IF Comp 2010: Oxygen

As has been my practice for the last few years, I’ve set my RSS feed to truncate entries so that I can post reviews without spoilerage. Within an entry, there is a short, spoilerless discussion (though the comp purists may want to avoid reading even that before playing for themselves); then spoiler space; then a more detailed discussion of what I thought did and didn’t work in the game.

I’m also pursuing an approach I came up with a couple of years ago: I’m playing and reviewing games that have listed beta-testers, and skipping those that don’t. In 2008 that turned out to be a pretty fool-proof indicator of which games were going to end up scoring 4 or less on my personal scale, and it made my reviewing process a happier one in 2009, so I’m sticking with it. I’m hoping this will mean I have more time to devote to the remaining games, which in turn will (I hope) be of higher quality, and you, dear reader, will have fewer rants inflicted on you.

Next up: Oxygen.

This was really pretty good but could have been much better yet. Some of that has to do with implementation, but some is due to fundamental design choices that I’m not sure could be solved easily.

There’s a lot that goes right. The setting is engineering-heavy SF, the kind with lots of machinery and wires and control panels. The number of details and doodads could be overwhelming, but fortunately the puzzle space is compact and it quickly becomes clear which items matter. The references to Star Trek-specific jefferies tubes were, I think, a mistake, but otherwise, what’s here is functional and occasionally funny. The author also makes good use of overheard dialogue and similar effects to give a sense of a living ship and personalities of people never directly encountered; and the way other people speak of the protagonist help shape your view of him.

I just wish the game had lived up to its (even fuller) potential. Other reviewers have already rightly pointed out that the game’s central puzzle requires the station to have been designed by idiots. The system in the game never makes the most of the resources available — and the same can be said of the game as a whole.

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I had some trouble at the outset because of the major guess-the-verb problems with the cable. STRIP CABLE? No. CUT CABLE WITH SCREWDRIVER? No. ATTACK CABLE WITH SCREWDRIVER? No. I went through many variations of STRIP, BEND, CUT, RUB (the live wires had rubbed free of their covering, after all…), PEEL, SCRAPE, and even BITE in my attempts to get off the plastic sheathing. I tried removing the plastic with one of the cards (in case they happened to have sharp edges). I tried wrapping the cable around the top of the ladder, or tying it there, in case that process might warp or tear the plastic. I tried breaking the screwdriver in order to produce a sharper edge to cut the cable. I tried breaking the cards. I wasted my entire first playthrough of the game on that business, running out of time in my little conduit and eventually getting appointed head of waste management.

Even when I restarted, I only got past that point with outside help.

Then I played the game to several negative endings and, finally, a positive one, all without ever encountering the major NPC mentioned in other people’s reviews. It took me at least the first playthrough and a half to feel like I had a general comprehension of how the other guys were going to behave; although this didn’t happen to me, I think it wouldn’t have been hard to find the most-optimal ending by accident rather than by deliberate decision.

I do think it’s a little misleading to call this a game about a moral dilemma, as some reviewers have done. Obviously the best thing to do, from the player’s perspective, is to concentrate the oxygen in the miners’ end and let them negotiate for their survival. That way, everybody lives. That’s the winning ending. Other endings are losing endings. The only question is how quickly you figure out what to do in order to get there. No real moral ambiguity is involved.

From the viewpoint of the protagonist, who doesn’t know the things the player knows by replaying, the moral landscape is considerably different. The PC knows the Captain is a jerk, even that he’s willing to be a murderer through neglect, but he doesn’t know (as the game explicitly acknowledges!) exactly what either the Captain or the miners will do if given the advantage. His legal obligation is to distribute the oxygen fairly to both sides, and I think that is also his moral obligation. If there’s any moral stress there, it’s about whether the character dares to risk his own well-being (in case the Captain is angry that we let the miners live) in order to do the right thing.

Even without the moral question, the emotional stress — whether to trust the miners to share the air with us — is lessened by our theta-card ability to force them, and entirely gone on replaying.

So: I think the game’s play structure is at odds with its fiction in fundamental ways. The structure requires playing multiple times in pursuit of an unambiguously happy ending, achieved after we’ve sufficiently mastered both the machinery and the emotional situation to make the right choice. It is most successful on the last playthrough. The fiction, on the other hand, is about emotional tensions and physical threats that lose their force on replaying, because that landscape doesn’t change when you replay.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Contrast Slouching Towards Bedlam or Piracy 2.0: Slouching has the whole meaning of what you’re doing shift when you replay it, and Piracy opens up new problems as you try new solutions; in both cases, the fictional tension becomes tighter, not slacker, as you replay.

Anyway — I did basically like this game and am giving it a non-sucky score, and I think it did do a lot of stuff right, but a game that really made the most of this puzzle and this situation would have been a lot stronger.

9 thoughts on “IF Comp 2010: Oxygen”

  1. Obviously the best thing to do, from the player’s perspective, is to concentrate the oxygen in the miners’ end and let them negotiate for their survival. That way, everybody lives.

    This is not actually true; on my second playthrough, I sat on my hands and intentionally let the miners take all the air. However, this is the least efficient split of all — 60% of the oxygen is wasted — so there isn’t enough to save everyone. The miners have a little surplus to trade with the engineering/command side, but you’re low-priority and get shoved out of an airlock, even if you defect.

    I agree that the theta card sort of spoils the fraught nature of the midgame; I didn’t work out how to get it until the second playthrough, and liked it much more when I didn’t know it was there.

    1. I meant that as more of a 100/250 or so split, not all to the miners. (Or something like that — whatever gives the miners Definitely Enough and command Not Nothing, But Not Enough.) Obviously you need to do *something*. But you can set it up so they get most of it, which is what I was referring to.

  2. I think I liked this one more than you did, but I agree that some of the tension was squandered.

    More importantly, the final winning directional move is pointed out a little too explicitly. Wouldn’t it have been a better puzzle if the Captain had told you to go down the tube, and the PLAYER had to see that there was another option? This would have been especially effective if both NPCs told the player to return to command, and would have been a much more effective climax.

    It’s a shame, because the last thing the player does in the optimal playthrough really does turn all the rules of the game on their head, and could’ve been an absolutely amazing moment.

  3. I think there is a genuine moral dilemma from the player’s perspective, although because I had trouble figuring out the mechanics, I didn’t fully appreciate it until after I had played through a few different scenarios.

    By one standard, the right thing to do is to make sure that everyone has enough oxygen to survive—ideally, by sending 50% aft and 25% fore, so that the minimum amount is wasted. But the captain’s villainy makes this suboptimal, because if his section of the ship gets enough to survive, he will kill the strikers. So you can either distribute the air in a way that is just in itself (in a moral vacuum, so to speak), but that allows the captain to do evil, or endanger the lives of everyone in the forward section (and at the same time give the aft section *less* air than it gets in the first scenario) in order to allow the strikers to bargain for their lives. That, I think, is a real dilemma, or at least it could be one, provided there is a way for the player to figure out that this is what the choice is without playing through several times and discovering that the first choice is a losing ending and the second is a winning ending.

    1. I’ve not played the game, but I’d argue that what you describe still doesn’t constitute a “moral dilemma” – it merely adds another axis to the optimization problem.

      It’s like killing the Dark Lord in a fantasy game. Technically speaking, the Dark Lord and his minions are people with as much right to go about their lives unmolested as you or I, but in the context of the game the Dark Lord is a baddie who needs killin’.

      I suppose that you could argue that it constitutes a moral decision if the Captain’s behaviour is uncertain or ambiguous (which in a determinist medium like a video game it never is) because then you’re arguing about whether it’s okay to endanger the lives of a large number of people, just because one of them might choose to harm other people, but the moment the outcome becomes predictable, you have a simple case of problem-solving with no moral dimension at all – the ending in which everybody stays alive is unambiguously the good one.

      1. Yeah, this is basically what I was arguing — from the player’s perspective, as soon as you know what will happen as a result of each choice, there is no ambiguity.

      2. Good point. I think I may have been blurring the lines between the player’s (potential) perspective and the protagonist’s a bit in the way I was thinking about this.

  4. Moral dilemma? No. Moral decision, yes. You have the opportunity to further your career by being a bad guy if you want. The game makes this extremely clear. But it lets you do it, and, although you label this a “losing ending”, it has no negative consequences for the PC.

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