To some, poor sales are almost a guarantee of probity – a coded message that invites the initiated to come inside and get devotional. Look at Beyond Good And Evil, say, or Jet Set Radio Future: they didn’t hit the sales jackpot, but they struck a deep chord with certain players all the same. What’s odd about Capcom’s P.N.03, then, is that unlike other games that vanished at the point of retail, there are few people willing to speak up for it. Where are its devotees, its groupies, its cultists? Where are the websites, the fan fiction, the homebrew media player skins?
Maybe it’s because P.N.03 is awkward. Its controls make it awkward to play. Its commercial failure makes it awkward to track down in the shops. Crucially, the skewed challenge it presents makes its peculiar appeal very awkward to explain. This is a game that confounds on many fronts. And yet, at first, everything looked so simple. The marketing hook is all in place. Vanessa Z Schneider: good look, great name. And the premise: run, jump and shoot. Nothing too controversial there. The setting seems a bit odd, perhaps – the game’s location resembles a Mobius-strip reconfiguring of Frankfurt airport – but even that isn’t too hard to explain away: it’s just minimalist chic, design as Design, a coffee table game.
Directed by Shinji Mikami, creator of the Resident Evil series, P.N.03 was one of the famous Capcom Five, and a comparison to another member of that group, Viewtiful Joe, proves illuminating. While both games have the same simple structure – play through levels, earn points with which to buy upgrades and continues – P.N.03 emerges as the inverse of Clover studio’s super-deformed cash cow. Viewtiful Joe is a comic book spending spree of variable-speed excess, a body-popping testament to cone fatigue. P.N.03 is all about restraint – its levels look empty, its enemies designed to the absolute minimum. And while the expert Joe player makes a mess of the screen, a glorious sprawling slo-mo collision of colour and movement, excellence in P.N.03 is marked, in direct contrast, by a quieter virtue: efficiency. One game asks you to be noisy and creative, the other asks you to be exacting and careful.
In fact, P.N.03 initially seems to have taken the concept of efficiency several steps too far: on first play-through, the game seems to be stuffed full of nothing. Power-ups are scarce, secondary characters are entirely absent and the plot (killer robots, murdered parents and other science fiction placeholders) is intriguingly anemic. There are no lock-and-key puzzles or context-sensitive actions here – even door animations while moving between rooms have been excised as unnecessary. And then there are the limits imposed on the player. You cannot save within levels. You cannot turn quickly, except by executing a 180-degree spin on the spot. Most importantly, you cannot move and shoot at the same time – it’s one or the other. Few titles have made so much out of what the player is not allowed to do. All games have rules, but in pursuit of stylised simplicity, P.N.03 has gone one step further and resorted to actual restrictions.
The all-pervading sense of precision and poise makes the game’s one terrible aesthetic slip all the more jarring. If any lead character ever reinforced Gordon Freeman’s decision to go mute, it’s Vanessa Schneider. For most of the game, she’s above words, beyond them. Her hips are her vocabulary, and that arrogant raised shoulder and endlessly tapping finger say far more than dialogue ever could. And then, in the space of one cutscene, she speaks, and the elegantly empty vessel she once was is filled with bitter bile. Vanessa Schneider possesses a voice like an aging Weimar receptionist manning the desk for a second-hand car dealership. No wonder she kept her mouth shut for so long.
This blip aside, though, the P.N.03 experience appears as one of cold, hard elegance – the sort of game people might sit inside glass boxes and play in the turbine hall at Tate Modern. Schneider moves and shoots and moves again. And that environment: cold, white, endless, unchanging. Enemy rubble dissolves, blast marks fade before your eyes, and all that lingers in the mind after play is the impression of simple contrast – black and white, white and black again. Yet appearances will often deceive, and beneath the dark and light of which the game is composed, beneath the joyously pared-down aesthetic of cold gloss and brushed steel, a different kind of black and white emerges. This is not just a game of contrasts, it’s a game about contrasts. But they’re not the kind you’d expect – not the easy ones like good and evil or innocence and experience. This goes far deeper, bypassing narrative entirely to explore its themes somewhere between the screen and the player’s hands.
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