Puppeteer’s Gamescom reveal last month was a real joy to behold – a bright, bold new PlayStation IP promising primary-colored platforming fun with some deliciously dark trimmings. A month or two on, last week PlayStation.Blog had the opportunity to actually sit down with a controller and see if it delivers on that pledge.
High up in Sony Japan Studio’s towering Tokyo HQ, creator Gavin Moore walked us through the game’s opening chapter, which sees a hapless young lad called Kutaro enslaved by the impossibly evil Moon Bear King and transformed into a puppet. But steel yourselves – this isn’t a cozy Pinocchio-esque tale of a plucky hero embarking on a cheerful quest to (re)gain human form. Far from it – Puppeteer’s opening minutes sees poor Kutaro’s head brutally torn off by our antagonist and his body nonchalantly tossed into a dank, gloomy cellar.
And that’s where you, the player, come in. Guided by gloomy cloth cat Ying Yang, you’ll step into Kutaro’s shoes and go in search of a new noggin, of which there are hundreds of different variations to find, each offering a different skill or attribute.
The section I played through saw Kutaro taking his first tentative steps through the game’s perilous world, toggling between a spider mask and, umm… a cheeseburger. The former coaxed tarantulas out of hiding, opening up secret areas, while the latter transformed giant loaves of bread into trampolines to aid our hero’s progress.
While the platforming mechanics felt absolutely spot on (forget any LittleBigPlanet comparisons – this is a very different beast) and the first few areas were great fun to explore, what I found most pleasing was just how dark and mysterious the game world is.
Its jet-black atmosphere ignites the imagination in the same way that the movies I so loved as a kid did. Think Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal and The Nightmare Before Christmas and you’re on the right track. It’s the kind of thing that that my 12-year-old self would have fallen head-over-heels for, and it’s great to see a family-orientated title explore such spooky, sophisticated terrain.
I’ll have another post for you next week looking at the nitty-gritty of how the game works, but today I wanted to focus on how Puppeteer’s enchanting setting took shape and why its creator decided on such a bold approach. Over to Gavin Moore…
Fred Dutton, PlayStation.Blog Europe Manager: What was the origin of the Puppeteer project?
Gavin Moore, Puppeteer Creator: I have an eight-year-old son and I was looking for games to play with him, but nowadays you just can’t find games like that. So, completely selfishly, I decided to make a game that I could actually play with my son.
Whenever we were playing games together he would often get bored very quickly at doing the same thing in the same environments. So he’d put the controller down and go outside to play. So it was like, how do I keep him in that seat so I can spend some time with him in the hobby that I love? I knew that I had to make something that was so bright and visual, and that would change all the time, that he would just have to see what’s coming next. He wouldn’t be able to put the controller down as he’d want to know what the next surprise was.
That’s why Puppeteer was born, and that’s why we change the sets on you every five to ten minutes to throw weird situations and different characters at you.
PSB: Why did you decide to go with a puppet theatre as your setting?
GM: Well, I was at a Japanese puppet show, called bunraku. People were going “Wow, it’s amazing, it’s so lifelike – isn’t it amazing how they change the sets while the characters are still on stage!” And something clicked in my head. Instead of moving through the game, the game would move around you.
The other reason for setting it in a theatre – and it’s another selfish reason – is that I’d go home and want to play a game, but everyone would be in bed because we work late at Sony. I’d be sitting there and I’d clear a level and look around and want to go, ‘Look at daddy, isn’t he awesome?!’ But nobody was ever there!
But with the puppet theatre, I have a virtual audience. There’ll always be people to cheer me on. It’s nice – when you get into difficult situations, the audience reacts to what’s happening on-screen. It really helps drive your emotions as a player.
Puppeteer director Gavin Moore shows off some puppet prototypes
PSB: You mention there aren’t many games out there nowadays aimed at kids. Why do you think that is?
GM: I think there’s a lack of games for kids because big studios out there don’t see it as a market. They don’t see that those kids have enough money to go out and buy a game. But if you’re a parent and you’ve got a kid, and you want to buy them a present, and your hobby is something you want to share with them… well, I think it’s something that many big studios out there have lost track of.
They’re aiming their games at, what, 15 to 25 year olds? I’ve no problem with that. But hold on – I started gaming 30 years ago and have a son now. I’m still gaming and I think there are a lot of mothers and fathers out there who are gamers and want to play something with their kids. I think there’s a big market there.
PSB: What do you think makes a great kids’ game?
GM: I think something dark. I think kids are far more imaginative than their parents are, and the adults that surround them. It doesn’t necessarily have to be ponies and flowers all the time. It can be slightly on the edge, and slightly dark. Look back at the original entertainment for children – Grimms’ Fairy Tales. You can’t get darker than that! It’s wolves eating kids!
I think it needs to be edgy, it needs to make them laugh and it mustn’t look down on them. As adults we think we know best, but kids look up at us and think, “Well, actually, you don’t.”
PSB: And how do you make sure the game is also fun for an older audience?
GM: You have to write it on two levels. You can’t look down at kids, but you can’t look down at adults either. The thing about Puppeteer is – if you’re a kid, it’s a dark fairytale and you might not get the jokes. But if you’re a 25-year-old, there’s a lot of witty, on-the-edge stuff in there.
And there’s a lot of stuff that I wanted to say as a creator. Gamers aren’t dumb. When people who aren’t gamers say ‘Oh, is that what you do for your hobby?’ Well, most of them are pretty well-read and well-educated people. You can’t look down at them.
Concept art and post-it notes plaster the walls in the Puppeteer studio