Experimental games in the commercial space have put themselves in a strange position for a number of years. They may promote themselves as questioning the assumptions we take for granted or exploring a subject matter that games typically don’t explore, but because these games force themselves into formats we typically associate with games, there’s always a limit on what they’re capable of accomplishing. It’s a respectability thing, I suspect; fearing that nobody will take what you’re doing seriously unless it can be openly recognized as a game. Sometimes that works out, like with Little Inferno’s scathing commentary on the futility capitalist consumption. Other times, you get 1979 Revolution: Black Friday awkwardly trying to fit its interpretation of the Iranian Revolution into a Telltale-esque format.
Unfortunately, OneShot fits into the latter of these two categories. Originally released as an RPGMaker 2003 game a couple of years ago, OneShot follows a young girl named Niko on her quest to restore light to a dying world. It confronts the possibility that this world is already beyond saving and then asks how we might continue to lead our lives in the face of its perhaps-unavoidable descent into ruin. This game is by no means the first to probe into questions like these, but the answers it provides are infused with enough warmth, hope and humanity that the world feels as though it has meaning even if Niko doesn’t succeed in her quest. Or at least it would if OneShot were presented in any other way. However, the game’s unconscious desire for legitimacy as a game drags it down in ways it can’t hope to recover from.
Those of you who already know a bit about the game may know why the game is called OneShot. But I want to put off addressing that for now to focus on a part of the game I find more noteworthy: its apocalyptic vision. At some point in the game’s past, the sun died out and the world was cast into darkness. It’s never fully explained how any of this came to be, although it’s implied this may be the result of time’s inevitable course. Whatever the case may be, it now falls upon Niko to carry the new sun with her as she tries to restore it to its rightful place. Throughout much of the game Niko (and the player controlling her) has to deal with the possibility that her one shot to save the world passed her by well before she entered the picture. Some characters even openly acknowledge that bringing light back to the world may not be enough to save it.
Regarding OneShot as a whole, its outlook on the situation is complicated. If I had to summarize it, I’d say the game wants to hold out hope for the world but finds itself struggling to maintain that hope. It’s not going to ignore the destruction the world has already undergone. In fact, OneShot demonstrates an acute understanding of why its characters have resigned themselves to the world’s demise. The world they see regularly impresses into them just how dire these circumstances are. Everything’s hanging by a thread: machinery’s crumbling, the land’s crumbling apart (sometimes before your very eyes), and a lot of the architecture is designed to extract a dwindling amount of energy for the survivors to use. Any attempts to break free of this dreary realism by infusing the world with a mythical aura risk falling short, given that aura’s close proximity to the world’s ongoing decay (the gas pockets in the Barrens, for example).
Yet the game refuses to give into cynicism. Even in the face of all this despair, it not only tries to find the beauty hidden in this post-apocalyptic world, but also make that beauty apparent to anybody willing to accept it. Predictably, a lot of that beauty manifests in the art, even after putting aside the mythical elements. The visual style should instantly resonate with those familiar with RPGMaker games: soft faded hues, subtle uses of texture (sometimes literal texture – rippling water or fog hanging in the air), and pixel art that doesn’t aim to capture the world in complete detail but eschews a clean nostalgic reading of the game. It’s a very painterly sort of art style; one that emphasizes methodical yet subjective compositions, and communicates moods in a very subdued manner.
OneShot realizes this and elaborates on those principles in its own unique pieces of art. On the one hand, there’s a sort of physical immediacy to that art. Even after being rendered in Microsoft Paint, a program that often hides an artist’s presence and accentuates its own, the art still bears the artist’s brush strokes in a visible way. It’s for that reason there’s also a very subjective aura emanating from that art. Our eyes are always drawn to where Niko’s eyes are drawn. Her eyes (in a very literal sense) fill the world with light, allowing us to see wondrous visions we might not otherwise be able to see. Faded blue brush strokes animate an otherwise still lake. Even a brief flicker of light bathes everything around it in a warm, soothing glow. Niko’s dreams carry this logic as far as it can go by shifting to a watercolor style. We’re no longer seeing the world through her eyes, but experiencing it along with her.
Alternatively, we can disregard the art altogether and see these themes reflected directly in Niko’s character. Although she maintains a positive attitude throughout her mission, it’s clear that she’s harboring a lot of insecurities about it. This is to be expected: she’s a child who’s forced to become a prophet, IE to deliver a message from a God only she’s able to hear (but never see). She’s told to trust that God’s guidance and deliver this world from ruin, a task she’s absolutely terrified of failing. Moreover, Niko never chose to take up the mantle of savior. She wakes up one night to find herself in a dark room, all alone; terrified of the dark. She doesn’t know what chain of events separated her from her remote farming village, nor does she know if she’ll ever be able to return. All she can think to do is reach out to anyone who may be listening. But in the beginning, all she can find are confirmations of her solitude. Niko looks into a mirror and sees only her own luminous eyes staring back at her from the darkness.
Reading Niko’s character more optimistically, that character is designed from the beginning to have her horizons expanded. This serves as the foundation for one of OneShot’s greatest assets: the small moments of human interaction where two characters open their worlds up to each other. Such moments feel honest, free of pretense, and most important of all, comforting. It’s a logic the game shares with Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon (although perhaps not as matured): by elevating the mundane aspects of daily life and lending them a level of importance they may not otherwise have, the game communicates an inherent value in the world beyond Niko’s ability to save it. That value is apparent in the chess game she plays with a disillusioned soldier in the Barrens; in the elevator conversations she holds with a nondescript citizen from the Refuge; and in every attempt she makes to learn more about you, the god only she can hear. If this was all there was to the game, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.
Unfortunately, there’s much more to OneShot than what I’ve previously described. In fact, I haven’t even mentioned the main premise yet: everything you do in the game, no matter how minor, carries with it permanent consequences. You’re not getting a second chance, the game is quick to say, because this world and everything you do in it is absolutely real. What’s more, it’s eager to remind you of this fact by stepping outside the game window’s boundaries to affect things in the real world. OneShot speaks directly to you (or whoever’s username you’re logged into your computer as) through dialog boxes, writes files to your computer to be used in the game, and changes your desktop background at will.
As subversive as this may seem, the game’s logic is more conventional than it would like to admit. Appealing to a game world’s importance by insisting on its reality has been an industry mainstay since the days of Mortal Kombat. This means the industry has had decades to codify a slew of strategies for maintaining that illusion of realism, and OneShot is nothing if not happy to adopt those strategies. Sometimes that manifests in minor ways, like the few instances of environmental storytelling (read: the now-denounced practice of splattering graffiti on walls).
Other times, the game conforms in more significant ways. Often a game’s working definition of realism hinges on the player’s ability to act upon the world: a wide variety of tools/abilities to extend that player’s being and a world that exists largely to verify their power over it. In that regard, OneShot shares much with its predecessors. It’s a very traditional game; one that understands itself primarily as a bundle of mechanics and gimmicks for the player to mess around with.
And far from challenging or wandering outside generic convention, those mechanics proudly adorn themselves in those conventions. The game begins with a classic escape-the-room puzzle and later forces you to complete a brief game of Mastermind before progressing. Even the parts of the game that break the fourth wall fall into this trap. While by no means basic, they were never quite as nuanced as I hoped they would be. If OneShot’s goal is to be a fun and interesting game (for given values of fun or interesting, at least), then the game has arguably achieved its goal. But in pursuing that goal at all, it communicates a greater interest in establishing its legitimacy as a video game than in creating a coherent narrative.
To the game’s credit, though, it does distance itself from its peers in a few subtle ways. Where other games invoke realism as a means of empowering their players, OneShot does the opposite, and to great effect. The game’s opening moments are marked by uncertainty and apprehension as you’re frequently reminded of all the limitations you can’t do anything to change. You avoid risks wherever possible, but in doing so realize that every action you could possibly take carries with it a risk. The feelings of helplessness only multiply. It also helps that a lot of these early moments are inflected with a foreboding sense of loneliness – what better way to bolster your insecurities than by leaving you alone with your wandering imagination? Still, it’s not as though this disempowerment nullifies my previous concerns. Games like Spec Ops: The Line and Hotline Miami (to name a few) explore similar strains of logic, and critics have pointed out that in trying to invert our understanding of the medium, these kinds of games ultimately uphold the very things they seek to criticize.
Moreover, OneShot’s inversion elides an important caveat the game is quick to overlook. By appealing to realism in the first place, the game assumes that things only have value insofar as they have a material presence. This is a shallow and reductive view of the world; one that forces us to abandon (or at least needlessly qualify) the emotional side of life that gives things meaning in the first place. My relationship with Niko only matters insofar as either of us tangibly exists. By this logic, other characters’ relationships with each other matter far less because their existence is easier to question. Likewise, any sentimental value a person has for their most cherished possession ends up paling in comparison to the use I can get out of it. This is how Niko is (or rather, the writers are) able to justify taking a precious family heirloom, passed down through the generations and originally received as a gift from a wise prophet, and drenching it in inky water to turn it into a makeshift pen.
Most important of all, what value does Niko’s journey have if all it can guarantee is the people’s continued existence? Such an existence provides little comfort to the many characters whose entire being hinges on ushering the Savior along in her journey to restore light to the world. What place do they have in that world after Niko accomplishes her goal? With no purpose beyond this and no ability to create their own, the world can only offer them a bare minimum of hope as they count the hours to their inevitable death. The only person who stands to gain anything of importance from this world is the Savior herself: it’s her pilgrimage, her story of self discovery, her journey to adulthood that we follow. Yet even this conclusion leaves something to be desired, given how her character and subsequent maturation are limited by what’s been programmed into the game from the start.
The only conclusion I’m left with is that the world exists for the player’s sake above all else. It’s their self realization and how they’re bettered by the experience that matters the most, and to that end, the player is quite literally enshrined as a god. They may not be an omnipotent god – their greatest power is complete control over Niko, meaning (almost) all the limitations she faces apply to them as well – but the powers they do have don’t come with much responsibility, despite what the game wants to say. The idea that every action entails a risk doesn’t survive long after the game introduces features whose only purpose is to make the act of playing it more convenient.
In addition, the player’s inherent goodness is assumed from the start and there’s nothing that can be done to jeopardize it. If anything, the game goes out of its way to affirm the player’s integrity by violating its own with measures like portraying itself as the villainous force of destruction (for reasons I don’t entirely understand) and contradicting its premise for the player’s sake. With the player’s desires centered but never really challenged, OneShot falls short of its goal of getting players to consider the game world beyond what they personally can get out of it. Its humanity, the air of hope in the face of despair; these fade away just a little bit as the player’s dominance over the world is consecrated.
As I made my way through OneShot, my mind turned to other post-apocalyptic games to figure out the secret behind their successes. Fragile Dreams, Nier, Panzer Dragoon – what do these games have that OneShot doesn’t? After a lot of thought, I’ve concluded that these games’ premises begin with the apocalyptic world and the human relation to it. Hence why those games feel so much richer than this: that base allows a developer to explore every implication the scenario poses, nurture their own interpretation of these ideas, and present that interpretation with clarity. OneShot, on the other hand, hasn’t put itself in the same position. Its premise begins with the permanent consequences of your actions. While it would have been possible to build on this idea in a similar manner to how post-apocalyptic games built on their own, OneShot instead divides its energy and suffers for it.