Once more with feeling
After Xenoblade Chronicles 3 hit a little too close to home, I was looking forward to We Are OFK as a lighter, more casual experience to take the edge off and relax a little bit. What I got was a game that hit harder than anything I could’ve imagined.
It’s hard to explain, exactly, what We Are OFK is. It’s a little bit of a music game – but it’s certainly not a rhythm game – and it’s a little bit of a choice-based narrative game — but it’s certainly not big on choices. It is big on narrative, however, taking the form of a 5-episode miniseries, each episode lasting about an hour, give or take. It’s a passive experience at its core, what you’re watching will play out pretty much the same no matter how you interact with it, and the choices you make aren’t particularly consequential. That’s okay. If I wanted to break out the marketing dictionary, I’d say it’s a cross-format multimedia experience, an interactive webshow tied to the release of a music EP, that serves as a launching platform for the semi-fictional band OFK. But I don’t want to do that, because We Are OFK is just… We Are OFK.
Our story plays out in the heart of downtown LA. It’s an alienating place at the best of times, filled with culture and people I will never understand. I thought that would help me feel a little detached from the experience. It did not. We open on one of our protagonists, Itsumi, a social media coordinator for a big games company that I’m sure isn’t supposed to mirror any real-life company. Itsumi is a mess of chaotic queer energy, bouncy and all over the place in the best and the worst ways. She’s a classical pianist, with a pretty big concert opportunity coming up, but she’s also in the throes of what seems to be a pretty messy break up. She leans on her friends (who we’ll talk about later), but she’s also carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. That’s a tough position to be in, and you get the sense pretty early on that things are going to fall apart. In any other game, you might be able to prevent that, or mitigate the fallout a little bit. Here, you get no such opportunity. She’s going to make bad choices, do dumb things, react in terrible ways, just like a lot of people would. Itsumi is not like me, but she is a lot like a lot of people I care very deeply about, and it’s hard not to feel attached and engaged with what she’s going through.
The next of our protagonists is Luca. He’s a narrative writer for the same definitely-not-real games company (though, as you’ll see, that doesn’t exactly go quite as planned), a singer, songwriter, and the kind of guy who’ll spend hours swiping through dating apps to find The One and obsessing over every match as if this is it. He also struggles with his own creative output, in some ways far too proud of everything he does, and in some ways ashamed and afraid of it all. He’s indecisive and unsure, frustratingly flaky and detached, and is far far too obsessed with the idea of a Christmas song that almost certainly is a way to deflect on having to reflect too deeply on the real, heartfelt work he’s doing. He’s also a bisexual guy, in a media landscape with incredibly few examples of representation. Bi guys are almost certainly a dime a dozen in the hills of LA, but they’re not in games, or TV, or movies. Which brings us to Carter.
God I love Carter. They’re a quiet, contained, non-binary person of colour, a demographic that has even less (see: zero) representation on-screen. They’re a VFX artist, an inventor, and they’re easily the best character in the game. A wave of calm amongst the chaos, but with a tragic, often unhealthy story bubbling under the surface. Carter is almost certainly underutilised in We Are OFK, popping up here and there to be involved in everyone else’s stories, but without ever really being a part of them. I think that’s mostly okay, honestly, and their soothing presence and detached demeanour makes sense when we learn more about them in the second-to-last episode in the game. I’d like to have seen more of Carter’s involvement, and it feels a little bit like the holographic cat they create (Debug, an adorable little creature) takes more of the centre stage than Carter themself does. Still, their episode is the strongest of the five, and while (like Carter) it’s largely detached from the rest of the story at play, it’s heart wrenching and uncomfortable in a way that feels like it always had to be.
And then there’s Jey, the 50-foot-tall lesbian goddess/audio engineer who has captured my adoration. She’s a good person who makes bad choices, as we all do sometimes. Jey is passionate and powerful, but at the same time unsure and unclear about what the future holds. She’s clearly a talented producer, but there’s pressure from her parents to find and do something stable and secure. She’s risk-averse, and has every reason to be, but it’s self-destructive and she’s both well-aware of that and does little to change it. She tries so incredibly hard to prevent herself from becoming emotionally involved in much of anything at all, which as you’d expect, is a bit of a recipe for disaster. Emotions will come, and you should feel them, because if you don’t and just bottle them up, sooner or later that cork is gonna pop and you’re gonna do something reckless and stupid that ends up hurting people. Imagine that.
These characters come together in a messy, chaotic mix, with the hopes to form a band (the titular OFK), make music, and escape the tedium of everyday life. It’s not an easy journey, and there’s heartbreak and upset along the way, but it’s a story that reflects the lives of the people who’re telling it. When I say it’s messy, too, I’m not joking. There’s loose threads, you’ll be bouncing all over the place, there’s things you won’t see that you probably should have, and things you will see that you could’ve done without. I’m a big fan of this particular kind of mess, and I think it makes the experience unique and interesting… but your mileage may vary. That goes for a lot about this game, really.
We Are OFK is a game by, about, and for LGBTQ+ people. If you’re not queer, you might struggle to see the appeal beyond its flashy (and extremely good) music videos. But as a queer person myself, I see a little bit of myself in each of these characters. I’m a queer, bisexual creative that struggles to take the plunge, just like Luca. I’m an anxious mess of intense emotions and wasted creative energy, just like Itsu. I’m a quiet, calm, and collected presence in most scenarios, just like Carter. And I’m a (former) audio engineer with a passion for music but a desire to keep myself closed off from others and not take risks, just like Jey. I see even more of these characters in my friends and loved ones. I was immediately sucked into the lives of this band-to-be, I cared about them deeply, I hurt when they got hurt and I cried when bad things happened to them. It might be difficult for a lot of people to care about these unashamedly queer, unashamedly millennial dorks, doing their dorky music thing, but for me it was like seeing the lives of me and my friends play out on screen, in a way I didn’t think I’d ever see. It’s an experience that feels purposely made specifically for me and people like me, and that means it’s probably going to be divisive.
What I think will be (hopefully) a little less divisive is the music, because goodness me, it is utterly fantastic. I didn’t think I was much of a fan of this particular brand of pop music until I heard it and experienced it in-game, and now each and every song in We Are OFK is probably in my top 50 (I listen to a lot of music, okay, it’s hard to narrow it down much further). Each episode has a song sequence, usually occurring right towards the end of the episode but sometimes a teensy bit sooner. The songs are closely matched to line up with what’s happening in the game, and offer a fantastic bit of synergy that’s rarely seen in lyrical video game music. I don’t know if the music was written first and then the game’s narrative followed, or vice versa, or they were developed deeply in tandem, but they match perfectly.
Follow/Unfollow is the game’s headlining track, and it’s a fantastic, high-energy bop that’s heavy in synth and heart. The vocal performance is utterly excellent, as with every track that follows, and the instrumentation is powerful and overbearing in a way that feels right for these characters and this band. The second episode’s track, Fool’s Gold, takes a more sombre tone, with some reversed audio clips that are at times uncomfortable and at times ethereal and comforting. It’s probably my favourite of the songs, musically, but the way others, like Infuriata, play out on screen made much more of an impact overall. It’s hard to talk about this kind of music in a game review, because it’s all really about The Vibe of it all. And The Vibe hits right every single time.
As for the gameplay aspects, well, there’s not really much here. The vast majority of We Are OFK plays out in a visual novel-style format, where you’re watching more than playing. You’ll make little decisions here and there, in conversations and text chains scattered throughout the experience, but these choices don’t impact the story in any particularly meaningful way. It’s more like you’re crafting your own particular image of these characters in how they interact with each other; the conversations that happen and the consequences of those conversations will happen no matter what you pick, but the heat-of-the-moment dialogue is shaped a little bit by those choices. The music videos offer a little more interactivity, offering a host of little WarioWare-style microgames as the music plays out. There’s no fail state, no win state, you can’t do a bad job, exactly. They’re just something silly and fun to do while the music plays out, and that’s great! I wish some of them had been a little more transparent, there were times where I wasn’t sure if I was in control, and if I was, what I was supposed to be doing, but as I said, it’s silly little timewaster stuff that doesn’t really matter beyond being a Thing to Do.
As for how the experience holds up on Switch, it’s fairly solid, overall. I had two hard crashes, which was a little bit frustrating, but there’s a very generous and well-timed autosave system that meant I actually didn’t have to replay/watch a single second I’d already seen. Other than that, the game looks good, sounds good, plays well, just as you’d expect from a game that’s as light on interactivity as this one.
There’s also a little bit of a strange situation around the release of We Are OFK. It’s being released episodically, but it’s also kind of not? If you download the game at launch, you’ll have the first two episodes available to you, with the other three episodes releasing weekly after that. They’re all included in the download, the episodes are 100% finished and ready to go, and I’ve even played all of them, but you won’t get to play them all at once. It’s a decision I understand, this is as much a limited TV series as it is a game, and allowing time to have the story beats sit and stew in your brain is important to that experience. Still, it’s likely to be a point of frustration for some players, so if you can’t see yourself coming back week after week, it might be better to wait til all the episodes are available and play them all in one big five-hour block.
We Are OFK is a wonderfully queer and wonderfully representative experience, even if it’s not exactly what most people would consider “a game”. Like anything of this nature, so much of what you get out of it comes from what you put into it. It’s an experience shaped by who you are, and the life you’ve lived. It won’t be for everybody, but it certainly was for me. There’s a lot of things that could be changed or improved, but even if I had the chance to do so, I don’t think I’d change a single thing about it.
Grass, Fire or Water?
Looks very smooth too.