IFComp 2009: Duel in the Snow

This is another Interactive Fiction Competition review.

Duel in the Snow is the third game this year in which the PC wakes up after a night of drinking. The game doesn’t say he has a hangover, but for consistency’s sake I like to think he does.

Victor Pavlovich is waking up in nineteenth century Russia, on the morning of a duel. In a competition where so many games seem to be set in generic adventure caves, spaceships, or modern cities, just the setting is enough to make the game stand out—and it’s detailed and well implemented. Duel in the Snow is deep, by which I mean that there’s plenty of detail waiting to be found. Too many games include only the things the player needs to find the ending. You can explore Duel in the Snow as shallowly or as deeply as you want. The central puzzle of Duel in the Snow isn’t even something you solve within the game—it’s the question of why Victor’s wife left him. There are clues, to find or miss, and when the game is over the players can make up their own minds.

Figuring out how not to get Victor killed is the single in-game puzzle. I’m not sure how many people will get this without resorting to the walkthrough. The general shape of the solution is obvious—you’ll need something in your breast pocket, over your heart—but the specific object you need is pretty random. My first instinct was to use the hip flask—heck, it worked for DCI Hunt in Life on Mars—and the real solution made no sense to me.

But Victor’s in a nonsensical situation—this duel is stupid. The culture of childish insult and deadly redress is so absurd even the most bizarre adventure-game behavior doesn’t seem out of place. (Why would you take a stuffed owl to a duel? What the hell—why not?) But the barren winter landscape and biting cold won’t let the player forget that the duel is also deadly serious.

The other landscape in Duel in the Snow is the vast field of barley in Victor’s dreams. It seems to be referenced in the book of poems he finds under his chair:

“The barley rolls upon the plain.
O so empty! O so massive!
Never thunder! Never rain!
No more fear! No more pain!
The clouds float high above, impassive.”

Victor sees the field again as he’s dying. Maybe this is his heaven.

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