Review: Duet

The title screen of duet, with play and settings options. At the center are a blue dot and a red dot, which sit on opposite curves of a circle.Duet is a game that love games in the purest sense. It strips away everything, but the most basic aesthetics from simple mechanics. Every individual element is a deliberate choice, made with a particular experience in mind. It is that holistic design that makes Duet shine.

The “player character” is a red dot and a blue dot. These dots can only move around the edge of a circle an equal distance from each other. Blocks fall from the top of the screen and the player must avoid them by moving the dots. The “duet” is keeping track of two objects moving at the same time.

Although simple, the game is not easy. It feeds new elements into the formula at a steady rate. Each one feels entirely obvious and ingenious simultaneously. Rotating, moving, and disappearing blocks all become part of the onslaught moving toward you. Each mechanic stacks on the last until the game becomes a madhouse of moving parts. It requires you to take in all you have learned and apply it under constant time pressure. As a result, Duet is difficult. However, it is also rewarding. Mastering a level feels beautiful and earned.

The game’s beauty extends to the aesthetics. The music is a lush pulsing techno that adds to the subtle rhythm of play. The background dances in time with the music. When the dots hit the blocks they explode in paint-like color, staining the block you hit until you beat the level. These are all little things, but they all supplement the mechanics. The music focuses you. The paint splatter reminds you what mistakes you have made and adds to the satisfaction as you overcome them. The aesthetic is never busy. Every choice is deliberate.

A example of Duet's failure state. The blue dot has been splattered across one of the obstacles.There is even a story mode, as spare and simple as it is. It consists of a series of levels that are framed by an concept titling the set and a voice giving advice at the beginning of each level. This gives the game something of a emotional framework, although the particulars are ambiguous. It is clear that the game is about cooperation, but what kind? Is the voice God, a lover, a friend, a mentor, or yourself? What relationship do the two dots have? Rather than using its story elements to reveal the game’s “ultimate” meaning, it uses them to allow interpretation. It embraces the game’s inherent abstractness and is all the better for it.

When people discuss games as art, they discuss big populist games. Names like Bioshock or Mass Effect are used; games that have big budgets and bigger themes. While I respect many things in those titles, the better argument lies in smaller games like this. Duet is mechanically toned and sharp. It is aesthetically clean and beautiful. It becomes more than the sum of its parts through a keen awareness of what the mechanics argue and do. It is a holistically designed experience. Duet is a near perfect piece of design.

Duet is from Kumobius with music by Tim Shield. It is available on PC, Mac, Linux, and mobile devices.