Another review in the Interactive Fiction Competition. This time, let's just fill the spoiler space with some non-spoilery comments about the game--yet another idea I simply copy from Emily Short.
The Duel in the Snow takes place in aristocratic Russia. Unsurprisingly, given its title, it is about a duel, and almost as unsurprising is the fact that you are one of the two parties in the duel.
There is some clever irony in the game: the player will have formed these expectations immediately, while the protagonist, who is also the focal character, has spent the night drinking and takes about half the game to remember about the duel. So we know what is going to happen, while he is still in the dark.
Spoilers begin here.
This game has good atmosphere: aristocratic Russia is as good a setting as any, and it is nicely evoked, given the size of this particular piece. There is the kind of melancholy, hopeless feel that one does associate with the great Russian novelists as well.
Unless I missed some opportunities to learn more, the backstory remains pretty vague: the protagonist has been left by his wife, Natasha, presumably because he is a big bore; Gronovskij has laughed at him in public because he is a cuckold; and this has infuriated our protagonist so much that he hit Gronovskij in the face. Only a duel could follow.
Servicable, certainly, but... vague. Why did Natasha really go away? What kind of guy is the protagonist? Why did Gronovskij insult him the way he did--his behaviour is incredibly tactless, not something a Russian aristocrat would normally do. Did he provoke the protagonist on purpose? The game itself does not answer, and because of that, the story is not very meaty.
The story as it plays out in the game is not spectacular eitther. You simply have to go the duel, and there you can live or die. That's it. Nobody knows what's coming next. So in terms of story, I'd say that this game is a bit of a disappointment.
There are also some problems with pacing. You can sit in the coach for a long time if you don't realise that drinking alcohol is the action that will advance the plot, and there are a couple of other points in the game with a similar structure. Some kind of drama managers would have helped here.
Then, the "puzzle". Unless I am missing something, the fact that you can survive by putting a stuffed owl in your pocket is devoid of all serious meaning in the story, and feels like a weak IF convention showing up where it does absolutely no good. Why a stuffed owl? Is it supposed to be a symbol or something? It seems pretty arbitrary, and not something that throws new light on the theme.
So, this game is not entirely successful; but that doesn't mean that it's not enjoyable. The implementation is mostly good, the atmosphere is very good, the story, if somewhat lacking, is still better than that of many games... in other words, a solid and enjoyable effort. In fact, the best competition game I played until now.