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gamescom: Puppeteer is as weird as it is beautiful

11:16 AM on 08.16.2012

Dale North

Former Dtoid EIC

Game director Gavin Moore showed off his newly announced PS3 title Puppeteer at gamescom this morning in a closed session. If you saw the debut trailer you'd have some idea how beautiful this game is, but screenshots and videos do no justice to seeing it in person. What you may have missed from the announcement is just how strange Puppeteer is. Moore explained both sides fully this morning in his presentation. 

Moore has been working out of Tokyo, Japan at Sony's Worldwide Studios for the last decade now, but the inspiration for Puppeteer didn't come from a workplace brainstorm. Instead, it came from his son; Moore wanted to make a game that impressed him and held his interest. Inspiration also came from the traditional Japanese puppet art called bunraku, which is set on one stage, with scenes, costumes and lighting changing constantly around intricate puppet characters. 

And that's how Moore set out to hold his son's (and everyone else's) interest, with continual setting and lighting changes. He envisioned a game in a theater setting where the setting would change around the characters every few minutes. It would be set in a theater, and the player would be among an audience as a viewer in the crowd. 

The end product is beautiful. It's impressive on its own, with no other knowledge, but even more impressive after learning that no middleware or other technologies were used to create it. It was all done by hand, with everything written in-house. 

We were shown slides of some of the art, much of which showcased the different settings they're still working on. Moore says that he has over 500 imageboards so far, and would love to create a book to showcase them one day.

One of the limitations of being set on a stage actually helps out in looks department. Being set on a stage, only a fixed camera is required, freeing up precious CPU cycles to do something else. Moore and his team decided to use this extra power to pump into a virtual full theater lighting rig, which he says lets him do "incredible things." Again, you'll have to see Puppeteer running in person to fully appreciate this, but it absolutely sparkles with its up to 140 fully volumetric lights shining in real time. Spotlights sweep overhead and highlight the action while floods and other effects really sell the stage setting. 

Puppeteer is a platformer, and Moore was pretty open about it being inspired by classic platforming games, but some of the gameplay concepts that go along with this platforming are pretty strange. The game's hero is a boy named Kutaro. He has been stolen away to the moon by the Moon Bear King, turned into a puppet, and has his head eaten. Headless and lost, he has to feel around blindly to find a noggin. Again, strange. 

Kutaro has the ability to find and use multiple types of weird heads in this new world he has been taken to, with each serving a very specific (and somtimes equally weird) purpose. His movement is controlled with the left analog stick, and he can jump, just as you'd expect in a platformer. Except that he's feeling around blindly, almost crawling, as he cannot see. Where his head would normally be there's only a bouncing spring. 

The right stick commands a ghostly cat companion named Yin Yang that seems to serve as both a narrator and a guide for the adventure. This cat also serves as a sort of cursor, and in the demo stage's beginning, Yin Yang has to interact with several things in a room to find a head for Kutaro. Moore says that everything is clickable and touchable in this situation, and that this click/find exploration will help mix up the platforming you're doing with Kutaro. 

Kutaro sets off on an adventure that takes him many places, though he seems to go nowhere. Instead, the world appears around him in fantastic ways. Set pieces pop up, plop in place, slide to the side and fly out from the distance. Foreground elements might rise up from the floor while background set items fall from above the stage.  As the adventuring continued, more stage 'changes' seemed to happen more frequently, each time looking completely different from previous changes. The combined effect of these changes and the dramatic lighting is striking, and I've never seen anything quite like it.

Kutaro eventually finds a few heads in his journey to continue on, including a hamburger head that allows him to jump on a huge sandwich to turn it into a tall hamburger that he can use as a bouncing board to reach a higher level. All of these heads allow him to adapt to situations, so think of them like equipment. But there's one catch: creatures are always trying to knock his head off. When it does come off, Kutaro has three seconds to pick up it, or else it rolls away forever. It's really funny to see this happen, which is a good thing as it looks like this will happen often.

The demo ends with a the acquisition of an item that will give Puppeteer a twist on the standard platformer formula. A enchanted pair of scissors called Calibrus were once used to serve the moon goddess. But now it chooses Kutaro as its wielder, changes forms, and becomes an obstacle-cutting tool for him. An early example had him cutting spiderwebs to clear a path, but it will also be used for combat and platforming. Now, using his newfound cutting powers he'll set out to find his head and get back home.

It's clear that the people pulling the strings on Puppeteer have put a lot of love into it. Moore says that it has been in development for almost three years, but comes from a very small team. They started with 14 people, but now that they're in full production, about 70 are working on the game. 

He stressed that this is not a PSN downloadable title, but a full Blu-ray disc release that will feature "a lot of gameplay." That's great, as I want as much of this as I can get.

Look for Puppeteer to be released sometime next year. 

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