Only If isn’t a special game. I played through it in a few hours and, aside from one or two severe issues, thought it was ok, reviewed it and moved on. There was something about the game that stuck with me though; was it the confusing sequences? Was it the bits I hated? Was it the bits I liked? I wasn’t sure, but I emailed Tarek Ghandour, developer on Only If, to pick his brain about Only If and some of the ideas behind it.
“Personally, I get pretty bored of playing games like Dear Esther, The Stanley Parable, Dream and Gone Home,” Tarek told me when I asked him about the game’s influences, “Atmospherically, Bioshock was the only thing on my mind.” Tarek isn’t namedropping here; he’s a dreamer, certainly, but this is a measured and intelligent guy with a clear idea about what he wanted to make – the how would prove to be the biggest issue.
One of the biggest successes in the games Tarek mentioned, specifically Dear Esther and Gone Home, is the sense of place that they achieve. Such is the attention to detail and intelligent world building that a feeling of unease is placed into the player. The feeling that you’re somehow invading this foreign land and that the sheer weight and gravity of the place is forcing you out. Only If has, in my mind, two standout sequences, one of which channels this exactly.
At one stage Anthony, your character, finds himself in a house and is being pursued in various sections of it by two people. “I was certainly going for an Amnesia like vibe,” he said, “but learnt the hard way that I really shouldn’t make what I don’t want to make.” Tarek’s honesty here was puzzling, especially so close to the game’s launch.
The game is split into two sections when you’re asked to choose a pawn from a chess board. “I’m aware that the entirety of the Black Pawn isn’t very well done, in fact it downgrades the game.” Such was the level of confusion surrounding this section of the game that Tarek has written a guide on the game’s Steam page to help give a broader understanding. It’s also the section that Tarek described as “tedious to develop and [the part he] most disliked.” It’s this honesty that drew me to talking to Tarek in the first place. Only If has two development diaries on Youtube explaining a little about the process of development and how the team handled reception, and it’s eye opening to see that side of the fence.
The reception has been mixed. Searching for the game online sees scores ranging from high to very low, while the Steam’s user comments are an even more baffling range. “I find it interesting how critics didn’t enjoy/understand the game but the users did,” Tarek mused, but “this doesn’t affect the main aims for the concepts we create.” Those concepts are high brow indeed – Beckett’s “Theatre Of The Absurd” is Tarek’s inspiration for one particular section and “was supposed to play a bigger role in the game” but time constraints forced his hand. The game certainly carries some of Beckett’s philosophy; the latter stages of the game are exercises in the Absurd – whether by design or mistake.
The game’s second standout sequence takes place in the White Pawn section of the game. Anthony awakes in a park without the use of his voice. It’s beautiful. A beautiful location well realised and also features one of the game’s most interesting mechanics. Anthony is questioned and you respond by typing. It’s simple but so very effective. Tarek’s guide, however, reveals plans for a much grander sequence but confesses “The level was too difficult to make with the short time I had so it converted to the park level you all know and love.” Does it take some of the magic away? Maybe, but Tarek’s honesty can only be praised.
There were two questions I was hesitant to ask Tarek – one was about the game’s weaker moments and the other was the price. The first reason he offered was that he was “looking to generate a fan base,” though the second was more in line with how he’d been up to that point; “If I don’t feel like the quality of a game is worth money I won’t put a price on it.” Only If, Tarek says, “has quality, but it’s not there yet.” He’s probably right. Only If has some moments that are good and some that aren’t. I pressed Tarek about those moments – and one in particular. Called ‘Immensity’ this section sees Anthony wielding a gun and leaping up increasingly tall platforms and shooting pots to become more powerful. It’s… unusual and not at all in keeping, tonally or mechanically, with the rest of Only If. Thematically it’s much more interesting.
“Immensity was crafted purely from stereotypes most teen millennials convey: Class, Thug Life & Drugs.” Whether or not you agree with Tarek’s assertion, I don’t, there’s a personal touch to this section that Tarek is more than happy to discuss. “There are many people I’ve met with unmatchable talent and skill [who have] thrown it away on drugs… We have incredibly amazing people in this world who will never reveal themselves to the public.” I was a little surprised by both Tarek’s honesty and by the theme of this section – I’m not sure it quite works as intended; mechanically this section in particular is the weakest in the game but, as Tarek confessed, “[he] needs time to get better.”
It’s something I’d never really considered. Games were good, or bad – but speaking to Tarek really opened my eyes about development being a long journey. His development diaries, his guide and his honesty with me gave me a greater appreciation for the work developers do. One of the biggest regrets he has, it seems, is writing the guide.
“Clearly I have my own views but the original intention [for Only If] was for each person to believe what they want to believe” and Tarek’s guide, while coming from a good place, undermines that intention with Tarek worrying it puts one “correct” opinion to the game. Without the guide Only If is a curious game; with some good moments and bizarre, confusing lows. With the guide Only If becomes a deeply personal game; an exploration of unusual themes and a reminder that developers are constantly learning their trade, and that there’s a myriad of reasons as to why the games we play are the way they are; good and bad.