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Helplessness and Children, February 13, 2014
IF with NPC sidekicks that obey the player's every command often risk appearing redundant, with a second pair of hands that have no plot function. Ollie Ollie Oxen Free introduces six additional pairs of hands for the player to control, and uses them to tightly integrate the gameplay, plot, and emotional arcs of the story.
To keep you relying on the game's cast of non-player characters, Ollie presents a PC who is momentarily incapacitated, unable to cope with even the simplest physical tasks. This set-up would be interesting just in gameplay terms, but Ollie adds to it the strong emotional hook of putting you in the position of an elementary school teacher who has to depend on his students to get everyone out safely after a bombing. The story never stops reminding you that the NPCs you are relying on to be your hands, eyes, and ears in the game world are still children. I'm not a parent or a teacher, or a particularly sensitive person even when it comes to depictions of children in dangerous situations, but Ollie Ollie Oxen Free still had me completely floored with the strength of its emotional arc; it's really damnably effective at times.
Structurally, the game could be called a light puzzlefest. Most of the game is spent rescuing the various students from their respective predicaments, often allowing you to drop one puzzle to go deal with another and come back later, which is always appreciated. The implementation is very thoughtful – the game provides prompts to suggest any unique or uncommon verbs to you, there's a responsive hint system along with explicit walkthrough instructions, and the puzzles are generally well thought-out, thematically interesting, and sensible.
However, still on implementation, it lacks polish. There aren't that many implemented responses to actions that don't advance the puzzles; in one case, an alternate solution I thought was fairly obvious is blocked with what appears to be a generic message. The game includes a THINK ABOUT verb to recall memories about people and objects, but a lot of the backstory mentions people and things that you can't think about. There's some lacking synonyms – STUDENT, STAND ON COUNTER doesn't work, but STUDENT, GET ON THE COUNTER does, for example
Overall, a very strong piece, and hopefully it'll be updated to improve its implementation; there's a very thoughtful design, great characters, and strong prose in place here, but it could have benefited from more playtesting.