On the surface, PataNoir appears to be a simple text adventure about a time-worn trope: the hard-boiled detective who receives an unexpected case. But as soon as the game starts, we realize that not all is well with our sleuth protagonist. Detective Douglas Reilly has stopped taking his medication—he works better without it—and reality itself is now warping in unexpected ways.
“Pataphor” is a term coined by the writer Pablo Lopez as an extension of Ubu Roi author Alfred Jarry’s literary flight-of-fancy ‘Pataphysics, which loosely suggests an empirical reality to imaginary phenomena. A pataphor is a metaphor whose imagery splits off from the reality of the text and forms its own reality. PataNoir begins with a quote from Lopez defining this central idea—but also gives his alternative definition of “That which occurs when a lizard’s tail has grown so long it breaks off and grows a new lizard.”
Because in the world of PataNoir, Douglas Reilly’s reality is constantly shifting in line with his poetic imagination. The tired desk lamp in his office reminds him of an elderly knight battling the darkness. A moment later Reilly is having a conversation with the knight, who tirelessly assures him he will continue fighting. In his Smith & Wesson revolver, he sees a trusty servant; when he looks again, there is an actual servant there to help him with puzzles and sticky situations—Mr. Wesson, at your service.
The trick to PataNoir is understanding how Reilly’s “pataphysical” reality can interact with his actual reality. In an early puzzle, Reilly is met by an unexpected client: the taciturn butler of a wealthy baron whose daughter has vanished. The butler has been interviewing several detectives, but has been unimpressed by all of them, and Reilly is no exception. Needing to warm up the prospective client, Reilly examines the cigarette butt in the ashtray on his desk, which is glowing like an ember at a campsite. He then picks up the figurative ember—not the cigarette—and applies it to the butler. Now, the butler’s face is warm like an ember. Suddenly he’s become very friendly, talking to Reilly like an old pal and readily offering him the case.
PataNoir creator Simon Christiansen makes great use of this gameplay device. As Reilly, we are constantly diving into other realities, never quite sure how deep they will go. What’s surprising is how well these metaphorical excursions fit with the tone of the game’s primary reality. Following a lead to a slummy apartment, Reilly finds a kitchen table strewn with empty liquor bottles, like the minarets of a desert city. As he explores the figurative city and observes its inhabitants, we’re struck by the contrast between the airy desert and the claustrophobic apartment, the piety of the city’s people (whom you do interact with!) and the hedonism and squalor of the man we’re following.
By using pataphors to breathe new life into noir tropes, Christiansen gives us a fresh look at classic detective fiction. And PataNoir isn’t just using its central hook for inventive puzzle-solving; it also makes for great interactive fiction that requires the player to use poetic creativity instead of the more straightforward logic of many puzzle-based games. Gaming frequently relies on quick reflexes or logic-based problem-solving to create challenges for the player; it’s a real pleasure to play something that instead tests our powers of symbolic thinking and creative association. Douglas Reilly may work fine with his medication, like many detectives before him—but I definitely prefer him without.