Hidden Levels: OneShot

In All, Video Games by Matt Morris

In this recurring feature, guest blogger Matt Morris takes us through the lost, the forgotten, and the overlooked video games of yore. Consider him your guide through all the best and most secret Hidden Levels.

Game: OneShot (2003 Original / 2016 Reboot)

Genre: Puzzle Adventure

Platform: PC

Developer: Team OneShot

Publisher: Team OneShot

If you’ve spent a certain amount of time playing PC and/or console games, and happen to be a fan of the JRPG genre, you’ve probably encountered RPG Maker at least once in your life. It’s the game development tool that the internet just loves to hate–a wicked engine, wrought from the tortured souls and broken dreams of nerds with no programming or art experience who want to make their very own video games.

Well, okay, that’s obviously hyperbole. In reality, RPG Maker is a useful tool. It… well, it allows people with no programming or art experience to make their very own video games. But that’s not a bad thing! In the hands of talented creators, it can give birth to some really compelling stuff.

This month’s entry in the column began as an RPG Maker game, once upon a time, in the year of our Kraken 2003. But its true potential came to life in December 2016–mere months ago–in the form of a reboot which polished and perfected the game into the true underappreciated gem that it is today. It’s that version of the game which I would love to chat with y’all about.

What is this game?

At face value, OneShot is an adventure game. Despite its origins in the RPG Maker space, there is no combat to be found here. The game stars a cat-like character named Niko, who awakens in a dying world that has lost its sun. Early in the game Niko collects a light bulb, and is informed that their responsibility is to carry this light bulb to the top of a tower and place it there to function as the new sun that will revive the world. You’re given a cryptic warning, to boot: “You only have one shot.”

Putting a light bulb at the top of a tower sounds simple enough to handle, though, right?

OneShot‘s gameplay loop is quite simple at face value. Throughout the game’s short story, you guide Niko as they travel across several sectors of the world. They meet broken down robots, despondent critters living in anticipation of the end, and a host of other odd entities along the way. How much or how little of the story you are able to glean from the world may vary depending on your interactions with these characters, so if you’re thinking of playing the game, I would recommend chatting up as many as you can.

The puzzles are largely inventory-based, in a manner reminiscent of classic LucasArts and Sierra adventure games. You collect unusual odds and ends, and you use an inventory menu to either use them in context-sensitive situations or combine them to create other, even more unusual gadgets. It’s often fairly clear what your next goal ought to be, but the trick of the game is simply finding the right tools necessary to overcome whatever obstacles are in the way.

Yes, I realized I just described basically all single player video games. But the point is, the game is a very simple experience. Or so it seems.

So what makes it so special?

A word of warning before you read this section: I am about to spoil the heck out of this game. Like, I’m gonna spoil the ever-loving bejesus out of it. Wring every drop of spoilery nectar from its succulent fruits.

It’s unfortunate, but the game’s most special qualities can’t be described without really digging into what’s going on under the hood. If you aren’t interested in having the gruesome details spilled for you, go ahead and skip past this section. There’ll be pictures of Niko at the beginning and end, so just scroll through them and you’re safe. Any spoilers beyond that will be vague.

Okay, are you ready to drink some of that sweet spoiler wine?

Num-num-num-num-num. Ahhh. It tastes like the asbestos insulation from the fourth wall that this game just completely fucking obliterated.

“But Matt,” you’re saying, “I’ve played Metal Gear Solid before. That whole Psycho Mantis thing where he reads your memory card? That was cool. There have been loads of games that broke the fourth wall before. What makes this one so special?”

Well, for starters, this game doesn’t even believe in fourth walls. Hell, it doesn’t believe in any walls. By the time you even hit the title screen, it’s already made itself comfortable on your computer, quietly dropping some extra files here and there in strange places on your hard drive, and figuring out your name from your Windows account settings. It’s fully aware that you’re sitting there, and it wants to have a conversation with you. Directly with you.

I say “it” because the game is a distinctly different character from Niko or any of the other people you meet while playing. The game knows it’s a piece of software, authored by someone else, and it even acknowledges that someone else as a different entity (just called “the author”). But it also has a mind and a personality of its own. It challenges you–dares you, even–to save Niko and return them home from the wretched world they woke up in. It speaks to you through the standard, familiar grey Windows pop-up boxes, outside of the game window itself. At various points in the game, it does things like change your desktop wallpaper, or task you with finding a clue or a puzzle answer that it dropped into your documents folder or elsewhere. As a player, you have to quickly learn to think outside of the box. Because, well, there was never really a box in the first place.

The other half of the game’s magic lies within Niko. Early on, Niko figures out that you’re on the other side of the screen, helping them along and watching them, and they start to form a bond with you. It’s here where the game’s writing really shines. You learn a lot about Niko during their travels, and as a player you really begin to sympathize with them. Niko is frightened and alone, stuck in a dying wasteland, and you as the player are their only friend and companion during the journey. They talk to you frequently, calling out into the air and hoping for a response. You are offered dialogue choices to reply back with. You get to share what your home is like, what your friends are like. It almost feels like Niko is getting to know you just as well as you’re getting to know them.

Occasionally, you’ll come across a bed and Niko will be given the option to take a nap to “save the game.”

If you choose to let Niko do this, the game window will close and you can go back to whatever you were doing before you were playing games. No harm done, right?

But when you start it up again, you’re treated to a few glimpses of Niko’s dreams while you were away: their mother’s homemade pancakes, the meadows outside their home, and so on. These glimpses always end by cutting back to the room, where Niko has been frantically crying out for you and receiving no response.

After all, you were gone.

It’s a surprisingly effective tactic at building attachment to the character. I found myself really worried about Niko, wanting desperately to return them home where they can eat their mom’s pancakes again and forget that all this ever happened.

Unfortunately, the end of the game doesn’t offer such an easy way out. When you reach the final tower, the tension between the Author and the game itself begins to come to a head. The game puts Niko to sleep in an empty black room, determined to keep them from reaching the summit and restoring the world’s light. But at the same time, the Author leaves a note on your computer, telling you to find a separate application with a cryptic name.

That application happens to be sitting in the OneShot installation folder, and if you run the game with the other application in the background, something different starts to happen. The game begins to realize that the Author is undermining its efforts, and starts throwing messages at you telling you to stop and leave. You are forced through a series of doorway-filled rooms, but the second application running in the background turns into a transparency layer with arrows and markers showing you the correct paths to take. Along the way, the Author is apologizing to you and explaining that the choice Niko is faced with is not as simple as it sounds.

At the summit, you’re presented with one last choice. If you restore the lightbulb, Niko will be trapped in this world forever. There’s no guarantee that the world would even revive, but it’s the only chance the world has. If you smash the lightbulb instead, Niko is allowed to go home… but the world is doomed to die immediately.

The Author and the game are at odds over this choice. And thus it falls on you, the player, to tell Niko what to do.

If you smash the bulb, Niko walks out of the application and returns home. And I do mean that literally: Niko leaves the confines of the game’s window, walks across your desktop, and leaves the screen. You’re treated to a few scenes of the world dying, and the window closes. Opening the game afterwards simply gives you a message that the world is dead and you can’t go back.

If you place the bulb in the pedestal, opening the game again simply shows the bedroom where Niko woke up in the beginning, except that it’s empty.

This is the final choice you’re offered in OneShot. The game did not lie to you: you get only one chance at this, and whatever decision you make is permanent (unless you modify the game’s files to play again.) It’s brutal and harsh, but incredibly effective. And your choice inevitably comes down to your feelings about Niko and the world you’ve been exploring.

I could write pages about the other brilliant parts of this game. The art, the music, and the secondary characters are all wonderful and worthy of praise. But I simply don’t have time in this piece. Rest assured, this game delivers on all fronts!

Okay, you’re safe now!

Any criticisms?

Because of OneShot‘s unique nature, it can be a little tricky at times to understand what your next step should be as you play. There are ample hints provided at important points, but the puzzles can be a bit arcane in the way they function. It’s a criticism that can be (and has been) leveled at nearly every adventure game created using this formula throughout the years, and it’s no less applicable here than it is elsewhere.

Beyond that common complaint, it’s hard to find criticism with the game that isn’t tied closely to what the game is. The idea of a game that disregards the fourth wall and asserts its power over you and your computer in such unique ways could be off-putting for some people. But at the same time, it’s the crux of what makes the game unique. So if that doesn’t sound like your jam, then this game probably isn’t for you.

The same can be said of OneShot‘s pixel art style. Lately there’s been some push back against indie games that adopt a highly pixelated art style, so again, if such things are a turnoff for you then perhaps there’s a nit to pick there. For my part, these are not problems, but your mileage may vary.

Why was it overlooked?

Well, think about this: when was the last time you played an RPG Maker game? If ever? The original game had scant chances of ever extending past the niche RPG Maker fandom, realistically speaking.

As for the 2016 release on Steam, well, the truth is that there’s just so much content being released on PC that it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. A quick glance might make a potential buyer feel as though the game is “just another Undertale” or something to that effect, but the reality is that it’s a very different experience from anything I’ve seen it compared to.

There’s been some traction on major blogs like Kotaku about this game, but probably not enough to push it into stardom. Which is a damned shame. Thankfully, the game is still young and there is still time.

How can I get a hold of it?

Head on over to Steam and pick up a copy if this sounds interesting to you. It’s the primary place you can pick the game up for your PC, and it costs ten bucks. Windows only, though! (The reasons for this should be obvious if you read the more spoilery details earlier.)

Final Thoughts

As I write this, a new update has just been released for OneShot. Word on the internet street is that it adds a third ending to the game, in a New Game+ sort of scenario. This is an interesting concept, and I’m curious to explore it and see what it has to offer, but I think part of what makes this game so special is that it begs to be played only once. Hell, the title of the game suggests as much.

For so long, playing video games has been an exercise in players conquering obstacles and bending mechanics and rules to their will. The supremacy of a seasoned player, who has committed their time to mastering a game, is so rarely questioned. OneShot doesn’t care about all that. It tells you that you get one try, and it means it. Even if there are ways to play it more than once, you’re left wondering if you even should. There’s something really special about that.

Your time with Niko as a player is so fleeting. The game clocks at a mere handful of hours at most. But the combination of rock solid writing and character design, in tandem with the game’s special mechanics, makes those few hours feel so valuable. Would it be cheesy to say that I sort of miss Niko? Probably. But as far as I’m concerned, the best video games leave those kinds of feelings behind after they’ve been finished.

I hope wherever Niko is, they’re enjoying a stack of their mom’s homemade pancakes. Maybe they’re just outside my computer monitor. Either way, I won’t forget Niko’s story, and if you play the game I bet you won’t either.