Pen and Paint (review)

Hindsight’s a funny thing.

There are games that, when released, are just put down as not terribly good. Or a bit too different. Or not quite polished enough. In a Comp environment they do badly, really badly. Even if they gather a cult following, they’ll still do badly at comps, because there are some games that are just never going to do well in a competition environment, where the word of the day is polish, polish, polish.

But what if the strength of the game is its sketchiness?

When playing Pen and Paint, I had flashes of Deadline Enchanter and Blue Lacuna. Deadline Enchanter because it’s a very sketchy gameworld, where the player is deliberately fed only the vaguest hints about what’s going on. Blue Lacuna because both explore the idea of an artist travelling (in a sense) through their work, and they even begin similarly, waking in the middle of the night, in their own home.

Got the comparisons? Good. Becasue I don’t want to give you the idea that Pen and Paint is as good as DE or BL. It really is not. DE is wonderfully meta, and its world is bizarre, surreal, and solid, if skeletal. P&P is merely sketchy and vague. BL is detailed, meticulous, polished to perfection, and explores the ramifications of what it presents. P&P, well, isn’t. Doesn’t.

So it’s no wonder it would never do well in a Comp. It’s no wonder it’s not a game that people rush to play.

Doesn’t mean it’s a bad game, though. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t absolutely deserve a play. Doesn’t mean it’s not one of those little gems I so enjoy finding - rough around the edges, yes, could have done with a bit more work, probably, but it’s something quite different.

In P&P you play a writer, whose wife/colleague is a painter. Except that it’s not as simple as that; your wife’s painting has power. So have your written words.

Exactly what sort of power is up for grabs, the game hints at everything and explains nothings. The PC’s description of their surroundings hints at a strange way of life that mixes the mystical with the humdrum. I’ve seen criticism of the way the wife and their relationship is portrayed; namely, that she is barely interactive at all, they barely talk, and she is therefore just an object masquerading as an NPC.

I do believe that that’s a very “IFComp” criticism to make. It’s valid in the Comp’s context. But if we step back, what do we see?

I saw a very clear relationship where the PC is totally submissive to his wife, but not in any humilliating way. She is the practical one, she is the leader. He is the dreamer. She solves problems, or she tells him to solve problems. He just does as he’s told, in a quiet manner; he doesn’t talk much, but his actions are pregnant with meaning, because he doesn’t act without having breathed in everything around him. He gets lost in sounds, in smells. They don’t talk much; they don’t have to. They know each other intimately, and they know their art.

I played the same game as the people who called the NPC and PC out for their lack of characterisation. I just had different expectations. That can make all the difference.

The actual gameplay is as sketchy as the writing. Implementation is only deep enough to serve its purpose - with the occasional little extra that surprises you (I don’t know why I tried to EAT BATTERY, but the game recognised that. And it wasn’t a standard “eat object” response, either. That’s when I started to trust the game).

The thing is, and this is true with the implementation as well as the story, this looks deep but is shallow, in a disconcerting balance that threw me quite pleasantly. It’s like a frozen lake, where the ice is totally transparent (if such a thing exists!) and you can clearly see all the way down to the bottom. It looks very deep, and you can see it teeming with sealife, but you remain separated from all of that by a layer of transparent, unbreakable (work with me here!) ice.

(sigh) Fine, ok, you win. It’s like a glass-bottomed boat where you can’t break the glass. And you can’t touch the water, either. Ok? No, I don’t know why you can’t touch the water.

Joking aside, this worked much better than it should have. Part of why it worked was a very simple gaming mechanic - enter four small worlds, find the intruder. Entering a world requires that you get proper inspiration; if one of the paintings depicts a forest, then you look for sounds and sights and smells (BTW, kudos for the game actively involving other senses) to properly inspire you, then you write in the book that is linked to the painting.

See that bit of mysticism there (Myst-like) that I’ve just alluded to? It won’t be fully explained in the game. Nothing is.

That’s part of the game’s charm.

In its sketchiness, the game really excited my imagination. It also cut off my legs and wings by severly curtailing my interactions with this world to little more than the minimum, but hey, that also helped me create a mental picture of the PC - he’s the kind of guy that notices very specific things about the world around him.

The one small actual complaint I do have is that in certain sections a certain verb, which is vital, isn’t properly clued. The verb is LISTEN. You can’t finish some sections without using it, and I honestly don’t think the author did a good job in making that clear.

Something intriguing about this game is that - and I loved this - all the books into which you travel have an incomplete section. The book is a work in progress. This really tickled my fancy, and it does strike me, a few days after having played the game, that P&P is “incomplete” in the same way those books were incomplete. That thought brings in a nice extra dimension, an extra layer. I’ve no idea if the author meant for it to be read this way, but it’s possible (and if, like me, you’ve loved DE, it’s rather tempting to make P&P slightly meta as well. The sketchy implementation, the media res start and abrupt end, the slightly off-beat setting, all of that shares a similarity with the books that the PC usually writes).

I’ve rated this game three stars. I can’t say that I think it’s worth more than that. But it’s not a bad game by any measure. It’s a game I can recommend with reservations… but which I can definitely recommend. The walkthrough exists and can be used without fear - this is not a game to enjoy puzzle-solving, this is a game to enjoy for the atmosphere.

BTW, this is probably the most positive review you’re likely to find of this game. I can totally understand why that is… but, years after its release, without any Comp expectations, I really think Pen and Paint deserves a chance.


I remember liking this in an odd way, but needing the walkthrough. I’m sure now I’m better acquainted with the Player’s Bill of Rights and development protocols, I’d be much harsher on it.

But the game had individuality that helped me remember it much better. I think often the noble failures can push me to do more than blander successes, or even noble successes. There’s a “what if” or “how would I do it better” that’s tough to ask with the polished stuff.

1 Like