All the Delicate Duplicates has thrown me into something of an existential crisis. Indie games aren’t my forte and I sometimes struggle with the long, lonely periods of silence and reading that often come with the territory. AtDD is a first person, a non-linear walking simulator that inverts our idea of time and space and the delicate fabric that holds it all together; it’s an absolute mind-bender of a Sci-Fi story. Time isn’t altogether relative here, and physical space and reality aren’t stable; instead the story weaves around a home that bends, expands and duplicates environments, therefore it’s not always clear which timeline you are currently standing in.
The game has a similar feel to that of Gone Home and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture in that you quietly walk around observing your environment, interacting with seemingly innocuous items and reading the odd novel if you have time. The game is very short by my RPG-majority standards; I completed my first playthrough in 40 minutes. I will admit that I did not take the time to read every note or scribble on the wall on that first occasion; I wanted to get to grips with the game’s core concept before throwing myself into what is an evening’s worth of fun, with a little bit of thrill and suspense thrown in.
Like others in its genre, the games’ design is realistic and well-developed. The kitchen, the first point of call in nearly every timeline, is “redecorated” in almost every instance to reflect the year you are in; there is a contemporaneously designed kitchen with high-end appliances in the 2016 timeline, for example. The interactive nature of the game allows you to literally zoom in to observe and note the differences between each timeline, whether it’s a change in décor, handy post-it notes dotted around the rooms, or the change in technology. We see John and Charlotte go from using notebooks and floppy discs to tablets and what look to be iPhones over the course of the game. This creates a nostalgic feel for the game as most players can identify with at least one timeline at any given point. Much like Gone Home, there is a real sense of wonder and trepidation as you wander through the house for the first few timelines; the oddly shaped bottles, unanswered questions on various surfaces and weird drawings are enough to draw a “WTF?!” reaction and keep the player engaged.
The game only gets weirder as you continue, with disembodied voices following you from room to room, red ribbons of text swirling around every corner and, of course, the spontaneous flames that erupt around you and your daughter at any given time. There is a big emphasis on chess, quantum physics and the idea that there are numerous alternative universes existing at once. Whilst the emphasis on chess isn’t clearly explained, I can say this: I haven’t experienced such a terrifying incident than when a giant Queen piece was watching me and slowly chasing me from room to room, literally making me disappear if she caught me. It was like a Weeping Angel, but worse because it was a faceless chess piece.
This multi-universe is alluded to have been created by a strange collection of arcane items, namely bottles that change shape and chess pieces, that Aunt Mo has left behind after her demise at Actory Asylum, where a mysterious fire destroyed only the internal furnishings and features of the building – not the hospital itself. Mo’s cell is covered in bizarre etchings and words, creating an uncomfortable insight into the old working of lunatic asylums. She offers us a glimpse into her mind as we explore the hospital; at one such point, the words “I know the door is locked from the outside” suddenly appear and we are left wondering what happened here and that I want to leave right now. The developers employed a clever use of atmospheric sounds, such as footsteps and heavy breathing, to create the unsettling atmosphere throughout the game, as opposed to a soundtrack.
The game branches into three parts: The main story, “Begin”; “The Back (and Forth)” story which can also be viewed on mobile which gives a deeper understanding of the peculiar happenings that occur in John and Charlotte’s lives, and “Mo’s World” which is the terrifying, Oblivionesque landscape with giant chess pieces looming over you. It’s almost as if the hills are more fluid, like water, than a fixed surface and it hurt my eyes to look at for long periods of time. The game does come with an epilepsy warning as there is a lot of strobing and sudden brightness and darkness, not to mention an environment that can’t seem to sit still for more than a few seconds.
Disembodied voices follow you around the game, whether it’s the radio presenter who plants the seed about multi-universe expansion in your mind, or the whispers and hissing that come from the various laptops and phones scattered around the house. The use of barren trees is prominent through the game, relating to Charlotte’s obsession with finding out about her Aunt Mo and the extended family ergo the family tree. John can’t seem to remember much about his family and Charlotte reminds him that the surviving members brand them as “freaks”, which is never fully explained. The game focuses on technology, science and logic throughout to explain the game to the player. John is a computer scientist, fixing up old laptops and desktops. Charlotte is a keen technology user herself, cataloguing and researching what she finds about Mo and her bottles on her laptop. Charlotte is often portrayed as older and wiser beyond her years in each timeline of the game, as well as somewhat disturbed; her artwork is grim and scary in her younger years and only continues to develop in its twisted nature. However, we are shown glimpses of her having a regular childhood with Google searches such as “Why are dads so useless?” and handy warnings such as: “Dad Tamper Alert: PC LOCKED”. She quickly becomes obsessed with these old artefacts and strives from a young age to determine their use, with sometimes dire consequences. Hallucinations and other-worldly happenings occur more frequently with each passing timeline, with Charlotte insisting that a fire-breathing dragon was knocking at her window and that she could see Mo – or someone else – standing engulfed in flames. She keeps an unusual dragon’s head next to her bed, allowing us to consider whether it was just a nightmare, or whether this dragon’s head is an old relic that is causing these frightening visions.
Various chess pieces, such as the Knight and books about the universe, maths and other logical problems can be found scattered about the timelines, as well as post-it notes about dishes being washed, the bathroom needing cleaned and how “even if we had a dog, it wouldn’t fit in this bath ”. The random elements of “normality” that can be found in the earlier timelines before Charlotte’s obsession with Mo intensifies is both creepy and endearing; you can tell that John and Charlotte’s relationship is a little odd, but they have a loving father-daughter relationship. John also suffers from mental health problems, but regularly avoids meeting with his doctor and discussing his issues, namely Mo’s untimely death, instead of trying to focus on Charlotte and his work, though it becomes clear early on that he is not always in control or even present in any given moment. The game tricks you into believing it is John’s own mental illness that we are experiencing, as opposed to an actual paranormal event. Of course, like many indie games, this is down to personal interpretation and you’ll need to make up your own mind.
Those who have seen Stranger Things will be able to identify with All the Delicate Duplicates rather well, given that they have the shared phenomenon of multiple universes coexisting at any given moment. The game toys with your interpretation and perception; much like how Winona Ryder’s character was portrayed as a grieving mother who was slowly losing her mind, you wonder if your imagination is taking things a step too far, or whether it is just as simple as alternate universes do exist.
Having played it twice through, I’m still not sure if I fully understand what’s going on in this brief but exciting game. Whilst its initial build-up leads you to believe it’s going to be a horror game, it plays out rather like an episode of the Twilight Zone, spanning over two decades with each timeline adding a new layer of mystery and complexity to the narrative. The game doesn’t tell you where to go or present you with objectives; nor does it over-explain what is going on. It is down to you as an individual how much of the world you want to interact with, given that there a plethora of emails, text messages and random scribbles on the walls to read. If you interact with every single object, your understanding of the game obviously increases, such as the ever-increasing number of multi-universe and quantum physics-related books that appear as time progresses. The developers ultimately rely on the player invested enough to read everything and explore each timeline fully.
The result is a mind-boggling story told through a loose, non-linear narrative that challenges your perceptions and understanding of the game almost room-to-room.
My only negative comment for the game is that some of the hand-writing is a little difficult to read at times, and you are often only presented with a short window of time in which to take in what can be a lot of text. It’s a brief but exciting game to jump into for first-time Indie gamers and should bode well for seasoned Indie fans. I am going to give All the Delicate Duplicates an 8/10 and would recommend it to those who enjoy beautifully designed but ultimately baffling Sci-Fi games.
All the Delicate Duplicates is available to buy here on Steam now!