[Herr M.] Ollie Ollie Oxen Free is the name to a game of hide and seek with a special, slightly grim twist: The school, were you work as a teacher, is attacked, seemingly out of nowhere and by unknown enemies. Soon after you have to cope with the difficult task to search the ruins for your students in a severely weakened shape.
[Mr Creosote] I heartily sighed with relief, as soon as I realised that it would be irrelevant to the game who was attacked by whom and why. So the author spared us awkward political propaganda. We just get some humans in danger instead – which is of universal understanding.
[Herr M.] This omissions, together with the stronger focus on the actual human tragedy of such an emergency, helps getting started more easily. At the same time it has something very engaging to it. So, instead of getting angry at the attackers, you will be more worried about what happened to the children.
[Mr Creosote] We should probably mention that we are talking about an elementary school. Therefore your pupils are still very childlike and thus helpless. Anyway, you will have to find them first, and some of the obstacles, which keep you from doing so, might look somewhat artificial at a first glance. For instance, one of the girls does not want to come along, because her stuffed animal got stuck under a table. Yet if you consider the age of the child, it is not that absurd. At this age most children lack the ability to visualise the abstract horrors of such situations. Thus it is hard for them to decide what is important and what is not.
[Herr M.] The obstacles are (at first) maybe less absurd than the way how you can (not) handle them. Every time you try to do something yourself, you get the more or less direct answer that you are far too weak to do that. This might be somewhat obvious for a bulletin board lying on the floor, but seems rather strange for a paper clip. But as soon as you start to accept it, you will see which way the cat jumps: The obstacles are immovable to you character, not out of sheer sadism, but because there is a strong emphasis on a different kind of interaction with your environments.
Meet the protagonists!
[Mr Creosote] The idea of the game is to command your team of children instead of taking matters into your own hands. Whereas many actions can be done by any of them, some tasks need special skills.
[Herr M.] Yet other ones can only be solved with a team effort. And it is exactly this high degree of interaction, which makes for the game’s very special appeal. The children even have very distinct personalities, so they rise above just being some victims, which makes it all the better.
[Mr Creosote] Absolutely. It is fun to interact with them, because you frequently get some interesting reactions. There is even some humour, which works great despite the serious setting!
[Herr M.] Mainly that is because the humour is not too shallow, but actually seems very natural. Most of the time you will smile about the kids’ naivety, for they do not understand the gravity of the situation, and consider other things (like said toy rabbit) to be far more serious. For instance, my favourite has to be the blackboard on which almost all of the children want to draw something as soon as they get close to it. Some of it is quite entertaining, other things are even touching.
[Mr Creosote] You could say that the children have quite a high level of humanity, which shows above all in their relationship to each other; since humans are not just objects, which you can use in a machine-like way, it takes an additional logical level to finish the game with their help. Whether it is the boy, who does not want to hold one of the girls’ hands, come what may, or if it is the girl that does not want to share her belongings with the others.
[Herr M.] Yes, each of the children has an individual personality, they differ from each other and even can tell the others apart. Since most of the puzzles are skillfully based on this liveliness, it is not just a mere gimmick. For instance: Usually you just gather some stuff and do some splinting to treat a broken leg, but in this game, this becomes a complicated interplay between our young protagonists.
[Mr Creosote] It is interesting that you are calling them protagonists in this context. Because as far as the actual gameplay is concerned, that is not what they are. Yet for the most part, the teacher has to hand this role over to them, because of his physical limitations.
[Herr M.] Strictly speaking, the teacher is just a kind of additional command level, a voice for the player, who ‘controls’ the actual characters this way. This becomes really apparent as soon as you free the first of your students: Approximately 99% of the commands you enter thereafter will be limited to giving instructions to your pupils.
[Mr Creosote] Yes, he is more like some kind of a director, so his function comes closer to the typical role of the player than what is common usual in a game like this.
Things to do
[Herr M.] But as clever as this idea (and its corresponding puzzles) might be, it also brings some of the game’s (few) faults with it: All this guiding around needs a good amount of additional commands, which tends to get a bit tiresome by a lot of repetition.
[Mr Creosote] The game obviously ignores the basic rule that once you have found it, the execution of a puzzle solution should be as easy as possible. For example: Several times, you have to move around bulky objects. Yet you cannot simply tell the children to which room they should bring them, but you have to let them do this step by step, in a very meticulous way.
[Herr M.] Even moving the children themselves can actually get quite tedious, depending on how much you are willing to optimise it. Like we said above, you can tell them to hold hands, so they automatically tag along with the others or the teacher. But you have to manually assign each kid another one to do this. On top of that some of the children do not want to touch some of the others, and one of the girls does not want to part with her beloved toy, which she simply has to hold in one of her hands (let alone all the other stuff you will thrust into their hands). The alternative would be to tell the students one by one to got to the next room. The option to give a command to all of the children at the same time, would certainly have come in handy.
[Mr Creosote] So, in summary you could say: Although Ollie is almost solely based on such actions performed by other characters, it does not define an optimised game mechanic for doing so. Instead it completely relies on well established command patterns which were probably never intended for such bulk actions.
[Herr M.] While at first this might be helpful, it leaves much to be desired near the end, when the whole group comes together. Actually it is not really that terrible but it does get rather annoying. The question is, how could this have been improved?
[Mr Creosote] You could allow using ‘children’ or ‘kids’ for commands that should address the whole group. Especially whenever a command directed at a single person gets a group response anyway, like one of them and another one do the following…
[Herr M.] Agreed! I suggested something like that myself above. Though one or the other minor change to the puzzle design (like shorter distances) might have helped already.
[Mr Creosote] Overall those are trivialities. Whoever is put off by them, must have had a very low motivation to immerse herself into this wonderful game in the first place.
[Herr M.] However, not only the characters and their group dynamics are remarkably well designed, but also the puzzles: They are fairly tricky, yet they always (well, with very few exceptions) fit smoothly and coherently to the story and almost never seem too artificial.
[Mr Creosote] I liked the puzzles too. Not only because their solutions were logical, yet not always that obvious, but also because I underestimated how much of a difference there could be between ‘handling’ humans instead of liveless objects. Only very few of the games I know managed to pull this off this well.
[Herr M.] You really can tell that the author put a lot of thought how to use this feature to the best effect. Including the possibility to try a lot of things that are not really necessary for the ‘solution’, which should be greatly appreciated, considering the unusual approach.
[Mr Creosote] So, this game almost leaves an absolutely positive impression, until… well until you reach the ending, where the story unfortunately strays into very cheesy territory.
[Herr M.] You might already guess how it is going to end (I had my suspicions right from the start), but as far as the actual implementation is concerned… well, it is not so bad that you would regret playing this far, but it might leave you somewhat unsatisfied.
[Mr Creosote] Especially since it tries to hammer several topics at once into the player. The reason for the teacher having such problems taking things into his own hands – unnecessary, but not too critical. But I was really annoyed by the pretentious stuff about his dead husband. Up to this point it was a gripping game, that had absolutely no need for any kind of sociopolitical statements.
[Herr M.] The individual topics could certainly be quite interesting, if they were taken by themselves, but all of them at the same time, are definitely a bit too much.
Although the last one, that is the dead husband, wasn’t that much of a surprise to me, because I had tried to tell one of the girls to remove the batteries from the flashlight (‘Ashley, remove batteries’), to which the teacher gave me a lecture on how gay teachers are far too easily taken for paedophiles, and that I should consider my actions more carefully… But since there was not that much emphasis on him being gay (with the exception of said bug), and since it was handled in a relatively normal, almost ordinary way, it was not that much of an issue to me.
[Mr Creosote] To me this would actually have been the correct approach: It is okay if the teacher is homosexual. There were some slight hints at it as soon as the first few turns. But its implications would have been far more meaningful, if it was just taken for granted, instead of giving it this big hooray at the ending! And it is exactly this overemphasis, this dwelling on the subject, that leaves the impression that this ‘can’t be right’, that the author sees a need to justify it.
[Herr M.] The big hooray is certainly also a consequence of the somewhat bizarre conclusion. Maybe it would have been a better idea to fade out a little bit sooner. Sometimes the mystery is simply a lot more interesting than its solution. And as far as this game is concerned, it is really rather a let-down (regardless of the political implications).
[Mr Creosote] To me it looks like the attempt to give the game some ‘significance’. Something which was absolutely not necessary. Like you said, in hindsight it does not spoil the fun you had while playing the game, but it is still a bit of a pity.
[Herr M.] Well, except for this slip at the very end, the story does offer quite a satisfying closure. The game could have certainly done without it, but it could also have been far worse (e.g. by revealing the attackers?)
[Mr Creosote] I have to admit, this would have left a far more sour taste.
[Herr M.] So, I recommend our readers to go and see this ending (we rather cryptically hinted at) for themselves. Getting there will certainly be a very entertaining journey, full of characters designed with great love for detail, with brilliant and (for a text adventure) exceptionally well crafted ideas. You can always forget about the ending (or if you like you can critizise/defend it by leaving a comment below). True to the old saying: The journey is the reward.