There was a time when “Choices Matter” was the rallying cry of new releases. BioShock really wanted you to make a difference to those Little Sisters. Mass Effect really wanted you to mull over that rachni decision. And sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t, and eventually people seemed to tire of their Choices Mattering. But sometimes your choices do matter, and you won’t even realize it until the choice is staring you in the face. OneShot starts with a perfectly simple quest, a clear-cut task with no twists or turns, but the unique bond you form with your little character will be stretched and tested in the most surprising ways.
Adorable cat-person Niko awakens in a strange house, with no recollection of how or why he got there. The world around him is cold and dark, because its sun is cradled in his arms. Obviously it needs to be restored, and that resolve sets Niko on a journey across a strange, surreal land of luminous pools and mutant trees, of towering skyscrapers and the toaster-headed folks that inhabit them. He’ll need help from the colorful characters he meets, the clues left by the curious progenitors of the world, and you, of course.
Your relationship with Niko isn’t the same as when you control characters in other games, though. OneShot is an RPGMaker title with no combat so you can expect plenty of wandering and checking things and talking to people. But Niko is also going to talk to you, the player, fairly often. He’s going to bring you up in conversation with the people he meets. He’s going to ask you questions about your life, and tell you little tidbits about his own. You’ll move him around and have him pick up items, but in stark contrast to other adventures you’ll be constantly reminded that Niko is his own person.
That’s not the only way OneShot reaches past the fourth wall, but to explain any further would spoil the incredible surprises in store. The quest you two share may seem simple from the onset but it becomes deeply colored by what you learn about Niko, and what you both learn about the world. Beyond the surreal robots and beings you meet and their crumbling, luminous environs, there’s a purpose to the world that intersects sharply with your quest to save it. And in the middle of all that are you and your little virtual buddy, just trying to do what’s right.
The question that OneShot asks in its clever, brilliant way is, how much do you care about your characters? How important to you is the fate of some little virtual person? This isn’t the first game to pose it but it might be the first to be completely honest about what you and your character are to each other. There’s no moment of revelation between you and Niko, right from the start you both know he’s the hero and you’re the divine force guiding him. It’s clear as day so that when the hard choices come, there’s no suspension of belief or imagined fates at stake. When your virtual friend needs you the most, what will you tell them?
The gameplay and presentation seem almost secondary to the enthralling story here, but OneShot still manages to make the most of its RPGMaker roots. Maps are never too big and are designed with plenty of visual flair and details to interact with, and the muted soundtrack is perfect for an introspective journey. The puzzles are well thought-out and have solutions that come quite naturally, along with some serious ah-ha moments with the really clever ones. Really it’s a game without any major weakness, because even the basic wandering and examining gets punched up by the meta gameplay that intrudes more and more the further in you get. It’s a profound adventure, one with something to say about games and their narratives even if you think you’ve seen it all on that front. And that fact that it comes by way of a precious little cat-person just makes it that much better.