No matter how unnerving it can be, I love it when games fight back. Now, I don’t mean this in the stern, political ‘go outside and climb a tree’ sort of way The Stanley Parable parodied so well. That tends to wear thin, fast. No, ever since the deliberate screwiness of Earthbound, a game’s capacity to remind me I’m only playing because it’s letting me remains – if marginally defeating – really quite fascinating to me. A lot of that, I suspect, is because it’s still a relatively new approach to storytelling in games. While Psycho Mantis nudged it over a decade ago, both Pony Island and Undertale achieved reflexivity with commendable (really quite recent) consistency, and the effects were deliciously disquieting. Encountering the NES-style overlay and familiar ‘unique gameplay’ Steam tagline, I admittedly approached Oneshot expecting a pretty similar effect. And true, it’s not defiantly untingly, but it segues so charmingly into genuine sympathy that - even though I knew I was being watched - I found the desire to resort to blue-tacking my webcam for the next indeterminate amount of time refreshingly abated. Not that that’s ever been an issue for me.
The creepiness began upon my awakening in a small cavern. It appeared I was a stout, scarf-donning cat-boy named Niko, and after encountering a mysterious entity sheltering inside a salvaged CRT monitor, it was soon made apparent that there’s not much left of the world in which I found myself; a world that is (such does the cliché demand) plunged in darkness, and very much in need of saving.
I’d have expected the rest of the gameplay to take place from the protagonist’s perspective. Having awoken, explored and communicated as young Niko throughout the tutorial segment, Oneshot sets itself up as a relatively ordinary RPG. But as soon as I came up against the game’s first major NPC, it quickly became evident that Oneshot wasn’t contented with my use of Niko’s adorable sprite as my own pixelated persona. It even took the liberty of drawing up a windows prompt outside the main game screen to let me know it knew I was plonked just on the other side of the screen. Now, where did I put that blue-tack?
It transpires that Niko is only a prophet; a messenger transported to this abandoned world in connection with an overseeing god. Once this was out in the open, I began to realise where I came in amidst all this post-apoc palaver. I was the God that’d lead Niko to greatness. And as that God, it was my responsibility to work out what was worth saving, and where to point Niko in order to save it.
But as much as I found my gamerly existence praised by Oneshot’s various inhabitants (admittedly massaging my ego as I went), what I began noticing most was just how un-godlike my own uncertainty made me feel. Both Niko’s vulnerability and lack of world-knowledge made my responsibility for him feel urgent, but the fact the game divulged little more info-wise to me lent to a comparable self-doubt that ultimately kept me fretting over many of the littlest choices. I just didn’t want to hurt the little guy.
Puzzle-solving forms most of Oneshot’s three-hour adventure. As the pseudo-biblical dream team supposedly formed to save the world, it’s your job to guide the little cat-eared prophet across three distinct lands, completing fetch quests, combining particular items and occasionally venturing into (without giving too much away) lateral thinking to bypass locked computers. Standard RPG fare, no?
Not entirely, for Oneshot makes several departures from the traditional formula, but not necessarily in a way that had me howling 'By Jove, that’s ingenious!' Not that that happens very often. Honest.
If the winsome visuals and irrevocably kawaii cast evoke Undertale, its continual reference to you (i.e. the one with the fleshy fingers behind the screen you) sets memories of Pony Island a-gallop. Not only does Oneshot distinguish you from its plucky feline Messiah, it uses that distinction as a basis for building a unique, often touching bond between player and protagonist as the story unfolds. Choosing between a limited selection (usually two) of dialogue options, you can talk to Niko, either sharing certain details about your own world with him, or keeping your off-screen identity ambiguous by lying or deflecting Niko’s questions. This often leads to uncovering more about Niko’s nostalgic past, and after a while of chatting (including several optional dream sequences realised in airy, handrawn stills), my relationship with Niko became a moving sort of pen-pal situation that offset our unforgiving environment nicely. As long as I was there for him, everything would be okay.
Don’t let this fool you into thinking communication is controlled completely by the player, however, for Oneshot takes as much opportunity to mess with the player as much as allow the same to be enacted upon Niko. It fiddles with your computer, taking charge of windows prompts and communication errors; even buggering around with existing folders to ensure puzzles never become too mundane. Most disconcerting of all was its tendency to call me by my name, despite my never having input it. I could be aware of just how the game was doing it as could be: when the game deliberately altered my background and told me (rather than the traditionally-silly pseudonym I would have assumed had I been required) that I ‘only had one shot’, that was enough to reignite those paranoid tingles I thought I’d buried back with Daniel Mullins’ game. Blue-tack at the ready.
Visually, it’s almost impossible not to draw parallels with Undertale. Sprung again from the increasingly-impressive GameMaker, Oneshot captures the sweetness of Toby Fox’s quaint monsterland, and with a comparable sense of loss. Plunged in a post-technological ruin, the aptly-dubbed ‘Barrens’ in which Niko awakes are a haunting wasteland, and exploring its vast perimeters only intensifies the loneliness. But where Undertale appeared a colouring-book trying desperately to keep its sunniness well-stapled, Oneshot opens upon a land in which the sun was blotted-out years ago. There’s no façade in Oneshot – only hurt individuals trying their best to continue.
True to classic RPG-dom, the map is appropriately sprawling, and though my acquaintance with the game consisted mostly of a bunch of aimless meanderings in search of some puzzle-solving doodad or another, Oneshot generally remains respectably-challenging, only ever hinting within optional items, or characters that don’t bark commands at you if they decide you’re taking too long to figure things out (yes, Uncharted 4, I’m still mad).
While the influential backbone of Oneshot is difficult to ignore, the integrity it shows to its own, post-technological themes ensures the game never really impinges upon its predecessors. The thistly glades of The Glen only vaguely echo those of Chrono Trigger, and the rosey-windowed factories Niko wanders through succeed more as ramshackle hidey-holes within a thoroughly deadened realm than a scrimp on Hyper Light Drifter’s neon palette.
The only part of Oneshot’s world that felt occasionally lacking was its promising cast. Against an environment already submerged in loneliness and technological estrangement, the remarkable distance between Niko and its inhabitants felt to layer on more of the same. Don’t get me wrong, they’re a terrifically-designed bunch; I encountered aquarium-owners with fishbowls for heads (y’know, follow your nose and all), moody, pink-haired handymen barely scraping a living, and mythically-pastoral characters belonging to the pre-screen eras of yore. One of the game’s best moments for me was noticing a kid with a TV-head pouring over a book in the library. In terms of imagination, characters really nail the organic-cybernetic conflict Oneshot seems to shoot for (with admirable humour, too), but in a game also concerned with morality, faith and sacrifice, their tendency to exist on the fringes of my relationship with Niko sometimes undermined the ethical battles bubbling beneath the storyline.
Then again, if the rainy cloud of Steam’s negative review category is of any evidence, one can’t happily skulk around expecting every video game character ever to spiel a backstory the length of The Last Guardian’s development cycle. It’s unrealistic, and defeating in a game like Oneshot. It was the fact that it fiddled with my own damned PC to convince me that I could really hurt Niko that mattered, and though Pony Island chiselled out that path last January, Oneshot invokes it more frequently, consistently and in a way that neither patronises nor confounds newcomers. And it makes sure to be cute while doing it.
Oneshot is not necessarily ‘revolutionary’ in construction, but it’s appreciably different in the ways it approaches the increasingly-trendy ‘metagame’. It’s often as clever, amusing and thought-provoking as its indie predecessors, but its ability to transcend its own boundaries to directly involve the player proves poignant in a way ultimately unique to Oneshot. It doesn’t always reach the depth of other titles of its ilk, and its isolated characters can sometimes jar its themes, but its novel use of what could’ve so easily been a mere clone makes Oneshot not only a continually creative puzzle game, but one in which its innocent, cat-eared protagonist keeps you caring till the end. Perhaps most commendably: it succeeds in making simulated-invasion of privacy cute. Maybe I’ll keep the blue-tack off for Niko. I want him to know I’m there.