Duet is a very subtle snake indeed, about as easy to learn as a game of Sidoku and about as difficult to master. Utilizing an endless stream of colorless blocks, simple controls, and a perfectly synched musical score, developer Kumobius has created an obsessive’s dream that continues to ratchet up the difficulty while gently reassuring the player that everything is okay and you have to power to make it through all of life’s, and Duet’s, challenges.
The set up is simple: you control two circles simultaneously, one red and one blue, who orbit around a central locus point on a fixed circular track. You can move these circles clockwise or counterclockwise. Your opposition comes in the form of various white rectangles which descend from the top of the screen and your goal is to orbit your circles around these rectangles in order to prevent them from being exploded. Really, it’s an almost Frogger-like arcade principle, now that I think about it, but Duet holds a hidden depth of playability most of its peers in the arcade/action/addiction genre are sorely lacking.
The first thing to mention is how incredibly rhythmical Duet is, how its innately programmed rhythm really contributes to the flow of gameplay and the novelty of play. This is definitely a headphone game. While the music is as subtle and low key as the graphics, the various beats and rhythms Duet throws at your auditory canals mirror the rectangular challenges of each stage perfectly, encouraging you to really wrap yourself into the minimal world you’re being presented with. Literally synching yourself into gameplay and finding the right rhythm for each stage is the key to victory. It’s not a bad idea to try cutting off outside stimuli, which can be a distraction from the smooth flow of gameplay from one stage to the next and from one life to the next.
Which leads me to the second thing I should mention: losing in Duet doesn’t make you feel bad, it’s accepted as a natural part of gameplay. From the start, the on-screen text prompts are brief and reassuring, encouraging you to move forward without fear and experiment with different movement patterns until eventually a very lovely, graceful movement style is developed. One of your circles of color coming into contact with a rectangle does lead you back to the start of the stage but gently, with an almost imperceptible break in the rhythm of play. This handy little feature is brilliant at keeping your flow going and keeping your mind on the game, which is of course the key to victory in arcade-style experiences such as this one.
The death of a circle is also represented in a novel way, its color bursting on the white rectangle it hits and remaining there through additional attempts. This feature serves less to rub your face in previous defeats than to gently remind you that this was your previous problem area, a problem area which you can prevail against with proper planning and timing. You see that one rectangle coming to get you for the third time and take a deep breath, then conquer it through what can only be described as reflexive perseverance. Again, the game itself is there to reassure you with short little text prompt, and there’s always your own mind encouraging you to try and make it just a little further this time, just a little further.
While I’ve mentioned how well the graphics, music, and controls perform together I perhaps haven’t focused enough on how crisply planned and rendered everything about Duet is. Sound and vision synch in perfection, complementing and improving upon each other to really create a unique little aesthetic space for Duet to occupy inside your brain. There’s never a jarring moment or (figurative) sharp edge in the sound or the visuals. Even the gray backdrop of rectangles never interferes with the action taking place in the foreground. And the soundtrack itself is particularly enjoyable, at least in my opinion; I’d like to own a copy of it to put on in the background of my daily tasks, hoping to synch my analogue life as seamlessly as the folks over at Kumobius have synched the world of Duet.
For better or worse we live in a world where endless arcade games are a hot commodity and a vice even the most casual gamer has indulged in for hours more than expected. For my money, if I’m going to get sucked into another endless cycle of action and reaction without any characters or plot, I’d rather it be a game as thoughtfully designed and executed as Duet. I feel like this is what addiction gaming should feel like: a pleasant experience that’s more akin to a meditative state than a mad rush to beat last round’s high score. For those looking for smoothly contemplative game that you just can’t stop playing, Duet is a must have.