After finishing this game, I learned that the title Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head comes from a song by a band called ‘They Might Be Giants’, which was also the subject of an entire interactive fiction collaboration project called Apollo 18+20: The IF Tribute Album. I wonder what the connection is between this band and interactive fiction, given that I have never heard anyone mention it in any other context? Nor can I recall ever hearing their music. I’ve quickly skimmed the band’s Wikipedia page, but it doesn’t answer this question for me. Perhaps it is just a coincidence.
Anyway, that is incidental to this review! Because what we are going to do is put our hands in puppet heads. But maybe we should first talk about puppets, because it took me a while to get into the same puppet headspace as the game. When I think of puppets, especially puppets that you put your hand in, I think of classic puppet theatre. It’s Jan Klaassen en Katrijn, Punch and Judy, the Italian commedia dell’arte character cast. Or maybe princes and princesses, dragons and wolves, your classic fairy tale stuff. Now those are not the puppets we will meet in Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head. They are much more elaborate and idiosyncratic. So for a while I was thinking of some of the greatest works of visual art that I know: the puppets Paul Klee made for his son. The first time I was in Bern, visiting the Zentrum Paul Klee, I was blown away by his paintings; but perhaps even more by these incredible puppets. However, I didn’t have an easy time understanding how artistic puppets like these could be the subjects of television series and movies, and a sort of theme park. And then, at one point, the game mentioned the Muppets, and I was like… ah, wait, that’s the kind of puppet I’m supposed to think of. I don’t know the Muppets very well. I know the Swedish Chef Meat Balls sketch, I know there’s a weird muppet called Animal who plays the drums, I know the memes of the two old men who always complain, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen The Muppets Take Manhattan as a kid. The only muppet I know really well is Kermit the Frog, because he’s a recurring character in Sesame Street – or at least he is in the Dutch version of Sesame Street. And then maybe characters like Bert and Ernie also count, even if they’re probably not from The Muppets? I slept under Bert and Ernie bed sheets when I was a kid, and I could totally see myself as a kid going to a little theme park dedicated to them. Anyway, that seems to be the kind of puppet we are to imagine in this game. It took me about an hour to understand that.
Which didn’t really matter! The strong suit of Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head are the loving and detailed descriptions of the puppets, the conversations you can have with them, and an entire history of how they came to be, who played them, what they were used for, and so on. The author has poured a lot of love into this fictional world, and one easily gets caught up in the enthusiasm. I’m kind of eager to see one of these puppet shows, which is a great sign. Perhaps the number of characters was a little too high; I found that I could keep the seven main puppets straight, but during the epilogue so many people were introduced that I lost my bearings. But that’s a minor complaint. The idea of setting a piece of interactive fiction at an abandoned puppet show is very original, and to execute it with so much care and detail and inventiveness is simply great.
Unfortunately, my experience of this invented world was made far less enjoyable by basic design decisions in the gameplay. The idea is that we explore four buildings in search of puppets. This search is not very engaging: one simply moves through all the rooms and clicks ‘search’ in every room. After a while, we collect a few puppets that can help us solve puzzles, but I believe that only two puppets are actually used this way – one to open certain locks, and one to fix certain machines. This makes the puzzle element extremely trivial: broken machine? Check. Unable to find the right key? Check. There’s no sense of achievement here.
That by itself wouldn’t be so bad, but three other things about the game make exploration and puzzle solving an enormous chore. First, navigation through the world is cumbersome. I haven’t counted it, but going from a room to your van, taking off one puppet, putting on another, and then going back to that room, could easily take you twenty clicks. Not fun. Second, there is an extremely harsh inventory limit of two items (or actually one item, because if you have two puppets you won’t be able to pick up any new ones), which means that you have to move back and forth between your van and the rooms lots and lots of times. Third, all the buildings are haunted by horrifying security puppets which randomly grab you and steal your puppet.
Playing the game basically goes like this. Go west. Lose a puppet. Undo. Wait. Go west. Lose a puppet. Undo. Wait. Go west. Search. Go north. Lose a puppet. Undo. Wait. Go north. Search. Find and take a puppet. Go south. Go east. Lose a puppet. Undo. Wait. See a description that you can’t go east. Wait. Still see a description that you can’t go east. Wait. Go east. Go south. Go to exit. Go to Quadrangle. Go to van. Manage puppets. Remove puppets. Wear puppet. Re-choose the puppet you were already wearing. Leave puppet management. Leave van. Go back to Quadrangle. Re-choose building. Enter building. Go west. Lose a puppet. Undo. Wait… It’s really Not Fun! And it seemed totally unnecessary. Give me a backpack in which I can store the puppets I found, remove the guard horrors, and I would have enjoyed this game so much more.
So Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head makes me a bit sad. There was so much great content, and yet I spent most of my time being frustrated. Maybe we can get a “no enemies” mode post-comp?
To end on a happy note, let me share you this great puppet scene from Sesame Street. Some friends of mine, knowing how much I loved it, once made me a doorbell that played the sound of this video from around 2:39 when somebody pressed the button. One of the best presents I ever got.