I am really worried that many of the people that will play Puppeteer will not realise just how incredible it truly is. A simultaneous homage and parody to the kind of “high art” theatre that has driven opera, ballet and the like for hundreds of years (and, of course, classical puppet shows), Puppeteer shines at its brightest when you as the player have experienced enough of these live performance types to fully appreciate how the narrative ticks on behind the scenes.
The game itself is a fairly standard puzzle-platformer, and mechanically clearly inspired by the likes of LittleBigPlanet. The key features in Puppeteer are twofold, and one works while the other largely doesn’t. The mechanic that works are the scissors. Players can literally cut through a wide range of the scenery to reach hard-to-reach areas or defeat the brightly imaginative enemies that are almost too adorable to want to hurt. The action of cutting things with scissors does open up a unique approach to movement through the game world, and some of the puzzles that come as consequence of this different perspective are genuinely unique.
The other feature is the “heads” mechanic. See, the little puppet hero doesn’t actually have a head; he needs to pick up leftover heads or find them as a kind of treasure. He can have three heads stocked at any one time. Each head has a special ability attached to it that can be activated at certain points through each level that will discover bonus areas for little minigames. This is fine and opens up some interesting narrative concepts (more on that later), but mechanically it also demands that players replay levels over and over again with different sets of heads in order to unlock everything that the game has to offer.
I understand the meta need to do this because Puppeteer is otherwise the kind of game that is lacking online multiplayer and therefore brief enough that a certain percentage of players would look past its creativity and vision to instead complain that it’s “too short,” but on a personal level I’m not a fan of games that are padded out by mandated level replays. I would have been fine with having the platinum of Puppeteer unlocked after an hour’s play (not that it is an hour-long game, it’s around dozen hours or so all up), but I am aware that I’m in the minority there, and I am glad the developers opted for the “replay brilliant levels” method to pad out the game’s length, rather than the “throwing extra lesser levels in there” method that would have simply watered down the experience.
That aside I’ve got nothing but love for Puppeteer. Everything else about the game drips with real respect for the material and attention to detail. The developers clearly had a love for theatre, for the macabre and for the artistry of games, and combining those together results in a rich cross-form experience that is as much theatre as it is game. As is true to the world of classic performance art, Puppeteer is delightfully melodramatic and over the top. Like actors playing to a giant audience voices are loud and projected, and the voice acting is exceptional – the kind of voice actors that you would expect to see cast for a real live performance. For the most part the camera is zoomed in quite close, which means that actions look bigger and broader than might be otherwise expected for the expected size of these characters and so the entire experience is grandiose and far more epic than the small levels would suggest.
There’s a curtain on either side of the screen and the occasional cheering audience gives players a nice sense of self-referential humour, as though it understands that it is dangerously close to being a weak pastiche. But it dodges that risk neatly. The fourth wall-bending antics are subtle enough, but show that the developers knowingly understand that as Puppeteer is a game and there are certain limits to how far they can stretch believability in the eyes of the audience when going down the theatrical path to storytelling.
Structurally the game works nicely as a work of theatrical narrative. A headless lead character might not work so well in terms of the actual play of Puppeteer, but that lack of clear identification of the hero makes it easier for players to project their own idealised personality onto that character and take some ownership over the drama unfolding on the screen. As with most examples of performance art, the individual characters in the game represent a single ideal or archetype, but pulled together there’s a rich theme running underneath that makes for a fun night sitting with a glass of red wine and contemplating.
For instance (and this is only one of many readings you can make with this game): with Puppeteer, you’re the lead actor and you’re encouraged to project your own personality into the game to compensate for the lack of a permanent head and personality found in the lead actor. While the self-referential humour and fourth-wall breaking exercises constantly remind you that you’re playing a game, just how much are you in control? Levels are enclosed and linear. Puzzles have one solution, bosses are defeated in only one manner. So, are you playing a game or just reading a script? More than any other game, Puppeteer understands the illusion of interactivity that we’re given in most games, but unlike any other game, Puppeteer doesn’t want to hide that illusion. It exposes it. Anyone who wants to understand the nature of interactivity in games would do well to study this one closely, because it’s more considered in how it all works than is immediately obvious.
Other players might just jump into this game because it looks gorgeous (and it does), and because it has a genuine sense of humour. That’s fine – people go to the ballet because they love to see great dancing. But underneath that delightful exterior, Puppeteer is a far more intelligent game than most people are going to give it credit for, and it deserves to be written about on a far deeper level than a standard “graphics, gameplay, music” breakdown in game reviews. Puppeteer deserves more than most in this industry are going to give it, and that’s a tragedy that rivals what happened to Macbeth and Hamlet.
– Matt S
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld