Wot I Think: Pan-Pan

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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16 Comments

  1. petya says:

    Spoiler for the cave puzzle:
    you can find out which thingies belong to which shape, you haul each of the four thingies right next to the four carved stones. The carved shape on one of the stones will react by lighting up.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Ninja Dodo says:

    Was going to explain the 4 shapes cave puzzle but petya beat me to it.

    The puzzles that have been giving me the most trouble are the ones that are literally uncompletable when you first encounter them because you don’t have the right tools (like the duck and eggs) AND there’s no indication or hint that you should come back later. Also there’s one puzzle that upon being solved creates the solution for another one but only after going to a specific location causes time to pass (the digging robot).

    Currently stuck at the disappearing stones puzzle.

    Still a lovely game though.

    • Premium User Badge

      Ninja Dodo says:

      Also [spoiler]I think it’s a little strange that in such a friendly game the solution to several puzzles is hitting people with a stick[/spoiler]

    • John Walker says:

      I think it’s very problematic that the duck puzzle is SO almost possible to do without the extra equipment, such that it seems to be about finding the right order and speed. Wasted a LOT of time on that.

  3. Soapeh says:

    I finished the game in under an hour. All the puzzles just seemed to click for me. Obduction, on the other hand – wow, those puzzles are obtuse and some are just downright awful in their design (teleporting across a loading screen, I’m looking at you).

  4. Crane says:

    I am persistently baffled when people decry a game as being ‘exclusionary’ because it doesn’t (have an easy mode/tell you every control/let you save anywhere and everywhere/insert gripe here), especially as it so often seems to come from people who will argue emphatically that games are art.

    Plenty of art is exclusionary!

    Sure, anyone can look at a painting, but appreciating the technique behind it requires studying other paintings to give it context.
    Anyone can read a poem, but poems don’t all come with glossaries in case you’re unfamiliar with some of the words, or have each individual syllable marked out in the text so you can immediately see the meter if you don’t know the pronunciations.
    Anyone can watch a movie, but they don’t all flash up a character’s name every time they appear in case you’re bad at remembering names.

    I don’t mean to suggest that people who aren’t willing to spend time studying neo-modernist brushstroke techniques are somehow unworthy of the opportunity to view the art, but at the same time I think that the pleasure one can gain from any work of art is proportional to the effort you put in to apprehending it, and it really pisses me off that people seem to think this shouldn’t apply to videogames.

    • Crane says:

      Addendum:
      To clarify, I’m not saying that failing to tell you the controls is a good artistic decision in this particular case, just that I dislike seeing “it’s exclusionary” listed as a debit in se.

    • LTK says:

      You gotta recognise when a game is needlessly exclusionary though. If a game requires a comprehensive understanding of fighting game mechanics to be enjoyable, even playable, I wouldn’t fault the developer for not making it accessible to people who have never held a controller before.

      If a game requires nothing but knowing which buttons to control it with to fully engage with it, and it doesn’t tell you what they are, then that strikes me as needlessly exclusionary. It’s a comparatively tiny obstacle to accessibility but regardless one that can be just as easily removed.

      • DancesWithSheep says:

        This is exclusionary in the same way that you take a work of post modern art and put it in a vault and the only way you can see that Piece is to first answer 20 questions covering pre raphaelite art. Don’t know the basics? Then I’m afraid you don’t know enough to enjoy what’s in the vault.

        • TeePee says:

          That’s horribly elitist. You’re basically saying that because you don’t know everything about a particular genre, you are therefore incapable of appreciating its beauty in any way shape or form – never mind taking your own meaning from it and appreciating it in your own way, begone peasant until you are deemed worthy!

          It’s needless elitism and the very height of ‘art for art’s sake’. That’s the impression I get from the decision made here – there’s no good reason to restrict access to basic control information unless there’s an actual in-universe reason for doing it, unless you’re just trying to ‘be different’.

    • John Walker says:

      You really do answer your own challenge here. Everyone can look at a painting. All I’m talking about is ensuring anyone can play the game. What you’re thinking of is sophisticated appreciation of the piece of art, which obviously has nothing to do with knowing which buttons to press.

    • qrter says:

      I haven’t played the game, but I garner from the review that it’s generally a quite traditional affair, with little puzzles (including a couple of unlogical ones) and a simple story. So then the only exclusionary thing about the game would be being obtuse about how to play the game. Seems rather unnecessary, more like an oversight then a clear choice, no?

  5. Cederic says:

    It looks gorgeous. And you don’t have to buy aspects of the game package you wouldn’t ever use – like the manual or the soundtrack – which keeps the costs down.

    This is bad? They’re available for people that want or need them.

    • Premium User Badge

      Ninja Dodo says:

      An artbook or soundtrack, yeah, but a manual (if there is one) needs to be included.

    • John Walker says:

      I’m pretty sure no game in the history of time has considered the manual something that has pushed up the price of their game.

      • TeePee says:

        I’d agree as far as ‘pushed up’ goes, but if you think about a AAA console game that’s going to sell millions of copies, I’d imagine the price of printing several million booklets is hardly negligible, and if publishers can get away with saving that money, they undoubtedly will.

        Of course, that’s not the case with Pan Pan, not least because the manual is presumably just a fancy pdf, and it appears to be (what I really hope is) a poorly thought out design choice. Well, either that or a sickening cash grab, but I’ll give the devs the benefit of the doubt.

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