Most storytelling in videogames borrows from other, more developed media, since we’re nothing if not unoriginal. We’ve got a visual storytelling medium with sound, so a lot of what we borrow we borrow from movies. It’s something of a fool’s errand to pursue, but as long as we’ve had the ability to deliver voice, we’ve been trying to deliver movies through storytelling, and sometimes it’s come out really badly. Missile Command tried to tell a story, and if you thought about it, it’s a story almost everyone gets. The same is true of Contra, and while games may have grown in their ability to convey a story, they haven’t broadened much in the spread of stories they’re willing to try and tell. For many games, the story boils down to ‘Guy needs to retrieve thing,’ and that’s where it ends. It’s served us well enough as a narrative.
While games evolve, the role of storytelling in games has remained sadly quite static. Story serves a role in motivating a player to continue the experience, either when it gets harder, or just to give some definition to what you’re doing. Some games have played with that in very clever, metatextual ways, games like Bioshock and Spec Ops: The Line, but both of those games are still playing with a very basic plot that’s been done many times before. Yet, there are a whole host of games that you don’t see being made, games where the motivation is different. Enter Offspring Fling.
In the opening of Fallout: New Vegas, the player’s initial motivation is set in what I consider a magnificent way. A player character fades up, as if from unconsciousness, witnessing a man whose very manner depicts him as an unutterable pillock, who offers a smug one-liner before shooting you in the face. I don’t imagine I’m very unique when I say that my immediate priority became finding that guy and force-feeding him his own hair. In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, your introduction to the story is watching shadowy faces converse about heady topics and the fate of a woman in the top of golden towers overlooking a metal-and-glass cityscape with flashing lights and helicopters. Bioshock throws you, tabula rasa into a world of What The Fuck and leaves you stranded without any kind of explanation as you try to gather your wits. Each of these introductory elements are handled differently, but they all set the shape of the story for you. You have motivation – revenge, mystery, survival. These motivations are well-explored and well-understood.
Now, what story does OF tell? It’s not a particularly deep story – told in a series of textless pictures, we’re presented with a mother figure surrounded by her squalling youth before they’re scattered to the nine winds by the outrageous bellowing of an enormous red dinosaur beastie. What ensues then is our protaganist going forth on a quest to save the day by jumping, climbing, dodging, button-pushing and timing-puzzling her way around a hundred levels of stuff. A hundred levels! Hang on, did you say She?
Yes. OF is a game that, as its own advertising blurb tells us, is a game about the joy of motherhood!
The things you’re rescuing in this game serve almost no purpose as children. They could have been, without the slightest change to the game, nicely-drawn and animated little squally aliens. They could have been super-sensitive magical beads that are required to unlock the gate. They could have even been distorted souls, lost ghosts to be scooped up by an ascetic monk with a vow of nonviolence preventing an actual escape.
That’s why your maguffins aren’t gems, or ghosts, or bullets, or dumbbells. They’re kids. The character you play in this game is a woman, and specifically, a mother. This game could have been something else, and it wasn’t, and that character shift changes the tone and adds to an already great game. The game developers are able to make risky situations and puzzles about the wellbeing of the children even more important and tense because you don’t want to risk them being hurt (you monster). There were so many ways that OF could have been made to execute the same basic mechanics, with a very different feel. I think, though, in that case, every possible way it could have been executed would have made for a much worse game.
Oh, and what of the game? Well, it’s a game with a very limited scope. The game is, with limited exceptions, all one-screen, time-based puzzle platforming experience, and because of that deliberately limited – I’d even say tight scope – the game experience is just as tight. In the same way that Arkham Asylum is a testament to fantastic pacing, OF is a breathtaking example of what you can do with a linear control of game experience. It’s not natural to jump from level to level and be deposited in ever-increasing, elaborate, ridiculous stages while searching for your children. It never feels as weird as it is, though, because the game is stylised, and with its central storytelling conceit reinforces it. You’re a mother just looking for a way to recover her children. You’re not a bullet-shitting badass. You’re cute – and so are your kids, which helped me connect to the experience. I wanted to make sure my kids survived, and kept trying the routes through things that were as safe as possible.
I’ve seen some youtube commenters – the spongy filth that collects underneath the internet’s foreskin – saying that the game shouldn’t have specified the parent’s gender, saying that it was just as good as a father as it was as a mother. To that, I say, Bullshit, because for fuck’s sake, we have thousands of games about fathers and fatherhood – this is one instance of conveying a game in a different way, and I think by forcing gamers to confront the possibility that women – even spongy, fluffy-eared adorable women – are just as viable an option for protaganist characters, OF is not just a good game, it’s a good example for games.
This is a fine example of a good game which is made into a great game with storytelling. It’s a tight, well-made puzzle platformer, but it uses framing devices that we don’t see enough of that help the whole experience connect in a way other games don’t.