Wednesday, June 12, 2013
As far back as 2005's Shadow Of The Colossus, video games have been trying to use morality as a way to play with the player's emotions. A way to interact with us in a somewhat disarming fashion. A fashion that will, indeed, very often give the unprepared player pause for thought, and force them to think over what they've done over the course of their 'adventure' in a new and disturbing light. What's the quickest way to a gamer's heart? I'd say its probably guilt.
I recently spent a decent amount of ink talking about Downfall, another game that uses morality in disturbing and thought-provoking ways, and although I hate to start sounding redundant, let's explore another similarly-minded little indie nasty: Mortis Ghost's fantastic OFF.
On the surface, OFF is just an exceptionally-produced indie RPG with some surreal visuals, but that's all nothing but surface fluff, and the most arresting things about the game go far deeper than that. Even the story begins innocently enough: you are in control of The Batter (the game's goes to lengths to make sure you don't believe you actually are The Batter), and he's got a very important mission: he's out to 'purify' the whole world, and you're going to help him.
It doesn't take long for things to get weird, though. Perhaps the most bizarre thing about the game's characters is that, right from the start of the adventure onward, they constantly refer to the player by the player's actual name, and talk down to The Batter as if he's nothing more than a puppet. It's a little jarring at first, but that's just the tip of the iceberg as far as OFF's array of Nightmare Fuel is concerned. Suffice to say, though, the fourth wall will not protect you.
The game's colorful cast of characters is almost as impressive as its very unique and developed world. As you work your way through the game's many distinct 'zones', interacting with the 'elsens' (droves of identical, sickly little grey people) that inhabit nearly every corner of OFF, and purifying the 'spectres' that threaten their very existence, you're sure to fall in love with this strange place. Whether it's the odd bits of lore the locals will share with you at nearly every turn, or indeed, just their well-written and bizarre dialogue, it's clear that this place is a place like none other, and that Mortis Ghost went out of his way to make sure the world was as fleshed out as possible, and in the end, his efforts pay off: OFF's wonderfully thick atmosphere and unique sense of place elevate it to new heights that not many other story-centric titles out there can achieve simply on the backs of their quality yarns.
But what about all that tasty "morality in video games" talk I teased you with at the start of this review? Well, to say that OFF goes a bit off the rails (in a good way) would be an understatement. The game begins as a fairly standard RPG, gameplay-wise, that happens to take place in an incredibly distinctive framework, and ends a survival horror game with mind-bending puzzles and sinister locales that change and manipulate themselves in the most disturbing ways possible. And speaking of disturbing...
I spoiled it a bit in my introduction, but I'll reiterate: this game, during many of the its more infamous sections, gets very difficult to stomach. I saw Spec Ops all the way through until its bitter end, and nothing in that game came even close to a few of the memorable "Wham moments" that OFF has up its sleeves. It explores morality in a more confrontational way than any other game I know of, and it does so without even coming off as manipulative. The final stretch, in particular, is brutal. If you finish the game and plan on sleeping afterwords, don't worry: you won't.
The ending is still going to disappoint people looking for concrete answers, but overall, it strikes a very good balance between being vague enough to spark discussion and debate and yet still feeling satisfying. What is perhaps my favorite thing about the way that OFF wraps up is that, unlike so many other indie titles, the game is not only a decent length, but it knows how to make the narrative flow evenly over its lengthy runtime, and most importantly, end in such a way that the player doesn't feel like they've been abruptly yanked out of the experience. Suffice to say, if you're playing OFF, it's going to be for the story, which is, on the whole, very adult, very emotionally devastating, and very original.
Well, what of the gameplay then?
A resounding 'eh'. Several of the game's many areas have spots that need to be traversed over and over again numerous times (especially puzzle rooms), so having random encounters occur here is both dastardly and annoyingly distracting. I want to find out more about the world. I want to hear more plot exposition. I want to get to the bottom of the characters' motivations. I do not want to keep fighting these stupid ghosts over and over again, and repetition simply will not change the fabric of reality. Perhaps worst of all, though, is that these encounters also tend to yank players out of the immersive atmosphere the game creates so well, which is very unfortunate.
One thing OFF does get right involving its gameplay are the puzzles, which are pretty well-thought out and appropriate. A few particularly frustrating ones did convince me to look up a walkthrough, but overall, I thought they were decent, especially towards the end, where they suddenly become very sinister and nearly as mind-expanding as a few of the simpler puzzles in Antichamber. The puzzles usually boil down to simple number combinations and strange keys, but still, the dressing that OFF uses for these puzzles makes them feel so much more multifaceted and complex than they really are, which is nice.
Special mention must go to the game's production values. The score, composed by Alias Conrad Coldwood, is amazing, start to finish. The graphics, too, maintain an exceptional amount of quality throughout (especially that giant elsen. so adorable.) and many of the game's visuals were obviously hand-drawn, which is always a treat to witness. Its thanks to these things that OFF's atmosphere feels so thick and distinct. In addition, some of the bizarre scripted events that occur in the game's latter portions are just insane, and props go out to Mortis Ghost for figuring out so many incredibly surreal ways to manipulate RPG Maker 2003's rigid and boring engine. It simply must be seen to be believed. And did I mention that it's free?
All of this results in what I believe to be one of the most personal indie horror games I've ever experienced. No, it's not really 'scary' in the traditional sense, and it's definitely a bit of a stretch to classify this as 'survival horror', but when its all said and done, and you're staring at the credits, reflecting on the experience, this game has done to you what only the best horror stories can: it has shaken you to the core, and you couldn't be more thrilled with it.