patterns of cloth to create a door for himself through to the King’s throne room.
The 2D perspective allows Japan Studio to be especially lavish with the sets
The 2D perspective allows Japan Studio to be especially lavish with the sets, realising the animation, characters and backdrops with exceptional detail. “I hate 3D cameras,” says Moore. “It takes a really, really good coder to get a very good camera working in a game. Here, it’s fixed – and it meant that suddenly we had all this CPU power we could use to create other things, like full theatrical lighting and real-time shadows.” In the absence of a camera, the right stick controls Yin Yang, a flying witch’s cat with headlamps for eyes who accompanies Kutaro for this early part of the game, mewing advice in Cheshire-cat-style honeyed tones.
But the two-dimensional viewpoint isn’t restrictive – Kutaro isn’t always walking from right to left or left to right across the stage. Some sets rotate, like the tall spiral tower that Kutaro must climb to find the magic scissors. Others will be top-down. The sets are constantly changing around the player, with new furniture and props clunking into place and the stage lights following and spotlighting the action. There’s an impressive physicality to it all; it looks and sounds like a play, a window into a stage, rather than a digital creation. The audience gasps, bombastic orchestral score and sound effects, and ostentatious voice-acting all draw you in to the theatrical conceit, as does the detail in the sets, from those gently undulating stage curtains to the smoke effects – even the clop of Kutaro’s puppet feet on the stage floor.
If Kutaro gets hit by anything malicious, he loses whichever head he has on at that moment, giving you three seconds to scramble around and pick it up again. Each head has contextual actions – the first one that you find, a useless skull, comes with a little puppet skeleton dance. A spider head, found later, lets him interact with giant spider webs around the world. At another point, he was wearing a hamburger for a head, whilst navigating a basement kitchen full of dancing crockery and fiery hazards, and staffed by other headless unfortunates whom the Moon Bear King has eaten.
Unlike many artistically inventive 2D platformers of our time, Puppeteer isn’t a digital-only release
Unlike many artistically inventive 2D platformers of our time, Puppeteer isn’t a digital-only release. “It’s a full-release blu-ray disc, so expect the amount of content that you’d expect from that. It’s more than you would imagine, I will say that,” Moore confirms. “Puppeteer is huge. It’s absolutely huge. It’s full of wild and wonderful situations, with variation in changing sets and gameplay and enemies. People will be shocked by the amount of stuff that we throw at you… If you’re going to ask people to pay for a game [on disc], you want to give them a new experience.”
Puppeteer is certainly that – I’ve never seen anything like it, and comparisons to things like Paper Mario and LittleBigPlanet feel shallow and superficial after you’ve seen more than a few screen shots. Most interestingly, when Gavin Moore was asked whether it’s a happy game or a sad game, he seemed to find himself unable to answer. There’s European fairy-tale darkness in this story, a touch of Grimm, where bad things sometimes happen to good children. The presentation might be flamboyant, but it’s not primary-coloured or childish; if I were seven years old, I’d probably find it compellingly scary.
Puppeteer has been in the making for almost three years already, and will be out next year. Hopefully we’ll see more of it at Tokyo Game Show next month.
Keza MacDonald is in charge of IGN’s games team in the UK, and finds herself continually impressed with Sony’s talent for attracting and supporting some of the industry’s most unusual and creative games. You can follow her on Twitter and IGN.
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