IF Comp 2019: Pas de Deux

pasdedeux.pngPas de Deux (Linus Åkesson, Dialog) is a puzzle about correctly conducting an orchestra. You are the musical director of a community music group in the town of Bournebrook Rill, performing Tchiakovsky’s Pas de deux from the Nutcracker; the orchestra and score are implemented in fine detail, and solving this will take attention and precision.

This is a puzzle in which just looking at someone constitutes an action, and timing is everything. That much becomes clear over the course of the first session, mostly because of how profoundly you’re screwing it up. I struggled, initially, to figure out what the active verbs were. I initially struggled with a lot. The intial experience of this is kind of like being thrown into the cockpit of a modern fighter jet, mid-air, with no training – there are lots of readouts telling you things that you’ve got no idea how to act on, and there’s a lot of pressure to do things immediately and precisely, to the point where looking at the wrong thing could be ruinous. And you’re going to make a lot of people really disappointed when you screw up.

I took piano lessons up to about age twelve or so, so technically at some point I could read music, but I was never accused of sight-reading and I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve paid attention to an orchestral score. What I got from the score was that the harps should go first, which the game had already told me. For the rest of it, I had no idea which bits should correspond to which instruments.

The thing is, this was clearly not a game that would be meaningfully grasped by going to the walkthrough. There’d be no point. This seemed like a game which can only be comprehended through the act of solving it. Consider the walkthrough as a clue, not a solution. Hm.

I watched a five-minute performance of the piece on YouTube. It was nice to have some idea of what the music in the game was actually like. It also told me that the harp went first, but added the information that the cello was the next significant thing. I tried to cue the cellists a bit after the harps and made them all confused and sad again. Wrong timing? There’s a lot of information being thrown at you by this game, I should stress, and it’s initially kind of difficult to sort out what parts are useful.

So, OK, maybe a turn is a bar. Probably the vertical lines are bars? (I don’t think I was ever really taught about bars.) And presumably that big chunk of five instruments bracketed together stays as the string section throughout, and the next thing that seems to change at all in the score is in there, in the… fourth bar? Cross-reference with the walkthrough. OK, yes, I’m meant to cue the celloes, celli, three turns after the second harp. Try again, nope. Oh, OK, I’m meant to cue before they should be playing, duh. Wait, but then the second harp should have – is this an off-by-one situation here? Never mind. Let’s just try it the other way.

And then all this tweaking hit on the right method. So in my second real playthrough I went from 1/5 to 4/5, using UNDO a fair bit and relying on the in-game score. (The out-of game score is a distraction; fight me.) And this genuinely feels like a breakthrough! despite the fact that you’re pretty much just following a script that you have learned to read. The process of following that script is just rough enough – which elements of the described score need signals? when is a safe moment to turn the page? that it still feels tense and challenging.

Towards the end I kind of lost my handle on things a bit. Around the three-quarter mark there’s an issue – the tuba player has dozed off – that you can’t solve through normal cues, and after that I knew it wasn’t going to be perfect, and I so I didn’t invest the effort to get the final couple of pages just right. I wasn’t jumping out of my seat to do it again and get it perfect, in large part because, well, it’d be a lot of effort for this one thing. In retrospect I feel like I have a pretty decent idea of what the solution involves, but testing that would require going back through the whole sequence.

This is an amateur, small-town orchestra, and the game is also something of a sketch of a community. Nevada knows these people – not as deep friends or intimates, but as neighbours and colleagues, people who are often family, in the same book clubs, going out with one another’s exes. The overall mood is of fondness; the gossip is mild, and most of them are seen as capable and reliable musicians. For a small town or a small arts community, there isn’t a great deal of feuding or drama; and for small-town America, things are going very nicely, with spare money in the arts budget and a local newspaper that has an expert stringer for matters of classical music. The orchestra has a degree of visible diversity. It’s nice, but there’s a feeling of distance about it, as though you’re still kind of an outsider.

(But I realised this during the first playthrough, the playthrough where I was fucking around. So you discover these nice people only through the act of failing them, which is a hell of a thing to put on a player who’s already a bit frazzled.)

The writing style is what I’d consider Classic Parsery Competence: it does the job cleanly and efficiently, delivering a high density of information without drawing attention to itself; mild in tone, good at observing surfaces and not hugely interested in what’s beneath. It’s a good match for a game like this, where the text’s got a lot of regularity to it and needs to be constantly scrutinised for cues.

The web presentation is nice, too. Very, very understated, to the point of feeling kind of web 1.0 in some parts, but very clean and legible. The contrast between clicking links and typing commands works quite well, I think because there are very different modes of interacting with this: it’s nice to be able to click on things when you’re dicking around early on in exploratory mode, and then to switch to typed commands when you’ve got a plan to execute.

So, I dunno. I think this is a good puzzle, and a fun puzzle, and a puzzle into which a substantial amount of work has gone. It takes some head-scratching to figure it out,  but it is eminently figure-outable. When you’ve got the trick of it it’s not trivial to solve. But it wasn’t quite as satisfying as I wanted it to be for the amount I struggled with it, somehow. I think this might be to do with how its arc goes: the big moment of satisfaction comes fairly early on in the structure of a single playthrough, and the rest is doing the detail work of how to follow the script – not trivial, but also a bit brute-force, without much sense of ingenuity. So the climax of the play experience is quite early, and by the time you get to the end it feels a little anticlimactic, no matter what the music claims to be doing.

And it’s a little bloodless, somehow. Its emotional range: mild fondness for appreciated colleagues, the back-handed snark of the reviewer, with the peak being the satisfaction of an awkward problem figured out. Music is often talked about as the most directly felt art, the closest approximation to a language of pure emotion; this (unless, perhaps, you understand music really well and are familiar enough with this particular piece, and can imagine it from the text)  moves the focus off the aesthetic effect and focuses on the technical challenge. The cuing mechanic means that on some level this is a game all about social signal, and you spend much of your time noticing and considering these characters; but you cannot get any closer to them. Conducting suggests an expressive and interpretive act, but that (for very sensible reasons) is outside the scope of the game. So I felt the proximity of a lot of things that the game could not offer. To make the extremely obvious analogy, this is a technically challenging piece performed with obvious skill, but I wish it had had more feeling. 7.

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