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Pan-Pan and the kind of game you have to learn to read


I am determined to write about Pan-Pan without spoiling any of its delightful surprises, and since the game's stock in trade is surprise and delight, this isn't going to be easy. Here is the closest I am going to get, hopefully, to truly wrecking something for you: the whole thing clicked for me after about a quarter of an hour or so, when I realised that the flowers I had been stepping on for the last five minutes probably weren't purely for decoration. (This isn't a particularly huge spoiler.)

Pan-Pan is a sort of open-world puzzle game centered around a narrative that's one of the true video game classics: you've crashlanded your spaceship somewhere strange and beautiful and perplexing, and now you have to fix it. In Pan-Pan's case, this means venturing out across a compact but gloriously tactile landscape, interacting with machines, working out how to open closed doors, and generally trying to make sense of the the fascinating place you've been dumped into.

It's a bit like Myst, except I hate Myst and I love Pan-Pan. And I wonder if that's because I'm just a closer fit for the people who made this game. Stick with me here. I've had a bit of time off work recently, and I spent most of it reading. This has made me think about the games I really like - which tend to be puzzly games - and the things I really like about them. And this is because I think the things I really like about them tend to hinge on a process that feels a little like reading.

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Reading might seem like an odd word to apply to a game like Pan-Pan, which is largely without text or dialogue. It might seem like an odd word to apply to Twofold Inc., too, a wonderful smartphone puzzler from the genius who made Rymdkapsel, and which I also feel like I've had to learn to read in order to properly enjoy. It's always seemed to me that there's something quietly literary about puzzle games, far more than there is with other genres, even genres that place a heavy emphasis on narrative. And I finally think I know why: narrative games often fall into aping something you have seen before: you recognise the beats of the story or the tricks of the genre, and the storytelling then becomes something you can ignore, because you've sort of solved it. Puzzle games, however, despite often ditching all but the simplest kind of storytelling, give me a much greater sense of groping my way into a text, and that's because as I play I am constantly learning to understand the way the designer thinks. Isn't this a bit what reading is often about?

With Pan-Pan, it's come down to learning to understand the way that your path through the game might feel like the journey of electric current through a circuit board, or that clues regarding how to solve a puzzle are often carefully built into the landscape that surrounds that puzzle. Puzzle-solving in Pan-Pan is often a kind of act of translation, come to think of it: you learn which parts of the environment are speaking to you, and you try to untangle what they might be trying to say.

Twofold Inc. was even more like reading, and largely because I'd read this particular author before. The moment Martin Jonasson's latest puzzle game clicked for me is when I remembered that his last game was really a game about allocating limited resources. Maybe the various tactics I had been presented with in this new game, which is all about chaining together blocks and matching colours, might in themselves be thought of differing resources that needed to be sparingly and precisely used on the situations I faced.

I like this way of looking at games, I think - or of looking at certain kinds of games, anyway - because it suggests that the act of playing is sometimes a sort of meeting of minds, that there is something empathetic going on. Games are complex products often made by dozens of people working together, and they have all these outside limitations and restrictions imposed on them. And yet! And yet sometimes they demonstrate something that feels like authorship. Sometimes it is worth finding the right way to uncover their messages and speak their languages.

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