The Invisible Strings of Puppeteer

Curtains roll out and I’m greeted with the title screen. I can hear the orchestra start up; the audience chitchatting amongst themselves; an MC throws some buzz words and describes the game as the audience’s murmur tapers off. Chapters are labeled “acts,” which are further divided by “curtains.” This is the real deal. This game thinks it’s a puppet show.You find yourself peering through a window of crimson drapes the entire game, the proscenium waits with gears and cogs exposed.

Our Pinocchio stand-in, Kutaro, is boy transformed into puppet by the egotistic and tyrannical Moon Bear King, who’s usurped the throne from the Moon Goddess. With the help (and comic relief) of a witch, a cat, and a cosmic princess, Kutaro collects a few weapons to defeat the Moon Bear King and his twelve generals, to return power to the Moon Goddess.

All these characters appear whittled and carefully crafted to match the ancient art of puppetry the game pays homage to. They’re animated as lively as you can imagine a puppet could be; all the exaggerated and rote movements contribute to the air of verisimilitude — their conspicuous strings being another deliberate decision in presentation. Facsimiles of backdrops are sometimes bulbous and weighted and other times give the illusion of cloth or paper. Elaborate sets flush in and out, up and down, changing with each screen you pass, and locales and aesthetics shifting dramatically between acts. Puppeteer wants you to think it’s a puppet show, not a game.

Kutaro cutting bats.

“In its goal of using a variety of art for a variety levels there’s very little room for any consistent indicators for the player”

With this creative achievement in artifice comes a fumbling point: you can’t always anticipate what’s about to happen next because the whole game trundles as a meandering adventure by puppet show. More often than not this would be a great problem for a game. Each level would seem fresh, right? Right. But the issue here is how Puppeteer is continually reinventing the props it presents. One level has you snipping away at leaves to propel your way up a structure. The next level may employ the same mechanic through paper bats, smoke, or wires — sometimes using a couple of these assets at once. These cuttable props all share the trait of being two-dimensional but the sets are also composed of similarly defined pieces, creating a bout of confusion during more demanding puzzles and obstacles. Cutting to reach a distant platform is an action that’s prevalent throughout the adventure so you’ll always know what to do you but you may not always know how to do it when you’re surrounded by an array of threats.

This lack of intuitiveness is further aggravated by a lack of consistency in level design. Again, in its goal of using a variety of art for a variety of levels there’s very little room for any consistent indicators for the player, specifically for platforming, a task that demands proper footing and understanding of the environment. In its pursuit of seamless gameplay, Puppeteer forgets to notify the player of the properties of the floor they stand on. There’s no indication of what flooring will rise or fall until it happens; no cracks in the floor or crumbling foundation — it’s all arbitrary, the floor falls apart whenever the designer decided it would. You learn by falling to your death, and re-learn this with every screen you pass through. There were times when I’d be looking at a painting that is just begging to be interacted with, and the floor would just slide apart at my feet. I’d be snipping away at clouds to reach a stunned enemy but when I returned the ground floor it was covered in holes — which I just happened to fall through. These issues of inconsistent props and vanishing platforms all hinge on some rather awkward level design. You can see the seams of how the show is strung together, but you’re removed from the visuals cues that hold the gameplay in position.

The narrator and various characters engage in banter and break the fourth wall continually, all to give greater credence to this notion of composing artifice. It’s a puppet show, and we’re privy to that from the beginning of the fairy tale. While Puppeteer persistently exposes the artifice of puppetry and theatre — revealing the framework of the stage, sets, and puppets themselves — it unfortunately conceals the clockwork of what it really is: a game.

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Log: Donkey Kong Country Returns

Back in 1994 Rare fiddled about with pre-rendered assets, creating pseudo-3D art style for Donkey Kong Country. As a kid, this was like the work of a warlock; I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. And then they made the show, and man oh man, that was something else. Say what you want about that nonsense now, but as a child in the 90’s that show was funny and carried some sophisticated 3D animation, serving as a goofier version of the spectacle Reboot offered. There’s something really inane and endearing about monkey who’s best friend is his nephew, and the cast around this duo adds more than a superfluous beat. The point is, fancy cartoon graphics were what Rare was known for.

Which is a point that really bugged me as I got older. I loved the Banjo-Kazooie games so naturally, I loved the result of Rare translating Donkey Kong with the same formula in Donkey Kong 64. But then in the Gamecube era I got thinking: if DK64 is Banjo-Kazooie with a new skin, what’s the real difference between DKC and the Super Mario games? It was just another platformer with shiny veneer.

I know I’m late to the conga, but I’ve come to the conclusion that having art style as the core differentiator of a title isn’t so bad. I used to think that maybe games that changed surface level values don’t deserve much praise. Which I still think is true, but to a much lesser extent. Sometimes games change a single value and sell it as entirely novel product. Take Apple’s App Store for example. There are thousands of games that are mere clones with a tweak in polygons. However, there are also games which carry their own experiences with a few changes in flavour. If this new flavour permeates the entire game, it changes its composition and consumption on the level of an entirely different meal.

Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D.

“…the audial feedback from the most rudimentary bounce is integral to the design of the game.”

Now I’m not saying Donkey Kong games are just clones. There’s bunch of cards they brought to the table that you didn’t see on the same level before, namely roll-jumping and timing your jumps to increase height. Although, the main draw of the 1994 title was the visuals. Not just the pre-rendered wizardry, but the characters, the setting, the music, and most importantly, the sound effects.

SFX make up the thick layer of tangibility that Nintendo and its subsidiaries ply onto their worlds. Even in movement, the sound matching the avatar can make or break the sense of control. It’s that feedback that let’s us know if we’re walking, running, jumping, or stopping dead in our tracks. I don’t mean to make a mockery of Rayman Origins, but that’s a great example of a title where people claim the degree of control isn’t as acute as a Super Mario game. The real difference is, you can hear the sound of Mario’s feet strike the ground with each step, where as a series like Rayman provides little to no audial feedback for movement. If you need to make a quick stop in a Super Mario game, you can hear his feet respond to the terrain, allowing you make whatever adjustment necessary, like a side flip or long jump.

Donkey Kong games also use sound to their advantage, which is absolutely necessary for the rigour it demands. Donkey Kong Country Returns is difficult. Perhaps the most difficult game I’ve played in years. I’m not the best at 2D platformers, so the SFX that matched every movement was a boon to my shoddy reflexes and thus crucial to my experience. Every time you jump on an enemy you hear this clicking noise on the rebound, similar to but higher than the sound elicited from collecting a banana. You need this noise, or you can’t play the game. Tapping the jump button just as you land on the enemy increases the height of the rebound, so knowing the speed of your character falling and the point at which you’d hear that click is necessary to master some portions of the game. SFX may seem like an afterthought in most titles, but in the case of Nintendo games the audial feedback from the most rudimentary bounce is integral to the design of the game.

I guess I don’t have much to say about Donkey Kong Country Returns, but that it’s a fine successor to the ancient formula. Nothing’s really too different. It’s just updated for today’s needs; carrying fail state modifiers in the form of new items at Cranky’s shop. The sharp platforming works, although it comes off rather irritating sometimes. Memorization of a path is necessary for a handful of levels involving a mine cart or a rocket, and in these cases getting the level down pat prioritizes over the mechanics Retro Studios imbedded into the gameplay. Still, because of the taxing level design each stage left me with a sense of accomplishment, albeit an accomplishment drenched in my sweat and tears. But I deserved every failure. Everything I needed to complete each level was sitting right in front of me. I just had to hone my hand eye coordination to meet the game’s supercilious expectations. The “clicks,” “thumps,” and “boings” are the bread and butter of the game. I couldn’t come close to finishing the game without the accurate sound editing, proving that Donkey Kong games are outstanding for their achievements in audial feedback, as they are famous for their impressive art style.

Log: Super Mario Galaxy 2

I fell down. I fell up. I spun around and found myself on the other side of the system. I wasn’t sure what was going on in my first run through of Super Mario Galaxy. I could tell it was substantially different from its predecessors, but couldn’t keep my feet down and decide how. As a teenager, I don’t think I really cared. Mario went on vacation once, and this time he’s in outer space — a vacation of sorts, sure. In playing its sequel, I’ve come to the conclusion that what causes this discrepancy — this world’s difference between Mario’s earthly endeavours and this trek into the final frontier — is the manipulation of gravity, by means of physics, level design, and powers-ups.

In prior games, platforming consisted of moving and jumping to avoid chasms and squash enemies. However, with the Galaxy games Mario’s jumping is contingent on the gravitational properties of his grounding, and that of neighbouring planets. There was a time when jumping off a sphere meant falling off it. Instead, the Galaxy games allow for full use of the planetoid’s surface area, marking drops with 90° angles. No edge means no fall; ample space for creative use of cameras, hidden objects and platforms. Lateral jumping in Galaxy equates to riding the land mass’s orbit; working the same way as hopping a chasm, but forcing you to account for much more terrain, or the lack thereof. If Earth was a few meters in size, we could walk around the globe, just like Mario does — a motif inherent and thematically relevant to this galactic mini-series.

And while planet-trotting is stylistically a very striking feature, it seems like it’s a trait best fit for these Galaxy games, evidenced by Nintendo in their lack of planetoids in later entries. Both of those games did, however, feature levels where gravity is mapped to different surfaces in different ways. This only happens in specific levels where the camera’s fixed to expose a cross section and stipulate precise 2D platforming. Arrows on the wall indicate which direction gravity will pull in, meaning that if you’re to jump toward a section of a wall pointing a certain way, that’s the direction you’ll fall in; whatever stretch of land there is now your footing. Puzzles present themselves in the composition of these levels. A single jump can change the direction in which you fall, forcing you hop about as you determine what’s now a wall and what, if anything, constitutes as solid ground.

Volatile gravity in Super Mario Galaxy.

Power-ups have some interesting uses but new additions are much more ancillary. The Spin Drill, for instance, is sometimes involved in environmental puzzles containing areas that are only accessible by said tool. For the most part, the drill acts a quick way to travel the diameter of a planet — a shortcut to save you from running the entire mass. The Rock Mushroom looks neat, turning Mario into a reckless boulder, though I doubt there are many differences between this new fungus and the glassy, star encasing ball Mario runs on in certain levels. I feel like the only real difference between the two is one of speed, Rock Mario being able to roll faster, much quicker. The Cloud Flower is much more compelling, forcing you to make quick and precise calls on where to place temporary clouds, while limiting the number of floating platforms to three per flower. The hat Mario wears is a nice plus.

Be that as it may, the most exciting use of power-ups in the game comes with our dinosaur friend, Yoshi. Yoshi does what he always does: flutter jumps and eats. The real exciting bit comes with certain fruits that are power-ups specific to the dinosaur. Blimp Fruits take a note from the Bee Mushroom, inflating Yoshi and causing him to float. Dash Peppers are spicy, of course, burning Yoshi’s tongue and making him jet across platforms while leaving limited control to the player. Finally, I found Bulb Berries to be the most interesting power-up, as it creates an area of effect that surrounds Yoshi, illuminating hidden platforms while quickly shrinking its radius. Yoshi needs to consistently eat these berries to reset the radius, making you look around for hidden objects while frantically looking for the next fruit, because if Yoshi goes hungry, any hidden grounding you happen to be standing on will be no more.

On a side note, I found it kind of neat how these Galaxy games happened to incorporate some of the power-ups from Super Mario Sunshine. The Hover Nozzle was borrowed from Peach in Super Mario Bros. 2 (or Lina from Doki Doki Panic depending on how you look at it). The Spring Mushroom is the Rocket Nozzle’s successor, letting Mario puncture the atmosphere with a mere second’s delay. Dash Peppers take the place of the Turbo Nozzle, serving the exact same role of jetting across a strip of land like you would in a 3D Sonic game.

With all this said and done what really peaks my curiosity is what Nintendo plans to use in future instalments, and what is just a niche of the Super Mario Galaxy games. Maybe that’s the wrong way to look at it — maybe each Super Mario game is an amalgam of everything that surrounds it and came before it. I feel like the gravity bending, mind numbing level design is something that fits in within the surreal level design of the series, particularly the 3D ones. Running around planets may be a bit difficult to implement in lateral platformers but flipping the switch on gravity is something that could and should be implemented into future releases, just as it was in Thomas Was Alone. To top it all off, there’s no thematic limitation to gravity switching wallpaper so it can easily stick its feet to where ever its being pulled to.

Thomas Was Alone Review

More often than not, videogames use violence as a justified substitute for problem solving. It’s a trope sewn into the fabric of the medium, securing the label of tradition as it becomes the norm for gameplay in contemporary titles. Because of this, the term ‘ludo-narrative dissonance’ is a hot topic these days; defining a thematic disconnect between the story told and the interaction the player assumes. Mike Bithell created Thomas Was Alone as a comparable puzzle-platformer, but the distinguishing feature of the geometric caper is how the gameplay serves a significant purpose beyond the enjoyment of the player: it exists as metaphor.

Thomas, an orange rectangle, awakens one day to find himself well, alive really. He’s just been conjured into existence by means of a computer error and immediately finds himself at odds with solitude and suffering from an existential crisis. The thought of dying unaccompanied sends a shiver down the AI’s (metaphorical) spine, so he decides to carry forward through life’s obstacles in search of camaraderie and purpose.

He comes across other AIs, each with their own personality and physical traits. Some friends can crawl through small apertures, some can jump to great heights and some just carry a buoyant sense of goodwill and vigilantism. Throughout the game Thomas learns the ins and outs of every cliché on the topic of friendship and life, but it’s presented in such a manner you can’t help but be enamoured by.

Thomas was alone.

Simple puzzles compose the majority of the game’s stages, requiring skillful collaboration between the given characters to progress, but how this works as an allegory for friendship and teamwork allows the simplicity of the endeavours to be overlooked, as there’s a sense of accomplishment and absolute delight with each step of the way. Occasionally, you’ll find yourself in a stage where your only objective is a simple romp from point A to point B, though there’s a feeling of frigid isolation when a level is completed without the help of friends. These solitary courses present an opportunity for silent reflection; a character contemplating their loneliness while falling down endlessly, speaks as a surprising analogue for someone being at their wit’s ends. The characters all radiate emotion, their own quirks and ineptitudes coming to light with each passing trifle — you begin to feel like you know these people.

Though to merely look at these “people” would undercut the infusion of charm that concocts the narrative. Various quadrangles shape the visual design of every character, but their nuances in animation inject plenty of vigour into their polygonal visages. Their stature, height of jumps and speed of movement mirror their personalities, from a short square striving to prove himself, to a pretentious rectangle with a prodigious double-jump. Even their jump animations add to their composure; each character contorting during leaps in their own unique way.

At crux of this polygonal coming of age story lies the trenchant narration by Danny Wallace. The coterie of misfit shapes that spearhead the game speak volumes with their body language, though they depend on Wallace to vocalize their sentiments through the comedian’s cheerful and sarcastic demeanour. His tone couples harmoniously with the reflexive script to remind you how absurd the game’s premise is, and how lonely it can be to experience an adventure in recluse — much like this single player game.

Teamwork comes naturally; the only way to succeed.

Minimalism is at the heart of the game’s art direction, creating a beautiful array of menu and level design that blooms in absenteeism. The lack of substance on-screen in confluence with the monochromatic palette, contributes to the crushing sense of isolation — and where there is substance a shadow is cast, jerking solidarity to the forefront of every asset and painting an inescapable dissonance. David Housdens’s ambient soundtrack flows throughout the arteries of the game, streaming the cold pings of chiptunes and the subdued chords of a violin to complement this yarn of the little rectangle that could.

Each level holds variances from the last that never make you feel like you’re hopping about the same abyss of cyberspace. However the story does dither towards the end, taking a step back from the developed characters’ journey of self discovery, to deliver a more conventional plot. Suffices to say, the game does end with a poignant conclusion that coalesces with Thomas’s plight, blending together an adhesively indelible game. As you become more acquainted with the characters in Thomas Was Alone, you’ll begin to catch similarities to people you know — your friends, family, and maybe even yourself. You’ll notice that after the time you spend with these colourful shapes, it’ll be difficult to see them as mere quadrangles ever again.