Ollie Ollie Oxen Free is a parser-based true-to-life game about surviving a disaster. It’s one of the longer games I’ve played in this comp, and may take the full two hours (or more, especially if one resists the urge to check walkthrough and hints).
Ollie Ollie Oxen Free begins with the protagonist, a teacher, coming to in the moments after his school has been bombed. He has to find six of his students and help them get out of the severely damaged, burning school building. Some students are frightened, some wounded, some have more frustrating or kid-like reasons not to want to leave where they are, so the puzzles chiefly revolve around helping the kids get out. To make things worse, the teacher has himself been gassed, and cannot manipulate things properly, so most steps require asking the kids to do the physical manipulation.
This is a premise I found compelling: the stakes are high, the protagonist is acting nobly, and the situation is about as bad as it can get. The kids and their space are sympathetically drawn, and although they have various quirks that are mildly frustrating (the better to provide puzzles), they come across as endearing and also as having distinct personalities from one another. The protagonist also gets a few touches of personality: he is gay, married to a husband who is currently likely to be in danger. These facts affect how he feels and even (in small ways) how he relates to the students.
Most of the puzzles involve physical manipulation of objects — pushing things with sticks, dragging things around, climbing and stacking things, and so on. Conceptually they’re fair enough, if not mostly what I would call inspired. In execution, many of them break one of my fundamental rules about puzzle design:
A puzzle should continue to be engaging from the moment the player encounters it until the moment it’s solved. While the player is trying to solve a puzzle, she should get plenty of feedback about failed solution attempts. Once the player has figured out HOW to solve the puzzle, she should not have to spend more than a move or two executing the solution.
OOOF breaks this rule over and over again. Large objects have to be pushed around, laboriously, through many rooms. Puzzles can be partially solved, but still need an object from another location that the player hasn’t seen and about which she has no information yet. There are puzzles where you have to repeat a command that has previously failed several times in order to succeed. There’s a puzzle that fakes you out, where you think you have what you need, but actually you don’t, and the real solution is somewhere else entirely.
There’s inventory juggling, only it’s exponentially more irritating because it’s combined with a fiddly hand-holding mechanic. You can’t carry stuff yourself, and the students will only follow you if they’re holding your hand or the hand of another student who’s holding your hand, so you spend a lot of time telling students what to pick up or drop or give to another student or put in a knapsack. And some students insist on carrying particular objects, so they can only hold a maximum of one hand. And so on. For the first couple times you have to deal with all this, it feels realistic and sort of significant, having to manage the connections between people. After enough iterations it just becomes really frustrating.
There’s even a puzzle that might be construed as a maze.
To be clear, this isn’t a case of a good story being held up by some ill-thought-out puzzles. The puzzles are necessary to the story being told: it’s important that the protagonist has to work hard to rescue these kids, and important that they all have to club together to get things done. The puzzles are much of the substance of the story, not a pointless gating mechanism. With a bunch of polish, they could perform their storytelling function without being unnecessarily onerous for the player. I don’t think these issues are insoluble. In many cases, it would suffice to simplify a puzzle to require fewer steps of execution, or give the player a shortcut phrasing (like PUSH FOOBAR TO LOCATION, rather than PUSH FOOBAR WEST half a dozen times over).
As things stand, though, the game’s playability undermines the other things it has going for it somewhat. Several times when I looked up the walkthrough (and I did this a lot, because I kept getting stuck and I really wanted to finish the piece in its allotted comp judging time), I groaned when I saw how much fiddling was going to be required to resolve a given situation. It’s a testament to how much I otherwise liked this game that I stuck with it despite these issues.
End-game discussion follows, so don’t go on until you’ve either finished or decided not to finish.
It turns out, ultimately, that this is a Sixth Sense scenario. The protagonist is dead, and this explains why he can’t move anything, and also why Samir (correctly, it now appears!) refers to him as “the ghost” during early stages of the game. The protagonist’s husband is also dead.
I was sucker punched by this. I guess maybe I should have seen it coming, but I really didn’t. There was nothing up to that point that telegraphed any supernatural content. I’m not sure I care for it as a story feature, mostly because it seems unnecessary. But I’m still thinking about that.
I did feel it was fair enough from a gameplay perspective, though: throughout, our objective has been to save the kids, and we did accomplish that, even if the protagonist and his husband don’t make it.