A Paper Moon isn’t a very good game, but it provides some interesting talking points nonetheless. Before I get to those points, though, let me elaborate a bit on the “not very good” part. For one thing, it’s one of those games that goes out of its way to insult and belittle the PC. I don’t have a problem playing a flawed character, but games like this (other prominent examples are Zero Sum Game and Got ID?, not to mention the extreme case of this year’s The Fat Lardo And The Rubber Ducky) don’t have anything interesting to say about the character’s problems, turning instead to insults as a form of faux cleverness. It doesn’t work. For instance, when you come upon an altar in this game:
Like your heart, it is made of stone.
Huh? There isn’t anything in particular in the game that shows the character as cruel or heartless — instead, it’s apparently an attempt to be funny. The attempt fails. Another problem in this game is that both the writing and the coding, while not outright bad, are unpardonably sloppy. Things are coded to a reasonable depth, which is great, but bugs are all over the place, including some that seem to make puzzles unintentionally easy. Similarly, the writing does a basically acceptable job of describing everything important, and even pulls off a couple of good jokes, but punctuation is haphazard, especially when it comes to quotation marks, and there’s the occasional utter howler:
Your thinking is attrocious.
Yeah, well, so is your spelling. These problems are aspects of a larger issue, probably the biggest flaw in the game, which is that the whole thing — story, puzzles, prose, and everything — feels fairly half-assed. Disparate elements and genres are thrown together (like, say, a cave with a McDonald’s play area inside) with no attention whatsoever to consistency of plot or tone. Right down to the end, it feels like a story that’s being made up as it goes along.
Problems aside, one worthwhile thing that Paper Moon attempts is to tie most of its puzzles together with the theme of origami — most solutions require some sort of folded paper creation at one point or another. This connection provides a nice unifying thread for the game, but what’s more interesting to me is the fact that although the game provides an endless supply of folding paper, what it does not provide is any sort of list of the shapes into which it can be folded. Instead, it relies on “common knowledge” (which gets the scare quotes because, as various culturally specific puzzles have shown us, whether knowledge is common depends entirely on where and when you come from.)
I’ve never been an origami buff, and consequently have only the most basic information about it in my brain, but surprisingly enough, I didn’t have to turn to the hints for a single origami puzzle. Sure, a lot of the things I tried didn’t work, but enough of my ideas were implemented that I was able to feel quite clever about my solutions. This is a risky game design decision, because it’s almost inevitably destined to fail miserably for some considerable number of people, but when it does succeed, it provides great satisfaction, much better than the average IF inventory or mechanical puzzle. It’s a different level of accomplishment to craft a solution from your own knowledge rather than putting one together by combining or manipulating the obviously implemented elements in the game. Paper Moon employs that strategy multiple times, and for me each one paid off.
The other noteworthy, albeit less effective, feature of the game is its occasional use of unmentioned but implied scenery items as important puzzle components. The first time I can remember seeing this technique used is in Adam Cadre‘s I-0, where a car is a major game object, and even though things like the tires, trunk, seatbelts, and glovebox aren’t explicitly mentioned in the car’s description, they’re implemented and often important. Similarly, Paper Moon sometimes relies on our mental picture of things for some crucial items that need to be examined, even though those items may not be mentioned in the room or item description.
I think the reason that this method didn’t work very well in Paper Moon is that it was done only inconsistently. I-0 was reasonably careful to implement implied items throughout the game, but Paper Moon expects us to look for implied things when it’s chosen to include them, but doesn’t provide the solid coding and consistency of depth that would lead us to expect those implied items always to be there. Consequently, when I first looked at the walkthrough to figure out what I was missing, I was fairly indignant that the item hadn’t been mentioned, and only later on changed my mind and decided that the game was playing fair after all. A Paper Moon isn’t a game I’d really recommend to anyone, but for its brighter moments it makes an excellent example of some underexplored aspects of interactive fiction.