Contains spoilers for Doki Doki Literature Club
CW for Suicide and Graphic Death
The moment I knew I was going to have issues with OneShot was when it first referred to me by name. It felt jarring, like I was being perceived by something that shouldn’t be able to, but it wasn’t played that way in the game. In the game I was a god, I the player was a god in this fictional universe and was addressed as such by characters in the world including the player character that I controlled. That was also uncomfortable, but mostly because it felt like the game was trying to jack me off a little too hard for my liking. Luckily, I was given the option to change the name they’d refer to me by, and I went ahead and entered xXxBONGLORD69xXx. Perfect. Secure behind a layer of protective irony I continued.
OneShot is an interesting and imperfect game. It’s structured like an adventure game, you explore the map collecting items and interacting with characters to solve puzzles and progress, but it comes with an extra layer of meta sensibility. The character you control in the world map, Niko, is her own character in dialogue, she speaks directly to you and asks your thoughts on situations in the world and your life outside of the game and you’re given a set of pre-written responses to choose from.
In return you guide her through the world and help her with puzzles using clues that appear in the file system of your computer to provide solutions, given to you by a mysterious entity within the world that speaks to both you and Niko (you directly through pop ups that appear on your screen outside of the game window, and Niko in computers inside the game).
It feels perhaps like bad criticism to think less of a game for not being what you want it to be rather than just what it is, but that’s the situation I find myself in. This unique narrative framing and the mechanics that come along with it are fascinating and challenge the assumptions that you make as a player controlling a character, but they never really amount to anything. The story becomes about the relationships Niko has with characters, questions of utilitarian ethics, but the question of your relationship with characters doesn’t really get enough depth, mostly using Niko as a proxy for the bonds the game assumes you as a player have formed with characters in the game world. It’s a story about relationships, but it holds you at arms length from the characters you’re meant to be forming a relationship with despite trying to directly address you.
Really my problem with the game is that it does the worst thing you can do as a piece of media, which is to remind me of a better piece of media, in this case Doki Doki Literature Club (spoilers for both games going forward). Both games engage with the player on a metatextual level that involves game mechanics using your computer’s file system outside of the game window, and both games engage with the separation between player and player character, but Doki Doki Literature Club comes out as more engaging because it links those ideas to the broader landscape of gaming and visual novels specifically, and also embraces that dissonance for thematic and dramatic tension.
It’s a horror game, and the horror comes from the idea that in a genre where you usually play a character who is in control of the relationships you have in the story on a mechanical level, another character in the story is able to exert their own control over events. You as a player go from inhabiting the role of a blank slate romance VN lead as a proxy, to being directly addressed by characters in the game. You don’t pick a route by doing things in certain orders or getting a certain number of flags, they’re chosen for you and ended violently as the structure and aesthetic of the game begins to degrade. The power inherent to your role as the player of the game is undermined as events spiral out of control. Your best friend hangs herself. Images, music, text, and UI elements take on a glitchy distorted aesthetic. You sit scrolling through a seemingly endless scroll of gibberish text in fast-forward watching one of the potential love interest’s body begin to decompose for two days of in-game time. You are not in control anymore.
DDLC has a reputation as a streaming game because of it’s graphic and sudden violence, and it’s fun watching people’s reactions when blindsided like that. But by contrasting sudden and unsettling violence and behaviour against the tropes and backdrop of a romance visual novel, the game foregrounds the expectations players have for the genre in order to subvert them on a meta-textual level as it’s revealed that Monica, a character in the game who’s become self-aware and started messing with the code, is actually obsessed with the player, not their proxy in the game world. This comes to a climax as she strips away all the original trappings of the game until it’s just her portrait looking directly at you and a textbox where she tells you how happy she is that it’s now just the two of you. To properly end the game you have to go into your game folder and delete the file that represents her, which will restore the game back to normal. The game is structured around this slow build of tension and increasingly obvious artificiality where the direct address of the player serves as a form of disruption, recontextualizing the events you’ve been watching and participating in, and demanding that you seek answers outside of the diegetic world of the game window in order to progress.
The game calls attention to the difference between player and player character for dramatic and thematic reasons, and to engage with and comment on the larger conventions of romance visual novels in general. If your the player avatar in the world of the story is going to be a blank slate for the player to inhabit, why not just directly address the player? As a player you have a certain amount of authorial control over the direction of the narrative by virtue of being able to save and reload, or to quit out of the game at all, what if another character in the world of the story had that ability? But those questions are left as subtext, that game makes you think about them by making them implicit in the conceit of the game which is that a character in the story has seized a level of authorial or narratorial control over the story and framing that is explicitly metafictional.
OneShot is less elegant about it. It addresses the idea immediately and thoroughly. Every time you close the game and re-open it Niko will comment on your absence, as you go through the true ending it’s explained in detail to her that the player’s godly abilities are just that they’re playing a video game on a computer. It feels too eager to wrap up plot threads, to answer questions instead of asking them of the player. Everything just boils down to a fairly simplistic save-the-world narrative with some cute gimmicks.
The reaction I had when encountering the direct address to the player in OneShot was the same emotional reaction of discomfort that DDLC is based on, but the game didn’t seem to see that as a problem, or even necessarily a potential outcome. It gave me the option to change how I was addressed, and me naming myself xXxBONGLORD69xXx was a direct (and admittedly childish) reaction to a sense of discomfort the game created by breaking with the general structure of the medium and addressing me directly within the narrative. It could have avoided that potential act of aesthetic vandalism by just referring to me in vague terms as some kind of god figure, but they thought it would be cute to have the game scan my computer and use the name of my profile.
Is this a me problem? Maybe. It could be that I just don’t like being perceived, especially by systems that I don’t normally have that relationship with. But that discomfort and annoyance extended through OneShot in various ways. Certain puzzle solutions would be given to me via my desktop background, making me later go into my settings to change it back only for another clue to change it again. One late-game puzzle involves layering a second window over the first in order to navigate an invisible maze, but it stretched on long enough that I found constantly having to alt-tab and re-align the windows became tedious as the accompanying exposition continued, sentence by sentence, room by room.
It’s not a bad game, but it feels like a first draft. OneShot is overfamiliar, like a puppy or a young child, expecting you to get as excited about it’s little tricks as it is, whether that’s playing with the form of a video game or its saccharine writing and dialogue. The writing gives the impression of a 20 hour rpg emotional arc where you spend time with the characters throughout the game amidst a larger narrative and more involving gameplay then condensed into 4 hours. It takes those moments of emotion where the game has earned those beats of sentimentality out of the context of a larger story and more varied gameplay loop and then strings them together one after the other to the point where it becomes overwhelming saccharine.
I want to like it but I just can’t, there’s too much of it that I find corny or dull and it’s all the more frustrating because of the potential this kind of gameplay and meta-mechanical design holds. Not every game can be a masterpiece, especially when it’s playing with ideas like this that are new to the more mainstream side of gaming, but it’s still disappointing to see a game fumble the ball like this when it’s at least trying to be interesting.