The Duel That Spanned The Ages Review

I play-tested an earlier version of this game, although I didn’t finish it then.  No walkthrough; I got stuck.

(Please provide your beta-tester with a walkthrough.  This is Conrad’s law of the unsavvy beta-tester.)

Anyway, as a long-term newbie to the field of IF, I’ll say that every now and then this author conveys that he’s a newbie.  He slips into cliche, with Space Marines shouting, “Go, go, go!”; there’s something a little young in his attitude toward war-toys; in the hints/about file, he’s over-chatty.

With all that said, this is an impressive game.  It works.  And, paricularly from a newbie, it’s damn impressive.

The game is a bit like Alien II, with a Space Marine hero, an abandoned slaughtered space outpost, a goodly number of corpses, and some alien critters who must be fought off and avoided.

There are some minor troubles here and there.  I had understood that the power was out in this complex you’re in; at some point, you find an elevator with the doors stuck open.  But this doesn’t mean it doesn’t work; that’s just how space elevators park, apparently.

That’s not a spoiler, by the way, because it’s not supposed to be a puzzle.  But see, this is why I have trouble with IF.  It doesn’t occur to me that the elevators are working.

There’s a more serious problem in the pacing of the game, in the beginning.  We have a long, looong cut-scene introduction.  Three densely-written screens of text that, as it turns out, have really no bearing on the game.

Then that’s followed by a brief intro scene, in which something happens that the player might want to have some agency over or say about, and which he has no say about or agency over.  So, why is it interactive?

Also, if you’re starting out, you’re strongly encouraged to type ABOUT; and if you do, you’ll find a more elaborate ABOUT menu than usual, in which you can fritter away a good deal of time.  And that’s a problem, especially with the two intros, because it sucks away your gumption.

It’s actually a very fast, actiony, combatty game — which is very impressive to me, since this is generally considered to be something IF doesn’t do well.  I think we’re really starting to see a new kind of game emerge, and _Duel of the Ages_ convinced me that action IF is possible.

There’s not enough backstory — we end up with something a bit like the X-Files, with the equivalents of those scenes where guys hanging out in smoke-filled rooms have conversations like:

“Do you think he’ll have to be … eliminated?”

“I don’t know … yet.”

— but the author never gets around to revealing what’s actually going on.

Here are some rules (of thumb), adapted from classical fiction to IF:

* Keep teasers short.  A non-interactive scene that has no bearing on the PC’s immediate initial situation — the kind of thing that would in a fantasy novel be an all-in-italics prologue about a woman in the wilderness giving birth to a child and dying — really shouldn’t go more than one screen; that is, three mid-length paragraphs.

* Put flashbacks in only after the action is under way.  In this case, that would mean the scene in the bar should come just before the part with the crater.

* By a third of the way through the story, the main character should have a good idea what’s going on.  By two-thirds, he should know almost everything, and be facing a Nearly Impossible Task.  Just before the ending — almost too late — you can throw in the Last Piece of Critical Information.

* Flashbacks should have at least token interactivity.  Even if the author can’t change the way the scene ends, he should be able to alter the way it plays out.  The flashback in the _Duel in the Snow_ got this right (although true interactivity — agency over the flashback outcome — is better).

Ok, that last one is adapted from something I read on the internet, about IF.  It’s adapted to flashbacks, that is.  In other words, they should work the way scenes do.

The basic idea in _Duel of the Ages_ is clear — we play a Space Marine who becomes an unwitting pawn in the cosmic chess game between forces of Good and Ee-vil, each played by an alien species.  And meanwhile we also had the “ignorant humans trespass where they don’t belong and unleash something terrible” idea, also without the story ever being told.

Now, in the second case having that story go untold works, because you’re presented with evidence making it clear how the events played out.  At least in outline.  And it’s funny, because at some point you find a voice recording that contains the diary of one of the slaughtered humans — but the contents are unimportant.  There’s no Blair Witch deal going on, starting with “We found an object with an interesting set of heiroglyphics today,” going through, “Jane has been acting oddly,” and ending with, “Oh my God they’re everywhere!”  The voice recorder is important for a totally different reason.

But the first case is a problem.  We never really get the back-story.  It’s never made clear how the game of cosmic chess and the flashback connect to the Space Marine.  And that’s a problem because what we’re left with are dis-united narratives.  The author doesn’t need to tell us everything, but if there’s a frame story he must establish it, and its connection to our story.

I’d encourage the author to continue reading up on (classical) fiction writing, and to experiment with giving his scenes, or problems, more than one solution.

Overall, a good entry, very impressive for the way it handles action sequences and for the general creepiness of tone.

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Published in: on October 8, 2009 at 10:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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