IF Comp 2009: The Duel in the Snow

DuelAs 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.

You too can play it if you download the comp games, or even try it online.

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.

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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.

17 thoughts on “IF Comp 2009: The Duel in the Snow

  1. I agree that this one was quite well-written and implemented, but I wasn’t left with even so much of a positive impression as you were. The linearity left me feeling extremely constrained, and the principal flashback scene in particular didn’t work at all for me. I wanted to not punch Gronovskij, but of course I had no choice. Flashbacks in IF are always problematic for just this reason, unless the author is willing to offer the player some agency to guide not only what happens later in the story but what came before. If this game had done that, I’d have found it much more interesting.

    In the end, I keep feeling there is some literary or cultural reference here I’m just not getting due to my complete unfamiliarity with Russian literature.

    And yes, the final “solution” was absurd and arbitrary. After playing through all this serious angst and soul-searching, my life is saved by a stuffed owl stuffed in my pocket?

    You can also find the book by simply looking under the armchair, incidentally…

    • I don’t think this is meant as a specific reference to a specific Russian story (or, if it is, I don’t recognize it). But the social dynamics and physical setting are familiar. Perhaps because of this, I was expecting the mood of the game to be a kind of melancholy fatalism (the first couple of scenes seem to support that idea).

      • It did remind me of Anna Karenina. Natasha = Anna, PC = Anna’s husband, Gronovskij = Vronski, Kropkin = Stepan Arkadjevitsj.

        The differences are of course clear (Gronovskij is not the one who has taken away Natasha, and of course Anna’s husband and Vronski never duel), but the general character types fit quite well. Gronovskij is even a military officer, just like Vronski. Even their names are pretty similar, the one being contained in the other…

        Still, I don’t think these similarities yield more insight into the game.

      • Yeah, “a 19th c. Russian story involving adultery, some aristocrats, and/or some military officers” is not exactly uniquely identifying.

      • But if you buy the argument that a “j” is an upside-down exclamation mark with a comma stuck to it, “Gronovskij” is an anagram of “Go, Vronski!”

        There is of course the tiny possibility that I am reading too much into this. ;)

      • If I remember correctly, Gronovskij mentions a women who commits suicide by throwing herself under a train (probably in the flashback sequence, among other anecdotes). If that’s no reference to Anna Karenina…

      • On second thoughts, I think the interesting thing here is that the title and the situation of a duel in nineteenth-century Russia immediately evoke Eugene Onegin. The game seems to mix two pretty obvious references, to two entirely dissimilar novels who just happen to be both Russian, thus creating the feeling of something typical of Russian literature. (and although I enjoyed this aspect of the game too, I must add that it was perhaps too generic for me in the end. Russia = snow, gambling, adultery, duels. And of course, the only female character has to be called Natasha.)

  2. Well you both got more out of it than I did. Though I’m familiar enough with how stories in Old Russia turn out, my I-F skills just weren’t up to par. I never found the poetry book, nor found out what Natasha was writing in my final dreams, nor how she felt about gloves, nor found a way to dodge a bullet. It felt like a wait, wait, wait game to me.

    I couldn’t even deck Gronovskij in the flashback when I wanted to. I was told to keep my cool. (A second playthrough taught me you need only wait a turn or two.)

    I agree it’s well-written and definitely places one in a particular setting, but I felt like I only scratched the surface of any story.

    And what was the significance of the two red berries on the juniper?

  3. In response to Jimmy, I think it’s OK that there’s no other way to end the flashback other than by punching Gronovskij. Even aside from the fact that it’s a flashback,* could whatsisname the PC do anything different once Gronovskij insults him? You and I wouldn’t provoke a duel (especially with someone who shoots better than us), but PC can’t do that. It’s like the principle of interactivity Emily (I think) has put forth; you only need to allow the player to do what the PC might reasonably do.

    Otherwise, though, I had a similar experience to Ron — I didn’t find most of that stuff, and I felt like the story was just rolling by.

    *Idea: A game that starts with a duel in which you are stricken a deadly wound, moves into a flashback of how you got there — but you can avert the duel, because the first scene was actually a flash-forward to a regrettable death which you have now averted.

    • Also, I tried to put the owl in my pocket, because I felt silly holding it, but was told my pocket was already full. So close.

  4. If you mention Anna to Kropkin, or show him the poetry book, he reddens and looks away. I suspect you’re supposed to put that together with the hint that she was the poetess all along and come up with… not a hell of a lot.

  5. My suspicion is that Natasha was having an affair with Kropkin, hence the final poem “To K.” and Kropkin’s reactions when asked about the poem. The duel was a set-up engineered by Kropkin and designed to have the PC killed. (Perhaps, when Natasha left the PC, she also left Kropkin and her old life, and Kropkin blamed the PC.) In the light of this, the PC’s thoughts on surviving the duel seem rather ironic.

    If so, I would have liked to have some sort of revelation in-game to confirm this, and give that nogoodnik Kropkin his just desserts, but I suppose that would take away from the flavour of the story.

    With regard to the owl, though, I guess that if one knew that one’s opponent was such an awesome marksman, one could pretty much predict that the shot would hit either the heart or the head, and thus only need to predict those two areas. The thing about people being saved from gunshot wounds by random objects stuffed in their breast pockets is a common enough trope that I was rather expecting it.

    • Man, if it was Natasha and Kropkin, that’s even more sad than I originally thought. The one bright spot, I figured, was that this guy was still his friend…

      Sheesh. But it would make a kind of sense. Depressing sense.

      • A couple of Kropkin’s little anecdotes seem rather … sinister? suspicious? in retrospect. He has a story about how, despite being miles ahead of an opponent, he lost a card game thanks to a single application of brandy. And what does he give you while driving to the duel? Brandy. Then there’s the story about two men matching each other drink for drink, one of them being fine the next morning and the other one dead…. Compare with the situation in the flashback, where both Kropkin and Gronovskij are supposed to have been drinking, but Kropkin “sobers up” awfully quickly after we hit Gronovskij. (I think Kropkin either has an incredible head for alcohol, or he was secretly disposing of the alcohol instead of drinking it; either way, he was just the “fine” fellow in the story, now trying to get Gronovskij drunk enough to say something indiscreet.)

        I’m going to have to read through all those anecdotes for more such examples.

  6. Pingback: IFComp: The Duel in the Snow « Saucers of Mud

  7. Pingback: IFComp: Lots of Short Reviews « Saucers of Mud

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