Life of D. Duck review
Life of D. Duck is possibly the oddest little oddity ever made with freeware adventure maker Adventure Game Studio. But as peculiar as this production is, it made me smile with more genuine, childish glee than any commercially released game has done in years.
Let’s avoid any possible identity confusion for now by starting with the bald facts. D. Duck is a poorly drawn cartoon, intended as a rip-off/tribute to his Disney near-namesake. He is created by a Norwegian teenager calling himself “Bjørnar B.” (at least, if you take at face value the author’s website, but more on that later). In the epically-titled Life of D. Duck, the eponymous hero is found as an egg, adopted by Grandmother Duck, hatches, and sets out, for no obvious reason, to win the “Andecity Marathon”. To do that, he must cook oatmeal porridge because of its nutritional value, and most of the short game revolves around trying to acquire a farming implement called an “Ostehovel” in order to harvest oats. Assisted by his grandmother and obese uncle, D. Duck has to deal with the local wildlife to successfully fetch the Ostehovel from the toolshed and cook his porridge.
Not surprisingly for a premise this basic, the game is only about an hour to two hours long, and is based entirely around LucasArts-style inventory puzzles. The game even repurposes the Sam & Max Hit the Road interface right down to its dialogue/verb icons, although the control scheme will seem somewhat familiar to Sierra fans of the period as well. For those unfamiliar with such older games, that’s right-clicking to choose between verbs and inventory items, and left-clicking to interact, with a separate inventory box that minimises at the bottom of the screen.
Whilst D. Duck may follow, and follow pretty stringently, conventional 1990s genre rules, it really is like nothing I’ve ever played before. I’ve already said that Bjørnar B. is a terrible cartoonist, but that doesn’t begin to cover it. Simple doodles more than anything, the characters are blue and white line drawings, with the environments outlined in assorted felt-tip colours. The nightmarishly awful “duck” creations, which possess altogether too many teeth, and childlike backgrounds combine to form something which, if ostensibly unpleasant, is so uniquely abysmal as to be quite appealing. Did I mention it looks pretty bad?
But it’s not as simple as that. This isn’t really a “so bad it’s good” game. There’s a problem with enjoying very bad games in quite the same vein as we might enjoy campy, kitsch films. Bad games are normally broken, incomplete, unfair or intensely frustrating, so we avoid actually playing them to completion. D. Duck is not a flat-out bad game. All of the puzzles make sense within the internal logic of the game, even if some elements (the end game involves waiting ten minutes, in real time, for the porridge to cook) are completely daft. It’s not too long, it’s not too hard, and the simple presentation means it’s never confusing. There’s no pixel hunting, and no dead ends, while objectives and solutions, however silly, are clearly seeded at some point. The puzzles are even sort of satisfying, and miraculously, you are never misled by the mangled dialogue.
This dialogue is a thing of beauty. The text-speech (I dread to think what it would sound like if these things were actually voiced) is as entertaining and uniquely Bjørnar B.’s work as the scritchy graphics. It’s written in childish, barely literate, misspelt prose. But it’s the subtext that lifts it. Bjørnar B. is obsessed with nutrition, and places this obsession into the game at every possible juncture: “mushrooms are healthy but not as healthy as porigde” extols D. Duck, on being told to eat a smiley-faced toadstool. Of course, all the iffy dietary proclamations should be taken with a truck-load of salt.
Then there’s the drinking problem… sorry, “soda addiction” of grotesquely overweight Uncle Jubalon, who declares that he is “in Soda Hell I drink soda and eat dark sirup thats why I got all this acnes and damaged teeth”. Or, in contrast to the educational intentions, the occasional, unexpected casual violence occurs, especially against the Grandmother Duck character. These are just some of the surreal highlights Bjørnar B. provides. The game has plenty of other moments of laugh-out-loud slapstick and strangely zealous, barely understandable dialogue that brought a reluctant smile to my jaded face. You’ll have your own favourites.
Almost as much fun as the adventure itself, however, is trying to figure out just who actually made the game and why. After I’d played it through, I dug a little deeper to try to find out, but couldn’t come to a definitive conclusion. It’s not a new game; though I was introduced to it by a fellow convert recently, D. Duck has been floating around for a few years, and even has a sequel, both of which can be found at the creator’s website. It claims to be a collaboration between “Bjørnar B.” and “Audun R.”, and the odd mixture of technically competent programming and bizarre content provide my current working theory that it’s someone indulging their younger brother by helping him make his dream game. Of course, there’s always a chance that it’s a painstakingly constructed ruse.
But the provenance of the game is ultimately less important than its existence. The whole experience is nicely tied together by the meaty sound effects and the frenetic, chip-tune MIDI music, pinched from Commodore 64 games. It really is quite the self-contained package of nonsense, and the bemusing end cutscene is certainly worth playing to reach, even if it doesn’t offer a resolution. Overall, this is the most deliriously, delightfully half-sensical and relentlessly entertaining hour you may ever waste. If videogames are art, then Life of D. Duck may just be our first outsider art masterpiece.