IF Comp 2009: The Duel that Spanned the Ages

DuelThatAs 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.

Now: The Duel that Spanned the Ages, Episode 1: The Age of Machines.

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

I confess the title of this one did not leave me very sanguine, because it suggests a grandiose conception (“spanned the ages”!) and weak follow-through (“Episode 1”).

I was wrong. This is solid. It has that substantial feeling where things are implemented in uniform depth and there are no bugs visibly poking out and the writing has hooks and the action sequences are scary and well-paced and the author seems to have a definite plan from the outset. There’s an air of confidence about the whole project that lets you as a player settle in. It’s hard to overemphasize how important this is: if you’re playing a game you don’t quite trust, it’s hard to enjoy it fully.

There are a lot of beta-testers listed. I can see why the game needed them, as it’s big and complicated and lots of stuff could go wrong. I’m really glad it got them. Thanks, y’all.

I do still have some issues with it — but let’s put those past the spoiler warning.

S

P

O

I

L

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R

S

This is a gorefest — if it weren’t a text game, it would totally work as an FPS, with all those different kinds of weapon and armor and all the corpses and the complex that was inhabited until a Terrible Thing Happened and killed everyone and in the process obviated the need for NPCs. It is not the author’s fault that I do not care for the shooting-stuff-in-an-abandoned-complex genre very much. (I liked Portal, but that was in spite of, not because of these features. Plus it didn’t exactly involve shooting in the normal sense.)

My second complaint: this is Episode 1 of an unspecified number of episodes and therefore when I’m done I haven’t gotten the whole story. Being only a piece of a story is often kind of a killer in IF Comp games. On the other hand, Episode 1 took me the full two hours to get through, and I only finished then because I decided to hurry things along by looking at the hints. (When I did look at the hints I generally felt that the solution was fair and was something I would have gotten if I hadn’t been eager to finish and/or terrified of being attacked by another metal spider.) So I’m sure that the full-length epic saga would be way too large for comp standards.

The episodic nature of the thing would be more okay with me if I didn’t feel that the episode I did get was sort of a tease. The stuff I’m most interested in and curious about, namely the broader worldbuilding of this universe, is conveyed only in elusive little hints, while most of the gameplay centers on the shooting and the arming, which I do not care about and which I have seen already in many games. I kept wanting to say, but wait, let’s go back to the part where I ate a poisonous chameleon fruit! What happened there? Tell me more! Why am I being manipulated? How many alien races are in this universe anyway? Did the people mining here not have any clue about the danger that lurked nearby? For that matter, what made me such a badass human that I can bear the pain of walking around on these broken legs? I’d even like to get to know more about the protagonist, even if (maybe especially if) he’s going to be taken over by another kind of consciousness and become something/one else. Knowing him better would make that change more interesting, perhaps more poignant.

Instead there were some lock puzzles and a light puzzle and a bunch of ammo puzzles, and all I can learn about the piece of the world I get to explore is that a lot of people died and that the smell of blood is everywhere.

So at the end of this, I am less interested in this game that I just played than in the other games that ought to come after this one, in which we learn more about what is going on, and find out what sort of life-form we’re becoming, and why we’ve been manipulated. It’s to the author’s credit that I do believe he has answers to these questions. Episode 1 did a good job of selling me on these ideas. It also demonstrates a striking level of competence for a new author (assuming “Oliver Ullmann” isn’t a pseudonym).

So: a strong entry that nonetheless probably won’t be my favorite of this comp; however, I would like to see more of this story.

4 thoughts on “IF Comp 2009: The Duel that Spanned the Ages”

  1. Half-way through, and so far this *is* my favorite of the comp. Knowing my own tastes, though, it’s no surprise. I agree that some of the most interesting things were only hinted at for the bigger picture, but I was really able to get into the puzzles and the abandoned complex (but then, I enjoyed the Half-Life series, Bioshock, Portal too, and others). This game was exactly my kind of thing. :)

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