Sure, One Chance was a nice little game but it probably doesn’t deserve all the attention it is getting. It is frightfully simple game with decisions. It is the how the players react, that I think is much more interesting. This of course wouldn’t be possible unless the game was well designed to evoke these reactions. My argument is that the game is genius because it messes up with our animal spirits1, not because of any technical limitation or feature.
The game as such is a nice example of how the human psyche really hates uncertainty. The game gives you really basic controls and really basic instructions and makes clear “you only have one chance” (it’s even in the title). One chance at what? Saving the world? Saving your family? It’s pretty much up to you. To make things worse, you don’t really know what happens after you interact with the few things in the environment, but the game strongly implies the decisions are permanent. This rubs many people the wrong way, because they want to know which interactions lead to the “win”, not to see what their choices will lead to2. The game doesn’t really give you any insight to what the character is going through so you can’t really relate to him, as much as think of him as a vessel for your choices3. It’s you who has to react to the happenings in the game world.
The other nice thing is the whole you-can-only-play-this-once4. However, I don’t think this is the root cause for this being a good game. Our dislike to make decision under uncertainty and our nature as a gamer are the root-causes for this to be a great game, and by allowing the people to play just once you evoke these two animal spirits. As soon as the game hit the news, the comments were full of people wanting to know how to get all the endings. I don’t really mind that and I don’t think that replaying it lessens the game at all. Like book, movie or song authors, once you have published your work, you don’t really control it anymore. You’d better make your point in your self-standing work, because you can’t really add anything there once it’s out or control how the people use or interpret your work5. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are people who will try and play the game many times and your work should stand on its own even then.
According to some research, there are several types of gamers6. Among others, there are people who want to explore and then there are people who want to beat the game. And does this game deny both groups? Hell yeah.
The power in the game is how it goes against our nature. The players of One Chance are in a foreign environment and don’t really know how things work and the game doesn’t allow for experimentation, you just have one chance. And one part of what makes us human is our tendency to explore our surroundings and our curiosity to learn how things work. The players of One Chance are not allowed the learn the game, which is these days quite rare in games. My argument is that the people who want to play the game repeatedly only want to experiment, or explore the game, not really play it. You played the game the first time around.
The other nice touch, without which the game wouldn’t really work is the cut-scene at the beginning of each day. Note that how the sentence says “In X days, every single living cell on Planet Earth will be dead”. This implies that there’s not much you can do about it, you fucked up even before the game began when your character developed the cancer drug. These are the X remaining days, make the best use of them. However, “You have one chance” implies there might be a bit of hope for … something? The game goes even more evil as the second sentence (at least for me) changed at some point to “You had one chance” to even more discourage me from trying to make a change, but to be more hedonistic about my choices. Fuck it then, off to the park it is to slowly die by my own creation.7
I believe it is obvious to many, even before they have played the game, that the “winning” condition is achieved by going to work each and every day. As the author said in an interview, “I mean, given six days left on Earth, who wants to go to work everyday?” Where the game truly excels is making this decision harder by the day.
Anyway, you can’t truly win at the game. There are many sacrifices on your path. Your wife can’t take it anymore and kills herself having lost all hope (and attention from our dear player). The beater/explorers don’t take this easily and swarm to the comments asking if it’s possible to both save the world and your family. Once again, it’s easy to say that they are entirely missing the point but I argue they just play games differently from some other people. For them, Once Chance wasn’t a game telling a story about a man, who goes on a futile search for a drug while everything around him is dying, going so far as to neglect his family at a time of need with grave consequences. And it is truly futile search, as the game constantly tries to discourage the player from going to work and to just live the last days of his life to the full. Whatever that means is up to the player and they don’t seem to take this freedom easily.