Written by guest writer and tolerated acquaintance of the site, Shane Raymond. You can check out his previous guest article on Splinter Cell here.
In 1969, On Death and Dying was written by the famed Swiss-American Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. This book features the Kubler-Ross model, or what is now known most commonly today as the five stages of grief. These are, in order: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I have learned this information in order to properly articulate my full experience with Only If.
Before I say anything else about Only If, I want to be very clear. I hated Only If. I despised this video game more than any other any other work of fiction I have ever experienced. If Only If was my child, I would tell it we were going to Disneyland, take a nine hour car trip to Anaheim, California, stop right outside the park entrance, and laugh. I would then turn around and drive home with the Kidz Bop cover of “Thrift Shop” playing at full volume, on loop, for the entire ride. When we arrive home, I would then make it play Only If. That is how much this game offends me.
Only If is an adventure/puzzle video game developed by the indie development team Creability. It is similar in nature to such titles as Gone Home, Dear Esther, and, most strikingly, The Stanley Parable. Some similarities with The Stanley Parable include:
- A mysterious voice that taunts, and occasionally helps the player.
- A choice system that ultimately has no real meaning.
- A normal environment that eventually descends into something seemingly impossible.
Some differences between Only If and The Stanley Parable include:
- The Stanley Parable is a good video game.
With this in mind, let’s begin.
Chapter 1: Denial
The beginning of any game is always a tricky business. In the first few minutes, the developers should pull the player in, teach them the necessary context, and paint a picture of what the rest of the game will be like. Only If starts with Anthony, our bumbling idiot teenage protagonist, walking up to a large house party. “I sure hope Sam likes me…”, he mutters, before opening the door. Perhaps this game originated from a bet. “I bet you can’t make a great game that starts just like an American Pie movie would.” I’m still not sure who won that one.
After presumably getting wasted from a virgin appletini, Anthony wakes up in someone else’s bed, where the player is confronted with three horrifying things. The first is a gigantic framed photo of Yoko Littner from the anime Gurren Lagann. The second is a “The Cake Was a Lie” joke, which may actually be one of the most significant pieces of foreshadowing in the game. Finally, the last and most horrifying thing in the room is Anthony’s inner monologue. Anthony is the scariest, most terrible thing present because he never actually leaves. His character reads and sounds like a half-baked parody of an obnoxious teenager, but much more incomprehensible. Anthony is the sort of character who would call another character a “pedophilic faggot”, but only when enraged. He also enjoys mumbling every single one of his lines that is not a grotesque insult or cry of pain.
It is at this point where I begin to suspect that Only If is a joke, purposefully acting in an over-the-top, pretentious attitude for the benefit of humor. I can’t believe that anyone could have such a startling lack of self-awareness. This includes what is essentially a framed picture of a sexualized teenager and one of the most notoriously overused
jokes references of all time; “The Cake is a Lie.” It is the “what’s the deal with airplane food?” of our times. Bringing it up in a chatroom is a great way for every single person there to think you’re a dolt. Bringing it up in an artistic game that is “about your typical millennial person” is a great way for me to think that they can’t possibly be serious.
Chapter 2: Anger
I think they’re being serious.
Anthony is chased down by some mysterious evil dark force while following a mysterious blue orb before finding safety within the confines of our mysterious villain’s home. If I had to describe this sequence in a word, I would call it “real dumb.” That’s two words, but if Only If gets to subvert expectations by doing something infuriatingly inane, then I should get to do so as well. It is at this point where we meet the driving force of my hatred, Vinny.
Vinny is perhaps the least likable character I have ever seen in a video game. This is not in itself a critique against Only If as he is obviously the antagonist, but the way in which he is made unlikeable is lazy, confusing, and obnoxious. Vinny is the type of character meant to define the main choice of the game, a choice between “The big dick ending or the small dick ending.” He enjoys pretending he is a psychopath (similar to Vaas from Far Cry 3, as I have been told), when really he is just a huge asshole.
I am outrageously fascinated by the developer’s perfection of what appears to be an anti-comedy duo. Anthony’s “millennial,” angsty attitude is at a rage-inducing contrast to Vinny’s furious, ignorant, and crude demeanor. There’s a constant need to one-up each other on who is able to get on the player’s nerves the most. While Anthony’s best tactic for this is mumbling inane complaints and insults under his breath whenever possible, Vinny instead just opts to scream profanity and insult ridden rants for minutes at a time. In the end, the player feels like a child going through a nasty divorce. Just, imagine the parents being Samuel L Jackson and Michael Cera. Fuck this fucking game and its idiotic rambling dialogue.
Chapter 3: Bargaining
After humoring Vinny’s ridiculous demands to continue onwards, the player is greeted with a choice. The game is not subtle about informing you that either choice, the white pawn or the black pawn both lead to their respective endings. (One thing to note here is that Vinny refers to the black pawn ending as the “small dick” ending and the white pawn ending as the “big dick” ending.) I would commend them for being honest and transparent, if this was not just a complete lie. In truth the
small dick black pawn ending simply adds another twenty minute scenario before forcing you back to the exact same room to make the opposite choice, and continue on from there. This does not work vice-versa, just ensuring that anyone who played the white pawn ending first will either have to quit out prematurely or play through the exact same content until the game actually ends. Really, the black pawn scenario is not an ending at all, assuming that endings mean the game ends. To be fair, a message earlier in the game states to “Save the black pawn”, but one wonders why make it a choice at all.
After, most likely, choosing the black pawn scenario first, Anthony and the player are thrust into the most mechanically frustrating part of Only If. In hindsight, this section is actually my favorite out of the entire game, because it makes relative sense. After going through the door Anthony finds himself inside of a box. Vinny, and a few of his friends, are talking about killing him immediately outside of this box. The box is then flung into the water, and broken open, as a windmill violently explodes around you. As with all good video games of the last decade, the player is tasked to mash the space bar as hard as possible to escape a watery grave. Most likely because smashing buttons received much praise while in testing, this becomes an important gameplay mechanic for the next ten minutes.
If there is anything less fun in a video game than crawling slowly through grass, avoiding instant kill spots, and having to mash the action button every ten seconds, I have not yet experienced it. As if to relieve the player, Anthony eventually begins to walk, eliminating one out of the three awful gameplay mechanics, but changing another one for the worse. Instead of instant death locations, if the player wanders off the path the game instead tells the player to mash the action button but then kills them no matter what. This accomplishes nothing except to bewilder the player, who will most likely attempt the same thing, but with faster mashing to predictable results.
It is worth nothing here that there is never a good concrete reason given for Vinny’s bloodlust towards Anthony for most of the entire game. Although just being crazy makes the most sense in regards to his character, it does not explain why Vinny’s friends are roped into the murder as well. Upon starting the black ending Vinny remarks that Anthony is responsible for killing his daughter. At another point Vinny states that he does not wish to be Anthony’s enemy and regrets the position they’re in. Upon starting the white ending, Vinny states that he has gained a newfound respect for Anthony and his decisions. This is almost immediately followed by more verbal insults. Even the (true) ending appears to treat the entire relationship as a joke, but we’re not nearly there yet. If one argued that this was done intentionally, then that person arguing is most likely the developer, and they have already hurt my feelings enough.
After finally completing the PTSD simulator, Anthony makes his way into a nearby house. Unfortunately, this is Vinny’s summer home, or his gang hideout, or something. Needless to say, the game turns into a horror/puzzle game similar to Amnesia: The Dark Descent for another fifteen minutes. There is no actual AI to speak of, but staying in certain situations without doing something will cause you to die. Although I have not played too many horror games of this type I can still confidently say that this part sucks too. The puzzles are mostly based on exploring, finding something, and using that something on something else to progress. This is usually straightforward, with the exception of one of the last puzzles, which requires you to backtrack to the very start of the level in order to put two items into a place where no one would suspect they would ever fit or belong.
Despite the heaps of mechanical issues, this entire section felt like one shining ray of hope. Yeah, it wasn’t good by any means, but it made sense, and they didn’t screw up the things they shouldn’t have screwed up. In contrast to the rest of the game’s audio, which is either full of high school slam poetry dialogue, or decently fulfilling music, the house was completely silent. At times, when running away from enemies, there was legitimate tension. There were also no jump scares, which is a long running pet peeve of mine. This doesn’t sound like a compliment, but the fact that the developer was legitimately trying and succeeding in something was impressive. Perhaps I hadn’t given Only If the chance it needed.
Oh, Only If.
Chapter 4: Depression
Stepping out of Vinny’s madhouse, I was greeted with an achievement titled “Was any of that real?” The icon was a picture of Snape from the Harry Potter series. Underneath Snape lies the caption “dafuq.” I sighed. One has to wonder about how seriously one is expected to take a game when it refuses to extend the same courtesy even to itself.
In the next room, Samantha Grace makes her first major speaking appearance. Sam is the girl that Anthony had a crush on and also apparently murdered. Sam is also Vinny’s daughter, and the owner of the house, and trapped with Anthony, maybe. Anthony helpfully informs her that “your dad is a little bit crazy” before the radio is hijacked by the man in question. Vinny mentions the scene in Inception where the room goes topsy turvy, before the room you are standing does exactly that. It’s worth mentioning that standing on the wrong side of the wall will instantly force you to repeat the scene and listen to Vinny’s dialogue again. Apparently, listening to a man I hated tell me how much of a shithead I was is exactly what I spend my free time doing these days.
Finally, you escape through another door, and he shuts up. The next part of Only If involves the player walking through a charming meadow, typing in answers to questions raised from an anonymous voice, and sticking one’s head into trash cans. Truly, the American dream. Each time the player sticks his head into the trash can, a single word of a phrase appears. Believing this to be the part of Only If where it finally began to bunker down and at least try to say something, I begin to feel an emotion akin to restlessness. Each word is brought to the forefront of the screen, establishing to the player how important this phrase will be.
I have to
I have to find
I have to find some
I have to find some of that
I have to find some of that D
My face fell into my hands for a solid minute.
I stumbled through the rest of the area in a bit of a haze. I had no particular response to the morphing brick maze or the couch contained within. I felt drained emotionally, almost betrayed. I was at least thankful that neither Anthony nor Vinny ruined this moment of somber self-reflection with their clown antics. If only this moment lasted forever.
Jumping into a vortex of darkness, Anthony was faced with yet another Shakespearean monologue from our favorite reminder of the pointlessness of existence, Vinny. Looking towards a lone slot machine, Vinny challenges our proud hero to prove his worth by finding a single gold coin to insert upon this symbol of hopelessness and despair. I imagine that the seniors playing the penny slots at my local casino for hours on end feel just as empty as I do.
Pointless challenges are completed. The puzzles are hardly even quantifiable as such, considering the answers are written down on notes in plain view. “Run six seconds and turn right”, one reads. “If the door isn’t the answer, the silence is key”, states another, next to a key. I feel as if I’m a guinea pig in a maze, simply doing what I’m told, desperately hoping to gain something. But of course, like that guinea pig, all I really want is freedom from this cage. I grab the gold coin, and put it into the machine.
“You speak nonsense all the fucking time!” screams Anthony. It is the first time in the entire game where I identify with Anthony. “When I get out of here…” Anthony continues, “I’ll be the one calling the cops on you!” That was also the last time I identified with Anthony.
In a setting that almost resembles Columbia from Bioshock Infinite, one man stands alone. His only friend in the face of increasingly ridiculous platforms is his gun. What use is a gun when one is attempting to platform?”, you may ask. Well, in one gigantic pun on the term “getting high”, the player shoots open pots which contain cannabis that helps you jump higher. Anthony’s voice actor make a startlingly bad impression of what he imagines stoners are like, as I suspect he has never actually met one before- or, any human for that matter.
As Anthony is propelled upwards, even *higher*, I can only reflect on my journey up to this point. I’ve experienced so much, but loved so little. Maybe Only If is just trying to teach me a bit about myself. That’s the only thing that works out.
Thus begins the (big dick) ending.
Chapter 5: Acceptance
Waking up in the same room featured at the start of the game, Vinny and Sam waste no time in telling Anthony to get out of their house. Harkening back to the pseudo-intellectual “is this all a dream?” sequence, I briefly wonder if I have finally reached the point of the game where things make sense. I mean, telling a guy like Anthony to leave is the most realistic and emotionally poignant action I’ve experienced yet far. Hopefully, this entire debacle will end with Anthony walking out complaining about a terrible headache and friendzoning. This belief wafers even as I begin to approach the door.
This brings me to a funny hypothetical that may have something to do with this next section.
Imagine a scenario where a loud hispanic man tells you how much of a worthless piece of shit you are for 3 minutes (which I may believe is true, after this game.) Next, assume that you had a gun with unlimited ammo, and that there were hundreds of green pots lined up neatly all around you. What if I then told you that these pots would occasionally turn into large drawers? What if I proceeded to make the hypothetical even more fantastical by telling you that none of that mattered and you needed to find a trash can to stick your head into to unlock a key to unlock a door in the middle of the arena? How would you feel about this?
This is not a rhetorical question, please e-mail me your answers posthaste. It is of critical importance, as I have run out of synonyms for “self-loathing.” Only If is an interesting piece in that it inspires hatred in the game, before eventually inspiring hatred in one’s self.
It turns out Vinny was trying to protect Anthony from having sex with his sister, Sam, the entire time.
“It’s Not Unusual” begins playing. “Wincest”, an achievement states. They continue talking. Vinny is apparently her godfather. Sam explains that half of what Anthony believed was not true. I come to a startling realization.
I’ve been had.
Fooled. Misled. Deceived. Hornswoggled. Bamboozled. I had been defeated, completely and utterly. Throughout my time with it, I have believed that I was playing a videogame called Only If. In truth, Only If was playing me. All the time I spent fruitlessly searching for answers was for naught. There were no answers. There never were.
The outdated Portal reference had finally made sense. How could someone apparently making a game for artistic merit put one of the worst overused video game memes in the very first room? Why else would he force the player to answer ridiculously pedantic questions regarding blue rose prose? Why else would they make a room with the single objective of turning pots into dressers with a tommy gun? The answer turned out to be much simpler than I ever anticipated. They hated me with a far greater voracity than I hated them.
“Only If is what happens when you ask a college frat boy to re-make The Stanley Parable.” I had said this after my very first experience with Only If, shortly after it crashed and I had to hard reset my computer. I wasn’t completely incorrect. After all, the devs appeared to share the same sense of humour with most college bros. The difference is that they understood the point of games like The Stanley Parable or Gone Home, and they were disgusted with it. Only If was never supposed to be a game that taught anyone anything. Only if is a game that shows exactly what it thinks of you, and the type of game it tricks you into thinking it is.
After all of this, I respect Only If. Only If is a game that seeks out to do something, to fill you with a certain type of emotion, and it succeeds. I hate Only If, and I still do, but that was its objective from the very beginning. Following through with a goal in such a fantastic, all-encompassing fashion is worthy of praise; even if the goal was less than jolly. Only If, in an attempt to show that interactive media is not worthy of being praised for being works of art; may very well be art itself.