IF Comp 2011: PataNoir by Simon Christiansen

PataNoir is a detective noir-themed wordplay game in which the player is able to manipulate the objects that appear in similes (so “His teeth are like a row of tombstones” would make “tombstones” an interactive object). It’s probably most appealing to players who enjoyed Puddles on the Path or Earl Grey.

More detail follows the jump, though no specific spoilers.

The puzzle system in PataNoir is pleasingly consistent: literal objects and figurative ones can’t act on each other in the normal way (so you couldn’t use a figurative knife to cut a real salami), but figurative objects can be used on each other (a figurative knife could cut a figurative salami), and figurative objects can be applied to literal ones in order to change their appearance and behavior.

This is a pretty cool concept, and wholly novel; I don’t recall any other game that does anything quite like this. The results are fairly surreal — it’s possible to enter entire figurative landscapes — but a fairly disciplined design and a helpful hint system mean that it’s possible to get through a lot of the game without getting stuck. It also doesn’t really require the player to bring a large vocabulary (as Ad Verbum and to a lesser degree Earl Grey sort of do), so it’s probably more accessible than those games to players who are not native speakers of English.

I had a few minor complaints that didn’t significantly affect my enjoyment. There are a few blemishes — typos here and there, mostly — and there were a couple of guess-the-verb moments for me with the late game puzzles especially. The associated story is not especially plausible, but that’s sort of not the point: it runs through a few noir tropes, but the player’s attention is largely going to be on the surface of the text.

What I mostly wish, though, is that I’d been able to work out more of the solutions on my own, with less recourse to the hints. Several of the puzzles make sense in retrospect, but are pretty far-fetched based on what the player knows going in. It also took me quite a while to catch on to how many ways a character’s behavior could be changed with the application of an appropriate figurative object. I think some of this could have been addressed with more encouragement to experiment and more feedback for failed attempts (to help the player learn faster what the rules of the system are); and more clues in the body text about what we’re trying to accomplish. As it was, there were several sequences that I only got through with heavy hinting or use of the walkthrough, and I wish I’d solved them myself.

All told, I had a pretty good time with PataNoir, but if I had understood the puzzle system more completely and sooner, I could have had a great time.

I suspect this game would make a fine candidate for Club Floyd or other forms of group play, because collaborating groups do well at this kind of lateral thinking.

5 thoughts on “IF Comp 2011: PataNoir by Simon Christiansen”

  1. Detective Copernik is a nice touch. (From “Red Wind,” you know.)

    One reason this worked better for me than Earl Grey was that the problem space of surrealist action is cut down a lot more. In Earl Grey any word could be operated on, so you had to pretty much brute-force through the text word by word, especially because it sometimes wasn’t clear what your overall goal was going to be or how making the next change would get you anywhere closer to it. Here the surrealist stuff is mostly restricted to the similes, so you can figure out when you can take an action even if it’s not clear i advance how the action is going to progress things. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t have to lean on the hints and walkthrough, especially toward the end, but it took me a lot longer to reach that point than it did with Earl Grey.

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