The Gunstringer is likely the first dead cowboy puppet shooter you've ever played.
When players first raise their hand, wrist limp, fingers spread loosely, to their side while standing in front of their television and Xbox 360 Kinect, they don't know what to expect or do. Which is understandable: It's probably also the first time most players will be trying to control a puppet with invisible, imaginary strings.
The first time the player lifts their hand and the puppet stands loosely in response it seems magical. It has to. It's the most important moment of the entire game, explains Josh Bear, chief creative officer of developer Twisted Pixel.
"Especially with Kinect, if you do something and that first time it doesn't register or feel right in your head it immediately kind of sucks," he tells me.
And that uncomfortable feeling with a game is hard, if not impossible to overcome. That's why Twisted Pixel decided not to make a true marionette simulator. They knew they had to create something that felt good and was fun to play. So they created the illusion of controlling a puppet. But that almost wasn't the case.
"We found a marionettess, a sister of a friend," Bear said. "She is very talented and has been doing this for like 20 years. We thought of having her fly down (to Austin, Texas) and showing the team about how it works and working with animators to help with the game.
(Twisted Pixel celebrated the game's completion with a beard-festooned cake.)
"But we ended up not doing it because time was a factor, but also even if you got those movements down perfectly it would have looked like crap."
Bear and the developers all felt that the game would always have a sort of disconnect between the real motions of controlling a puppet and what you saw on the screen. It hearkens back to the notion of a kinetic dissonance I've written about before. The idea that until it's perfect, motion control needs to stay away from trying to capture true 1-to-1 motion.
The team also decided that they were trying to make a fun puppet game, not a simulator.
"We were like, ‘Fuck it, it's a puppet,'" Bear said. "You can move it and he doesn't have to look exactly perfect. You can flub it early on. It can almost come off as if we meant to do it that way."
During the development the team kept trying it and adjusting to make sure it wasn't "too puppet" or not "puppet enough," Bear says.
The end result feels just right. The Gunstringer floats a bit when you raise your hand to make him jump, he leans a bit into turns as you get him to move side-to-side, but that's what I expect when I'm controlling a virtual puppet with imaginary strings attached to his body.
And it works. The end result is a Kinect game that feels very much like the sort of game a fan of Mass Effect, or Call of Duty or Assassin's Creed might enjoy a bit. It's certainly not a massive, deep experience, but it's one rooted in the core of gaming. And it's fun.
The promise of a Kinect game that could appeal to traditional gamers was one of the reasons The Gunstringer made the sudden, unexpected leap from smaller, download Xbox Live Arcade title, to full blown, more expensive, sold-in-a-store retail game.
(The Wavy Tube Man Chronicles)
But Bear is clear the decision was not forced on them by Microsoft. It was, however, Microsoft's idea.
The idea of turning it into a bigger game came out of a Microsoft executive retreat, Bear said. The people there saw the game and wanted to give it a bigger, broader push. So they went to Twisted Pixel and asked them if it would be possible to turn it into a bigger, retail game.
Bear and the rest of Twisted Pixel got together and tried to figure out how they could make sure that gamers would get their money's worth. The end result is a game that sells for $40 but comes with a free copy of Fruit Ninja for Kinect, as well as a free download for The Gunstringer's first downloadable content.
"It wasn't about the money or any of that," Bear said. "It was about getting our game in front of the biggest audience."
The downloadable content is a strange bit of new content that will be available today, when the game hits store shelves. It's called Wavy Tube Man Chronicles and is a sort of homage to the old Mad Dog McCree light gun, laser disc game with live actors and deliberately bad acting and story.
"I think it's going to be one of the more polarizing things about the game,"Bear said. "People are going to either love it or hate it."
The Gunstringer and that free download are both available today. Bear emailed me late last night to point this out and ask me to tell him what I think of the download add on "even if you hate it."