Before I slap this proverbial pony on the ass so that it might just saunter out of the gates, I’m going to go ahead and fire off the disclaimer that Oíche Mhaith is not a particularly polite game. While the warnings of excessive violence and nudity seem a bit much considering it’s an 8-bit flash game wherein the most you’ll see is a suggestive clump of fist-size pixels, the unsettling themes and unsavory language present in the text and events that weave together Eimear’s grim narrative are the active elements of discomfort and potential nightmare fuel.
That being said, here’s the link to play Oíche Mhaith. For the full experience I’d recommend playing it before you read my spoiler-ridden post, but it’s whatever you want to do man.
There are a variety of ways that a videogame with some level of story can ask the player to engage with its virtual world. I think it’s safe to say that all videogames that tell a story ask some level of player engagement, be it as a direct insert of the player’s own identity with their own agency and impact on the story’s progression (or lack thereof), as a guiding force completing whichever game mechanics that progress the game through the preset linear plot-points that all lead up to the same end, or as some grey area in between. Much of the time, the narrative of a linear game will attempt to engage the player’s interest by catering the story to what they believe the player will want. A silent protagonist might be incorporated to help the player to better insert themselves into the story (see almost every JRPG ever), a sympathetic protagonist with story-progressing ideals might be utilized get the player on the side of the person they’re playing, or the linear plot might be padded with various optional sidequests to pad the game and still give the player a sense of agency. I could list the multitude of techniques used to create a player-enjoyable narrative for days, but this is where I think Oíche Mhaith does something incredibly different.
Oíche Mhaith, instead of catering to what might allow the player to slink comfortably into the playable protagonist space, puts them at the mercy of Eimear’s inevitable and unchangeable wants. Much in the spirit of a interaction-progressed linear narrative, Eimear shuffles along only with the generous assistance of the player and their keyboard. But that’s essentially all she needs, all she asks from the player. Movement and interaction follows the same, simple dynamic implemented by most top-down 8-bit rpgs, not to mention that the interactions with objects and people are incredibly mechanically shallow (ranging from simple informative text to matching the personalities of her family members at it’s most complex.) All the game asks of the player is minimal interaction to move the story forward, but when Eimear’s stubborn wants are conflicting with the player’s sensibilities moving forward becomes taxing on an emotional level rather than through mechanical challenge. The game psyches you out into thinking you are given some control of the situation by allowing you to put the personalities in whatever bodies you want. You can place Babby’s soul in Mammy’s body and the dog’s soul in Daddy’s body to give Eimear loving parents if you want. But the illusion dissipates when Eimear turns her nose up at the difference, and claims that something must be wrong with the program. She wants her broken family back. I don’t mean to overextend my reach and make blanket claims when I assert that Eimear’s self-destructive desires create a conflict with the player, but I certainly hope many would find it difficult to want Eimear’s old, abused life back as much as she does. You must become Eimear and act based on your own agency rather than your own if you want to see the game through, you must play as she would to beat it. A player might painfully relate to Eimear’s situation, distance themselves and attempt to psychoanalyze her and construct the greater narrative surrounding the given story, or connect with her in some other way. But she is beyond their help, and it is much harder to enjoy “being” Eimear than with most other protagonists.
This makes for a fun comparison with One Chance, wherein your own agency as a thinking person has an impact on the plot but the outcomes are undeniably dim. You can play Oíche Mhaith as many times as you fucking want, unless the developer steps in and changes something she’s still not going to let you progress until her mom is verbally assaulting her again. In one game your personal agency is given weight, but you only have one chance (unless you’re a cheater) and every outcome has it’s own tragedies. In the other you are taunted with the possibility of lessening a tragedy with your own agency but simultaneously denied the power to do so, and you can’t change this no matter how many times you play. I feel like both developers were attempting to elicit the same feeling of hopelessness though different experimental game structures and mechanics. While these games draw attention to themselves with their heavy subject matter, I believe they offer insight into an entirely different perspectives on videogames as a story telling medium. The gap between what we want a character to be or do and what is actually happening is an interesting space that I hope to see explored in the future.