Best Claymation Musical Game Ever! Review of Dominique Pamplemousse

Screenshot of Dominique Pamplemousse showing main character bemoaning bathroom signs.Do you have fond memories of the California Raisins or those Claymation Christmas specials? Do you adore quirky and amusing musicals? Do you like media with a homespun, craft-like air, unpolished and genuine and reflecting the warmth and personality of the creator? Do you like unusual indie games that will entertain you without taking up your entire week? Did you answer yes to any or all of these questions?

Well then, do I have the game for you!

Dominique Pamplemousse: It’s All Over Once the Fat Lady sings is the latest game from celebrated interactive fiction developer Deirdra Kiai, brought together by a successful IndieGoGo campaign. What makes it so special?

Depends… how many interactive Claymation musicals have you enjoyed recently?

“It’s just a pile of mail / A bunch of bills I haven’t pa-a-a-a-a-a-a-aid!”

You play the titular character, Dominique Pamplemousse, a very down-on-their-luck private investigator who starts the game being harassed by the landlady for unpaid rent. Luckily, a client chooses that moment to swan in the door. Prudence Van Dunng, a music CEO, claims to need help finding Casey Byngham, the star teen idol of her label, who has been fooling around with Prudence’s daughter… or has he? It becomes pretty clear early on that something is very rotten in the state of Denmark, and surprisingly, Dominique’s previous career path might have something to do with it. Intellectual theft, parental control, and the use of autotune all culminate in an amusing finale that leads to a very unusual and interesting moral choice: is principle all it’s cracked up to be when you’re starving and broke?

Oh, and did I mention most of the exposition and character dialogue is in song?

At first glance, the story is adorably silly fluff… and, well, it is to a large extent, intentionally so. It’s a Claymation musical, after all, and as such it happily embraces a ridiculous and goofy narrative. You could sit and point out the plot holes or story “missteps” (Why don’t the police follow due process after a certain event? Why does the daughter make SPOILER pronouncement then just leave? Why did the villain bother to set up such an elaborate trap when Dominique was minding their own business anyway?) but it would really miss the point and the tone. There are a lot of large brushstrokes here, and sometimes, that’s exactly what’s needed. Besides, how can you hate any story that involves operatic soprano warbling about artist litigation and a literal death by autotune?

But as in much of Deirdra Kiai’s work, there are also very nuanced and subtle threads of more serious issues, particularly those of gender and of economics. A running “gag” throughout the game is the fact that no one seems to know what gender Dominique is, and they constantly tie themselves up in knots trying to assign them a gender or figure out how to address them. A lot of this is treated with a light, funny hand, and Dominique’s oblivious responses are often a treat (“What am I? I’m a detective!”) but the narrative makes implicit and explicit challenges to society’s habit of putting people either in one gender box or another, and the confusion when someone doesn’t quite fit. Poverty is also looked at with a funny but honest eye. As Dominique unravels the mystery, they are constantly confronted by very privileged characters who never have to worry about rent, food, or any of the basics of life; Dominique, in contrast, is never able to escape nor forget the problems that living hand-to-mouth involves. What happens when you can’t even afford the bus fare to your next investigation scene? The topic is what makes the final choice so interesting; without giving too much away, let’s just say that the stereotypically “moral” choice doesn’t exactly make Dominque’s life any better. In fact, the final choice serves as a great metaphor for how to deal with society and social justice as a whole; do you reject/confront the unjust system and possibly end up even worse off, or do you accept the system and the benefits therein and attempt to effect change from within?

Clay, Cardboard, and Love

The game also confronts the perils of “excessive polish,” using tools like autotune to try and “perfect” music but depriving it of heart and soul in the process. Like all good games, this theme is represented in the design, graphics, and music as well. Dominique Pamplemousse is a love letter to all that is imperfect, genuine, and personal.

Dominique’s graphics are all in a goofy and cartoonish Claymation style, achieved through the cutting-edge techique of… sculpting some models with clay and then photographing them. The backgrounds were also crafted by hand using various household items. This approach to graphics – using physical items rather than 3D modelling or drawing – seems to be gaining steam lately (e.g. The Swapper). It has the effect of making the environment and characters seem to have more physical weight and presence onscreen; you’re not constantly aware of polygons moving through space, you’re instead presented the convincing illusion of clay people moving around in a little place of their own. The models may not be “perfect,” but the imperfections add character and really make this feel like a labor of “clay, cardboard, and love” as her website puts it.

The music, similarly, has a rough but genuine charm to it. The instrumentals are designed to loop seamlessly, partly due to basic video game structure and also so as to lead up properly for the next burst of singing; you can always tell when people are about to sing by the pause in dialogue and looping music! Each character has a different singing style, from soft ballad to rap to jazz. My favorites are probably Prudence, a beautiful operatic voice, and oddly enough, Casey Byngham (what does it say about me that I liked the over-processed autotuned singer the best?) The songs are catchy, particularly the first track and Casey’s lamenting ballad, both of which have still stuck with me two months later. Again, the vocals and instrumentals are not what one would call super polished or professional – singers’ voices occasionally crack, and the odd note is a bit off – but again, it feeds into the theme of the game in rejecting polish (or, at least, challenging it) in favor of honesty.

As for the gameplay itself, it’s a straightforward point-and-click adventure for the most part, albeit with far more expository singing! As Dominique learns more, their “folder” of clues gains more keywords and topics that can then be researched on the Internet or brought up in conversations (often multiple times for further clarification). The story is linear but ensures that you never “miss” some vital clue, only advancing the plot once you’ve definitely gained all you can from a witness (exception: I did spend five minutes screaming at Casey to [UNDO SPOILERY EVENT] so I could ask him about the nutty lady outside his house; didn’t need it to advance the plot, but wish I’d heard what he had to say!) The mystery isn’t hugely difficult to puzzle out, but I still felt pretty chuffed when I finally connected all the pieces before Dominique did. The game is very short and can probably be finished in two hours or less, but that’s actually a plus; I don’t know about all of you, but I don’t have 40 hours to sink into games that often nowadays!

“Pimplemouse!” “Ugh, it’s Pamplemousse!”

Dominique Pamplemousse was released back in April thanks to a great IndieGoGo effort; recently, Deirdra announced that it was going to be showcased at IndieCade at E3. It deserves the attention – even if it is only for the two hours of playtime! – and thus I am happy to talk about it here as well. If you’re curious, the free demo is available here; the full version is available on PC and iOS for $5. If you’re in the mood for adorably ramshackle games with a cute concept and theme, give it a whirl!

What do you think of the game? And be honest… what was YOUR favorite Claymation musical when you were growing up?

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