Given that Puppeteer really came from the desire for Gavin Moore to have a good game to play alongside his son, surprisingly little has come to the fore about how the game caters to co-operative play. So it was fascinating to be able sit down next to him and finally get to go hands on with a game which I have loved the look of since I first set eyes on it at Gamescom last year.
The basics of the game have been covered before, with Kutaro kidnapped by the Moon Bear King, turned into a puppet, and swiftly beheaded and discarded. Fortunately, his body lives on, and is able to pick up other heads, swapping them around and using their various special abilities, on his quest to regain his own head, defeat the Moon Bear King and get back home.
Very quickly, he gains allies who wouldn’t mind the Moon Bear King not being on his throne any longer, with Ying Yang a flying companion who you also control via the right analogue stick, and who is useful for exploring the world which Kutaro cannot reach. The magical scissors, Calibrus, could also count as a constant companion, letting you cut through certain materials and effectively fly.
“I always wanted to cut things”
“We always had the idea that it was in the theatre, that the main character would have a pair of scissors,” explains Gavin, “but those did go away at one point, which was a very interesting conversation with my staff.”
“I always wanted to cut things, and the wonderful thing about scissors is that they’re the second tool that you pick up as a kid. The first one is something to draw with, then the second is a pair of scissors, and you start cutting shapes, which is really interesting. What’s amazing about having a pair of scissors in this game is that you have the sound as a reaction to your button press. So you can cut to your rhythm, and it’s the most distinctive sound, and everybody knows it.
“We had that from the beginning, but that got taken away and they put a sword in. I said, ‘If you really want to put a sword in, because you think it’s more heroic, then put one in that cuts thing.’ So they did… and then they put the scissors back!”
Then there is the theatre audience, the constant chit chat of the characters on screen (a lot of which I unfortunately missed as Gavin and I talked), the sets flying around, and the relentless changes of gameplay. All of this accompanied by the sweeping music of Patrick Doyle (Carlito’s Way, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), who was tasked with composing seventy pieces of music, to give near endless variation to the score, as well.
A hazard filled, side scrolling water-flume ride
After first showing me a section of game featuring the Sea King (who is also a sushi chef, and has had his magical trident stolen by his rival sushi chef, who is a giant octopus), which featured a kind of hazard filled, side scrolling water-flume ride, I then joined to replay it co-operatively. However, instead of spawning a second Kutaro, the second player takes control instead of the flying companion, guiding them around the screen and interacting with objects and enemies.
As Gavin is controlling Kutaro in his little boat, jumping over obstacles, I’m tasked with trying to rove ahead and tap on them, to shift them out of the way. Of course, if I miss, and Gavin doesn’t manage to jump over, then he gets hurt and could eventually lose one of his heads.
This happens quite a bit. I’m rubbish.
“I’m a gamer and I want to play”
“Obviously I made the game to play with my son,” explains Gavin, “but I made the game, I’m a gamer and I want to play. So as a single player game it’s got a higher difficulty level, but then the two player makes it easier to play.”
Unless you’ve got me as your buddy. It’s actually surprisingly demanding for the second player, who could need to light candles, interact with jellyfish, discover hidden heads, kill enemies, halt enemy attacks or even carry a head around as an extra life. Controlling Ying-Yang with an analogue stick is a rather tricky proposition I find, so for those with a Move controller, they’ll be glad to hear that the more responsive lightgun-esque controls are also available. In either case, it’s as seamless as picking up a controller, turning it on, and starting to twiddle the stick.
“So now, we’ve played for what, five minutes?” Gavin says, ” And we’ve been doing the same thing, so that’s where most of us impatient children will get a little bit frustrated, so we move to a completely different style of gameplay.”
Change it does, and now a giant sea creature is chasing us… then we’re bouncing across jellyfish, and before long it’s time to switch things up again. Even deeper into the game we go, and now I’m put in control of Kutaro.
Luckily, this was a slower paced section, and with a sublimely comical introduction, as Kutaro doesn’t quite live up to the bravery which the narrator is trying to imbue him with, and the endless chatter of Ying-Yang never ceases to charm.
This time last year, it was actually Gavin Moore’s own voice behind all of the cast.
“It took about a year to put all the voices in for myself, and after a year of listening to myself, and under the advice of Jan Kuczynski, my European Producer who had also been listening to my voice for a year, we decided that it would be prudent, to say the least, that we put actual professional voice actors in it.
“My voice does exist in there somewhere…”
“We left him for one of the characters.” interjected Jan, who was sat behind us as we played.
“I mean this game is localised into 21 different languages,” continued Gavin, “so I can’t do the Russian and the Polish and the Italian… The voice acting is actually very, very good, so it’s lucky they got rid of my voice, then!
“You didn’t do a very good Picarino…” cuts in Jan once again. “That started to grate after a while.”
There is almost always someone talking
The breadth of the voice acting on show is readily apparent. The script’s witty and charming, constantly playing with words and parodying real life, but the acting brings life to the characters in harmony with the animated comedy portrayed on screen. And there is almost always someone talking, whether it be Ying-Yang, the narrator, or one of the many characters you’ll Kutaro encounters.
Several acts into the game, Kutaro will have picked up a multitude of powers and abilities. I’ll admit to being somewhat overwhelmed, dropping in so deep in the game. Switching heads with the D-Pad, dropping through trap doors, grappling hooks, bombs, cutting through a stream of bats, high into the sky. It’s a lot to take in and I’m relying on the prompts I’m being given by Gavin, especially when the game switches gears again, giving you a new head to play with, a new power to use.
It’s unrelenting. Yet it’s also spell-binding.
“It was actually amazing, because [my son] was playing it the other day, and his friends came around, and they knew nothing about it.” said Gavin. “They just know that his dad works for Sony, and they come round the house because he has all the consoles and the games, because I have to play them, and he was playing it, and they were just mesmerised by it.
“Then when the mums and dads came round to pick them up as well, they were kind of mesmerised by it as well. It was really interesting see it from that kind of perspective?”
“Did you get them to sign NDAs?” joked Jan, before I chipped in, asking, “Did you have to put your son on the payroll?”
“It’s funny, because he thinks it’s his game!” Gavin replied. “So he was saying to me, before I left to come on this tour, he said to me ‘Remember, the game’s going to be out soon, right? It’s out in September, and I’m looking forward to my royalties.’ And I’m like, ‘What? I made you a game!'”
Start of a wider trend?
Back when this game was announced, and I first saw Gavin speak about Puppeteer at Gamescom last year, I had actually hoped that we might be the start of a wider trend. Tim Schafer had previously made the Sesame Street game with his children as the motivation behind this, and with Puppeteer, it felt like a small degree of traction might be gained. Something which has since seemed to dissipate.
“One of the reasons I made this game was that it was actually very difficult at the time to find something you could actually play with your kids, without your wife beating you over the head with a frying pan for doing it.” Gavin explained.
“I think that when you become a father you kind of start seeing things through their eyes. I’ve been in games for 20 years, and it was all about chasing that technology, making the most realistic, flashy thing, and suddenly I was looking at things through his eyes, and he was like ‘I don’t care if there are reflections in his eyeballs, and his hair is moving amazingly, and it’s the most amazing particle system. I want amazing things, imaginative things.’ Then I realised that as a game creator, that was what I wanted to do as well.
“So I think as well, we’re all getting to that age, when we all started off as we were young, and then we’ve gone through that stuff, and we’ve got married and had kids, and we’re like well lets make something for them, but at the same time something for me.”
And the comparison with LittleBigPlanet
Before my time with Puppeteer and talking to Gavin came to an end, I had to ask one final question which I’ve seen cropping up quite regularly: Whether or not there is level creation.
“No, there isn’t any.” answered Gavin, “And it’s funny, because I actually started this game before I’d even seen LittleBigPlanet, and we get to see stuff early through greenlight meetings. I was starting this, and I saw a LBP build come in and it was the skateboard level, which I think was actually used as the GDC demo, and I just went ‘Oh, bugger’.
“What’s great about Puppeteer is that you hear it and it draws you in, and then you see it and it draws you further in, but when you pick up that controller and you touch it, and you’re in there, it’s a completely different mechanic, a completely different style of game. The only similarities are artistic, because it feels like it’s handmade, but you have to remember that this is a theatre, so it has to be billboards and things, because of that. And we create everything one off, which my staff hate me for, but everything is a one off! So you see it once, and that’s it, you’re never going to see it again.
“So we don’t have any creation tools for it, because we’re not making LBP. That’s Media Molecule’s baby, and I wouldn’t want to trample on their toes at all.”
Although what I saw of Puppeteer today was totally overwhelming in terms of gameplay, I can’t wait to jump back in as soon as I can. The title simply exudes charm out of every facet, and the endless variation holds true across the board, from music to script and the gameplay itself. The European demo can’t arrive soon enough.
Our thanks to Gavin Moore for taking the time to give us this interview and guided tour of the game, and to Jan for chipping from the back of the room. Puppeteer is set for release on the 11th of September for PlayStation 3.