Duel

by piato

2015

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Dichotomous Mastery and Dominance, November 19, 2015
by Bainespal
Related reviews: IF Comp 2015, blog rerun

(Originally published on the reviewer's blog.)

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.)

(Spoiler - click to show)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.


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Fie, March 5, 2021 - Reply
[The protagonist deserves to be betrayed by his or her slaves.]

I think the slavery conceit is a bit more spacey than you claim. There are quotes about the protagonist trying to keep their memory of the actors straight. It gives me more of a sense of an author repeating their memories of their characters, and the ultimate (Spoiler - click to show)resolution of Inai turning against her master a more of an imagining of what's in-character for her sort of thing, an acknowledging of the protagonist's own guilt for using her as a weapon without saving her people rather than a story about blind and reckless consumption. The antagonist's key spell revealed to Avashi/Inai all the lives they lived before and some memories that the protagonist had that they didn't. And, in that stage, the protagonist is still in control. The game lets you be killed by any other force in the game but does not let you be killed by Avashi or Inai, instead forcing an auto-restart. And so I don't think this tracks well onto how people consume media in real life-- in video games where you are the protagonist and allowed to save characters at no benefit to yourself, people do so willingly and often.

(Spoiler - click to show)
[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.]

This also feels like a very simplistic reading of the situation. Neither of them have to be singularly good or bad, and the terms protagonist and antagonist refer to position in narrative, not morality. The protagonist remains the protagonist even if they are evil. The antagonist is an antagonist because they oppose the protagonist. Whether their memories are ethically sourced is a different question than how they are framed by the narrative.

[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.]

And extruding this to such a vacuous moral is almost pretentious. The in-game mechanics make "one slave chooses to continue the status quo" an obvious and deliberate manipulation on your own part, where you have to play the game multiple times, trying each strategy to find the optimal timing so that one slave doesn't hesitate and isn't able to be stopped by the other. There is no elite, immutable concept of Truth or Reality at work here. It is a deliberate machination.

[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.]

I thought this was a clever play on the author's part-- to the player character, it is just a game. Winning is not the goal here, and winning should be seen as at-fault because treating the situation like the game is what matters and people are only worth anything for the memory of their talents is the problem. The protagonist does not feel bad because they have never felt bad for this, not when they left Inai's villagers to die, and not in the game they play again and again.
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