*If you don’t go that route, be warned that the remaining review will contain spoilers out of necessity, starting with the next line.*
The second problem in reviewing the game is that No Players Online is actually two games.
On its face, No Players Online is simple enough. The protagonist is dumped into an unfinished and empty capture the flag (CTF) map. Normally, teams of players compete to retrieve the opponent’s flag and return it to their side of the map to score points. Here, however, in place of an opposing team, the protagonist is haunted by an ominous, vaguely-human shape. There is no recourse to the haunting: You carry a gun, but it never works when you want it to. (This is by design.)
The only option available — to push forward and carry the enemy flag back to the protagonist’s spawn point three times — leads the player to a seemingly-final choice. It is revealed that the specter haunting the CTF map is the developer’s unnamed wife. The developer, John, hopes to bring her back from the dead. Returning the final flag would end the game, and delete the wife. John begs you not to do this. You can choose to ignore his pleas, or hit the ESC key and leave the server, leaving the ghost in the machine.
This phase of the game (read: the bulk of what one would traditionally just call “the game” No Players Online) can be completed rather quickly. And given what the game delivers in the short time required, that would be a fine conclusion.
But No Players Online also features a second layer of play. There are the two aforementioned endings, but also a third ending locked behind a series of secret codes and hidden inputs that require some digging to discover. These codes were uncovered earlier this month by players who participated in No Players Online’s Alternate Reality Game (ARG); these kinds of games are used to do supplementary storytelling, usually by creating a puzzle or challenge for a game’s community to parse and decipher outside of the confines of the primary medium. This happens often via telephone, email, or other nontraditional storytelling methods. As I understand it (based on documentation of the ARG across a series of Google Docs compiled by players), the No Players Online ARG involved clues hidden in a different real game credited to No Players Online’s fictional in-game developer, John, Linux-only textures that could be read as Braille, Morse code played over a hotline and a physical note hidden in the woods in Belgium.
The legwork that must have gone into crafting the ARG, and the subsequent sleuthing work by the players is astonishing. But the problem with reading about an ARG after the fact is that the awe you feel is somewhat tempered by the fact that it didn’t happen to you. And in this case, part of the experience is fully off limits and unknowable to you. For starters, that note was largely inaccessible (in Belgium) and now is apparently gone.
It defies retelling, and is dispelled by explanation, like listening to someone tell you about an escape room they cracked. It’s like sitting in the passenger seat when your friend points something out, but by the time you’ve turned to look you’ve driven out of sight.
Uncovering the secrets of an ARG is a communal activity; trying to ride that wave alone and after everyone else has already cracked the code in service of a 20 minute game seems exhausting and near impossible. It’s inaccessible, by its very nature, to the players who come after. Worse still, the explanation are hidden away in Google Docs and pushed below the first page of comments on the game’s download page. In a roundabout way, this experience aligns with the weird gaming minutiae and rituals that the game will make you nostalgic for. There’s a point at which players can input the Konami code to progress. Parsing the ARG documentation to move forward will be familiar to anyone who has ever had to read an inscrutable readme.txt document to install a PC game mod.
For me, walking around an empty CTF map — especially before the scares kicked in — brought back memories of running around maps I had built in Star Wars Battlefront II, where I’d messed up the coding and none of the bots had spawned, or empty servers I’d hosted in Halo: Combat Evolved. There’s a type of player for whom all of this will ring true, and for whom the nostalgia this game evokes might feel unsettling.
But the nostalgia play isn’t really the focus of the game. In fact, the game is fuzzy and noncommittal about the era it’s trying to evoke: The interface brings to mind the MS-DOS operating system, but you start the game, a mid-90s Quake stand-in, by playing a “dusty VHS tape." What resonates with you will really depend on when you grew up.
Instead, the story comes together thematically in the game’s final sequence. It’s a shame, then, that this sequence is hidden away from most players.
The scariest parts of the game aren’t the jump scares, or the rote “my wife’s soul haunts this video game” stuff. That stuff is unnerving in the moment, sure. But the most frightening story is what’s happening with John, the game’s fictional developer. When he appears in the game, he admits to you that he’s been working on the map for 11 years. He’s got nothing to show for it. He isn’t close to completing his CTF map, and 11 years of labor to bring back his wife has resulted in a ghoulish, hazy apparition. The scare is time slipping through your fingers.
A sequence after the ARG offers a solution. After inputting a code in a hidden menu, the player gets access to what the Arg-documenting sleuths have dubbed the dungeon: A large, dark room, with all sorts of spooky, semi-legible messages scrawled on the walls, and a numeric keyboard and computer screen in the middle. Just to the left of the computer is a tube that looks like a round glass shower. The door to the tube is open. Upon inputting (yet another) passcode, the player can enter the tube and become a “vessel” for the wife’s spirit.
Art without observation isn’t art. A note in the woods has no meaning until its found. A CTF map isn’t done until it’s played. And a project that never sees the light of day, that’s being fretted over in an effort to perfect it, will never be finished. That goes too, for this game. The game’s final layer is fascinating and ties the whole project together. Does that matter if most players miss it?
Completing the game in full — that is, progressing beyond the fictional unfinished CTF map — requires intervention by the player. You are the key to reaching the end. You are the final step, the person who plays the map, who gives form to the wife, you are the audience required to appreciate the art. This is what the audience is for.
No Players Online is a reminder to bring things into the world, to finish things. The game, by developer Adam Pype, was made as part of a commitment to release a game each month — the game’s idea of completing projects as real world practice. If you choose to spend time with the game, or rather, games, you should see them both to the end.