‘The Puppeteer’: A Video Game Adventure for Movie Fans Set Inside a Theatre

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If you care about video games, then you’re probably not even reading this right now. Most likely, you’re deep inside of Grand Theft Auto V, living a life of excess and loving it. And now that GTA V’s online mode has finally overcome most of the bumps and is actually turning out to be pretty fun, all the more reason to stay inside its warm embrace. We’ll be talking about Rockstar’s triumphant return to the seedy underbelly of crime soon, but we wanted to highlight the amazing storytelling and whimsical design of Sony’s Puppeteer for the PlayStation 3. With the PlayStation 4 being introduced next month, this might represent one of the last great PS3 games.

Despite the childlike art adorning the cover and the name, this is actually dark game: you play as Kutaro, a young boy who has been turned into a puppet and had his head torn off. While you can find other puppet heads to utilize, and gain special abilities from them, and you spend most of the game armed with a magical pair of scissors, this isn’t a cheerful story with your princess waiting in another castle.

Puppeteer is dark, disturbing, and completely amazing, thanks in no small part to game director Gavin Moore. We spoke to Moore in Japan about all things Puppeteer, so read on for the full interview, and be sure to pick up a copy and give it a whirl for yourself.

How did you come up with the idea for this game?

Well basically, I was playing games with my son, and it was on a Sunday in Tokyo. We were playing a two-player game, and he just put the controller down, and walked out of the house and went off to play with his friends outside. And you know, as a dad that’s a great thing, because you’re like, “Oh wow, he’s gone outside to play.”

But I’m a creative director for a Japanese studio, and I work with Sony, and we make games, so I was like … “Wow that’s bad.” Because when I was a kid I would be in the house even on the sunniest days, you know, playing computer games. When he came back in, I sat down with him and asked him what the problem was. Was it with this particular game, or games in general? And he said, “what we’ve been playing has always been the same, and I’m bored with them.”

Wow. Ouch!

And I said wow, wow, you know here’s a boy who is into everything and he’s bored with games. And I said, “Well what do you want?” And he actually said, “I want a game that basically changes every 5–10 minutes.”

We’re just doing the same things in games all the time. We’re playing the same game, even though they have different titles, we’re basically playing the same game. And as a game creator, I was like wow that’s a really tall order. How do you do that? We’ve always made games the same way. You enter the game, you go into levels, and you play through a level, and then you exit out and you go into another level, and the story continues in that way.

I couldn’t work out how to make a game that would change every 5–10 minutes. And then I went to Bunraku, which is Japanese puppet theatre, with some friends. And we were all sitting there enjoying it very immensely; I mean it’s an amazing show. But what’s amazing about Bunraku, and also Kabuki to some extent, is they don’t actually close the curtain on you, ever.

Right, it’s a continuous experience.

They actually have guys in black that come in and they change the scenery while the actual play is still going on. And then afterwards we went for a few drinks and we were talking about it. And I was like, oh wow, hold on a second, if I make a game, which is set inside a theatre, I can change the environment around the player whenever I want to, and change what they are doing every 5–10 minutes, and do this for my son. So that’s basically where it came from originally. [Laughs]

Was it pretty immediate once you saw that style of theatre that you just seized onto that setting and atmosphere for the game?

Yeah. But that is magical about the theatre for me though. That you know when you go to theatre, and it’s almost the same feeling when you go to cinema, but it’s a little bit more magical. You kind of sit down in your chair, and then suddenly the lights go down, and the stage lights come up, and the curtain opens. And what’s different from cinema is that the world in theatre is basically, you believe it automatically.

Right

It’s just there, it’s real, and you believe the world that’s being portrayed to you, which is an incredible magical thing. So in Puppeteer we decided to keep that world, that theatre world there, because it allows us to free our imaginations and allows us to do anything that we really like.

For instance one of my people that I love in the movie world is Terry Gilliam, and my favorite movie of all time is The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

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Great movie.

The way that world opens up at the beginning of that film where, you know it starts off as a play about Baron Munchausen. And then the real Baron rides into the theatre on his horse, and says that’s not how it was, and then his adventures begin. Because it starts off in the theatre, which is so clever, you then believe this amazing journey that the Baron goes on, even though the actual stuff he’s doing is absolutely absurd. But you believe it, because it starts off in the theatre, so you’re automatically triggered into believing in this magical world.

That’s true, and I think Terry Gilliam must have a singular love for theatre. There are moments in Time Bandits where the guys are performing for Napoleon, or the musical scene with King Agamemnon. And then there’s the whole framing device of that film, where you see the toys on the boy’s floor at the beginning of the film , and that’s basically the rest of the movie. You see the chessboard and the knights and everything.

Right, and that’s another one of my favorite movies. I remember watching that as a kid and being mesmerized by it, absolutely mesmerized by it. That was the kind of feeling that we wanted to get into Puppeteer. That you know there was so much in it, and it’s such a magical place to be, and it’s changing every 5 to 10 minutes. We were just playing around with it, and … we don’t call our game characters “characters,” we actually call them actors. We wrote them as actors rather than as characters. They’re actually actors playing characters. And so that’s why we go and break the fourth wall all the time. And there are little arguments that are going on between certain actors and the narrator, for instance.

The whole story feels like an elaborate, fantastic bedtime story, and as you said you’re a father yourself. Is it meant to have that feeling?

Definitely. It’s something that you know that, as a father, I mean you have to do that stuff, where you read the bedtime story stuff. You sit next to the bed, and you’re reading away, and then your child falls asleep, and then you have to tiptoe out of the bedroom. I think it is very much like that but it’s like a father just making up stories and telling it to the children. It’s just a wonderful whimsical thing where it’s trying to make the dreams of this boy be magical, in that sense. So we definitely wrote it like that, I mean it’s heavily Monty Python, if you think about it.

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For some reason the British have nailed being able to tell very dark stories that are often terrifying, if taken out of context, but with a sense of humor that makes them so much fun. And Puppeteer treads that line so well, and it can be very scary at times. Even the witch who looks like the Baba Yaga figure from Russian fairy tales is scary in a way, but it’s hilarious because of the writing and the dialog.

I get a lot of questions from a lot of people saying, “Well, this is really, really dark and really, really scary, are kids going to love it? It even scared me, a little.” You know people say this, and I’m like well, we tend as human beings to kind of tread the dark side. And I think the British tend to tread it even further than most people. And I think that’s because of the way our country is. It’s pretty dark and gray, and it rains a lot so we just use our imagination much more, you know and tend to go down that route. [Laughs]

I think that human beings are much more open to the darker side of things. And when we try to gloss over it, as parents or whatever, or try and hide it from our kids or from each other, it’s lacking somehow. We should reach out and grasp it. When I grew up, my mum would read Grimm’s fairy tales to me, and Grimm’s fairy tales are the darkest, blackest things. If you actually think about it, they are terrifying. You know, being followed through the wood by this wolf and basically he eats the Grandma, and then pretends to be the Grandma. And then, eats Little Red Riding Hood, and then the Woodsman comes along, and kills him and cuts open the belly and pulls her out and stuff, I mean it’s horrific.

But kids grasp it, and they’re much more open because they’re not tainted by society that we have to basically go in one route or do something some way, so they tend to be more open to stories, and to the dark side. When we actually grow up we’re told we’re not allowed, or that’s bad, or that’s not good, or it just goes on where we stop imagining. And I think what we were trying to do with Puppeteer, especially when we were writing it, was basically get that dark feeling to the product when we were saying it’s okay to imagine these wonderful places, and these tyrants and stuff, because evil does exist.

But if there’s no evil there can be no good, at the same time, it’s all about balance. So we were writing it like that. If you actually think about the story, it’s horrific: a boy gets stolen away to the moon, and his soul is shoved in the body of a puppet. Then he upsets the King, and his head gets pulled off and eaten. And he’s thrown away and discarded. And he’s never going back to the Earth ever again and see all his family and his friends ever again. If it was just that black, it would be terrifying. So it had to have the shimmer over the top, to make it a wonderful kind of story in that sense. You know you had to have the jokes in there to alleviate the darkness.

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I agree, and you guys have done such a great job with that, and that even with the characters as well. For instance, the Sun Princess was written as this totally sassy, modern day teenager type character. Can you talk about how you guys peppered the whole project with completely different characters. They’re not all from the same cloth at all.

Well, when I sat down with my Japanese writer Iwo Batta-San, he loves Monty Python, too. But he was saying explain the game to me. I had already written a fifty-page synopsis, which is absolutely ridiculous. It’s not really a synopsis, but here you go. And I had put down most of the characters already in there. And he was reading it, and he was like, “Well I understand where you want to go with the story, and what you want to do, but what’s the main drive through it?” And I said well, basically it’s Monty Python. Let’s look at Monty Python. So we spent a whole day just watching Monty Python, which is a great day at work I must admit. It was fantastic, but what we suddenly realized is that what Monty Python does is that they just throw in characters who completely have no meaning to the story somehow.

Right, you have to learn to expect the unexpected.

You know, they’re social commentary. They’re just throwing in characters all over the place. And when we were writing these characters, we knew that the main characters like Princess Reina had to be that sassy, and she had to be that strong. I hate weak women, especially in writing. Because women are not weak, and I come from an Irish background where the women are very, very, very strong. You know, it’s a matriarchal society.

And so I knew that the witch for instance had to be really strong. And the reason that she’s broken, in the sense that she is sometimes nice and sometimes nasty, is because that she is the Moon Goddess, and the moonstone is broken. And that disrupted who she was, and that’s why until the moonstone is put back together, she can’t be herself again. So we were writing these characters in the sense, like every one of the generals for instance, like the tiger. You know, you have to imagine, there was a great movie that always stuck in my head actually, called Paper Tiger? Do you remember that movie?

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Sure, with David Niven.

It’s that bravado of like, “I am the strongest, and I am the most powerful!” But when he’s underneath the Moon Bear King, who is an absolute tyrant, he becomes that coward. You know he can’t face that vitriol that comes at him. And he wants to please him, so he stays on his good foot. And so you know I was taking film references when I was writing all these characters, from things that I had seen throughout my life, and from different people as well. There are lots of different people in there. You know the Moon Bear King for instance, is a great character for me, because he’s just so nasty.

He’s wonderful to write for because you can just keep writing, he’s just so easy to write for because he’s just pure evil. But underneath that he basically is this little bear. He’s just a child, and that’s why he’s doing what he is doing. You know the scene where he is in the bed and waking up, and he’s holding his teddy bear, and he’s got his nightcap on, and his teddy bear pajamas on, and he’s rolling around, and like, “Oh my god what’s going on? They stole my scissors!” [Moaning sound] But as soon as he wakes up, he pops back into his character again.

Also, it was interesting writing a character like Kutaro who doesn’t speak. That’s really difficult, actually. I’m never going to do that again.

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What, having a main character that doesn’t speak?

Yeah, it’s incredibly difficult. And the only way that we could really do it was to have a kind of narrator in there, to say what he was thinking. Or say how he felt about things. At the play as well, you know ham it up a bit, and make his fear more fearful than it actually was, or that sort of stuff. Make him more heroic than he actually was, so his actual acting on stage doesn’t really match what the narrator is saying. The narrator is trying to push the play forward, whereas the actor is kind of like, “I’m not really sure what I’m doing.” But it’s very difficult to write a character who doesn’t talk.

I can imagine.

You have to surround that character with lots of different other characters, and they have to speak for that character. I mean he doesn’t know who he is, and so all these people are trying to make him do lots of different things. And that’s why we called it Puppeteer, because he doesn’t really know who’s trying to pull the strings.

Speaking of characters that talk, the voice acting is so great in the game. I know it’s one chore to write a game, but then it must be particularly challenging to record those with actors playing the lines. What was the experience like of matching the written words to actual voices?

It was really, really, really interesting. I work in Tokyo, and we recorded the voices in London. So, my producer in Europe contacted an agency. And we gave out part of the script, and obviously all the character details and stuff. And they got some actors who did some recordings, and those came back to me, and we picked the voices that way. So I didn’t ever meet these people until I went to the actual voice recording. When I was doing the casting I just listened to voices and listened to the way they were selling their lines.

So there was no direction there at all, so they had to read what they had, and they had to do a character brief. So, it was really interesting not to meet the person, not to know who the person was. You know, there were no hellos, goodbyes, or any social niceties. It was literally the voice, and were they getting across who the character was.

And making the choice that way, I would do that definitely every time. I wouldn’t do castings where they come in and say, “Hello and this is my CV, this is what I’ve done.” I would do it more like that so there’s no social interaction at all. You have nothing that’s pulling at your heartstrings, apart from the actual acting. And then when I actually went to the recording sessions, I spent three weeks in London doing the voiceover, in January.

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And it was absolutely fantastic. I mean they’re all these actors, cause I was just picking blind, so I didn’t know who they were. And you know a lot of them are people I would have known. Like for instance the narrator, Stephen Briggs. I mean he’s been in TV, film, you know theatre, for a very, very long time. And he’s an amazing voiceover actor. And we just sat down for five minutes, literally, and he’s like so you know, “This theatre, how old is it? And this guy, what’s his personality like? I mean, he’s nice on the outside, but I don’t think he’s nice on the inside, right? He wants the money, and he wants the audience out as quickly as he can get.”

And I said yeah, that’s exactly who he is. And then we were doing the voiceovers, and I was rewriting lines while we were doing the voiceovers. Because I was hearing things, and it didn’t sound right to me. Or the actors would say themselves, “That doesn’t sound like this character, can you rewrite this?” And I would be like, “Oh okay, I like that, yeah.” And we would rewrite lines on the fly, over the three weeks. So we really got the best personality I think, of each character as we were recording, because we were doing it that way.

So having this setting in the theater, how do you think that changes things for the player? Especially when they break the fourth wall?

What I think is interesting about that is in video games, everybody who plays a video game regardless of what the video game is, is controlling somebody, right? So they are a puppeteer, in that sense. The difference in this title is that when … do you remember Alfie?

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The Michael Caine film?

Yeah, you know when he used to turn to the screen, and there would be a close-up, and he would just talk at the camera?

[Laughs] Right.

And I’m not sure, but that may be the first time that anybody did that. I’m not sure. Probably before there was someone that did it, but I can’t remember any, but. You know when the characters actually come into that space, and they walk off the stage, and into the audience area. And they are talking directly at the screen. And I’m talking, at that point, as a director, straight to the player. I’m talking straight to you, and we’re making points there. Whether people understand the points that I’m trying to make is regardless. But I think, what it does, it makes the game more personable.

So you feel like you’re involved in this a lot more. Instead of being back on your couch, and you know, sitting there in your living room watching a television while a character is gunning down a hundred poor game characters who, you know, like, Star Wars stormtroopers. Or Star Trek security guards in red, who are always going to die. You know what it does, it kind of draws you in more, so you feel like you’re actually part of this whole thing. That you have some sort of control over it, some way, and your actions actually matter. I think that’s what that does really inherently.

I think the Marx Brothers may have done it once or twice, but you kind of you expect in a campy film like theirs. But when it’s in a straight film those moments are so priceless.

Right.

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There are something like 100 different heads you can find for your puppet character in this game, Was that a challenge, or did the team really love doing that? Did it give them a lot of freedom and creativity?

What I do as a creator is slightly different from what, well most game creators do. What I actually do is that I have the idea for the game, I have everything fleshed out in my head. And what we did on Puppeteer was, I wanted to stand back and do something a little bit different. Because normally, it’s Gavin Moore’s game, right? I’m the face of it, and everybody thinks it’s my game. And most games that you work on, it’s like that. Even with the team. It’s not my game; it’s the director’s game. And I didn’t want to do that. Because, as a creator who’s going to been going for 21 years, what I wanted to do was make sure that everyone felt in the team. It was their game.

That’s the best way you get creativity out of people. And the best way to get creativity out of people is to make sure that they’re being creative, and that what they’re doing actually goes in the game. So what we did was, we split the team into eight separate teams, and they would all work on individual levels. So there would be one game designer, two background artists, and two animators on one team. But none of those, even the game designer, who was thinking about the game, that wasn’t their only job. The background artist could actually say things! “I wanna put this in the game,” or the animator could say “I wanna put this in the game,” in their little teams.

So every two weeks I would say to these eight teams: “This is what you’re doing, this is what I want, make sure this happens in this time.” And we would have a review every Friday. But at the same time, I was saying, it’s not my game. So if you want to put something in it, as long as the stuff that I’ve asked to go in is in, and you have time, and you want to put something in, put something in. And then we would review it on a Friday, and if it made me laugh, or if it surprised me, or if I had fun with what they put in, it would stay in the game.

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That’s great.

So actually what happened was that it became a kind of one-upmanship. Everybody on those eight little teams was trying to do better than everyone else. It just became more and more creative. But the attitude that I have, there is a sense in Japan that you never do anything half-hearted. Everything is 100%, but it’s not good enough. Even the great craftsmen here, who are valued as national treasures, you know have this attitude. So their last piece of work is just not good enough, they know they can do better. And that’s the attitude we had in Puppeteer. So if you look in Puppeteer, you’ll never see the same thing twice. Yes the characters come up again, but the situation you’re in will not be there twice. You know, you won’t see it again.

So basically the team hated me, because I would say, right you’re going to run past that for two seconds, and you’re never going to see that again. Great, next, and then when they would make it another thing, I would go right, these are all the new actions you have to make. And it was an incredibly difficult thing to make because it’s all hand-crafted, it’s all handmade, it’s all hand animated. So if you look at the love that goes into the game, it really shows because of that attitude.

And that’s really, really important to me. People may run through the game at lightning speed. But you know, in that background there, there is some amazing stuff. Terry Gilliam once said, “I pack so much stuff into my movies, because I want people to watch them twice.” And I was like, wow, that’s a great thing. That’s so true, you know?

Yeah.

And so we had that attitude on Puppeteer, that we would pack so much stuff in there, that you’re not going to see all of it on the first playthrough. So if you really want to understand it, and see it all, and investigate this magical world, then you have to kind of go back in there and play it again.

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