Video games are not easy to create.
No matter how simple you find the graphics or how basic the mechanics, if you are having fun playing a game, someone or a series of someones spent an unreasonable amount of time planning, designing and tweaking it to make sure that fun took place.
But are critics biased toward scope and complexity? I think so.
Games like Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag seem to be designed for Game of the Year awards. They are beautiful, they are huge and they take days, if not weeks or months, of play to see everything. They seem to be the promise of modern gaming: Dozens of systems working together in concert to awe you in terms of interactivity and visuals.
There are plot twists, there is a boat that you get to captain across the seas and there is meta-commentary about the state of the video game industry that will allow everyone involved to feel so very clever!
To be fair, I love Assassin's Creed 4, and I'm not picking on it. But games of its ilk, and I put the latest Grand Theft Auto title in the same bucket, dominate year-end lists.
The Last of Us is certainly more likely to get the Game of the Year nod over something minimal. Something slight in terms of scope and goal, but something amazing.
Something like Duet.
I first played Duet at PAX Australia, and if you think there's been a trend in my first few stories about amazing games I've found in Australia ... well, you're right. Australia is a hotbed for interesting ideas and games right now, and the reasons for that create a much larger story.
The early version of Duet consisted of the basic gameplay that still exists in the final version. There were two dots, connected by a circle. You spun this shape clockwise or counterclockwise in order to avoid the obstacles that came down the lane. It was a very simple game, played with a custom two-button controller. Interesting and fun, but it certainly didn't stick in my brain for very long.
The final version of the game — available now, by the way — features backgrounds, music by Tim Shiel, a menu system that seems to flow from selection to selection like water and even a way to separate the gameplay into distinct "levels." It looks simple, but anyone who has spent time creating the experience of a game, and that includes menus, animations and UI, knows how hard it is to create a cohesive experience.
Duet is a masterpiece of simplicity, feeling and flow. I play it daily. The final version, thanks to the tweaks, harmony of elements and level design does get stuck in my brain. Like a thorn.
None of this happened by accident.
"We experimented with three or four different user interfaces for the level select and the menus. We spoke to several musicians before falling in love with Tim Shiel's composition and approach," Kumobius' Tom Greenaway told Polygon. "The narrative and especially the tutorial dialogue went through several revisions and concepts for the theme of the game. Even the art style was more complex and detailed at a point; we stripped it back to what you see currently."
I pushed him to tell me how much time was spent in testing, but the team had lost track. "The trickiest part was probably getting the user interface just right. We really wanted something that felt seamless, perfect for touch, orientation-agnostic and stylish," Greenaway explained. "I love it when an interface is seamless, when there's no load times and everything slides into place like a piece of a puzzle."
Duet is a game of few parts, but each one of those parts fits perfectly with the rest. It feels as designed as a raindrop, and just as perfect. It takes designers an obscene amount of time to create that feeling of effortlessness.
In many ways I respect that sort of work more than the complexity of larger games, where getting things done often requires giant teams working around the world. That approach can lead to wonderful art, but smaller teams focusing on making each and every aspect of a minimalist game perfectly should be just as attractive to critics going over their year-end lists, if not more so.
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It's easy to see the complexity and care that went into Assassin's Creed 4. The game seems herculean, because it took a nearly inhuman amount of time, resources and talent to create it. And it's a wonderful game. But it takes a keener eye to understand the brilliance of a smaller, tighter game like Duet. You need to know what you're looking for a bit more, and you need to appreciate the work that goes into making something so perfect appear so simple.
Tetris is considered a gaming masterpiece, but do you think it would win Game of the Year these days? It takes a much longer view before these smaller, brilliantly designed experiences snap into focus as some of the best games released in any particular time frame. Duet is here now, and it's my game of the year.