IF Comp 2015: Duel (piato)

The 21st annual Interactive Fiction Competition is currently on, through mid-November. Voting is open to the general public; the only prerequisite is that you not be an author, not vote on games that you tested, and submit votes on at least five games. (You emphatically do not have to have played them all! In a year with 55 entrants, it is very unlikely that most judges will get through anywhere near all of them.)

If you are looking for other reviews, this ifwiki page contains a list of places currently carrying them.

Cover image for Duel showing a hand with long black nails

Duel is a choice-based puzzle game about a battle between magic-users. You are bound, and can use only your assortment of spells. It takes only a few minutes to play once, but somewhat longer to work out to completion.

Two distinct things are happening here. One is a story about a kind of magic that uses memories as the substance of spells. You have been trained in this; you formerly had a master, who took some of your memories from you as the price of service.

A lot of these memories are less about you than they are about the characters you might summon. The protagonist’s personality is only somewhat indistinctly sketched: you had a master, you traveled a great deal, you did some things that you cannot now recall because those recollections were taken from you. But you do remember others who fought for their towns, or out of necessity, or who were manipulated to the brink of madness. Though the world building is necessarily somewhat fragmentary — the story is short and we get only a few angles on it — I came away with the sense of a highly unjust world in which catastrophic things had happened to many of the communities. Both large-scale brutality and subtle psychological torture come into these tales.

The other aspect of Duel is a sequencing puzzle: you know what you can do, but you have to do it in the right way. (Eclosion is another such Twine sequencing game.) In order to do battle with your opponent, you have to consider which remembered fighter or monster would best serve you next on the battlefield, up against whatever your opponent has conjured. Sometimes, you need to have saved an appropriately potent memory until the right moment, and you are unlikely to know that the first time you play.

At least for me, these two aspects knitted less well than I might have liked, and I think this is partly because they encouraged two different kinds of reading. When I was in puzzle-solving mode, I was looking for clues about which characters ought to be pitted against one another; but either the text doesn’t contain a lot of those clues, or I didn’t understand them, because what I did work out was mostly by trial and error, in the end. Even when I solved it, I didn’t quite feel like I’d understood its underlying principles and mastered it; I just felt like I’d finally shuffled the cards around into the right order.

Conversely, when I was reading for story, the affordances of the interaction weren’t really designed to let me interrogate that story more deeply — there are few opportunities to ask the game for more information. And then once I was replaying to try to win, I was repeatedly re-seeing texts I’d already read before, which robbed them of their narrative interest. The passage concerning the developing madness of a queen, which was one of my favorite parts on first playthrough, became a frustrating thing I had to laboriously click through on later replays.

Even so, there were interesting narrative moments that emerged as a result of my attempts to solve the sequencing puzzle: for instance, at one point my opponent apparently managed to turn one of my own fighters against me. Considering what a cruel world I was living in and how ruthlessly I was using the conjured characters, I felt that was pretty much fair play. Of course, then I had to go back and figure out how to prevent such a thing from happening.

Finally, I really like the underlying conceit that our memories are sources of power and self-defense. Indeed, there’s enough in that idea to support a longer and more complicated game than this one.

2 thoughts on “IF Comp 2015: Duel (piato)”

  1. Thank you for this excellent and thoughtful review! I think you’re completely right, about the two modes of reading required, and in particular the problem that the amount of new text discovered per playthrough is really low, relative to new text. I think it probably would have been possible to get around this, while preserving the ‘Creatures Such As We’-ish theme that I wanted to keep, by making the second/third/etc readthrough text both shorter and *more callous*, so that the game could be more didactic about repeated skim-clickthroughs being the kind of behaviour that is critiqued in the protagonist/player. It’d have been a lot of writing, but it’d have made the game both artistically clearer and more fun.

    Thank you, as ever, for all you’ve done to promote both IF in general and this game in particular!

    1. >so that the game could be more didactic about repeated skim-clickthroughs being the kind of behaviour that is critiqued in the protagonist/player.

      Ooh, that’s an interesting idea. Harsh. I like it!

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