I start playing Duet expecting to meet with frustration. For a person with spatial reasoning skills as poor as mine, trying to play through a fast-paced puzzle-navigation game feels a little Sisyphean. I recommend the game to a friend (a physicist, maybe not so coincidentally), and he jokes that the icon looks like an Uber app. He’s not wrong. Released in 2013, the game falls into a genre that is rapidly gaining traction – small games whose design draws on aesthetics and mechanics from outside video game history.
The result of a collaboration between Melbourne games studio Kumobius, and composer Tim Shiel, Duet’s minimalist sensibility mirrors the simplicity of its concept: by touching the sides of the screen, the player rotates two orbiting spheres clockwise or counterclockwise around a series of obstacles. In this way, you progress through brief levels, which are sorted into stages. Each stage is named (‘denial’, ‘bargaining’ and ‘guilt’ number among them) and individually scored by Shiel with a soundtrack that evolves and expands the longer you play. If (or really, when) the player miscalculates, overshooting an obstacle by too wide a margin with one sphere, leaving the other to an inevitable collision, the level restarts immediately. Only a coloured splash marks on the angular object that ended the last attempt.
I play and replay the first few levels, watching white rectangles descend with a kind of fated ruthlessness, gathering coloured marks as the musical score gains momentum. As I die, and start again, and die, and start again, only to die again, and start at the start of the level again, the soundtrack swells. It would be easy for a game that is punctured by many deaths, over the course of short levels that make up multiple stages, to feel disjointed. On the contrary, playing Duet is an experience of persistent growth. The score to each stage starts out minimal and percussive, building slowly over the time I spend playing, its progression bearing no relation to my success or failure. In fact, the building score and coloured marks give the game a profound sense of movement, even when the player might be stumped by the puzzles themselves.
The experience feels so uniquely designed towards building a sense of momentum that I was genuinely surprised to see Kumobius’ press kit describes the obstacles as ‘falling’ without any proof on screen. I had assumed the spheres were moving upwards, struggling towards the heights. The game is hard, it’s widely written about as a challenging game. Rather than framing defeat as an impediment to progress, however, it is an intrinsic part of the experience of Duet, and one that registers less as a frustration and more as a meditation. Over the course of my many failures, the landscape I am contending with responds, in colour and sound. Success or failure, the space I’ve moved through is fundamentally changed by my presence.
This meditative quality is supported by the obliquely emotional narrative the game stages. Through the names of its stages (which gesture towards the stages of grief without directly reflecting them), to the calming narrator, who peppers phrases ranging from directives (“this will be easy. Just hold left…”) to cryptic (“regret has two sides…”) and mocking (“the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result”). Duet lays out a series of affective tools and gestures for a player to invest in, or ignore, as they chose. By creates an ambience, rather than following a specific narrative, it makes an offer: not just play me, but play with me. The outcome of my decisions, each red or blue splash, colour the landscape I find myself traversing again and again. I focus on some and over time, it feels like it is becoming my own. Similar to the orbiting spheres, like the collaboration at the heart of Duet, the interplay between game and player forms a duet, too.
Duet is deeply invested in interactions like this. The coloured spheres are a pair in harmony, sure, and the levels I find myself revisiting over and over were the ones that mislead me into prioritising a single sphere over the fluid movement of the pair. The interaction between game and score is an equally interesting partnership. Shiel’s score doesn’t just set the tone, it is a driving mechanic of the game. Over the heartbeat of the bass, the marks of former failures are transformed into a path I am making. Trying, and trying again, in a world progressively made new around me through my decisions, including, especially, the decisions that don’t feel like progress. The game is a context for aural and affective sites of play. What developed between the game and my poor perceptual motor skills was a kind of play that reflected of the nature of progress: a delightful look at the absurd. For my physicist friend, it’s a brilliant puzzle with a fantastic score. It’s all in the interplay.
Play Duet Live by Tim Shiel yourself on opening night, Monday 20 May, 7pm to 9pm at the Hub or learn the hows and whys of games criticism with writer, arts worker and co-editor of quarterly literary publication The Lifted Brow, Jini Maxwell. Friday 22 May, 3pm to 5pm.