This lone wolf has made nearly all of the game himself — the artwork, the music, the story and the coding. Brush, at age 26, already has a distinct voice, a wry vision of a burdened world. “Pinstripe,” Brush’s third game, bears a resemblance to his black and white paletted “Coma” and to his more colorful “Skinny” in the sense that the characters tend toward the idiosyncratic. They can be fractured and damaged, too, complaining about their arthritic knees, their many moles or the intoxicating smell of a spoon. Heavily inside their own minds, some are paranoid about the world outside and the terrible things it can do to them.
As “Pinstripe” opens, you move in side-scroller fashion back and forth through shaking, drafty train cars. The running, jumping character you control is a tall, willowy former priest with a grim visage named Ted. During a snowstorm, Ted travels with his precocious daughter Bo, red-hatted and pigtailed. She’s adorably quirky, talking about Sherlock Holmes and how she and her father look like ghosts when they gaze into a dusty full length mirror. Bo giggles as she riffs on the word “Boo” so it becomes ‘boom’ and ‘boob.’
But beyond Bo, the brooding atmosphere and the lanky priest remind me of everything from the mysterious sins of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Reverend Mr. Hooper in “The Minister’s Black Veil” to Washington Irving’s superstitious Ichabod Crane. In “Pinstripe,” Ted doesn’t smile much and never, ever laughs. Even in a family portrait found in a locket, he looks gloomy, half of his face guarded by shadows.
Within minutes, Bo is kidnapped by the leering, fiery-eyed Mr. Pinstripe, Brush’s impeccably dressed, derbied, cigarette-smoking vision of the devil. As Pinstripe cackles and leaves with Bo, the railway cars change. They’re now full of black balloons that look like engorged udders ready to burst with an odd oil, the odor of which causes unlucky victims to get swirlingly, addictively high. It’s through this oil that Pinstripe controls his minions in hell.
To get to the center of this perdition, here called Red Wash, you have only a slingshot as a weapon. You solve puzzles, some of which are unraveled by interpreting clues on, for example say, a Bible or a pill bottle label you’ve discovered along the way. Another conundrum features an ingenious riff on Flappy Bird, a 2013 indie sensation. The Flappy Bird-inspired puzzles ask you to turn a music box mechanism to open, say, a dark jail cell.
Brush’s own music plays here and most of the time it’s stirring. Especially when it’s an off-kilter carnival midway tune, the music adds a pall of resolute freakiness to the moment. Even Brush’s choice of a public domain song feels true. Ada Jones’ 1912 contralto version of “By The Light of Silvery Moon” for an Edison wax cylinder, chills you to the bone when it’s discovered. It is the right song at the right time.
While “Pinstripe” excels at setting up a variety of infernal moods with music and creating a cursed world with an affecting art style, it isn’t perfect. Sometimes a character’s attempt at humor gets in the way of the story and gameplay — as does the devil’s tendency toward melodrama. The question is, does “Pinstripe” need more words or more game?
I think the game needs both, but it requires more work on the narrative side. While the story begins with Hitchcockian subtlety, building tension, Pinstripe himself veers toward a Roger Corman-era Vincent Price — B movie all the way. When, as the game progresses, you view Bo in Pinstripe’s parsonage through a telescope, her distress looks like it’s due to something out of the “Saw” series. That is not to say the picture of torture isn’t somewhat convincing. It just could have been more persuasive if the game’s tone had stuck to suspense rather than the occasional shock.
The gameplay is better balanced. While Ted’s gait is graceful, especially when he leaps across a divide, he always looks like he must move with alacrity to save Bo, a sign of personality achieved through game design. Often, you find yourself contemplating a puzzle to complete, for example, a circuit to open doors. Spelling out one of Bo’s scrawled messages of emotional anguish to move, say, water through a sluice, reminds me of last year’s “Inside” and before that, “Shadow Complex.” These puzzles are effective in that they’re sometimes joyfully difficult to solve. I imagined a devious grin on Brush’s face when it took me 25 minutes to solve one.
When the game is finished, you aren’t done. You can play “Pinstripe” for a second time and open, with a golden key, areas such as a cemetery placed in a cave, and you can get a gun instead of a slingshot, too. While the graveyard proves to be a mildly engrossing addition, you don’t really need the gun’s power (except perhaps for bragging rights). On a second play-through, the ending is, depending upon how you construe it, sadder than the optimistic first finale. While “Pinstripe” can feel uneven at times, there’s talent, full-of-heart here that’s worthy of nurturing. With a small staff and bigger budget, who knows what higher levels of characterization and game design Thomas Brush can reach?
Harold Goldberg has written for the New York Times, Playboy, Vanity Fair, Boys’ Life and elsewhere. His narrative history of games is “All Your Base Are Belong to Us (How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture)” Random House. He’s the founder of the New York Video Game Critics Circle. Follow him on Twitter @haroldgoldberg.
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