IFComp 2011: PataNoir

Simon Christiansen wrote last year’s Death Off the Cuff. He seems to like novel takes on detective fiction, because that’s what he’s given us again in PataNoir. Spoilers follow the break.

IF has long been a self-conscious medium, feeling a need to justify itself in a world of whizbang graphics. We talk a lot about how the ability for a solitary individual to create a top-tier work without the fetters that go with a budget frees us to be more innovative and experimental than the mainstream, but there’s a lot of solitary experimentation going on in the indie game scene generally these days, not just in the world of text. Every once in a while, though, someone does something that justifies the existence of text-based games simply by being impossible in any other medium. And that’s what we’ve got in PataNoir.

Its outward form is that of a hard-boiled detective story, told in the colorfully figurative language associated with the genre. The high concept is that all those colorful similes are tangible things you can interact with. For example, your revolver “has served you well for many years, like a trusty servant never leaving your side”. You can talk to this servant for hints and secure his help in overcoming certain obstacles. Furthermore, interacting with the similes affects the things they’re attached to. A certain building is “like a sleeping giant”; if you can wake up the giant, lights go on in two of the building’s windows to match the newly-open eyes. One character’s description contains the line “His face looks like it has been cut out of marble”, and you can pick up the marble. This removes the simile from his description, and removes the thing it represents, a stony lack of visible emotion, from his character. If you later find something that needs to be made figuratively stony, you can deposit the simile there.

This sort of manipulation is essentially a magic system, and your detective is a magician. And, as is often the case with puzzle-oriented adventure games involving magic, the limitations on its use are sometimes frustratingly arbitrary. You can’t just put any simile on any object; it has to be a combination that the author had in mind. And, although most of the effective combinations are well-clued, I did get stuck on occasion — this is the sort of game where you have to do exploring and tinkering without obvious relevance to your known goals sometimes — and when I got stuck, I wound up exhaustively trying combinations in the hope of finding something useful.

Why didn’t I just ask my trusty servant for hints, you ask? Stubbornness, mainly; I don’t like asking for hints except as a last resort. But at least the hint system is in-story, which eases my reluctance a little. So I did finally ask for help, only to discover to my horror that I had managed to innocently put the game into an unwinnable state, something that had hitherto seemed impossible. I suppose it wasn’t an easy thing to do; Christiansen had conscientiously provided two solutions to the thing I was stuck on, but I had managed to throw away figurative objects needed for both of them by doing things in a weird order. (The puzzle is to repair the wheels on a chair in your office. Thus, it’s one of the first things you encounter, but I didn’t even realize it was a puzzle until seeing it in the hints.) I didn’t recover from that before the two hours for judging the game expired. I might come back to this after the Comp, because I do really like games that make you think in unusual ways, but it’s left a bad taste in my mouth for now.

[UPDATE: It’s been pointed out to me that the game wasn’t acutally unwinnable, because one of the similes that I could have used returned to its original host when it left the gameworld.]

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