This is a review of “The Duel in the Snow” by Utkonos, a z-code game entered in the 2009 Interactive Fiction Competition.

This was a really sneaky little game.  The beginning is almost flat, there’s an odd dream sequence followed by wandering around your very quiet house.  The background comes like a waking dream, and that’s certainly intentional – the PC feels very disconnected from what’s happening to him, perhaps even more so than the player.

So as the player starts piecing together what’s going on, Victor remains blasé and distant.  I know pretty much zilch about Russian literature, but the conventions and sensations the game were really striking.  The game has a definite die-then-you-figure-out-what-to-do vibe, but ultimately, it makes fun of that idea.

The ‘winning’ ending, which I reached pretty much haphazardly after losing and reading that ending, struck most people – including me – as basically… unpalatable.  But I think that was exactly the point.  The realizations that the player reaches – and, I can only assume, Victor reaches as well – are only reached as we fall back asleep and make the connections that only our subconscious can.

The score is either 0 or 1.  The ‘ranks’ are dead and not dead.  Both of these ring false as well.  But the ‘Amusing’ option at the ending prompt includes the phrase

Did you discover…

What really happened?

…is the worst sneaky bit of all.  I felt like this game was pretty much pointing out the weird disconnect between good stories and good games.  The gaming part makes no real sense next to the dying realizations you reach.  Of course Victor cannot take seriously our attempts to interrogate Kropkin, and welcomes his old friend after his miraculous survival.  The ‘good’ ending is a gamer’s Achievement Unlocked ending, and an author’s silly ending.  The ‘bad’ ending is a gamer’s insult, and an author’s conclusion.

I thought it was delightfully mysterious.  Probably my favorite game among the bunch.