Interactive Fiction Comp 2015: 'Duel'

A Twine story with a strong game mechanic in addition to its narrative, Duel occupies an interesting position on the continuum of game-versus-fiction. It would be much better as an integrated piece of interactive fiction if it were impossible to win the game.

This is not a condemnation of the game element. On the contrary, the game element elevates Duel from a nominally interactive hypertext fiction to a highly unique experience. Although some mild frustration or tedium may arise from the complications of the merger of game and story, this is not the one great flaw.

The game is a sequential puzzle. Learning how to solve it involves failing multiple times, making the game a nominal member of the category of lose-and-repeat text adventures that includes Make It Good and All Things Devours. The possibility set is limited enough to be fully implemented using only a short list of hyperlinks. This hyperlink interface would probably become confusing or restrictive if the game were longer, but the available options fit the amount of content and the overall complexity excellently. Trying different combinations soon yields apparently optimal strategies. Learning better strategies through experimentation has a climactic ascent that builds the sense of tension produced by the short plot. Trying different possibilities involves enough creativity that it doesn't feel rote, although the same is not true for the process of navigating through the same narrative each cycle.

The greatest weakness of Duel's implementation of its mechanic is that most of the details about the darkly wonderful fantasy vision that the story creates are easily revealed on first playthrough. New information produced by different combinations and sequences is very easy to miss while skipping passed the walls of text that the player probably only paid attention to on the first cycle. This is especially problematic due to the fact that the sparing new information is necessary both to the gameplay and to understanding the story.

Aside from the tedium of clicking through the same walls of text over and over again, the overall experience is both fun and intriguing. Duel must be a rarity -- a Twine hypertext IF with a better developed game mechanic than story narrative.

However, the narrative is not necessarily neglected. Although the brief glimpses of a dark fantasy environment may not be massively original, they are effective enough as small setpieces. The main feature of the plot is the ability to call memories of people or environmental events into existence. This story mechanic is developed with reasonable complexity given the narrative's brevity, leaving intriguing suggestions about the kind of a world where such an ability would be harvested and weaponized.

Even as short as it is, the story suggests moral complexity beyond the presumed baseline of grimdark "shades of gray." This gives Duel more emotional power than it would otherwise have held. Unfortunately, this complexity is betrayed by the uneven marriage of gameplay and story, causing the work as a whole to fall short of greatness.

(Spoilers follow.)


From the protagonist's viewpoint, the world is severe. Insanity accompanies power, and the right to hold power over others is earned by absorbing the insane darkness unflinchingly. The protagonist deserves to be betrayed by his or her slaves. If the player experiences this feeling or understanding, then the game can be interpreted as a commentary on our selfish consumption of tragedy and suffering through the media and the Internet. We consume the gory details that break through our desensitized daze without bothering to understand the full context of all these stories of horror, abuse, and tragedy that we're confronted with every day---without ever properly empathizing with the victims.

The really intriguing suggestion is that the protagonist's opponent knew some great secret -- some powerful memory that breaks the usual rules of the duel. When the opponent uses his last and best hope, the protagonist's enslaved champion becomes aware of her existence as a stolen memory and turns to attack her conjurer. Perhaps the opponent is morally superior to the protagonist -- the hero come to challenge the evil sorcery with the secret of transcendent Truth. Or perhaps not; while he does seem to prefer impersonal environmental attacks instead of enslaved champions, he begins by summoning an army full of soldiers. Either way, the opponent's secret could be viewed as the true hinge of the plot---making him the real protagonist, and the assumed protagonist actually the antagonist.

Telling an interactive story from the antagonist's viewpoint without signaling this structure upfront is a fascinating narrative device. Whenever the player loses after having nearly defeated the opponent by summoning either Inai or Avashi to destroy him, there is a sense of narrative closure.

When the player wins by sending Avashi after Inai, this narrative betrayal could be brilliant, and there is a sense of tragedy. At the moment of glorious revelation, one slave chooses to continue the status quo of power and meaningless rivalry. Transcendent love is defeated by the eternal persistence of hate. Here is the anti-Tolkien. When Truth is exposed, the reality of suffering validates our cheap consumeristic abuse of tragedy over the holistic understanding of real people.

The "win ending" is not presented as a lament. The player character is victorious, and the narrative takes no measure to point out how darkness and suffering or power and slavery have won the day. You just win, and the accomplishment of maximizing the sequential puzzle feels at odds with the extremely cynical implications of the narrative.

Comments

  1. What an excellent review - it's delightful to think that the game inspired such a careful, thoughtful reading.

    I did think about giving the game the sort of ending you describe. I think there's a strong case for it, though my interpretation isn't quite the same as yours, and I think that the decision makes slightly more sense in mine. I wasn't exactly going for "selfish consumption of tragedy and suffering through the media and the Internet" (though I like this reading a lot), but rather the implied fantasy, when playing a strategy game, that *the quality of being inured to the suffering of others* was not just desirable, but explicitly what gave you the right to "be in charge" in Civilization, or Chess for that matter (that's a bit clearer if you use madness on turned-Inai, or when she meets Avashi after fully turning and it was probably a mistake to bury those passages where few people would find them). So I needed the ending to be a "real" ending, one that some players would feel a sense of accomplishment for reaching, for that effect to work.

    Also, for all this self-awareness, I really did feel kinda cheated at the end of Varicella. So there's that, too.

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    1. Thanks for commenting! Don't feel that I was condemning the morality of the game. I was just interpreting it as a story, reading the interplay between narrative and mechanics a little differently perhaps.

      Now that you mention it, I can totally see Duel as a commentary on strategy game mechanics, the sense of divine detachment from the simulation---set in a much more intimate medium.

      I never made it to the end of Varicella. I should look that one up again!

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