As has been my practice for the last few years, I’ve set my RSS feed to truncate entries so that I can post reviews without spoilerage. Within an entry, there is a short, spoilerless discussion (though the comp purists may want to avoid reading even that before playing for themselves); then spoiler space; then a more detailed discussion of what I thought did and didn’t work in the game.
I’m also pursuing an approach I came up with last year: I’m playing and reviewing games that have listed beta-testers, and skipping those that don’t. Last year that turned out to be a pretty fool-proof indicator of which games were going to end up scoring 4 or less on my personal scale. I’m hoping this will mean I have more time to devote to the remaining games, which in turn will (I hope) be of higher quality, and you, dear reader, will have fewer rants inflicted on you.
Currently: “The Duel in the Snow”, by Utkonos.
Having read a few more 19th-century novels than are probably good for me, I was pretty sure I was going to like this game as soon as I checked out the special commands and saw that they included that highly necessary dueling command DELOPE (to fire deliberately wide during a duel in order to acknowledge that one is in the wrong and/or doesn’t really want to kill one’s opponent).
And “Duel in the Snow” did indeed fulfill my hopes for a historical piece. The setting is old Russia, a setting not seen much in IF and all the more welcome for that reason; the story is of an unhappy, cuckolded husband who faces ridicule because of his wife’s departure. The structure is extremely linear, with dreams and flashbacks fleshing out the backstory of an incident that only covers an hour or so of real time. Intriguing and generally well-implemented, with memorable characters and events; but not without flaws.
I liked a lot of the pieces of this story. Your friend Kropkin is well-realized, with a host of nattery little stories to tell that give depth to the universe and to the particular world you live in. Scenery descriptions are brief but evocative, and the impression of endless snow is very effective. It wasn’t quite Turgenev, but the game achieved much with the melancholy of objects and the sketching of the social setting. The fact that the protagonist wasn’t able to say much to Gronovskij to put an end to his mockery seemed like a fitting feature, an expression of his personal limitations rather than underimplementation in the game. I came away with the sense of a protagonist who was miserable but who blamed his own dullness for his wife’s defection, and who regarded his death as the unsurprising outcome of a joyless life.
I wasn’t always so sure what this piece was trying to accomplish with its interaction, however. On the one hand, there’s a way to survive the duel: a somewhat silly and arbitrary way, it seemed to me. Someone might think of trying such a thing, but it only really makes sense to a person with a player’s knowledge: that is, the protagonist is able to stuff his overcoat with a protective padding in just the right place because the player already knows where he is going to be shot. That is an ending that makes no sense within the universe of the story.
Meanwhile what I am actually interested in is not so much whether my protagonist lives or dies, but the question of why; and this, despite my efforts, several run-throughs of my own, and playing through both walkthroughs, remains just beyond understanding. Natasha, the protagonist’s wife, seems to have run away because… because she (or perhaps the protagonist) can’t have children? because she’s stifled in this rather dreary house? because she’s in love with another man? because she’s in love with another woman? There are hints in all of these directions: the cherubs on the mirror frame hint at children desired but unachieved, her comments about the gloves suggest an overpowering ennui, Gronovskij’s insult suggests a conventional affair with another man, and the book of poetry… well, that’s the most interesting of all. Perhaps Natasha’s friend wishes her to pursue her dreams; but in our near-death vision we see Natasha herself writing one of these poems. Does this mean that the book is in fact Natasha’s own work? Or only that Natasha wanted to write poetry as well?
It’s evocative but all the pieces point in random directions, or at least, if there’s a clear explanation I did not find it. It is in fact extremely easy to miss half of these clues entirely anyway, if we do not examine just the right things and try sitting on the armchair (without which we won’t find the book of poetry).
So as a mechanism to deliver an interactive story, Duel in the Snow is elusive and seems designed almost intentionally to hide from us the things we are trying to find out, by presenting fragmentary or conflicting evidence. As a mechanism to deliver a puzzle… well, it’s not a very interesting puzzle, is it? And, as I mentioned, the salvation of the protagonist seems rather arbitrary.
All this may make it sound as though I’m down on the game, and I’m really not. I liked the setting a lot, was pleased to find that the parser understood many odd and experimental commands, and thought that the linearity worked reasonably well: though the flashback scene at the faro table is extremely forced, it was only on the second or third playthrough that the machinery seemed to crank obviously. In particular it felt like the right thing for the protagonist to punch out Gronovskij when he’s making fun of me, even though I the player knew that that action would lead to subsequent problems. There are a handful of places where the momentum can go slack if one isn’t careful (for example, it’s possible to stand quite a long time outside the carriage with nothing happening); but generally speaking it does work.
It’s just that what I found myself wanting from the experience was to understand the tragedy of the protagonist’s death, when all that was implemented was the opportunity to avert it.