By Daniel Rutledge
Recently I was fortunate enough to be shown through the Sony Computer Entertainment Japan studio for a look at the making of Puppeteer.
Revealed at Gamescom earlier this year, Puppeteer is an exciting, original and slightly mad new platformer being made for the PlayStation 3 that is set in a magical puppet theatre. It’s a dark fairytale in which players take control of Kutaro, a young boy who is transformed into a puppet and must use a pair of magical scissors on a quest to escape Black Castle and find his way home.
I met Puppeteer game director Gavin Moore in Tokyo and a few members of his team as they worked on creating the game before getting my own hands on it and having a play.
Gavin Moore sitting at his desk
Although Puppeteer is a family-friendly game, not far into it poor Kutaro’s head is torn off and his body nonchalantly tossed into a dark cellar. It’s a spooky game that kids will love in the same way they love R. L. Stine novels.
I played through a level that had me running around a castle, snipping away webs, jumping over objects rolling toward me, putting on different heads that each gave special abilities, rescuing trapped souls and having a good time.
I faced a curtain knight boss that required some special snipping to defeat. Yes, a knight made of a curtain – indicative of the game’s kooky and endearing style.
At the beginning of our studio tour, Gavin told us that he'd seen a lot of talk on the internet from people complaining about PlayStation platformers having very floaty controls. Getting us to actually play the game, he was confident, would put those complaints to rest.
The left analogue stick makes Kutaro run and jump as it should in any classic platformer. The right stick controls Ying Yang, a floating cat-like ghost that acts as Kutaro's companion and can be freely moved around the screen.
Ying Yang can get to many places Kutaro can't and interact with objects to help get through the game. Controlling a different character with each analogue stick may sound awkward, but it was very comfortable and the core controls are nice and tight as Gavin said they would be.
As Kutaro's head is removed so early in the game - and he needs one to survive - a recurring activity is to find different heads and pop them on. The different abilities of each head are needed to get past certain points in the game - I mostly used a hamburger head that could pop up and down.
There’s a gorgeous art design to Puppeteer that is far more striking than the control scheme, however. It really is a unique and very attractive game quite unlike anything I've played before, but writing about this is somewhat pointless as you really have to see it on a nice big HD TV.
One minor thing I really dig about the puppet stage setting is that there are crowd reaction noises accompanying your actions. It helps it all feel very theatrical and fun having a crowd laugh, gasp and clap you along. The screen is also constantly bordered by theatre trappings like stage lighting and curtains, helping make the theme all the more compelling.
The level I played was not in 3D, but following it I was given a demonstration of the game's 3D mode. It was very impressive. In it, the player faces a large tiger boss who comes right out of the screen at you.
Fighting the tiger boss involved some quicktime segments and a lot of jumping around snipping him. Eventually the player snipped off his teeth, one by one, and then his tongue. If that sounds overly violent, it's actually not that bad. The cartoonish presentation makes it fairly pleasant – but still, this is a deliciously dark family game.
The reception at Sony Computer Entertainment's Japan Studio
Following my preview session with Puppeteer, I sat down with Moore to discuss the game. I also couldn't resist asking him about The Getaway, one of his earlier works that I played the heck out of back when it came out.
Puppeteer appears to be a very original, unique title. Sony seems to be investing in a lot of new, imaginative intellectual properties, more so than Xbox and Nintendo - why do you think they are doing so?
Well particularly in the Japan Studio, instead of saying, 'Go out and make a big, blockbuster, triple-A title,' it's much more, 'Go out and be creative and imaginative.' We need to sell games to our PlayStation 3 users of course, we need to make money, but we're instructed to give them an experience they can't have anywhere else. That's great because as a creator, it means you can go and make all these crazy new ideas. When I show them to people I think they're going to shout me down like, 'What are you doing? You want how much money?' But it's completely the other way around here. I think it's because Sony, when PlayStation was first born, most of the producers came from the music industry. So basically they produce their artists and let them have their own creative freedom. Here that's also very much what they do.
What is the most exciting thing about Puppeteer for you?
That's a difficult question. It's stuffed with weird and amazing things. What I love about it is that it mucks around with the gaming genre, so what you think is going to happen definitely won't happen. It changes on you all the time and will take you to lots of different amazing places.
Gavin Moore and the Puppeteer team work with a lot of Post-it notes
How do you Puppeteer think fits into game market?
I think it sits in a completely new position. We've seen the PlayStation aimed towards hardcore gamers - which I think is great, we never want to let our fans down on that side - but I wanted to get a game out there for people who aren't really into games. You know, for people who are married to gamers, and for fathers to be able to play with their sons and daughters and so on. I want to move the PlayStation out of the bedroom and put it right in the middle of the living room where everyone can enjoy it. If you play Puppeteer single-player as a gamer, it's going to be a pretty hardcore experience. But if you play it together, it makes it a lot easier.
What age group are you targeting?
6 - 106! I don't know, really. It was a really difficult title to pitch, because it's full of so much stuff. Trying to explain it, people just wouldn't get it. But when they see it, when they actually sit down in front of it, they're kind of mesmerised by it. They get dragged into the TV. I can't really say it's being made for any specific age group. If you're into gaming, or just great stories and great visuals, it will drag you in.
In what I played today, there was quite a sense of adventure, but also some really funny moments and some scary bits as well. How do you balance it all?
When you're making a game, you can't look down at anybody. You have to treat everybody how you want to be treated. I'm very much into Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Monty Python and that weird English sense of humour and I do think it works globally as a sense of humour. So if I was going to make this game for my son, for instance, I think children are much cleverer at eight or nine than many people think they are. And they're also right into dark things - Grimm's Fairy Tales is the darkest stuff I've ever read in my life! Yet we read Little Red Riding Hood and the like to our kids when they're just a year old. So I had to make adults laugh at some of the stuff in Puppeteer, but kids be engrossed in the story of it. So it's actually written on two levels. There's a lot of stuff in it that I understand and my son doesn't, like how the characters talk to each other - that's really on the edge at times. But kids are really into the visuals, story and main characters and that's what drives them to keep playing it.
You mentioned some very British influences there and obviously you bring English sensibilities to the game, but there is also a strong Japanese feel to Puppeteer. Can you talk a little about that balance?
I think what I bring as a British creator is a sense of madness that Western people understand. Japanese people can be quite mad in their own culture as well, but I've been here 10 years now and a lot of my staff think I've turned Japanese. Our team is mainly Japanese, but we have a couple of Americans and a couple of French guys working on it as well. We work as a big family and all chuck around ideas. There's a lot of stuff that I put in the game that the Japanese guys don't want in it. Some of the Japanese things in the game, I've put in there, and they'll say it's boring. Those things are boring to them as they've seen them every day of their life, but it's not boring to me. Then they'll talk about something in a Western movie they've seen and want to put in the game, and I'll think it's really tacky.
So we get together and meld it all into something quite unique. What is interesting is that you talk to the Japanese people, they say the game is very Western, but Western people say it is very Japanese. You can't really pin it down, it's sort of sitting in the middle. What the Japanese have brought is pure gaming - tight controls, you know what you're doing, you know you can complete it and it gives you a sense of achievement. It's tight, it's not sloppy. Western gamers are often focussed on the experience as a whole, where-as the Japanese tend to be much more focussed on the actual core of the game and the mechanics.
I have a 3D TV at home but like a lot of people, I very rarely use the 3D mode. What I saw today of Puppeteer in 3D looked great - great enough that I would be very keen to play the whole game in 3D. Why do you think it's working in 3D where many other games have failed?
I've got a 3D TV at home and I hardly ever use it either. Playing first-person shooters, it makes me feel ill. I think the problem with 3D games is that if you have a moving camera, you're running your character around and controlling the camera, it can make you feel sick. It becomes disorientating. The 3D can actually get in the way of your gaming experience. With Puppeteer, what's so unique is that the camera doesn't move. You're in a magical theatre looking at the stage with the audience surrounding you, and we're throwing things in and out of the screen all the time. The 3D is just amazing in this game, it really helps depth of vision into the screen and you can see all these different layers of sets coming up that you're going to move into.
When they said to us, 'You have to put 3D in this game - you're a first-party title, you must put 3D in,' we were really worried it would cut our frame-rate down as it would have to be stereoscopic. One of our rendering programmers actually old us there was a different way of doing it. We actually wrote the 3D in just a couple of weeks, dropped it in and went 'wow - that's cool'. It really stands out, it's very striking.
Do you think it will make other studios re-think or adjust how they do 3D?
It'd be nice to think so. People do have 3D TVs and it's a waste for them not to use them. Will Puppeteer change the way people think about 3D gaming? Maybe, it might do, definitely.
I have to ask you about The Getaway, I really loved that game. Looking back on it, how proud are you of that title?
It's so long ago, what was that 2002? That was a great team of guys. It was a lot of fun making that game. Making that game nearly killed us, it was huge, we mapped the whole of London. It was new and nobody had ever done that. I remember my boss coming up to me and saying we had to capture five actors at once with hands and voice. I told him nobody had ever done five actors at once in a motion-capture space at all, in the world, ever, not even film studios. He goes, 'Yeah, just make it happen.' So I phoned companies around the world and we actually created technology for that game.
I then came to Japan and we were still making very realistic titles. It eventually got to the point where we were just chasing technology, trying to make things as realistic as possible by pushing the latest tech. Suddenly, I didn't want to do that any more. I wanted to make a game where everything has this crazy, hand-made, unreal look. So with Puppeteer we're even doing things like changing the size of characters - in one scene they'll be one size and in another they'll be bigger or smaller. It's a stage and we can do whatever we like. It's a wonderful, free experience as a game creator as you're not caught in this realistic world, you can do anything you want.
To sum up, what do people have to look forward to in Puppeteer?
I think you're in for a real wild ride with this game. It's going to take you into places that even the craziest people out there would never dream up. We've spent a lot of time and hard work making this insane experience for all the PlayStation fans out there and we really hope you're going to enjoy it.
Puppeteer is set for a yet-to-be confirmed release date in 2013.