All the Delicate Duplicates Review
A contemplative story that evades an easy answer
It can’t be long now. Come 2025, 2050 or one particularly inspiring Interstellar fan-fiction, our increasing fascination with the outer-frontier could have brought us closer to grasping at least one more thread of the plethora that is time and space. Heck, there could be a band of caffeinated astrophysicists somewhere putting the finishing touches on the blueprint now. But of course, All the Delicate Duplicates shows awareness of the issues surrounding our attempts to understand. Instead, it’s significantly centred around the inexplicable, offering an unnerving, contemplative story that – despite its puzzle elements – refuses to explain itself entirely.
You play as John Sykes, a devoted single-parent and PC engineer whose world is in disarray. Since inheriting a collection of enigmatic artefacts from an elusive relative, John’s memory has been playing up, and he and his daughter Charlotte are beginning to question their surroundings. Very much like its protagonist, the game plunges you right in: you awaken in a limbo-like realm surrounded by jumbled whispers, and save for a brief control guide following the menu screen, left to venture in whichever direction you choose.
It’s noticeable from the beginning that All the Delicate Duplicates is a game centred on its surreal worlds and psychological storyline, for there’s very little on show when it comes to actual mechanics. The simplicity fits appreciably, though, and the few gimmicks it offers gel well with the focus on time and space. Using the standard WASD and mouse settings to move throughout each environment, the player can transport John to different locations, worlds and timelines by facing particular points. Though the experience as a whole leans more toward general world-exploration than fulfilling clear-cut tasks, I suppose the main ‘objective’ is to uncover the reason why your memory’s gone on a walkabout and your daughter’s in emotional turmoil. You do this by interacting with various highlighted objects: while some allow you to access new ‘memories’ of the characters to unpack and assess, other items offer insight into their emotional state during specific points in time. The family’s post-it note banter feels all the more poignant against the adolescent Charlotte’s macabre artwork, and the more John’s quantum obsessions infiltrated each text, book or computer log I examined, the more I found myself reflecting the frustrations of the protagonist. I just wanted to know why.
It strikes odd, then, that a game so seemingly focused on the emotional uproot of its characters can – at times – appear threadbare. As compelling as it is to watch John and Charlotte desperately try to piece together the mystery as their internal worlds collapse, the issues of establishing connections within an effectively-limitless space inevitably ruffles gameplay. Much of it feels like ambling in the dark. Granted, that’s not always a negative. The intention behind its vagueness is quite often apparent: the deliberately-cryptic quotations splattering Charlotte’s artwork reinforces her growing detachment from her submerged single-father, but the protagonist’s (and, as was the case, my own) burning desire to explain his twisting reality can make the vague environments frustrating to explore.
While objects each appear loosely-connected across the distorted timelines, All the Delicate Duplicates generally does a poor job of taking the meaning further. Indeed, the more submerged I became in the game’s surreal worlds, the more it seemed that these objects lacked a final meeting point, instead culminating in an underwhelming conclusion that poses more questions than it began with.
I wouldn’t say I was generally against open endings. Having appreciated the ambiguities posited by Gone Home and respected Firewatch’s hazy finale, I came to Campbell and Breeze’s game expecting a fair amount of detachment. But what gave those endings purchase was their distinct emphasis on the developing relationships between characters; the how behind the protagonist’s final destination, and who they came to care about. Although the fractious bond between John and Charlotte is authentic and well-scripted, in All the Delicate Duplicates I always felt the driving force behind John’s inter-dimensional journey was to uncover the reason behind his peculiar situation. Discoveries you make along the way certainly offered titbits of backstory to furnish the continual mystery of the plot, but they tended to orbit around the drive toward conclusion, rather than driving the overall structure.
Additionally, the game’s prompt-system can prove a little confused. Though the ‘significant’ objects highlighted in blue will always materialise new memories to dissect, others will exist in red, generally offering interesting titbits of background to offer insight into each character’s mental state. Some red objects, however, offer clues that help direct the player in a similar fashion, making it occasionally difficult to tell which items are truly important. As a result, I was kept continually uncertain which item would take me closer to uncovering the mystery behind these objects, and though that uncertainty measures well against the narrative’s foreboding tone, feeling compelled to seek out, pick up and scrutinise each and every interactive detail in the environment - when you’re not sure if there’s a point to any of it - makes for rather mundane puzzle-solving.
All the Delicate Duplicates proffers an admirably original world. John’s tech-scattered home reflects touchingly the strain of single-parent-life, while seeing the cheery décor of Charlotte’s kid-bedroom become consumed by existential obsession is genuinely spine-tingling. From its greyish wash, to its clinically-placed instruments, the Sykes household is one of palpable constriction, and that oppression really adds weight to the deterioration of the family’s lives – both individually and collectively. And every so often, the over-familiarity gives way entirely, throwing the player into sprawling, symbolic dreamscapes filled with unsettling, distorted ambience. The use of binaural sound technology to differentiate left from right ear is particularly creepy, and it’s something I imagine would heighten the immersion in VR. Once you’ve played through the main story (and it hardly pushes two hours), a free-roam mode becomes available, leaving you to explore the game’s grim landscapes at your leisure.
When it comes to performance, however, things feel a little less striking. The texturing of some objects feels simplistic against its other-worldly environments, which can cause the game to look unpolished during puzzle-solving sections. If you’re a stickler for graphical performance, All The Delicate Duplicates might end up disappointing here – and its accompaniment by some really rather significant framerate issues really pulls the game down.
On most occasions, I can see where All the Delicate Duplicates was heading. The universe is (to understate a bit) rather quite large, and the tireless search for answers in an ineffably complex scenario permeates John and Charlotte’s story from beginning to end. But the game’s multi-dimensional themes can fiddle noticeably with the gameplay. The fractious relationship between its central characters is truly engaging to uncover, but so many points scream the concept that there isn’t always a reason for it that can leave exploratory segments feeling unrewarding. This said, the game’s refusal to explain itself is almost admirable in that it encourages interpretation. It’s not necessarily a case of getting it or not - Breeze and Campbell were evidently going for something more nuanced than that – and despite technical and mechanical shortcomings, it makes for an intriguing, heartfelt character-study centred around loss and emotional conflict.