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.
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.