Not that long ago, video game fans had a relatively limited choice when it came to what they could play. Big gamemakers would crank out large, expensive games in a certain set of genre categories and gamers would run to the store for whatever PlayStation RPG or Xbox shooter looked the most promising. But that’s all changed now.
As you likely know, these days you can sit in your living room and easily choose from and download a wide array of games and genres: from the mainstream franchises to quirky and creative independent titles you’ve never heard of. The compelling indie game Pinstripe falls into the latter category. But it’s getting quite a bit of attention.
Thomas Brush—a one-man gamemaking studio dubbed Atmos Games—spent the last six years or so painstakingly crafting, coding and orchestrating his moody and slightly eerie title. And the end result is a fascinating blend of art and solid game mechanics, immersive storytelling and cautionary abstraction.
Pinstripe kicks off just as a Ted—a guy who looks to be a pastor, from his attire and the cross pinned to his lapel—is awakened by Bo, his sweet pippin of a daughter. It appears they’re on a train trip together in a regal locomotive from some long ago era. But after playing a game of Sherlock and Watson and exploring a few of the cars, the two come upon a soot-covered, shadowy customer by the name of Pinstripe.
And Ted’s world begins spiraling into an abyss.
Pinstripe soon snatches up Bo with sinister hovering balloon machines, and a panicked Ted must make his way past a broken mirror and trek through a frozen dark netherworld in search of his crying child.
If that description sounds disturbing and somewhat nightmarish, that’s the point. (In fact, the game’s subtitle suggests that Ted is A Father in Hell.) As the anguished dad searches for Bo—meeting lots of quirky characters, leaping and exploring and solving a wide variety of environmental puzzles—it becomes clear that he’s actually living out an abstract allegory.
The story shapes up as the surrealistic fever-dream of a man tormented by his own past choices. Has he actually died because of his foolishness and depression? Or is he wrestling against himself, attempting to find a way through this life he’s crafted by sinful choice. Can he turn from his own evil and regain his family, his wife, his child, the things he now values most?
There is certainly a creepiness to some elements in the game. Mr. Pinstripe himself has an off-putting voice that feels like a smarmy blend of smoky sweet molasses and curdled milk. His verbal taunts always contain some threat of violence, a hint of crude humor, or name-calling that generally riffs off of the vulgarity “p-ss,” such as “p-ssy wissy,” “punk p-ss,” “p-ss wick,” etc. And it’s obvious that Pinstripe’s world is filled by characters who are consumed by addictions and foul choices (wickedness that’s never put on direct display but strongly implied).
Fortunately, the gameplay here is not as frightful or offensive as those elements make it sound. Pinstripe’s art design is all deep color and shadow, with odd-looking helicopter-bladed monsters and characters sporting legs like darning needles. The broad, jagged-edged world itself is just cartoonish enough to invite more than it repels. And the environmental challenges—ranging from timed platform leaps to slingshot trajectory dilemmas to spot-the-difference-between-two-pictures puzzles—feel fun and solvable by old and young alike.
Pinstripe opens with a scripture verse from Psalm 30:5: “Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” By this abstract game’s end that promise is borne out, suggesting that even in the face of life’s many dark and potentially deadly “Pinstripes,” hope can still be found.
And that thought-provoking turn makes this indie game stand out all the more from your average franchise shooter.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.