An eerie synthetic melody paints the scene for the curious, alternative indie game, All the Delicate Duplicates. You view the world through the eyes of John Sykes, a hard-working single father and computer engineer, whose world and mind begin to unravel. He has inherited a set of glass objects with strange properties, from someone that he can no longer remember. This is a tale of remembrance. But remembering… what and who? That is a discovery that is just as much yours, as his.
The game begins at the scene of a car accident. The setting grounds you in a situation that is realistic and tangible… before you are abandoned in a surreal dreamscape reminiscent of Dali’s painting, ‘The Persistence of Memory’. Dawn Ades described Dali’s work as an ‘… unconscious symbol of the relativity of space and time… the collapse of our notions of a fixed cosmic order.’ The similarity between Dali’s work and the opening environment of this game is fitting, because it alludes to the story that is about to unfold. Even at this early stage, the game does not hold your hand or guide you. You are encouraged to find your own path.
The story is presented in a non-linear fashion, which is tied to the ability to switch between timeframes at will. The progression of time is communicated using John’s daughter, Charlotte’s, age. Using this mechanic, you may progress through and digest the narrative at your own pace and in an order that suits you. The story explores John’s inability to come to terms with a loss, his denial - or inability - to face up to his responsibilities, and to address that loss with his daughter. The game world is a physical manifestation of his memory. The story is not linear because memory is a fluid and unreliable source. Because you witness John’s version of events from his perspective, the true series of events becomes subjective, and therefore open to interpretation.
Do not be deceived by the notion that this is a ‘non-game’. This is, at its very core, a puzzle game, where the narrative itself is the jigsaw that must be pieced together. Arriving at the story in your own sequence can affect how you interpret it. There are no object-oriented challenges to uncover here though, so the gameplay has a pacing that will match your pace of reading and exploration.
All the Delicate Duplicates does a splendid job of marrying audio and visual cues to draw you towards points of interest in the environment. The ambient 3D sound design, that is at times both soothing and unnerving, uses haunting whispers of long forgotten whatsits to guide you. The creepy audio, disturbed writings and etched drawings are matched to represent the musings of a troubled mind.
The text floating in the world space provides chunks of story to further your understanding. At times, this text can be difficult to read in high contrast areas. Due to the quantity of text in this game, it may have benefitted from occasional voice overs, as it can be relatively easy to miss parts of the story if you happen to look in the wrong direction. If stopping and starting frequently to read verbose floating text doesn’t sound exciting, then this game may get tedious. Fortunately, All the Delicate Duplicates also encourages you to pick up objects to read and engage with ‘physical’ media, which is much more enjoyable than reading disconnected text. These elements add a physical touch that is more visceral and intriguing than most of the other digital effects.
On the surface, this is the journey of a man who has encountered something mystical entwined with science; something that is slowly causing him to forget things, and has given him the ability to move through time. Though this may be John’s façade for something more real and painful - a coping mechanism. The shrinking of the glass objects, might be a physical representation of how the memory of an individual may shrink over time. Alternatively, perhaps there is no distinction of time, perhaps all these events are happening in a synchronised manner in a multiverse and you’re just jumping between them. The dense game world is very overwhelming and thus the clarity of the narrative can be difficult to follow – even more so because of its non-linear placement.
The game has plenty of replayability, as pieces of story can be found in varying places. In addition to this, the ‘Back (and Forth)’ interactive digital journals offer new insights into the story. You may read them in any order, like a choose your own adventure book. As you read you will notice the ingenious way that sentences will fade away, which mimics the loss of memory explained in the game. Once all the segments have been read, new segments are unlocked, revealing most of the truths that John has lost.
These experimental, expressive independent games are not for everyone. Yet, no one can deny that the developers, Mez Breeze and Andy Campbell, have done a fantastic job at bringing this work to life. Games such as these have the affordance (not the funds mind you) to test the waters by exploring new ways to present interactive experiences and weave narrative. Experimental games allow us to test the boundaries of what can be accomplished in this medium, in a way similar to interpretive dance or surrealist art.