Disclaimer: this article contains some spoilers for OneShot. Of all the games I’ve reviewed, this is the one I recommend most checking out and playing through blind. It is unlike any game you have ever played, and this article would never do it justice. OneShot was originally a free game released on rpgmaker.net, and the definitive version on Steam only costs $10.
All pieces of art have an audience: books have readers, films and theater have spectators, paintings have observers, and games have players. After all, what is the point of art if not to let an audience experience something or understand a new idea. However, in the vast majority of stories, the artist neatly separates the audience from the fiction, and usually for good reason. The divide between the audience and the events of a story is called the fourth wall, a term originating from theater that describes the imaginary fourth wall that the audience peers through to see the action but that the characters have no awareness of themselves. This literary device bears the most importance since it allows the audience to experience the story in the first place. Sometimes a writer will make the characters aware of this, also known as breaking the fourth wall, and most often using a characters new-found awareness for for comedic effect. Video games, of course, are equally bound by the fourth wall. More often then not, the player will be an entity considered one and the same with the main character or separate from them but still divorced from the simulation. Earthbound was one of the first games to break the fourth wall, usually doing so to crack a joke at the expense of the player, and other games would follow suit with this style of comedic meta-commentary on the medium. Other games would take inspiration from Earthbound and bring the fourth wall breaks even further, such as Doki Doki Literature Club or Undertale where this becomes a major part of the story, but neither of these went as far or as boldly as OneShot.
Developed by Future Cat, released in 2014 and then expanded upon in 2016, OneShot tells the story of Niko, a child who suddenly wakes up in an unfamiliar world where the sun is long dead, and he is responsible for the new sun’s safety. Because the original release was free and for a game development competition, OneShot made a lot of risky and bold decisions with breaking down the fourth wall and binding the player closer to the story. Most of the gameplay involves collecting items and combining them in the proper order to solve puzzles and move on to the next area, but, true to its name, OneShot demands the player to beat the game in a single sitting. If the player closes the game, Niko dies and there is no way to reset this fail state without performing a factory reset of their computer. Similarly, the game cannot be replayed if the player reaches one of the two endings to the story. Every action the player takes has absolute permanence, which flies in the face of modern gaming sensibilities as many developers give the option to undo any mistake with just the press of a button; in return, however, the player becomes that much more invested in Niko’s character, being the only person responsible for his survival.
Despite this core mechanic being sacrificed in the remake, as it clocks in several hours longer than the original, Future Cat still has several clever ways to break down the barrier between the audience and the story. For example, early in the story, Prophetbot makes Niko aware of the existence of the player by referring to them by their real name and then regularly engaging them in direct conversation. This is a very typical method of breaking the fourth wall, usually used so a character can voice their thoughts aloud to the audience (like the classic “aside” in theater). OneShot uses these moments not only to explore Niko’s character but also cultivate a relationship between the fiction and the audience. For example, in the remake, Niko doesn’t die when the game is closed, but when the game is reopened, he asks the player what happened and describes the world suddenly going dark and feeling utterly alone until the player comes back. Niko will also ask the player for help solving a puzzle, call them silly for obviously incorrect solutions, or open up about his cozy hometown at specific points in the story. This literary device paired with a game’s interactivity turn the audience into another active character in the story. These important creative choices cultivate a relationship between the audience and the story that would be impossible to achieve in film or literature.
Moreover, OneShot breaks the fourth wall to innovate puzzle design in video games. The first few puzzles follow the same style of gameplay that a typical puzzle adventure game of its ilk would follow: exploring t0 find more trinkets and logical ways to use them. However, Niko and the player encounter a safe with an eight-digit code, a code impossible to find within the game. So how does one go about solving this puzzle? Well, the game kindly drops the answer inside of the computer’s Documents folder, which teaches the player that some solutions require literal outside of the box thinking if they seem impossible to answer within the bounds of the game. OneShot even delivers some of the dialogue through custom PC error messages to create dramatic irony by letting the player know of information that they cannot communicate to Niko and setting up an unseen character called the Entity, which is actually the software itself.
Thoroughly disintegrating the fourth wall is only one of many accomplishments Future Cat has achieved to create a very unique experience and one that would only be possible in a video game, whether through characterization and drama created in unusual, special ways or puzzle design unlike most games that have come before or since. It is one of my favorite games of all time, and it’s one that I highly encourage anyone to pick up.
Thumbnail. OneShot. https://rpgmaker.fandom.com/wiki/OneShot.
Fig. 1. Green phosphor. https://store.steampowered.com/app/420530/OneShot/.
Fig. 2. Niko on a bridge. https://store.steampowered.com/app/420530/OneShot/.
Fig. 3. Niko and the street cats. https://store.steampowered.com/app/420530/OneShot/.
Fig. 4. Niko’s dream of home. https://store.steampowered.com/app/420530/OneShot/.