The more short games that I play, the more I’m really coming to appreciate little interactive fictions and experiences that can be completed in one sitting. Luminaries of such form might include Journey and Limbo and Firewatch, and it’s safe to count All The Delicate Duplicates amongst such company as well. Mez Breeze and Andy Campbell have created a short, but densely packed, rabbit hole down which to wander, and it’s one that demands repeat investigations.
A first-person adventure title that shares a fair amount of DNA with the likes of Firewatch and also Gone Home, All The Delicate Duplicates sees you stepping into the shoes of John, a computer engineer and single dad, who inherits a collection of rather odd objects from a mysterious relative.
And that’s all I’m really going to say on the subject of the plot.
See, this is a game that really is about piecing things together at your own pace. All The Delicate Duplicates sees you exploring a small, familiar space across several different time periods. It’s up to the player to piece together the narrative in whichever order they deem fit, and you are given the power to flit between these time periods at will. If you have a nagging feeling that you missed something, simply hit the ‘T’ button, and you’ll be able to warp as you see fit.
It’s all a bit confusing at first – lots of talk of quantum realities and a fair amount of scientific waffle. It’s a little bit like Primer in some ways – Shane Carruth’s superb film about two guys inventing time-travel in their garage – in that you only really begin to the get the full picture by the time you reach the end of your first runthrough. Even then, it demands an almost immediate replay.
As with Primer, this is an experience that trusts in the intelligence of the viewer or, in this case, the player/reader. Few of the game’s mysteries are explicitly solved for the player, and it’s easy to see how that might result in a conclusion that feels unsatisfying for some. The game’s bold opening, and the exploratory elements in its mid-section are branching and interesting, but the payoff is muted as a result of the narrative flexibility. I found that All The Delicate Duplicates never quite closes the temporal loops that it opens, and plenty of things remain unclear even after multiple playthroughs.
Beyond A Game
It helps, though, there are things outside of the main game experience to investigate. Snippets of flash fiction and quick short stories can be read in-game or on mobile via a QR code. These expand upon some of the writings contained in the main game, adding colour and depth to the skeletal tidbits you’ll gain on your first playthrough. You can read these before you venture into the game, but I’d advise against it. Better to go in fresh, draw the lines yourself, and then add the narrative shading.
That being said, the transmedia aspect nicely mirrors the subject of the game itself. You’ll encounter journals and notebooks and assorted scribblings inside the world of All The Delicate Duplicates, and you’ll be able to flick through their pages in the various time periods. Similarly, you can go back to the literary elements outside of the game, which will reveal more upon repeat visits and after poking around the game world. Flicking through extended journal entries on your own phone and trying to put pieces of the narrative puzzle together is exactly what you end up doing as John in the game itself, with the extra information recoding and shaping your memories of the experience you’ve just gone through and inviting you to dive in again.
It’s an atmospheric experience, certainly. The subtle sound work is frankly excellent, and while the game itself isn’t scary, the aural aesthetic can be deeply unsettling at times. Graphically, though, while it’s nice to have a mystery that has you read and examine in-game items closely, sometimes the textures aren’t quite sharp enough even on the highest settings. This also has a knock-on effect when it comes to reading the handwritten excerpts that adorn the walls and pages and hallways of the game world – legibility isn’t always the best, which can be frustrating at times.
Those are minor gripes, to be honest. All The Delicate Duplicates is refreshing simply because it works the brain in ways that few other games even bother to try. Instead of guiding you through a story like so many games in the first-person adventure genre, it gives players the agency to truly piece things together themselves, in whichever order they choose. It’s a delicate balance – omit too much and you potentially lose the interest of the player, whereas if you direct things too much, then your story becomes another linear journey from A to B. For the most part, I think All The Delicate Duplicates gets it right.
It’s certainly a game that sticks with you. My first playthrough to return to the main menu took less than an hour, but my cumulative playtime is three times that now, and I still have questions and theories that I’m turning over in my mind. But the game works because it’s so focused. In lesser hands, this could all be incredibly frustrating, but the game’s brevity means there’s little chance to lose interest. The house that you inhabit in each time period is contained enough to become familiar quickly, but detailed enough to warrant close scrutiny over and over again. Everything becomes interesting, every little picture on the wall, or book strewn on the floor. Everything feels valuable and connected in some way – there’s simply no room for filler in terms of design.
It’s not perfect, though, and I do wonder if there’s a way to bolster the emotional impact of the story. All The Delicate Duplicates is frequently thought-provoking, but its non-linear approach comes with caveats. Even so, it’s worth a look for its ambitious approach to storytelling.
Developer: Mez Breeze , Andy Campbell
Publisher: The Space, One to One Development, Mez Breeze Design
Let’s do the time warp again!
A fantastic, mind-bending, transmedia tale of time-travel and family, All The Delicate Duplicates is a short but thought-provoking experience that’s as engrossing as it is complex.