It can be difficult to find time to finish a video game, especially if you only have a few hours a week to play. In our biweekly column Short Play we suggest video games that can be started and finished in a weekend.
In the early days of online multiplayer gaming, there wasn’t the now-ubiquitous matchmaking that automatically connects you with other players. Instead, in games like the original Quake, Unreal Tournament, or Counter-Strike, you would be presented with a list of servers; some of those might be empty, requiring you to wait around inside an empty level for someone else to show up. No Players Online turns this moment into the perfect fodder for a creepy interactive short story.
The conceit of No Players Online seems to be that you’ve found a VHS recording of an unfinished Quake-era online competitive first-person shooter. This VHS conceit is a bit of a mixed metaphor given that you are playing the game, not watching someone else play it. However, it works as a design choice, as it helps to sell the game as being retro, thanks in part to the VHS video scan lines and artifacting.
Somehow the game still has some live servers, despite no one playing on any of them. You’re able to then pick any of the servers to join, at which point you are dropped into the map of a capture-the-flag-style match as you wait for another player to join you. But it is pretty clear that you are the only person playing this game. So instead of just standing around, you inevitably explore the map.
The map feels perfectly contemporary with the homemade maps in games like Quake. It has something of a simple mirrored layout, one that’s designed for closer to medium-range engagements with other players. There are some blind corners in tightly enclosed funnel points near the flags, and the map is otherwise fairly open with few obstructions blocking your line of sight, while also offering some slight differences in elevation.
Warning: there are spoilers after this point.
Being by yourself in a map isn’t a particularly scary experience. It isn’t until after you grab the other team’s flag that the real game starts to show itself. As you make your way back to your team’s flag, things are different. It suddenly doesn’t feel like what you already walked through, and things seem just enough out of place to be concerning. It’s a simple technique, but an effective one as it begins to signal that you aren’t in control of this space. The suspense and unease builds, which is only further compounded by the music that suddenly starts playing from the strangely out of place gramophone.
The tight hallways and blind turns begin to feel claustrophobic, while the open areas begin to make you feel exposed, offering no hiding places from whatever might be watching. Then you get a notification that someone else has joined the server.
On an old FPS game server, this sort of moment could give you a sense of unease, as previously you had free rein of the level. You may have been expecting someone to join, even waiting for it, but someone suddenly appearing felt like an intrusion of a space over which you had control. This was compounded by you also not knowing where the other person was, or what they might be doing.
While there is a certain predictable way a player will behave during a match — given that you have specific objectives to complete — in this sort of pre-match space, you don’t have any objectives or guideposts to help you predict how they’ll behave. You could end up circling each other endlessly, or they might be waiting to ambush you around a blind corner, or they might just be hiding somewhere watching you freak out.
It’s this feeling that No Players Online captures really in the back half, which goes from just brief flashes of you maybe seeing something, to moments where you aren’t able to look away as whatever it is haunting the game comes at you. This escalation is what No Players Online does best. It starts small by changing things slightly to give you a sense of unease, and slowly builds from there to make things progressively more frightening. The ending can feel a bit abrupt, but it doesn’t overstay its welcome. That sense of dread continues even after you stop playing.
No Players Online was created by Adam Pype & Viktor Kraus. You can get it on Itch.io for pay what you want (Windows and Linux). It takes about 15 minutes to finish.