“Should You Be Getting OFF?”: Off review
Surrealism isn’t really something we see a lot of in mainstream gaming. It’s a pity, because I really adore surrealist art in other media, be it the works of David Lynch or the film clips for Tool songs. In fact, up until recently, the only game I could really think of in that vein would be the cult-loved Deadly Premonition, which channels the same ‘supernatural crimes in small town America’ vibe of Lynch’s own 90s TV hit Twin Peaks. But apparently there has been another, very different kind of surrealist video game gaining popularity for a number of years now. It’s the kind of game you suddenly see screenshots of as they circle around Tumblr that immediately grab your attention and ask the all too important questions ‘Is this real?’ and ‘where can I get this?’
Well the answer is ‘yes’ and it’s free to download here on Windows PCs. This game is called OFF.
OFF puts you in control of a character called The Batter, who is on something resembling a religious journey to navigate several zones within a strange world in order to cleanse them of malevolent spirits. Now when I say you control the character, I mean that in a very literal way. The characters in the game refer to you, the player, as an external force guiding the actions of the story. I am not often a fan of texts that break the fourth wall, be they games or otherwise. To me breaking the fourth wall often comes across as a hackney, cheap gag that ends up ruining the internal logic of the plot. But in OFF these moments actually do a lot to add to the game’s story and strengthen its haunted feel. The way the game addresses the player as a mysterious puppeteer does a lot to aid the ethereal and creepy feel of the game. It also subtly characterizes The Batter him/herself (you can choose between the two) as it is only them and one other character, a slightly monstrous-looking cat entity, who is aware of the player’s presence in the game world.
Gameplay is divided between two different elements. Half of the time you’ll be navigating the strange world, talking to the drab inhabitants of the world who all seem to be suffering in suppressed torment, and solving the puzzles required to progress to new areas. Consider this a fair warning though, you need to pay attention to your surroundings and take notes on the symbols and objects located in the world in order to solve the puzzles. Often times I would come across numbers or symbols in strange locations that I knew would be used for a puzzle later on, but I didn’t understand how at the time and would inevitably end up having to go back (or Google it at times). The only way around this would be to essentially draw and map out the clues as you come across them.
The other half of the game is the combat, which is turn-based. It’s the kind of combat you find in games like Final Fantasy or Pokemon, where a small mob of enemies is lined up in front of your small team of characters and you take turns exchanging blows and performing different special moves. When all the enemies in the fight are defeated your remaining characters gain experience and level up. This makes them more formidable and complex fighters as the enemies in the game get tougher. Personally I thought the combat was fine, but I was happy to take advantage of the auto-attack options as often as I could. Just be aware that this option won’t always do the right thing by you, as it pretty much always attacks at the expense of healing. So use this option cautiously.
If I had to take issue with any part of the game, it would be with the last chapter of the game. Not because the ending of the game is bad per se, just a little simple and anticlimactic. Given the abstract nature of the game it’s hard to say with certainty that the way I read the ending was “correct” – but the way it came across to me not only seemed tired and predictable, but lazily reliant on shock. It’s hard to deconstruct this ending too much without spoilers, but given the length and depth of the rest of the game I think it’s fair to say the ending will fall short for a lot of people. Right at the end the player is given a choice to press a switch or not, and even though there are two slightly different endings that are based on this choice, neither one carries any clear consequences for the choice you make. In other words, the choice you make doesn’t seem to matter. Which would be a fine artistic point to make except that the game isn’t really clear about why you should care.
This criticism aside, OFF is a pretty well-designed experience that has been made available for free. The game takes around 5 to 6 hours to finish (as long as you don’t get completely stuck on any puzzles for any long periods of time), and although I actually would have preferred the game to be a little shorter I think it’s an interesting game experience in terms of narrative and presentation for quite a short time investment. If you’re interested in surreal and abstract media, do yourself a favour and get on to OFF.