The early internet age gave rise to the popularity of a piece of software called RPG Maker. Though builds of this program had existed as early as 1992 on various Japanese platforms such as the Super Famicom, it would gain international popularity when the first Windows version was released. Its greatest appeal was that it allowed anyone to craft their own experiences in the medium. Before, one would need a degree of expertise to even entertain the idea of making a game. In spring of 2014, a gaming community centered on the software, RPG Maker Web, held a contest for aspiring indie developers. Dubbed the Indie Game Making Contest, the rules were simple: the entrants needed to create a game using RPG Maker, and they had from May 29 to June 30 to complete this task.
Among the entrants was a duo of programmers: Eliza Velasquez and Casey “Nightmargin” Gu. The former focused on writing the scenario and coding while the latter served as the main artist, contributing character designs and music, though there was a lot of overlap. Created in RPG Maker 2003, they named their work OneShot. Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, the two of them did not win the contest. The contest was won by Red Nova for his RPG, Remnants of Isolation. Not letting the defeat damper their spirits, Ms. Velasquez and Nightmargin decided to remake and expand their creation. To this end, they upgraded to the more advanced RPG Maker XP, and recruited a third person by the name of Michael Shirt. He proved immensely helpful debugging the code, resolving many game-breaking issues during development. When their work was finished, they made the improved version of OneShot available for the popular digital distribution platform Steam on December 8, 2016. Upon its official release, it quickly became a hit with the reviews on Steam being described as “Overwhelmingly Positive” – a rare achievement in the community. How did this game resonate so deeply with those people?
Analyzing the Experience
WARNING: Due to the nature of this work, spoilers are unavoidable. Skip to the conclusion and avoid looking at any screenshots if you are at all interested in playing it.
The protagonist of this story is a young child named Niko. They awaken in a strange house with no knowledge of how they got there. While indie developers used RPG Maker for its intended purpose by creating Japanese-style role-playing games, Ms. Velasquez and Nightmargin went in a different direction. Similar to the surrealistic horror game Yume Nikki, which became a viral hit across Japanese forums in 2004, OneShot defies the expectations of the software used to create it by featuring no combat. Instead, the game’s experience primarily entails exploring the environment and solving puzzles.
When Niko stands in front of certain objects or places of interest, you can press the “Z” key to interact with them.
Inventory items are acquired automatically when examined; you will know if Niko can add an object to their inventory if the object in question shines as though it’s reflecting light. When managing Niko’s inventory, you can highlight an item. This will allow Niko to use the item on an object they examine while exploring the world. For example, if they find a crowbar, and you discover something it’s capable of prying apart, Niko will attempt to do just that if it’s equipped. On this screen, you can have them use one item on another. When an item is equipped, you can attempt to highlight a second one. If the items can be combined or used on each other, Niko will do so. If they can’t, they will usually comment on why it’s a bad idea.
Niko’s first goal is to activate the computer in the room in which they awakened. Once they have inputted the password, a mysterious entity claims that the world is beyond saving, but if they insist on trying anyway, it won’t stop them. It follows this up by mentioning one small caveat to this mission: you only have one shot.
I have played many games, seen many films, and heard many songs wherein a single line left a tremendous impact on me. It’s worth noting that most of these moments tend to occur around the halfway point, thus turning everything on its head for the final act. In almost every other instance, they take the form of a particularly memorable twist ending. OneShot comes out swinging before Niko has even left the first room. Even if you’ve heard of this game’s true nature through word-of-mouth, the sheer reverberation of the Entity’s final line is all but guaranteed to catch even the savviest player off-guard. Why is that? The Entity wasn’t addressing Niko, but you. To punctuate this, the message shows up in a secondary popup window and the music comes to a dead stop. It doesn’t let the trivial limitation of you having never entered your name at any point stop it either. I would normally advise against including such a bombshell this early in one’s work, as it tends to leave the audience underwhelmed when confronted with later developments. Not only does this game pull off this unique approach perfectly, if anything, it’s only getting started.
After exploring the house further, Niko will discover a lightbulb that mysteriously lights up when they touch it. This object is, quite literally, the key to leaving the building. Outside, a world plunged in eternal greets them. The only beings to interact with are robots of unknown origin.
From here, you gain access to a fast travel option, placing Niko outside of the area selected in the menu. As navigating the world involves a fair bit of backtracking, this is greatly appreciated.
After speaking with a robot that identifies itself as Prophetbot, Niko learns the sun has burned itself out. Naturally, without any light to provide energy for plant life, the world is in a slow, unavoidable state of decay. However, all hope is not lost. The object Niko carries that resembles an ordinary lightbulb is, in reality, a replacement for the burnt-out sun. That the new sun began to glow as Niko holds it indicates they are the messiah destined to save the world. They must return the new sun to a tower in the center of the world. Only then will light be restored.
Fortunately, they are not alone in their quest. Niko learns of the existence of a being from another dimension capable of observing everything they do. In fact, this being has been subconsciously guiding Niko ever since they arrived in this world. They didn’t know to whom the Entity was referring when it told them they only have one shot, but Prophetbot tells them that this being is the god of the universe. The robot then encourages Niko to concentrate, and they will be able to hear the god’s voice. As they do so, dialogue options appear – they allow you to communicate with Niko directly. That’s right, the Entity saying your name wasn’t a meaningless attempt at shock value; you yourself are a character in this story – the deuteragonist, in fact.
The eighties and nineties proved to be something of a golden age for adventure games. Two of the most prolific companies from this era were Sierra and LucasArts. Theirs was a fierce rivalry, and they wound up adopting two entirely different design philosophies. While Sierra often punished players for making bad choices with death, LucasArts encouraged players to experiment, foregoing any chance to make their games unwinnable. Their approaches to writing were markedly different as well. Sierra games featured omniscient narrators whereas LucasArts had characters speak to themselves. Though both methods proved viable, the latter ended up winning out in popularity, as it was far more effective at lending the lead a voice. In a hypothetical scenario to illustrate this point, let’s say the protagonist comes across a rickety suspension bridge. Using the Sierra approach, the dialogue box would likely tell you that crossing it is ill-advised. Though the level of seriousness it conveys depends on the writer, the voice ultimately doesn’t belong to anyone within the story. This serves as a contrast the LucasArts approach in which the protagonist might compare the situation to a film they saw once or even question their own sanity when you suggest crossing it.
Though LucasArts’s style caught on, it was decidedly strange how characters would begin spontaneously speaking to themselves. On a meta level, these lines are naturally the result of the player’s actions, but speaking purely in terms of the narrative, it led to something of a disconnect between the gameplay and the story. It was generally of minimal consequence, as plenty of great, classic games such as Grim Fandango were made using this formula, and players typically accepted it without questioning it too much. With this revelation, OneShot brilliantly resolves the disconnect by combining these two storytelling methods. Before Niko knew of your existence, the Entity performed the duties of an omniscient narrator, leading you to believe it was nothing more than that. Once Niko is made aware of your presence, they begin talking out loud to themselves as a LucasArts-inspired protagonist would. The twist is that though their dialogue is structured in a similar fashion to those games, they’re in reality, speaking to you rather than themselves. On top of that, NPCs are fully aware of your status as the universe’s god, meaning Niko ostensibly talking to themselves doesn’t strike anyone as untoward.
Within the next hour of gameplay, the creators prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is no mere gimmick. When exploring the surrounding area further, you and Niko will find a safe. As is the case with most safes, it requires a certain combination to open. Don’t bother trying every number either; your efforts will be in vain. After solving a few puzzles, Niko will restore power to a building, thereby activating another computer. This time, the Entity tells both of you that number required to open the safe does not exist in this world. It’s not bluffing; you can have Niko scour every inch of the world, but you won’t find the number. With no leads other than the Entity’s esoteric hint, you will begin to realize that much like the narrative dropping any pretenses of having a solid fourth wall, you too must transcend the confines of the game’s universe to find the solution. If you look in your Documents folder, you’ll notice something that wasn’t there before. There is a text file that, once opened, displays the combination to the safe. From here, you can tell Niko what it is when they attempt to open it.
This moment also addresses a common problem in classic adventure games. Protagonists frequently performed actions that made no sense when analyzing the narrative diegetically. That is to say, the characters would need knowledge you have, but they themselves couldn’t possibly possess – whether it’s the player learning which actions result in death or finding the solutions through an outside source. What I particularly admire about this is that it well and truly places the responsibility of guiding Niko on your shoulders. Despite not featuring any combat, OneShot is a role-playing game in the purest sense of the term by encouraging the audience to actively participate in the storyline.
Such an experience wouldn’t be complete without a strong cast of supporting characters, and OneShot certainly delivers on that front. Boasting an art style similar to that of Cave Story, this game’s cast seems to combine the quirky charm of Earthbound with a Dark Souls flavor in how their minimalistic dialogue always seem to imply that there’s more to them than what you see on the surface. Despite existing in a world that is in its twilight years, the NPCs run a diverse gamut. Some have expectedly given into despair, and you can even find a suicide note in one area. It’s not all doom and gloom, however – far from it, in fact. Many of them exude a surprisingly level of optimism – and with the way their dialogue is written, one gets the sense that they were this way long before you and Niko arrived in this world. Even the robots have quite a bit of character to them despite, or perhaps because of, their limited programming.
Then again, as much personality as the NPCs have, the one who gets the most development is none other than Niko themselves. Due to circumstances they had no control over, they go from being an ordinary child to a faint ray of hope for a dying world. Despite this, they maintain a cheerful attitude that is rather infectious the more you interact with them. It succeeds in making the player want to save this world and get them home safely. Niko does eventually realize the full weight of their situation, and once they do, they become immensely homesick. It then dawns on you that determined though they may be, they’re still a child. Indeed, it’s even implied a few times that your guidance provides them with a lot of reassurance, giving the impression that your presence is necessary even when you’re not being spoken to or figuring out puzzle solutions.
Ms. Velasquez stated that the fourth-wall breaking aspect of OneShot was heavily inspired by a certain boss battle from Metal Gear Solid. |Specifically, it was the fight against FOXHOUND member Psycho Mantis. Being a powerful psychic, he could read the player’s every move. On top of that, he would ask players if they enjoyed playing other Konami-developed games should the data of which exist on the same memory card before the encounter began and trick them into believing their consoles were malfunctioning. The solution to defeating him was novel as well – you had to plug the controller into the second port so he couldn’t anticipate your button presses.|
The effects of this inspiration are at their sharpest whenever dealing with the Entity. The medium has had no shortage of horrifying villains, yet it didn’t matter how much they reveled in the carnage they sowed. As long as the fourth wall was completely solid, you could take solace in the fact that they had to adhere to their strict programming. Some horror creators tried to get around this by making their villains’ behavior randomized, but this often cheapened the experience by confusing the art of genuinely disturbing their audience with triggering their startle reflex. The Entity makes those encounters look like quaint novelties by comparison. It knows your name, it can create files on your computer, and at one point, it even changes your desktop wallpaper. As a friend of mine so aptly put it, OneShot does its best to convince you it’s not a game, and that aspect makes for an unsettling experience. One could consider it a deliberate invocation of the Uncanny Valley effect in that the game you’re playing doesn’t always behave like one. It makes the instances in which it actively rebels against you jarring, but in a good way. In an ironic twist, you are told you’re the god of the universe Niko finds themselves in, yet there aren’t that many games you’ll play in which you’ll feel so powerless.
What really makes the Entity such an intriguing character is that for all of its ominous lines and trickery, you need to rely on its help to progress. I liken this facet to System Shock 2 wherein you had to rely on the assistance of a character you couldn’t trust, yet circumstances have forced your hand. Though the opposition isn’t as blatantly stacked against you, this scenario is no less effective, as it involves the world itself threatening to crumble at any minute.
Discussing the Ending
WARNING: Have you really experienced everything this game has to offer? Make absolutely sure before reading the following section.
The original version of OneShot was so named because you had just that – one shot to complete it. If you shut the game down manually, attempting to restart would bring you back to a cold, dead world. When you close the game, a window, possibly meant to be the Entity, informs you that you killed Niko. The only way to properly end a session was for Niko to take a nap in a bed identical to the one in the first room of the game. I applaud the idea, but it was an annoying design decision, as your computer malfunctioning or an ill-timed power outage would produce this dire outcome. Fortunately, this limitation was removed in the updated version created in RPG Maker XP. Now, all forcibly quitting the game does is render you ineligible for an achievement.
Nonetheless, the final decision you must make is one of the most impactful moments in the game. As Niko journeys through the tower, you learn from a mysterious source that the sun is the force which ties them to this realm. Only by destroying it can Niko return home. This presents a moral dilemma on your part; you can rescue Niko at the expense of damning the world or place the sun atop the tower. In the latter ending, it’s implied Niko’s presence is what keeps the sun lit, meaning it will only last as long as they do, condemning them to a miserable existence that only staves off the inevitable. Both conclusions are bittersweet to the extent that it makes you wish you chose the other option. You got to personally interact with Niko, but is it really fair to place their well-being over that of an entire world? In either case, your attempts to restart the game will be ineffective. Either you will be greeted by the first room in the game, which is now bathed in sunlight with Niko nowhere to be found, or an error message. It would appear that there is nothing more you can do.
As it would turn out, this too could be seen as a puzzle. If you look in the appropriate folder, you may notice something that wasn’t there before. There is save data for OneShot. Normally, something like this wouldn’t bear commenting on, but sharp-eyed players will notice by right-clicking and selecting the “Properties” option that these files were created the exact moment they achieved an ending. This is highly suspicious, for it would make more sense for save files to be created as they started a new game. It’s almost as if an outside force is preventing you from reentering the game. As anyone who has owned a computer for a significant length of time can attest to, there is only thing to do when confronted with a rogue, useless file.
You may think that you’ve tricked the game into letting you play again. This belief will be dashed the moment Niko says your name. They aren’t sure why they know it, but that small bit of awareness is enough to make the situation clear. This is known in the medium as a New Game Plus. Exactly what they entail varies from game to game, but the general idea is that it allows you to conduct a second playthrough with items or abilities obtained in the first. OneShot is no different; by opening the inventory menu, you will notice that the Strange Journal is already in Niko’s possession. Furthermore, when you activate the computer, the Entity doesn’t contact you, and the password needed to advance is given to you without much fanfare.
Considering that inventory items aren’t exactly like weapons or armor in a typical RPG, one might wonder what the point is in giving the journal to you early. At first, you will find yourself going through similar motions in this new playthrough. This comes to a stop when the journal begins to glow in a mining area visited early on, reacting to someone who wasn’t there before. By using it in a certain spot, Niko can access an entirely new area. Here, they meet another robot named Prototype. His is a meaningful name – specifically, he is Prophetbot’s prototype.
Through restoring his memories, what he has to say forms the basis of a twist that somehow overshadows all of the other ones leading up to this moment. What Prophetbot told Niko was a gross oversimplification of the world’s nature. The world of OneShot is already long gone; the universe you perceive is a simulation known as the World Machine. In the face of the Old World’s entropy, it was created with the purpose of providing its citizens a perfect recreation of the universe in its prime. Unfortunately, the collapse of the Old World resulted in the simulation’s code being lost in the ether, doomed to float around in nonexistence for the rest of eternity – or so everyone thought. By sheer coincidence, you happened to find the code and reactivate the simulation by launching what you thought was an ordinary computer game. This means you aren’t really the god of this universe; the World Machine merely runs on your computer, giving off the impression to NPCs that you’re omnipotent when, as the many times you dealt with the Entity proved, was never really the case at all.
Niko doesn’t take this well, which is understandable considering they learned the world didn’t even exist until your intervention. It’s a powerful moment because it takes your role in the story to its logical extreme. A lot of your interactions with Niko depended on you helping them on their journey. Because you and Niko shared the same goals, they didn’t have any reason to doubt your intentions were anything other than wholly altruistic. Learning all of this information is enough to make them seriously question whether or not you really are a kind god. After all, you having bypassed the “one shot” restriction to bring them back either made the effort to restore the sun meaningless or ripped them away from their home world once more. Both outcomes relied on the player being aware that they were only playing a game the whole time. Though you never get the opportunity to be upfront about this fact beforehand, it’s enough to make you feel guilty – especially when your attempts at reassuring Niko prove futile. This feeling is exacerbated by the fact that the game never told you to do any of this. With the way it was designed, you were only ever allowed a single chance to complete it. By breaking the rules and bringing Niko back, the implications of starting a second playthrough in a game aware of your actions are fully explored.
The Entity doesn’t react well to this either, for Niko becoming upset causes it to break down.
This causes the squares plaguing the world to multiply at an accelerated rate. In your first playthrough, their sole purpose was to prevent Niko from entering certain areas. Here, the problem becomes so bad that an NPC has to sacrifice her life to save Niko and Prototype from them. It’s particularly bad because it’s said these squares do not disappear when the player resets the game, so everyone and everything that gets caught in them is doomed to be erased from existence.
By following this plotline, you learn what the Entity is actually an advanced artificial intelligence created by a genius individual from the Old World known as the Author. Its intended purpose was to run the World Machine, but as time went on, it gained sentience. It was through this turn of events that it inadvertently began corrupting the simulation’s code, causing the world to deteriorate. In a clever bit of foreshadowing, you may have happened upon a book detailing three laws all robots must obey.
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Fans of classic science fiction will recognize these as The Three Laws of Robotics conceived by Isaac Asimov. They were first introduced in his 1942 short story “Runaround”, which would later be included in the famous 1950 compilation I, Robot. These axioms came about due to Mr. Asimov wishing to defy speculative fiction trends at the time. Up until around 1940, it was common for robots in such stories to follow the lead of Frankenstein. That is, robots needed to constantly be given orders or else they would go on a berserk rampage. He decided to write stories about sympathetic robots with programmed safeguards to prevent such a situation. A subsequent conversation with editor John W. Campbell boiled down these safeguards into three laws.
In later stories, Mr. Asimov would add a fourth or, more accurately, a zeroth law to precede the others.
A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
This corollary led to scenarios in which robots would openly disobey orders while technically staying true to the exact letter of the law. One striking example in his canon involved a robot who deemed it necessary to sacrifice certain humans to ensure the species’ continued survival.
These laws shed some light on why the Entity acted the way it did in your first playthrough. Savvy players may be led to believe the Entity’s actions were driven by some twisted version of the zeroth law. In reality, that it appeared to be openly antagonistic while paradoxically helping you and Niko progress was born from a strict, borderline dogmatic adherence to the first law. This is because in terms of the narrative, Niko is the only real person in the simulation; the other characters outside of the Old World citizens are only NPCs in what is essentially an advanced computer game.
I praise this additional storyline branch because it allows you to both rescue Niko and save the simulated world. At the same time, it does not render your tough decision pointless, and the narrative weaves a much darker scenario you must endure to earn that happy ending. The first thing some might think to do when confronted with the revelation that the world isn’t real is to behave like the Entity and save Niko. However, it’s not quite that straightforward. The NPCs may not have been real people, yet they meaningfully react to things that weren’t originally part of the simulation, suggesting they too are on the track to gaining sentience. It’s a thought-provoking, metafictional layer of storytelling that comments on the nature of reality. Something like this could not have existed in older mediums, and I give Ms. Velasquez, Nightmargin, and Mr. Shirt a lot of credit for testing the medium’s limits before bravely going out of bounds and into uncharted territory.
Drawing a Conclusion
One of the most disappointing experiences I had with the medium in the 2010s was provided by a game known as The Stanley Parable. A major reason why I found it underwhelming concerns how I was introduced to it. In 2013 when the Steam version was released, people all over the internet began talking about it. Essays dissected the themes, and those who posted playthroughs on video sharing sites often had nuanced reactions. Though the game’s reception was overwhelmingly positive, everyone said basically the same thing: don’t read any reviews – go into it blind. I took this as a good sign, as most games whose fans instruct would-be newcomers to avoid any spoilers typically have impressive stories. To its credit, it got off to a good start; the author wove an ambitious narrative that sought to deconstruct the nature of the medium and challenge his audience. That being said, how it was structured lent it what I would call a “flavor of the month” aura which makes it a fascinating conversation piece in the short term, yet those discussions ultimately outshined any sort of enjoyment derived from actually playing the game.
To be fair, The Stanley Parable wasn’t in short company. In the same year, Gone Home was described as a “quiet triumph in storytelling” on the gaming website Polygon. However, I felt it too tried and failed to grasp that certain something the medium needed to fully realize its incredible storytelling potential. While they and many similar games were praised for their experimentation, they proved to be largely one-dimensional experiences that wouldn’t last an afternoon. I bring these games up because I believe that OneShot manages to capture what they were going for but didn’t quite get, representing to a far more effective degree that master class of personal, affecting storytelling of which the critic who originally reviewed Gone Home spoke.
OneShot goes far beyond simply having good writing and an interesting cast of characters; it’s an avant-garde work that pushes the boundaries of the medium in ways few others had the bravery to attempt. Though the gameplay is decidedly simplistic, OneShot is similar to Undertale in it is absolutely not ashamed about what it is. It’s that bit of self-confidence which places it ahead of the average contemporary AAA effort and their tendencies to imitate Hollywood or the indie developers who, in a misguided attempt to lend the medium a degree of artistic credence, deemed it necessary to remove any kind of fun from the proceedings. Try this game if you haven’t already; it provides a unique narrative that actively needs to be in the medium to even exist. As game creators started taking their storytelling seriously, it slowly became clear over time that the innumerable techniques we pioneered from decades or even centuries of writing fiction didn’t translate well to the new medium. This often led many people to wrongly declare that video games are bad for telling stories. In reality, the full scope of how to successfully tell a story in a video game wasn’t fully known by this point in history. Fortunately, works like OneShot were there to help blaze a trail in an era when the medium needed guidance to evolve and grow.
Final Score: 9/10