From the outset, All The Delicate Duplicates sounds like just my type of game: weird, atmospheric, and narrative-heavy. John Sykes, a single father and computer engineer, inherits a strange set of objects from a relative named “Mo”. The game explores the effect these objects have on his memory, the relationship with his daughter Charlotte, and his life in general. While the visuals are strikingly abstract and intriguing, unfurling the narrative is a tedious chore. There is a definite Gone Home vibe, but with little to no actual gameplay over the 1-2 hours of its length, stifling environments, and sometimes game-ending glitches, All The Delicate Duplicates feels like it needs a reality check.
There is at least an attempt at innovation. After zooming into the wreck of a car crash, you wake up in an apocalyptic, Dali-esque landscape of contorted trees, floating text, and gargantuan chess pieces. So far, so freaky. After walking up to a glowing red horse’s head, I pick it up, rotate it for a few seconds, and it responds by shrinking into nothingness and spraying me with white fireworks. Cool. Disembodied voices whisper at me as I wander over to a towering rook, and lightning flays the sky at every horizon. The sound design here, and throughout the game, is excellently crafted to the general tone of weirdness. At this point I’m trying to decipher what it all means, and what I’m supposed to do next. Have I died and this is the afterlife? Suddenly, the screen goes black, and I’m in a normal kitchen in a normal flat. White text that I assume to be the thoughts of the character floats across my vision, and a radio warbles on about quantum something-or-other. Notes and items strewn about the flat can be picked-up, manipulated, and read, and it’s from these that the story can be pieced together.
As I was reading John’s diary on one of the laptops in the first timezone, the screen goes blank again. I feel like I’ve stumbled onto a cutscene or some other secret, but instead, the main menu loads up. Did I win? I start the game again, and once more the scene zooming into the car crash plays, and I’m back in the land of shrinking horse heads. Returning to the offending laptop repeats the glitch, so I decide to make a rule for the rest of my playthrough: no laptops. As I visit the flat for the third time, I immediately switch timezones, just in case the laptop of doom has somehow infected that initial era. The furniture, household items and general ambience of the environment changes between each of the four timezones, and it was interesting to discover why each era displayed itself so. You begin to get a sense of the gradual decline of the sanity of John Sykes, and what effect this decline has on his daughter. It’s all enjoyably eerie and strange, but this feeling is pretty much where my enjoyment ended.
I understand that this is a walking simulator along the lines of Gone Home, but it felt like I was interacting with a novel rather than playing a game. There are long, rambling sections of text that present themselves throughout the experience, which are made even harder to read by sometimes illegible handwriting. Blinding bloom effects render some of the notes impossible to read unless you’re standing at the correct angle. All of this is made even more infuriating by the sheer volume of the words. I was finding it difficult to discern what was relevant to the story, and what was just colorful filler. The genuinely interesting moments, such as the effect the strange items are having on John’s daughter Charlotte, are extremely rare. One of these moments occurs when you return to the perplexing landscape with the horse heads and giant chess pieces, and you enter a building. I’m being extremely vague on purpose as the very nature of this building is a spoiler. At this point, it feels like the narrative is heading towards a crescendo. All The Delicate Duplicates is finally picking up the pace. You read a note that gives you that light-bulb moment, and seconds later, the game ends.
Surely not, I think. Was this another laptop-of-doom moment? A quick google search tells me that the game was indeed over, after a total of 90 minutes of gameplay. The only reason I have an issue with the duration is that it currently costs $7.99/£6.99 on Steam. Upon closer re-examination of the main menu, I noticed a new “Back (and Forth)” mode had been unlocked. Perhaps there was still more of the game to play, but it was just more text. Believe me when I say that I am not a lazy gamer, and generally I love narrative heavy games, but when I go to play a game, I want to play a game, rather than interact with a short story. An uninteresting short story at that. Gone Home was much less text laden than All The Delicate Duplicates, and still managed to convey a wonderful story without the need for lengthy exposition.
Developers Mez Breeze and Andy Campbell have tried to create a puzzle game where the narrative itself is what needs to be assembled, but they’ve also thrown in pieces for 5 other puzzles into the mix, and everything just becomes muddled and confounded. All The Delicate Duplicates initially drew me in with it’s intriguing introduction, odd aesthetic, and splendid sound design, but the appeal quickly diminished. I feel the idea of a man trying to decipher his own clouded memories is a great concept, it’s just that the execution of this solid premise was rather lacking. The real stinger for me was the length/price disparity. The bottom line is that there are hundreds, maybe thousands of other indie games out there that will give you a much richer experience for around the same price.
If you still think you want to experience this game for yourself, check out the game in the Steam store here.