(Indie Game Spotlight is an irregular feature, trying to be a regular feature that I haven’t done for almost a year and finally got back to. I highlight and talk about an indie game as opposed to the AAA titles that usually dominate the critical conversation.)
One Chance is a flash game over at Newgrounds that you must play, but a note before you do. The title is more than that; it is a warning of what you are about to play. You have only one chance to play this game. There are no restarts or replays. Refreshing your browser does nothing. Keep that in mind when you make your choices.
It is a game of note, also because it is notoriously difficult to write about. I could soliloquize its themes and how it conveys them, but there is no challenge in that, nor would it enlighten anyone. It is an emotionally powerful game, I say powerful in the same way a sledgehammer is powerful: you can help but feel the impact.
Before you read on.
I find it difficult to talk about the game without entering into a state of gonzo criticism. I doubt I can even do that well. I gave the above warning, because I didn’t have it when I played the game and it was slightly unfortunate. The game hit me hard in my emotional gut and I didn’t want to start over because I felt I failed or because of curiosity in what other options presented. (Something that may have run counter to the point of the game.) I wanted to play the game again and again so I could ferret out the thematic commentary of the designer. There is something in here to say about time and how we spend it. Unfortunately it was only after I finished my play through that I found out that is all I got.
A secondary note, while it is admirable that the designer chose this method to make sure his player had one shot, I feel this is the strong-arm method. There is no subtly to the design. I wasn’t guided into not wanting to play again, I was flat out told I could not.Â I said above that I didn’t feel like I failed, or at least not completely. I’m not sure if my path was optimal or not. The point is, were I not a critic, nor someone trained to nitpick and read closely I don’t think I would have wanted to play again. I would have the experience and I would be satisfied with it.
One Chance was satisfying unto itself and its delivery was comparable to a short story. (This is where I have further troubles talking about the game in an intelligible manner. I cannot play it again, so I cannot remember many of the details.) You play a man, a scientist, who has just discovered the cure for cancer. He goes into work and there is a celebration going on. You are offered by one of your female coworkers to go off somewhere. You are blocked off from the roof and the lab is open to continue your work. That is the first day. Subsequent days have the word turning darker and bleaker. We find that the cure has some very nasty side effects in that yes it kills cancer cells, but all other cells along with it. As the days tick down to total oblivion you make your choices to spend time with your daughter, taking her to the park, you see the fate of your co-workers as they kill themselves by jumping off the roof or in a more grizzly fashion and you can go to your lab to try and find a cure.
If I sound vague it’s because I have little choice. I have no reference material to see how these choices matter, or what specifically were choices, or effects. Things happen, but do they happen because of me, or were they going to happen anyway because of the situation. All I can be certain of is the end. That was the direct result of my actions. Every day I would go to work and enter the lab. Every day a large red X would appear on a computer terminal. The world was becoming a lonelier and emptier place, one night I came home to find my wife had slashed her wrists and left our daughter all alone. The next day she was so frightened she clung to me. I took her to work with me, over the corpses of my former coworkers, the message “Sorry” painted on the wall in someone’s blood. She plays in the corner of the lab as I see another red X. Finally the last day comes. Why I went home and not stay the lab seems a bit odd to me. I take my daughter with me again. Our skin is gray and the man moves slower than before. She is so tired I set her down in the lobby to close her eyes for a bit. I head into the lab and am greeted with a green check mark. I inject myself and then head into the hallway. I make it to my daughter, my own skin bright pink again and inject her. The final screen shows us both with pink skin sitting on a park bench. That is it. I have found the cure and saved both my daughter and myself to live in a lonely world.
That was my one chance and beyond the visceral emotional impact it had on me I have little else to say about it. Because the game only gives you one chance to play it makes it difficult to evaluate as a work or cultural artifact. I know how it makes me feel as a story would, but then this is merely the result of my actions. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book that would burn itself if you hit an end. A lot of the possible and authored content is lost. Any message therein doesn’t exist to the player and themes are muddled if not outright denied to us because we can’t play the game again.
It has been nearly a week since I’ve played One Chance and I’ve lived with the effect of that game. I’m sure it’s had an effect on at least one dream this week. But now it’s faded. I have a few mental screenshots, but like life memories they aren’t strong or concrete. It’s like I am missing some piece of the whole. As a piece of art I cannot double back to look or dig any deeper. It is a paradoxical work in that it presents itself as deep, possible is deep, but denies you from exploring it on any level but the surface.
Repeatedly at the beginning of each day I am told I have one chance to save the world and on the last day it changes the message to I had one chance. Of course that was the day I found the cure and saved my daughter and I. Was there some path I could not see? A single event that could avert catastrophe, or a series of choices from the first day onward in the game that I may or may not have had access to as the game went on? I ask these questions and wonder, as the designer wants us to. He wants us to think about what may have been or could have been in the face of total annihilation. We are supposed to be thinking these questions as we play, but I did not know the main rule of One Chance, the one hard coded into the game: you get only one chance, one play through. So I did not roleplay; or did I? I wont know now, can’t ever know now.
As an experience it is a sledgehammer, one that is still affecting me as I am still thinking about it. But without the ability to go back and relive the experience it will fade and be a one-time thing. No further inspection is available. Of course, by the time it really does fade from memory, maybe, just maybe my cache will have cycled this flash game from memory and I can live it again. This time knowing in this game my choices matter and this log can be left behind so that I may take the road not traveled.