Games

'One Chance': Playing with the Notion of Irreversible Consequences

There are some unsettling implications once we factor the "bargaining" stage of grief into digital media.


One Chance

Publisher: Newgrounds
Rated: NR
Players: 1
Price: free
Platforms: PC
Developer: Awkward Silence
Release date: 2010-12-02
URL

There is a wonderful xkcd strip where one of Randall Munroe's famous stick figures (in an effort to console his friend) compares a bad break-up to a video game: "Remember when Aeris died in FFVII? It was sad. But you had to keep playing."

"Actually," the friend counters, "I downloaded a mod to add her back to my party."

Any player of a certain age can recount at least one friend who's done this, as well as untold other acquaintances that were convinced there was some secret quest or hidden boss that would undo Aeris's death. Even today, more than 13 years after the game's release, there are players who keep the faith that there is some way to reverse fate and authorial intent to bring Aeris back. As Munroe's comic jokes, there are some unsettling implications once we factor the "bargaining" stage of grief into digital media.

Grief itself is a difficult process to conceptualize by digital means, where failure and bad outcomes are so easily undone. More than any passive storytelling form, interactivity empowers the player to choose whether a result is acceptable and that may include anything from modifying the game to taking his hands off the controller entirely and walking away.

For those determined to keep playing, narrative determinism is, if anything, just as reassuring. It can't be helped if it's scripted, after all. One of my more visceral experiences in gaming came recently while playing Mass Effect 2, in which a series of events led me to believe that I'd just indirectly murdered most of my crew. When the cutscenes ended, I was rocking in my chair, eyes wide, heart pounding, and as control was given over to me once more, I did the only thing that I thought was reasonable to do:

I reset the game.

This, of course, only led to the revelation that the event was preordained and the inference that (by Bioware's logic) a high degree of magical charisma and blue-colored decision making meant that I could get everything back to normal. Realizing that the action wasn't in my hands freed me from feeling guilty about it, theorizing that it was reversible spared me from grieving about it. It's a little ironic that in a series of games promoting the empowerment of the player to make choices, I got my biggest shock from something that I only thought that I could control. Charitably, I could say Bioware at least did a good job of conditioning my expectations in such a way that the game could garner this response, but the fact remains: when confronted with a consequence that I couldn't handle, my immediate player's response was to stop and get a do over. Inevitability was only something that I could accept once it was directly shown to me.

So how might we construct a game where a player remains empowered while coming to terms with the limitations of that empowerment? Something like Heavy Rain is no good for this; it falls short on logical follow up on one too many occasions, and even the purist player is always aware that he can replay chapters or the entire game at some later point, assuming he wants to test the limits of his agency. Where do we set about finding a game that can show the player the consequences of his actions as well as the finality of them?

Three sources come immediately to mind when considering this. The first is the MMO, where the real-time environment should prevent the player from undermining causality. Not being an online gamer, this sounds viable to me in theory, but I've watched a little too much Final Fantasy XIV and World of Warcraft over friends' shoulders to believe that there is a great deal of consequence to those games that cannot be overcome with patience and diligence.

The second source that I would name is something in the vein of Lose/Lose, a computer game from Zach Gage that irreversibly deletes data off your computer if you shoot its generated enemies. This goes a long way in establishing material consequence for one's actions, but in a world of easy disc images and backups, it offers little real terror for the tech savvy. Furthermore, it's not the easiest to relate to. It tells no story and there are no characters; it's just you, the program, and your data, however much you choose to value it.

This leads me to the third and last game that I might mention, which has made quite a bit of a splash in recent weeks: One Chance, the short and subdued flash game from Awkward Silence. As the name implies, you as the player have a single opportunity to complete your stated goal of saving the world. If the game is reloaded, you're presented with a static image and no means to start over.

Oh, sure, there are still ways around this caveat, as there is with anything technologically based. But what I liked about One Chance is that by offering a story (as barebones as it is) it gives that single chance a certain amount of narrative weight. Posts about the game on various gaming blogs often generate feedback from readers volunteering how their (singular) playthroughs went, taking personal ownership of their choices and learning via others how might their alternative options have gone.

The game is still quite limited, in some respects disappointingly so. But we can consider it a model for what a consequence-reliant game could look like. To the extent that it is able to, it immerses the player in order to get him to consider the effect that his actions have on other characters.

Inasmuch as games can be systems and simulations through which to explore possibilities with minimal consequence, games like One Chance show us that it's also possible that they empower players by making them consider the lack of such privilege. Here's to seeing more games in the vein of Awkward Silence's work in the future.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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