OFF

OFF is a free game that’s an okay entry into the odd indie game subgenre. If you like those, you should go download it, but it’s not so impressive I’d recommend it to everyone. If you’re going to play, you should do that before reading the rest of this. Also, I strongly advise that you use a walkthrough, as the puzzles quickly get annoying.

One of the problems with getting RPG recs is that you’ll be told the game is all weird, so then you go into it suspicious for everything. I wish more fandoms took a Madoka approach, particularly with free stuff where “You should check it out!” is all you really need to say.

The opening distinguishes you from the character you play – you’re the controlling intelligence behind it, and this actually ends up matter in in the end. It also lets you have a lot of different characters to name yourself with. I picked Terezi’s symbol, which turned out to be incredibly fitting.

From the start stuff looked sketchy, with the emphasis on purification though killing stuff and the guy doing it with a bat, and you can’t really entertain the question of if it’s not intended that way when you’re playing a game that’s meant to be mindscrewy. Plus, your guide is a monstrous cat that initially doesn’t even recognize other life.

But it actually went in some odd directions from there. Heading out, you find people really do need you to stop the monsters attacking them, and then that additionally, the people in charge don’t seem willing to do anything for their people. And that cat seems to actually be a pretty nice, helpful cat who just was thrown by your appearance in an area that’s normally empty. But then continuing from there, you do end up “purifying” some people, but then, they appear to be getting possessed into attacking you, so that doesn’t seem to be your fault. It stays ambiguous – there’s a particular point where you’re attacked by one of the warped possessed people shouting HELP throughout the battle, but maybe you are helping? The people still exist and speak immediately after ending the battle, but then disappear, while mostly regular monsters are just gone. Or maybe you can’t help.

One of the givaways, though, is that you can reenter the purified zones at any time. I was actually expecting a message like “No, I’m done there,” or something to prevent me from finding out what killing the boss actually accomplishes, but you can head right back. So, if you’re suspicious about what’s going on when killing a boss makes the screen go white and you appear on the world map, or suspicious but just want to see if you’ve really gotten rid of the specters, you’ll discover that you’ve created a sterile wasteland populated by even nastier monsters. Probably would’ve been a good idea not to let the player go back to purified areas until after they were all complete. It’s especially weird given the purified areas are completely optional – I easily finished the game without ever returning to grind the tougher monsters or get the items. I’m also not sure what’s behind the decision to populate them with monsters in the first place – while it does fit okay with the specter being the souls of the dead and everyone in those areas is killed when you purify it, it doesn’t fit with the general idea of you steadily wiping things out completely in the name of purifying them. Plus, well, in videogame terms making an area toggle to a new, deadlier map with new stuff is generally considered a plus to the player. Just making them empty of everything would’ve been stronger.

The worlds themselves are nicely bizarre – there’s a lot that’s weird about them, but it’s in a muted way. Everything is extremely artificial, built off the fundamental elements of smoke, metal, plastic and meat. The people of the worlds straddle the fence on how much they should be considered people – each seem to be incomplete in some way, but at the same time, still appear to have their own lives and feelings. Is what they have really considered living? I think so, but things do seem bleak.

The ending segment of the game I found to be disappointing. It felt like they’d decided they needed to have a big wham, so it suddenly switches to hearing bits about a sick child. I was thinking maybe it’d turn out we were the medication or perhaps the disease, but nothing so original. There’s a bit where you meet the former guardians of the zones in the past, where it seems like they were once nice people – but there’s no real punch to this because the game’s established they’re objectively evil by the time you kill them (or tried – in Zone 3, you learn they make sugar out of corpses, but fails to establish if actually they’re straight up murdering people to do it or if this is just recycling, relying on eeeeew cannibalism to carry it.). Then you meet the queen, who’s apparently the kid’s mother, and suddenly it all turns into some metaphor for a husband murdering his family. To make matters more confusing, the kid says he was originally with his dad and his mom finally came and got him, but the queen accuses the character of not even knowing the kid’s name and her last words are that the kid has the same eyes, as if the guy is going after a child he’s barely knows or perhaps has never even met. Then you go and find the kid and hit him until he finally dies.

The very end of the game picks up significantly – you head toward the final switch, and I applaud the subtly there. Throughout the game, you’re only ever presented with switches that start in the ON position, and in a game, naturally you have to switch those to get where you’re going. Then at the end we discover the point is to turn everything off. Then the cat appears to accuse you-the-character and you-the-player of being evil.

The real problem is we already know the character’s evil since the point he murdered his wife, and from there we headed over to slowly beat his defenseless son to death. You’re basically on a railroad by that point in the game and just doing it to see where things will go. (Plus, the place you’re in is already monstrous.) The open worlds where there’s reasonably happy people are a place you could more legitimately claim it’s a choice to continue and destroy, since you’re not looking at a straight, empty corridor with only one way to go back then. Basically the whole room-section just doesn’t work for me and pulls down everything else.

Still, the cat says that the player can now make a choice – side with the Batter, or with the cat. It’s an oddly presented choice, though, since the names of the choices inform you the Batter side is the official ending. I mean, just aside from the fact I don’t understand how it’s a choice if one’s the real ending, it’s weird because it doesn’t seem like the ending that’d be people’s first choice. Although maybe that’s me and the game designer had a better grasp of human nature, since when I went to youtube to see how the other ending went I found people claiming that they didn’t like the other choice because they felt bad to betray the murderous protagonist.

But anyway, I picked the cat, killed the guy (who appears as a monster on the battle screen, which renders the rest of the game confusing – were the other people actually possessed/corrupted, or just seen that way? Plus it sort of implies he’s been corrupted himself as opposed to just evil. I think it’d have been better to keep the sprite he used all game, even if that’s less dramatic. The monster sprite looks really cool and all, but it just doesn’t fit.) and get the ending where only almost everything’s destroyed. It’d have helped to have a clearer idea of what the worlds were, and if they can be rebuilt again, and if rebuilding them only dooms them to be stuck in the same messed up flattened situation as we see during the game.

In terms of mechanics…this game is really, really bad. The puzzles are mostly variants of find clue(s), input in the right order. They start off easy (numbers on wall correspond to the boxes on the floor), upgrade to the numbers being in a room next to the room with the boxes…then you’re done with the tutorial and from there on out, it’s remember the increasingly long strings of numbers scattered throughout the large environment (which is also full of random encounters that are just a tedious exchange of blows to punish you for backtracking) and then use trial and error to figure out how it’s input. The puzzles never get more interesting or more clever as time goes on, they just get harder in the most boring way. By the end of the first level I’d resorted to writing things down, and in short order I just used the walkthrough to tell me the answers, even though I’d usually find the clues themselves without a problem. There’s also a good number of puzzles where it’s not even clear what you’re being asked to do. (Although I did like that you could brute-force the box puzzles if you needed to. I managed to complete a long one with only some of the numbers.)

The one mechanic that was executed well was the fleeing mechanic. You can only flee if the Batter feels it’s necessary. For most of the game, this feels like it’s just there to be kind of annoying since you have to commit to fighting every battle you hit and make you wonder why they even bother telling you it’s a potential option. It’s then executed in an entertaining way with one of the bosses you can’t beat until you run away and exhaust him with the chase. And then the plot gets to the room and you end up facing a little kid and your only options are to fight manually or to let the computer do it automatically, showing why it was necessary to do it that way.

There was also the really questionable decision to have some fourth-wall breakage. I’m not really a fan of that in the best of times, and it’s a particularly terrible choice in a game that’s already acknowledging the player as part of the story. In this, you’re known to be the controlling intelligence of the Batter, and also the pathos of the story really doesn’t work when it’s just a game full of fake NPCs there to mindlessly play a role. Yet of the tiny handful of characters, one’s an item merchant casually chatting about how he can get places ahead of you because it’s videogame convention and his appearances are all scripted. OFF is obviously meant to be playing with the conventions of games, but the designer doesn’t seem to realize you have to commit to whatever convention you want to mess with, you can’t have things going in more than one direction.

Overall I really feel like this was two games presented as one. This might be me missing something – a good number of people appeared to find the whole game ambiguous, but to me the guy was obviously evil by the room section. The room-section is a very different game, and while it’s obvious throughout that there’s something weird going on, there’s nothing I saw that fits with him beating his wife to death and then doing the same to his kid. The closest it gets to a connected theme is if you assume he’s killing the kid because the kid’s illness has progressed too far and he doesn’t think life is worth living that way, since it fits with killing the corrupted people. But that’s not a connection he ever makes. He talks about purifying things and about bad things being antagonistic most of the game. Making the room section its own thing would also make that story stronger to me – the question of continuing to play when you’re just killing innocent people works better when that’s all the game’s been and there isn’t any reason to assume the character is good, and it’s also more fair of a question when you haven’t already sunk hours into playing the preceding game. That game should resolve with killing the little boy or the player committing suicide right afterward. The switch ending works fine as a capstone to purifying the first four zones.

11 Comments

  1. Ember says:
    The thing is, it’s really abstract.

    I kind of got the impression that the whole game more or less takes place inside of Hugo’s head, though the only real clue to that is the Batter being the Batter (the supervillain in Hugo’s comic book fought with a baseball bat, and Hugo sees his father as a kind of supervillain, ergo…) In that case, the different lands and the way the good intentions of their guardians all went horribly wrong* are all reflections of Vader’s parenting under the stress of Hugo’s illness and her crazy ex stalking them. So it’s the same conflict reflected across two different scales: if suffering appears to be intractable, should it be eradicated at the price of oblivion? If that means nuking the world? If that means murdering your son?

    Speaking of Vader, does she really say the Batter’s never seen Hugo before? My understanding of the sequence of events was something like, Vader goes off to do Important Stuff leaving the Batter with Hugo; Vader returns and Batter leaves (or is kicked out?). The “he has your eyes” stuff struck me as a last appeal to get him to take mercy. In any case, he clearly hasn’t seen either of them for quite a while.

    Anyway, this would obviously mean that the world can’t be rebuilt and your choice at the end is ultimately pointless. Which I think is the correct interpretation, because the Judge himself tells you as much multiple times. His name itself is a pretty big clue to what’s going on in that scene.

    Oh, hey something just occurred to me. Maybe that’s what all of the fourth wall breaking (especially the mentions of scripting) and the division between you and the Batter was about. With any kind of media, even a game with branching paths, there’s a story you’re being told, and ultimately, you aren’t in control of it. But that doesn’t make you powerless or passive. As a reader or a viewer or any kind of audience you have one role, and one responsibility: to judge the narrative you’re being presented with, and accept or reject it. Maybe that’s also why one path (the Batter’s) is marked as “official”. It might or might not *actually* be the path preferred by the creator, but for the sake of the philosophical exercise, it needs to be designated as such.

    *I think the big problem with the sugar was not just that it was cannibalism but that it was driving the people there crazy like an addictive substance. Or, you know. Like cannibalism sometimes does.

    1. Fool says:
      Re: sugar; I thought it was stopping them from going crazy? The sugar-as-element speech says that it’s important because without it, people would go mad from the stress of life. It definitely is acting like an addictive substance, though. And…is sugar present in any of the other zones? The Zone 1 guys all say how their elements are shipped to other zones because they’re essential, so is it implied that Zone 3 ships sugar off to other zones as well?
      1. Farla says:
        I think it was that they needed to keep getting it or they’d go nuts. Which would fit well into the question of if a cure for something can be worse than what it’s trying to fix, if only it was better connected.

        I don’t think they ship out the sugar because no one else seems to have it, but then maybe they do and the problem with that zone is simply excess? In moderation, sugar helps, but too much causes the insanity.

    2. Farla says:
      She accuses the Batter of not even knowing Hugo’s name.

      The problem is nothing seems to fit quite right. The game seems to be in Hugo’s head, but in that case, where does the idea they’re rebuilding come from? Apparently there was a world, it was nearly destroyed, and then it was built up again. And the idea that the different guardians are reflections of his mother has the problem that they’re all male – there’s only two female characters in the whole thing and one of them is a secret boss who may not have any story purpose at all. Plus we see what’s probably Hugo’s interactions with them, as if they have some reality of their own. Which doesn’t mean they aren’t supposed to be (they sort of fit as different flawed parenting styles) but the game is going in a half dozen different directions there.

      Because it’s impossible to nail down what the hell the place is and what the guardians are and why things are going bad now and why rebuilding isn’t a valid option and so on it’s impossible to answer any questions, because what on earth are the stakes? If the idea is that things always fall apart, get rebuilt but quickly and inevitably end up terrible, then that’s a solid enough framework to consider the Batter’s actions, but there isn’t even that. If the idea is the rebuilding is failing because the initial damage was too extensive, then it goes better with the idea the kid is terminally ill and all treatment can do is give him some temporary improvements that quickly fail, but it doesn’t tell us that either.

      And the sugar! The sugar seems to be an addictive substance, but then again, each zone has the little guys being crazy in their own ways and the sugar ones at least had some life in them. They could defend themselves, even if mostly they didn’t. It’s really hard to tell if giving them sugar was hurting things or if they were already messed up and this is the best solution anyone could find, and regardless what was the point of the sugar corpse furnaces when there’s already ample problems with sugar?

      You might be right about the whole judge bit, but it just gets us back to that the narrative is too confusing and going off on too many tangents to judge it adequately. If it’s supposed to be about how the player doesn’t really get to chose the story, the story needs to be moderately coherent.

      1. Ember says:
        Oh yeah, it’s definitely lacking coherence and trying to do too many things at once while doing none of them thoroughly, and the sugar thing is another symptom of that. I showed this to someone I know who’s a lot more into it than I am, and apparently there were really something like three different stories Mortis wanted to tell, and he mashed them all up into one because… ??? Maybe because he wasn’t sure if he’d ever really make more than one big project?
        1. Farla says:
          Three, huh? I wonder if that’s why the two seconds of the game aren’t properly self-contained, I’d figured it was from trying to mesh them. Has he said what the three different ones were?
          1. Ember says:
            I’m not even sure if it’s something he’s said directly or it’s just her theory from what she’s seen of the concept stuff and what he has to say about it, but it’s the two you’ve identified and then Zacharie had his own story that seems to have been mostly sidelined.
    3. Ember says:
      Huh, just discovered there’s a word for exactly the kind of purposeful fourth-wall breaking I’m proposing: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verfremdungseffekt
      1. Farla says:
        Oh, German. Is there anything you don’t have a word for?
  2. Nerem says:
    Ugh I’m trying to remember it but the whole plot point thing with the Queen got messed up because of a translation error. The Queen and the Batter are not actually Hugo’s parents. Hugo created the Queen and the Batter. The translation got the line reversed. Everyone else loved Hugo and tried to create a world that’d make him happy (and ended up getting corrupted by the problems with their Eisens – the phoenix was ignored by his thoroughly ungrateful Eisen, for example, and then was stepped on and left to get eaten by a cat.

    The Batter however never cared about his creator, hence the accusation of not even knowing his name.

    By the way, it’s hinted that the monstrous version you see when fighting the Batter at the very end is how he actually looks. When you fight Sugar, the secret boss, she refers to the Batter as a ‘ducky’, which just seems to be because she’s loopy at the time…

    … but the Batter’s monstrous form in fact looks like a duck.

    1. Farla says:
      Ah, that all makes a lot more sense.

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