This is a running meditation on the flash game One Chance, and thus is heavy on spoilers. You can play this very brief, incredible game for free here.
Come back when you’re finished.
“In six days, every single living cell on Planet Earth will be dead.
You have one chance.”
6) You’re in your bedroom, and nothing seems amiss. Quite the opposite, actually – your wife Penny is shooing you out of the house to work, saying it’s a big day for you, while your little daughter Molly tries to beg her way out of school. The newspaper in front of your car makes it all quite clear: a team of scientists you lead has developed a cure for cancer, and it may even be effective against the common cold. This “cure” is going to be spread as a gas over everything in sight. You are a hero.
You drive past a cityscape to work, where you are congratulated by your boss and colleagues. On your way to the lab, two female coworkers casually ask if you’d like to have a celebratory drink. And thus, your first choice emerges. Do you go with them? At this point, what does making the choice mean? It’s hard to know. Further, it may seem like a moment perfect for celebration, but the ominous tone of the opening title screen does not escape you. At least suss out the other options. Decline for now.
You explore, and you see that the only other possibility is to enter a door deeper in the lab, and “work”. So you can either put your nose back to the grindstone on your big day, or get your slosh on with a couple of babes. The thought enters your mind: you have one chance. Will there be other meaningful choices past this first one? Will this choice determine all the other choices you can make in this game? You don’t have anything close to all the information, but as in life, you are forced to simply make do with what you have, and leap in. You choose to take the game’s opening threat seriously.
Cut to: you and two other scientists, frozen in place. You stare at a red X on a laboratory computer screen.
5) You’re in your room. Did you make progress yesterday? It’s hard to tell. Penny’s taking a bath, and tells you the phone’s been ringing off the hook for you. Maybe you did something constructive yesterday? Maybe you made the right choice! You head to the car buoyant, and are immediately deflated by news from today’s paper: the supposed cure you have developed has actually been found to be “beyond deadly”. So I could’ve gotten wasted yesterday anyway, you tell yourself. You’re already second-guessing, and it’s just begun.
Today’s city drive is just like yesterday’s. People engaging in the status quo despite today’s news – that is haunting to you. You arrive at work to a boss in despair and an army of silent scientists (the women propositioning you yesterday simply stare). Do you go back to work again? Based on yesterday, there’s no reason to believe burning every day in the labs will do anybody any good. You see that the roof is open. You go up there.
Your co-worker Matthew is alone. He confirms the worst: the tests prove that the cure is actually an unstoppable annihilator of life. He steps up onto the edge of the roof. You move left and right, left and right, trying to take some sort of action to change the inevitable, but you’re stuck in place. You watch him fall to his death.
Cut to: you and your boss flanking the President, who gives an official speech at a podium.
4) You’re not dressed for work today. No labcoat. Just a T-shirt. Your wife’s turned over in bed: “Does anything matter anymore?” It’s obviously begun. Molly’s in the hallway with her teddy bear, wondering why she doesn’t have to go to school. Is it too late to do anything? Again, did you miss your one chance? You go outside. The paper summarizes the President’s speech yesterday with dire pith: “The End is Nigh”. Plant life will be the first to go. You walk over a few fruit that fell from your apple tree, and get back in your car.
Your drive today is within plain view of a mass of jumpy agitators. They hold signs. Only an occasional person is walking, going somewhere, has something to do besides go berserk at the apocalyptic news. “You have one chance” echoes through your brain. You reach the lab and find it ramshackle. The congratulations sign painted for you just two days before has been painted over in an anachronistic shade of gray.
You have two choices now: the lab, or the roof. You remember what happened up top yesterday, you know that it resulted in death and nothing being done to stanch the spread of the virus. But what if there’s something up there today to assist? Just a peek. You can’t resist.
It’s your boss. Phew. He’s not going to jump. He wants you to go home to your family. It’s obvious he doesn’t consider a cure to be a possibility. You think over the variables. Your wife is hapless in bed, your daughter is alone and confused. Nobody in this world will stop you from spending this precious time with them. And you think back to that first day you chose to work . . . how far did that get you? But then it enters your mind again: “You have one chance.” Did it disappear when Matthew fell off the roof? You push the doomsday thought away. You narrow it down to this: the selfish thing to do is go home and get as much time with your family as possible, and the selfless thing is to work every damn minute you can to save as many lives as you can. You want to save humanity, you want to be selfless on the largest scale imaginable. It’s who you want to be in the game, and it’s who you want to be in life. You get back to work.
Cut to: A red X on a screen. You and your boss and two other scientists stand, looking at it.
3) Penny’s still in bed. Doesn’t even bother to speak today. Molly’s in bed, too, but her teddy bear’s still in the hallway. You didn’t come home to them yesterday. It breaks your heart. But you’ve made your choice, you’re going to find the cure, you’ll find it in their name. When a group of scientists appear outside your door and tell you they may be onto something, your choice to work like a madman is further fortified.
You get to the lab, and are immediately given a choice: one of the women who wanted to drink with you on the first day is wondering if you want to “get out of here.” At this point, with the magnitude of the decisions you’ve been weighing, a little hanky-panky doesn’t even register as a remote possibility. You go right back to work. No other choices are worth considering.
Cut to: the same as yesterday. The same red X.
Now it’s night. You’ve just arrived back home. The music’s changed: hypnotic drum-and-bass replaced with plaintive rock: “I’m sinking like a stone in the sea / I’m burning like a bridge through your body.” You enter your house to a puddle of blood coming out of the bathroom. You know. But you have to go in and see if you want to keep playing, keep trying to find your way through this game. Your take one look at your wife’s remains in the bathtub, and you drop to your knees. This is the price of your heroic single-mindedness.
Your heart sinks, as the lights fade to black. You want to go back and change it, make it so you can die together. That’s what you’d do in real life, that’s what you would prioritize. But there’s no option. You can’t go back.
2) Little Molly’s wondering where her mom is. She leaps on your back and you walk right past the bathroom. You can’t bear for her to see. You’re going to get to work and solve this fucking thing, and you’re going to do it for your girl. It should have been about her all along. Your wife will not have died for nothing.
Do you want to go to the park? Or to work? The park … seems like a weak choice. You aren’t giving in, not yet, the choices you’ve made that have led you here have been the opposite of giving in. So, back to the lab. There’s a single broken-down car on the street. The sidewalks are nearly barren. Death has taken its toll. You reach the lab, and it’s even worse than expected: dead bodies strewn about. The roof is empty. Nobody’s suggesting anything to you at this point. Foolishly optimistic or not, you’re back to work. Tomorrow is your last day. It’s now or never.
Cut to: Molly playing with a red ball. You, staring at that same haunting red X.
“Today, every living cell on Planet Earth will die.
You had one chance.”
1) That’s it. Your chance has been used up. You’re immediately crestfallen over your failures — of the ineptitude of your research, the nightmare in the bathroom. Did you lose? It feels like you’ve lost. Yet . . . you’re still here. Even if you are seemingly paler, and certainly walking slower, you are still alive. You still have decisions to make. Molly hops on your back. You struggle across the browned and deadened landscape back to your car. You can choose to “Go to work”. It gives you a glimmer of hope. You drive through the literally deserted streets. Will it even matter if you find a cure? It’ll matter for one little girl. That’s all the motivation you need.
You go to work. Molly sits in a corner of the barren complex. Exhausted. Is she even alive? It’s hard to tell. Has this all been for nothing? Even if you find a cure, who will be alive to be cured? Why didn’t you think of that before? No. Just walk. Just walk.
You stand at the door of the lab. This is it. This is the end. Will you discover a cure through that door? You have no way of knowing. You have only that leap, that leap you’ve made over and over to this point, even as each uninformed decision you make caused more and more suffering and did less and less to help. But now you’ve reached the point where your decision has been made for you. And the final lack of choice might be the scariest thing of all. You work, for the last time.
It’s a green check-mark on the screen.
You administer it to yourself, and then to your daughter. You are saved!
And then, just as suddenly, you are at the park. You’re sitting next to your daughter on the bench. The trees are brown, but you are both alive. The music continues to play. You can’t move. You wait for something to happen. And you start thinking about the near-destruction of humanity. How it very well might be that only you and your daughter have survived the disease. How it may have been better to have spent these last days with your family, to all pass away together, then to have seen your wife take her own life, and have ‘saved’ your daughter into this ragged world.
And as these thoughts swirl through your head, you realize that you’ve just finished the game. There’s no “Replay” button, or an opportunity to redo certain days if you don’t think you did them right or did them fully. You’ve had this heightened sense of concentration or urgency up to this point that mimics how you might approach an important sequence of moments in regular life. Even the fact that there isn’t a “The End” screen is a concession to reality, in that you often just don’t really know for sure if you’ve “succeeded” or reached a certain palpable conclusion. No points will be tallied here, no matter how long you wait.
And that’s what has made One Chance one of the more transcendent gaming experiences you can remember.
0) So, you close the browser. You take a deep breath. And you start thinking about the next game you want to play, or the next diversion you want to line up and knock down, or the next goal you want to work towards. You weigh your options.
You have one chance.
About the Author:
Drew is the guy who comes over and demands you play Mario Tennis with him. He is also a playwright, couch-surfing traveler, and sometime Internet-writer for such conglomerates as MTV Networks and Village Voice Media.
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