John Zorn doesn’t have any furniture. The experimental composer has been living in the same New York apartment for nearly 40 of the 60 years he’s been alive, but the dude doesn’t even have a dresser. He just keeps his clothes in a cardboard box. This minimalist spin on Feng Shui has just one purpose: to maximize clarity. “My home is a device,” Zorn says, “A device for enabling creativity. A device for cutting out the chaos outside that people think is reality.” If I had my druthers, I would send Sony Japan Studio’s Puppeteer back to its creators with John Zorn in tow as a consultant. Somewhere inside Puppeteer is a brilliant video game as unpredictable and invigorating as Zorn’s own tunes. But chaos buries that game under a neon blitz of superfluous noise.
Even Puppeteer’s story is all over the place, although it’s built on a fairly straightforward storybook premise. The moon has been taken over by the despotic Moon Bear King, whose nigh-unstoppable powers come from a giant crystal and a magic pair of scissors. The king uses those powers to kidnap and enslave the souls of children, who he turns into puppets. You control Kutaro, a puppet who so irritated the megalomaniacal ursine that the king ripped off his head and threw him in the trash. With the help of an amoral witch, a creepy flying cat, and a deposed princess, Kutaro steals the king’s magic scissors and sets out to gather up pieces of the crystal and strike down the bear jerk for good.
That sounds like the foundation for a pleasant fairy tale. The hero is struck down and has to persevere while meeting colorful friends along the way. If only it were that simple. Yet Puppeteer jerks about in every direction, never settling on a tone or coherent style. The layers of dissonance between the story and the player keep anything from sinking in.
The top presentational layer would be enough to make this game appealing. Every stage and every character looks like woodcut, segmented marionettes. Clouds are held aloft on sticks. Sturdy threads hold a mammoth desert snake together. That’s all fine, even if the stage pieces and characters fling into view so abruptly that it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s happening.
But then Puppeteer throws on another layer of artifice, pretending that the puppet show is happening on an actual stage before an audience, with a narrator ceaselessly jabbering away. And on top of that, the game doesn’t even settle on a single theme within each act. One stage is a pirate-ship battle, and the next is an underwater sushi-themed musical, with new characters introduced each time. Puppeteer isn’t charmingly eccentric, it’s just loud, bludgeoning you with voices and images. At one point, when I just wanted to start actually doing something, a pirate captain, the princess companion, the narrator, and the audience were all talking at the same time.
Sometimes, though, when the game manages to shut up and let you play, the many strings pulling it apart manage to sometimes work in concert. For all its storytelling cacophony, Puppeteer’s action is mostly clear-headed. Kutaro runs from left to right, jumping over obstacles like rancid forest puddles and sparking machinery on his way to a boss. That’s classic stuff, but with some marvelous twists like Kutaro’s scissors. The scissors are a weapon, but their primary use is transportation. The stages are filled with cloth: The tree leaves are made of cloth, for instance, and so is the cannon smoke. In order to get up to higher areas, Kutaro snips into the cloth to climb in any direction. Puppeteer’s stages focus on fighting less often than they have you figuring out how to fill the air with cloth to move around. The feel of slicing your way around is unique and deliciously tactile.
Less successful, though, are Kutaro’s interchangeable heads. There are scores of heads you can find to replace the one the king ripped off, and they’re all cute. Using your princess companion to search stages, you can find all manner of substitute domes, from a giant piece of sushi to an acoustic guitar. When you get hurt, the head pops off, so you have to keep a store of three to stay alive. The problem is that the screen is so busy, it’s all too easy to not even realize you’ve lost your head. Plus, the downside of having a wide variety of heads is that I almost never had the one I wanted. Each one has a little head-specific jig, so when a particular head appears in the background, you dance to trigger a bonus stage or to get some help with a boss. A frog head used while fighting a giant kappa will lure out little frogs to act as a platform for you, but only if you have the frog head on hand. It’s clear the game is built to encourage revisiting stages when you have the appropriate gear, but seeing as a single stage can take a half hour or more to finish, the prospect of going back in isn’t very appealing.
That’s the game’s problem in a nutshell: excess. Puppeteer feels like nothing else when you play, but it stops you from playing with endless dialogues and jerky scene transitions. The game is a marvel to look at, but it never stops moving long enough for you to actually take in the detail. The sound effects and orchestral score are aural treats drowning behind characters that never stop chattering. Variety and creativity abound in Puppeteer, but coherence is in short supply.