When I first heard about Dominique Pamplemousse (or, to use its full title, Dominique Pamplemousse in “It’s All Over Once The Fat Lady Sings!”), it sounded charming: what’s not to like about a claymation musical adventure game? Even so, I was blown away how much I cared about the finished product. And I wasn’t the only one: as soon as I showed a bit of it to Miranda, she immediately started nagging me to be able to play through the whole thing—I hadn’t previously realized how much of a bagpipe fan she apparently is—and Liesl had a good time with it as well.
I’m having a little bit of a hard time articulating why the game had such an impact on me, though. (Aside from its general awesomeness, of course.) I think that maybe what’s going on is that I unconsciously pigeonholed it in advance as probably being a little too far on the skeletal DIY side of things. Which is an asshole thing to say, and I realize that I’m looking stupid by typing it: over the last year, the zinester scene has been as much where the action is as any place else in game development. (Not that Dominique Pamplemouusse is necessarily a zinester game, or for that matter isn’t, I’m not up enough on that sort of distinction to say.) Still, I have my biases, and for better or for worse I still mostly play games from traditional game studios. Don’t get me wrong: I was expecting to genuinely enjoy the game, but still, I figured I’d play through it but that I’d then go back to more traditional games where I would feel more at home, or where I would at least enjoy the increased polish of the experience. (Well, actually, I’d go back to playing Rocksmith all the time, but never mind that.)
And then I started playing the game: charming decor, but also low-rent, a room whose walls are built out of corrugated cardboard. And shot in black-and-white: what’s up with that? At any rate, ten seconds in, I had something that I was still managing to slot into my prejudices. Those prejudices may have lasted for another ten or twenty seconds, but no longer, because I started listening to the music, to the singing. And, let me tell you: I love the music in this game. It’s well crafted, it’s a lot of fun to listen to, Deirdra does a great job performing it (I assume she did all the composing, singing, and playing herself, though I could be wrong), it’s witty, it works great in a game context (which requires a choice of responses to be sung over a scene’s background music).
And the music is also very much its own thing: a Deirdra Kiai production. But being its own thing doesn’t make that music free from referent: just turning it on, you hear scratching sounds over the soundtrack, imitating a record player. (Or before turning it on, there’s the game’s subtitle!) And this combines with the black-and-white visuals and the detective setting to make the low-rent nature of the production (Deirdra raised $9950 for it on Indiegogo, so not no-rent but also very much not a lot of cash to work with as game production budgets go) into an affirmative choice. (And one that actively reinforces the narrative of the game, which starts off with the protagonist worrying about being kicked out of their office because they couldn’t scrape up enough money to pay the rent.) I could add on to the examples of this sort of active affirmative choice: the characters in the game are claymation figures for example, so they don’t even have polygons, but if they did, there wouldn’t be a lot of polygons in them or rich textures on them; but those claymation figures have as much visual personality as any character in any game that I can think of.
So, throughout the aesthetics and the traditional presentational aspects of the game, you’ll find ample evidence to bemoan the AAA rush towards more and more photorealistic graphics: not because the latter is more expensive, but because the latter is worse. Not that the big-budget games don’t have their own charms, but still: here’s a one-person game that I would rather watch and that I would rather listen to, and setting that aside, creative monocultures are never healthy.
And it’s not just the music and visuals that are great about this game. It’s a very solid adventure game indeed: I enjoyed figuring things out, I also enjoyed not getting frustrated (three of us played it, and one of us got a little stuck in one place in the game), I enjoyed the length of the game and every moment of the time I spent with it. So: yay for game design. But also yay for narrative that goes beyond what’s necessary for game design, and that does so in a way that’s mercifully free from the save-the-world bombast that is so dominant today: it’s a personal narrative, a narrative that contains sharp commentary on economic issues, on gender issues, on issues of choice and freedom and interpersonal ties, approaching all of these issues from multiple directions.
So: more like this please. Where by “like this” I don’t mean “stop-motion claymation musical adventure games” (though if I could trade a video game scene dominated by first-person shooters for one dominated by musical adventure games, I would do that in a heartbeat): I mean games that show a craftsperson and an artist working at top form to give me something new.
On which note, it’s actually a little ridiculous that fact about this game is such a breath of fresh air. If I read a novel by an author showing me things I’d never seen before, been swept away by an album from a band that I’d never heard of before hitting play, I would be pleased and surprised by the details of the artwork, but I wouldn’t spend time calling out the fact that such things exist at all. After all, that’s the great thing about art: it lets one or a handful of people show something new about the world to other people. At least in many other media it does; in games, though, something (cultural hegemony? studio culture? studio sizes? cost structures?) puts barriers in the way of that.
Or at least there have been barriers over the last decade or two. (Or maybe it’s just my own blinders: I obviously have them, it’s becoming more and more likely to me that I’m not looking for great games in the right places.) It’s gotten a lot better over the last year, though. And right now I’m not sure I can point to a game that does a better job than Dominique Pamplemousse at showing one path forward.
This post has not been revised since publication.