My notepad from my Gamescom 2012 demo of Sony Japan's recently revealed platformer Puppeteer is, sadly, blank. It's not because I'm a bad note-taker, or because I didn't have anything to write about the game — it's because it's one of the most arresting games I've seen in a long time.
The game takes place entirely on a static stage upon which all of the interactive elements are wheeled on and off, quite rapidly. During the demo, the game's very first stage is stacked, from front to back, and the player must move backwards through the set. After navigating one backdrop by jumping from side to side over its hazards, you're teleported to the next in line as it's pushed forward.
This level layout — one of many types — is called "Zed," as the level moves towards you on the Z-axis. It's based on the Japanese form of puppet theater, Bunraku — which also inspired the lushly animated and over-dramatically animated puppets and scenery therein. This is what was so arresting about the demo: Every single element of the environment is eye-catching, as is all the elements of the visible layers beyond your current set.
It all demands your attention, because as you're controlling Kutaro, our wooden, headless protagonist using simple platforming controls, you're also searching the environment using his hovering, smarmy sidekick, Ying Yang. Your partner, who appears to be a ghostly, overweight cat, flies around the environment using the right analog stick, and can interact with the background to unearth hidden items or change the set in meaningful ways.
One of the items you can unearth are new heads for Kutaro, each of which gives him a new, bizarre way of interacting with the environment. The Burger Head lets you turn otherwise flat sandwiches into tall, juicy burgers which you can bounce on to reach high platforms. The Spider Head calls down a giant arachnid when you near its web, who then ties you up and carries you to secret areas. The Banana Head allows you to walk on discarded peels without losing your footing.
Your head is also your life meter: You can carry three at a time and switch between them at will, but when you take damage, your head falls off. You have three seconds to recover it before it breaks forever, leading you on a blind, flopping chase around the backdrop as your head joyously bounces away from you.
The beautiful, bouncing world of Puppeteer is already a lot to take in.
Eventually, Kutaro discovers and wields Calibrus, a pair of magic scissors which transform and bend to the will of its user. Using Calibrus, Kutaro is able to cut a line through fabric woven into the backdrops of his world in any direction. In that sense, it's more of a method of navigation than a weapon, as Kutaro can use it to sail over obstacles and onto high ledges, or cut free the exit of a backdrop.
It's completely and totally manic, but so is everything else about the game. Characters, obstacles, backgrounds don't move as much as they flop around. Everything is moving all at once, except for the stage where the game is set, and the curtains fastened to it. Completing the illusion, an audience cheers for your every success, like an alternate reality Gunstringer where the live theater plot device was employed more directly, hard-wired into every facet of the gameplay.
I would have loved to have gone hands-on with Puppeteer to see how that manic gameplay actually feels — but I may have had trouble doing that, as just watching it lulled me into a trance. That might be a genuine problem: Desperately searching the beautiful, bouncing world of Puppeteer is already a lot to take in — you may not remember that you're an important part of it.