Review: PataNoir10 Nov 2015 0
Taken together, the loose intellectual property regime applied to game mechanics and the caution which results from high development costs mean that originality is precious to reviewers, and often to players. Simon Christiansen's delightfully batty interactive fiction work dives off the beaten path and into the surreal with PataNoir, a game which takes the metaphors of the famously colorful noir genre seriously. Seriously enough that you can interact with them, even--your trusty Smith & Wesson revolver accompanies you like a dedicated and worldly servant, and in PataNoir, that means you can talk to it. That turns out to be crucial, because you won't go into the game with the habits of mind appropriate to your powers over metaphor. If you find yourself facing someone with a head of hair like a bountiful crop of golden wheat, you can harvest that figurative grain, and she’ll now have a buzz cut like a freshly-mown field. Also, you’ll have some figurative wheat in your inventory, which might come in handy if you find yourself, say, having to visit a casino as bereft of luck as a fallow field. Cut hair to win at cards isn’t the sort of causal chain which pops readily to mind.
Ever since one of our readers commented on the use of a mixed metaphor in the hallowed pages of Pocket Tactics, I tend to pay more attention to them. Metaphors offer descriptive options beyond the literal: “black as sable,” for example, connotes sophisticated, opulent comfort--sort of an upscale Snuggie. “Black as a miner's lung” puts one in mind of tragic poverty too hopeless for desperation. Given that we do all our thinking with associative engines subject to dramatic priming effects, pushing the reader to favor certain connections can allow an author to create a more deliberate impact with a passage than merely conveying the facts. It pleases me to see a game giving us more reason to think about the power of metaphor and me an excuse to link Lots of text in text adventures.[/caption]
In the Internet age, any game which helps cement the curmudgeonly distinction between "literally" and "emphatically" warms my heart. Realistically, though, if you're enjoying PataNoir, you're probably literate enough that you need no reminders. Outside of the dual realms of the literal and the figurative, gameplay is very similar to Christiansen’s prior effort, Death Off the Cuff. Rather than being presented with choose-your-own-adventure*-style options, you can type whatever you like, and the game will attempt to have your hard-bitten detective follow those instructions. You can’t get terribly ambitious, as the response to pretty much everything you write appears to have been hand-coded, but it does offer a more open feel and wider array of choices than would be tractable with a simple list.
What it doesn’t do is keep you from is having your choices strongly channelled. The problem with PataNoir is that I end up playing every interaction twice--first, I read for content, and enjoy the experience of exploring the plot which extends this gleefully absurd premise. After that, I’ve no idea what to do, so I go back through the text looking for any nouns in metaphors, and attempt to do to them whatever can be done, which is not as sexy as you might be imagining. If I’m stuck, I then go through my inventory and attempt to use everything in it on everything in my current situation, or just ask Wesson for his guidance. On rare occasions, I have some insight, but mostly what I’m doing in this second phase is about as creative and joyful as spelling homework. I often find myself at a loss during adventure games, and just going everywhere and using everything until something happens, so this may well be my failing rather than the game’s. But when the world offers options which differ from what seems sensible to me (either because something works which shouldn’t, or doesn’t which should), I lose faith in my intuitions about what to try very quickly. Wesson is a slightly clunky solution to this problem, but he does allow progress in situations which would otherwise cause frustration, so I’m certainly glad of his stilted assistance.
Christiansen’s sense of comic timing serves him well here--PataNoir is long enough to explore its concept but doesn’t overstay. The originality of that concept and the wit of the writing which conveys it starkly contrast with the game’s structure. The classic text adventure format inserts unwelcome repetition and blundering about into the story, which undermines the characterization of the nominally competent detective and dumps the burden of being told twice or more on some otherwise marvelous humor. That said, this repetition is ubiquitous in such adventure games, and it’s a pleasure to have the text of a text adventure be of sufficient quality that there’s something to lament in the loss of its initial panache.
PataNoir was played on an iPad Air and an iPhone 5S for this review.
*: Personally, I was more of a Pick-a-Path-to-Adventure boy, but one must bow to cultural relevance if one wishes to communicate. Of course, I could as easily have chosen BioWare and outdone either in that regard.