As much as it might surprise you to hear, I’m not the kind of person who likes hating on games. I find the act stale and tiresome; I really want to find a game that manages to enthrall me. Unfortunately, games like Panic! don’t make that easy. Slotting this game into any genre is difficult, but to summarize, it’s a series of funny skits joined only by button presses. As basic a game as that might sound, the irony is that the game tries to make this mechanic work for both humor and game purposes when it clearly works for neither. Today, it might serve as a warning for careful design: fail to put thought and attention into your design, and this is what awaits you.
Given the game’s uncomplicated structure, it only makes sense that its premise would be equally simple. A computer virus has infected all the world’s machinery, and a young boy (you) must navigate the mess until he can find the central computer and purge the virus from it. He does this largely by pushing buttons on screen and waiting to see what happens. I’m not making that up, nor am I misrepresenting it; that is literally all you do in this game. So the game’s lone mechanic lacks real depth, but that’s not what brings it all tumbling down. After all, plenty of early visual novels boiled down to barely interactive choices, and they worked out just fine. What’s more, that mechanic has all the depth it needs to fulfill its purpose of linking the game’s various gags together. No, what makes this game fail where others flourished is the over reliance on random chance. Panic! relies almost entirely on humor, and humor demands good pacing, even if it’s just random gags like the ones this game uses. How else could it prevent its player from hearing the same kind of joke again and again?
Yet by its very design, the game can’t answer those kinds of questions. First, there’s the matter of what button presses do to the jokes. They all have the same set-up (push button, see what happens), and the game can’t develop jokes into a cohesive whole. Already, the jokes start off on shaky ground, but it gets so much worse from there. Because the player has no way of knowing what each button does, nobody has control over the pacing. Not the player; not the game; nobody. So it’s entirely possible for the player to warp to another part of the game without seeing all jokes they should, or to be stuck in one part for too long as the game bombards them with unfunny bit after unfunny bit. You’d need near perfect clairvoyance to be able to avoid this all-too-common arrangement.
Of course, even those unlikely circumstances would not guarantee the game success. Ideally, games connect progress through the game with whatever makes that game most enjoyable. Not only does Panic! not do this, but it goes beyond that to achieve the exact opposite. Remember the goal game gives the player from the start: get to the central computer and purge the virus infecting it. Assuming you had control over your own circumstances, you would ideally navigate game as fast as possible to complete this goal. However, that also means skipping out on the game’s many gags, which are ostensibly why you’d play this game in the first place.
Thus the game’s efforts to pass itself off as a game only create unnecessary tensions that make you less likely that you want to play. I’m not entirely sure why developers chose that route. While the mechanic didn’t make a lot of sense for facilitating humor, it certainly doesn’t make sense for facilitating gameplay, either. This isn’t even getting into the game’s various fail states, where you can blow up landmarks or land in a game over because you pressed the wrong button. Putting aside the fact that you have no way of knowing which buttons are booby-trapped, hidden fail-states also make you more ambivalent about engaging with game, lest you stumble across the one button that erases your progress.
Even if we look at the game only for its sense of humor, things look bleak. The punchlines don’t have any punch (although weak sound design is more at fault than the jokes themselves), a lot of the jokes are repeated ad nauseum, and the vast majority of the jokes lack any clear logic. Push a button on a lawnmower, and it starts behaving like a dog. Why did this happen? What’s the reasoning here? Is this supposed to be a pun of some kind? Why would I find this funny? At best, Panic!’s favorite jokes amount to cute visual gags, which now that I think about it, works quite well in the game’s favor. Although the art style isn’t strong enough to hold the entire game up, it’s still fairly strong. Panic!’s goofy, simplistic cartoon art style is reminiscent of Sunday morning cartoons. At worst, though, the gags are non-sequitur nonsense humor.
It shouldn’t have to be this way. Games have proven time and again what great vehicles they are for laughs, so why does this game manage to screw up so badly? Where its design should encourage the player to immerse themselves in the humor, it instead trips over itself so badly as to distance the player from the jokes. Not that the jokes themselves help much, seeing how criminally unfunny many of them are. As much as I want to give the game constructive criticism, it’s difficult imagining any circumstances under which this game could possibly work and still be this game. In the end, Panic! amounts to little more than a collection of repetitive skits.