Once is Enough

I played it a while back now, but since One Chance keeps on getting press I thought I should return and think about it a little. The claim to fame is that it’s a game you can only play the one time. It leverages this property fairly effectively in its manic depressive story: the end of the world as we know it thanks to a virus that you, the player, created. The game involves choosing how to live out the last days of humanity.

Okay, so One Chance is nicely made and fairly effective in telling the story it has to tell. It can be a little distracting if you’ve played Every Day the Same Dream before just because One Chance is so insanely similar to it. But that’s not a crime, obviously, and One Chance is going in some different directions anyway. (Still: why does it have to be so similar?)

The praise the game’s been getting centers on the decision to only allow you one playthrough. (You can get additional ones with various bits of browser tinkering, of course, but the general principle is just one go.) The argument is that because you only play One Chance once, and because you know this ahead of time, an added intensity and poignancy is given to all your actions and to the outcome you reach. People, affected by this, talk about reaching “my ending” and so on. It’s like life, “no do-overs” etc etc.

If I’m sounding blasé here, well, sorry. Allow me to momentarily gesture with my curmudgeon cudgel and to place my devil’s advocate wig upon my head. Frankly, it depresses me that One Chance has been seen as such a breakthrough. It’s a nice enough game, but the “one playthrough” thing is less interesting to me that it seems to be to others. For one thing, it’s painfully obvious, and it’s not like there haven’t been other “irrevocable choices” games out there. One Chance is nice for making an “irrevocable game”, but that’s only happened because it’s a little Flash game rather than something bigger.

The other part is that, for me, I didn’t find the one playthrough concept made the game any more (or less) evocative than I believe it would have been otherwise. If anything, I feel that what One Chance does, at heart, is comment on the sheer cynicism of video game players, though maybe not overtly. If the idea is that we, as players, simply cannot engage emotionally with our actions in a game unless they are the only chance we’ve got, then that’s a bit lame. And I also don’t think it’s true. I’ve had many affecting experiences in games that I could easily have reloaded to avoid or to experiment with alternatives. My slaying of the population of Paradise Falls in Fallout 3 springs to mind. Further, even when I sometimes do save-and-reload, there are plenty of moments that feel “deep”. In the opening sequence of Modern Warfare 2 for instance, I died at least one death that seemed very important and interesting as a commentary on, well, modern warfare. Then I reloaded and kept playing, and that didn’t seem to detract from the experience.

Having a game that you can only play once is, at heart, a cute idea, but I’m not sure that it’s either an emotional intensifier (beyond its novelty) nor really a deeply interesting use of the medium. It’s clever in the way that September 12th is with it’s “don’t interact” interaction mechanic. You go “huh, okay, interesting” and then you move on. As a rhetoric or as an experience, it’s pretty blunt. There’s a “first mover” advantage, of course, but that doesn’t necessarily make it much more interesting.

Alright. Cudgel down. Wig off. I’m sorry internet.

14 January 2011
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