Genre: Adventure, Interactive Fiction
Release date: June 1, 2016
Review Platform: PC, iOS, Android, Kindle Fire
When asked to review Simon Christensen’s PataNoir, I was drawn to it as proof that text adventuring is still alive and well. My first introduction to computer gaming was Infocom’s Zork Trilogy in the 1980s. Interactive fiction opened a door into a virtual world of adventuring that has been my passion for decades. It requires visualization and a level of attention to detail that is simply no longer relevant when presented with the current generation of graphic adventures that include hint systems, in-game maps, and cameras to capture clues. Thus, I saw PataNoir as an opportunity to return to my roots.
SiChris Productions is self-described as “a purveyor of fine Interactive Fictions” with credits that include Death Off the Cuff and AlethiCorp. PataNoir was originally released around 2011, sans graphics, and won 5th place in the Annual Interactive Fiction Competition.
In 2015 and 2016, the game was given a face lift and re-released with an interface that mimics an illustrated Kindle book. It now includes a table of contents, instructions, a tutorial, and a full walkthrough. The reader gains access to illustrations as he/she progresses through the chapters of the story. A full text transcript is created as you play which provides the history of your journey, and multiple slots are available to allow you to save your progress on-demand. As an added bonus, PataNoir includes a music video of the game’s catchy theme song by William Steffey.
What sets PataNoir apart from other text adventures is the complex word play that is woven into the narrative. The game makes extensive use of the simile and the metaphor to create a unique game world. To fully appreciate this, a cursory review of literary devices is in order. A simile is figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind to make a description more emphatic. Typically, the simile uses the words ‘like’ or ‘as’ to draw a direct comparison (“It’s raining like a cow pissing on a flat rock”).
A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance (“You are the sunshine of my life”). PataNoir takes its name from the pataphor which extends the traditional metaphor to create a new reality. In short, the pataphor creates a world where the previously referenced cow, flat rock, and sunshine exist and can be experienced.
The result is that objects in the universe of PataNoir can be literal or figurative. When you find a knife in a drawer, it can be taken as a literal knife that can be used to hurt someone. When you find a coin with “edges sharp as a knife,”, you can take the figurative knife and use it to clear literal smoke that is “so thick, it could be cut with a knife.”
PataNoir is played through the eyes of Douglas Reilly, a private investigator who has seen better days. In the style of classic film noir, it begins in a dark, run-down office, littered with cigarette butts and old case files. You soon have a visitor – a well-dressed gentleman who represents the Baron Von Bulow. He’s been sent to escort you to the Baron’s mansion to discuss potential employment. The story proceeds with you taking the case and visiting a series of locations on the trail of the Baron’s missing daughter, Lisa. Early in the game you find your revolver which “…has served you well for many years, like a trusty servant never leaving your side.” In the pataphor context, you can interact with the figurative servant (aka Mr. Wesson) and direct him to act on your behalf or ask him for assistance.
PataNoir is a linear story with a limited number of items that can be interacted with. Once discovered, locations can be returned to at will but the plot requires stepping through chapters in a structured sequence. There is some flexibility in storyline as I experienced two different endings based on a decision point in the final chapter. The complexity of this game lies with the player’s ability to understand and manipulate the literal and figurative items encountered. Although the game was designed to be completed within two hours, my own journey through PataNoir took much longer as I engaged in a battle of wits with the parser. I am now intimately familiar with the phrases, “That command did not match a visible object or a known verb” and, “That would not be a very good simile.”
When starting a new game, you have the option of playing the first segment in tutorial mode. This is a great way to enter the world of pataphors. I was feeling pretty smug at the end of the tutorial and marched onward (in a figurative sense). The next two chapters went smoothly and I began to feel the rhythm of PataNoir. Using figurative marble hardened a character’s demeanor while using figurative putty softened their expression. When dark eyes were described as "deep lakes," I dove in and swam like a professional. When bottles on a table were described as "minarets in a dilapidated city," I entered the city, climbed the tower, and prayed with the faithful.
However, my sense of triumph was short-lived as the latter chapters began using increasingly esoteric pataphors. A figurative scale and snake were required to remove a literal moustache. Figurative oil and a side journey down a figurative canyon were required to transform a literal scar into a literal wound. Ultimately, I decided that the decision to include a full walkthrough was actually a statement by SiChris Productions that those of us without a Master’s degree in language arts were going to need it.
I would describe PataNoir as a "niche game" that’s going to appeal to a limited number of gamers. But it’s also going to appeal to those who don’t game but who have a passion for reading and language as an art form. Simon Christensen is a gifted writer with a talent for using words in a way that is rare these days. His prose is elegant and rich with descriptors. If one takes the time to visualize, his metaphors and similes turn ordinary objects into instruments of possibility. For those who love language, PataNoir is like a breath of fresh air… a reminder of the beauty of a complex sentence and the power of carefully chosen words. In this case, a thousand words is definitely worth more than a picture.
+ A reading pleasure for those who appreciate the power of the written word.
+ The Pataphor concept is creative and engaging.
+ Interactive Fiction aficionados will appreciate the return to a classic form of gaming.
- It's likely that you will need the walkthrough, as a number of solutions are not intuitively obvious.
- Those seeking a more comprehensive gaming experience may want to look elsewhere. There’s a reason why the graphic adventure was considered a step up the evolutionary ladder from text based games.
- As lovely as the prose in PataNoir is, sometimes you just want to stand in front of a white house with a mailbox (rather than finding an alabaster structure that glistens like Moby Dick rising from the inky depths of the ocean and surfacing in a burst of spray that glistens in the sunlight like diamonds on a tiara.).