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Wot I Think: Pan-Pan

Distress Call

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Pan-Pan [official site] is a short, extremely sweet “open-plain” puzzle game of exploration and widget retrieval, from one-man development team Spelkraft. It’s also a game that charges £2 for its own manual as paid-for DLC. Here’s wot I think:

Gosh, Pan-Pan is a gorgeous-looking game. When I first rotated the camera, and saw the walls appearing and disappearing, my eyes teared up. And I can’t explain why, beyond being just so taken with its aesthetic, so delighted by how beautifully the world responded to being rotated. Is that weird? I guess that’s weird. But gosh, yes, it’s gorgeous.

It also sounds incredible. The music and sound effects deserve accolades and awards pouring from the sky: calming, consolatory, euphonic.

The main character, a lady whose floaty-balloon-ship has crash-landed, moves delightfully. Animations are pixel-perfect. Strange local characters are mysterious and instantly likeable. Creatures are odd and engaging. It is, without doubt, beautifully put together.

And I’m not quite sure how much I enjoyed it.

There appears to be a strong response in indie games to rebel against the hand-holding of AAA titles, to eschew the reliance on tutorials and abandon the worries of players’ not keeping up. That’s certainly welcome. But I think in refusing to over-explain or spell out the nature of a game, it’s a touch too easy to completely forget to say anything at all. In a way that strongly reminds me of Hyper Light Drifter, Pan-Pan makes no attempt whatsoever to explain who you are, why you are, what you’re doing, what you’re doing it for, why anyone is helping you do it, and how you’re going to go about it.

The game begins with a crash onto some sandy ground, your character (who I can only think of as “Flo”, despite being unnamed, because she so reminds me of the character from Bod) scrambling from the wreck, then waking up on a small beach. So, one might imagine, the game is to rebuild the ship. Except it’s not – for no given reason you find from the first scroll of the screen that a group of moustachioed hooded figures are building you a new ship, and require five widgets to be inserted into five ports before they can finish. Huh.

So it is that you must wander the mostly open… it’s not “world” because the game is relatively wee… working out how to negotiate environmental puzzles to recover these doodads, and then seek paths that allow you to carry them back to base that avoid ladders and gaps.

Flo, as I think we can agree she is named, moves by following clicks of your mouse. Her pathfinding is smart and flawless, so you don’t need to tiresomely guide her up every ladder and down every slope, and she moves at a fair lick to make return trips un-grueling. She can pick up various objects, and put them down in specific spots to solve puzzles, and later gains some extra items to allow access to previously unreachable areas.

The game’s pretty short – two to three hours depending upon how stuck you get – so I don’t want to give away any of the nice puzzles in there. So instead I’ll not be able to give away the dreadful one: there’s a cave sequence near the start which gives you four ports and four differently shaped thingies to stick in them, and your goal is to match them to their base, and discern the order in which you put them down. I’ve still no idea what the solution was supposed to be here. After trying a few possibilities based on the visual clues in the cave, but frustrated by the completely unclear relation between the shapes on the thingies and the runes on the bases, I grew annoyed enough to look for a hint. And after not finding one, I noticed on a number of the YouTube videos people have posted, that section kept getting edited out. Another just showed the person nonchalantly completing it with no explanation, and I admit I just copied it to make it be done.

Which is a shame, as some other puzzles are completely lovely, although most are bland. And I think it’s the latter, the “carry X to put it on the X-shaped hole”, that distanced me from falling in love. Well, that, and the seemingly arch decision to give no context or meaning to anything.

I loved that the game didn’t feel the need to explain the controls to me. I didn’t love the thought that should a newer player pick up the game, there’d be no option to have its controls explained. It’s exclusionary, and it’s not a nice trend. Where this trips over into absolutely unforgivable is the extraordinary revelation that the game sells its manual as paid-for DLC. It literally charges £2 for a pdf of the manual. I can’t get my head around this.

The manual is beautiful, but it also contains the base instructions for how to play the game, that someone not fluent in gaming would want to read. That is outrageous.

That’s not my main beef with this game. It’s utterly beautiful, and it sounds so wonderful, but in the end it feels too hollow. As a piece of visual art it deserves extensive celebration. As a game, it needed to be slightly more: slightly more purposeful, slightly more involved, slightly more communicative.

Pan-Pan is out now on Steam, Humble and GMG for £10/$13.

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John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founding robots of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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