There was a video game news story from 2016 that always stuck with me about exploring an abandoned multiplayer game. YouTuber Vinesauce live-streamed himself going to Active Worlds, a virtual online world from the 90s that had long since gone dormant, and he had an experience straight out of a creepypasta. It was an eerie sight to see, wandering this digital wasteland, but his journey took a turn when he was interrupted by a character named Hitomi Fujiko.
At first, he thought it was another NPC, but it quickly became clear that Fujiko was a real person when responses started to get downright creepy. After the fact, people debated the legitimacy of the stream, wondering if a viewer logged in to mess with Vinesauce, or if Vinesauce himself had set this up beforehand, but he maintained that his experience was authentic. Whether or not it was real, it was something that always resonated with me in the way that the best ghost stories do and made me yearn for a game that could replicate that feeling.
No Players Online, a pay-what-you-want game from developers Adam Pype and Viktor Kraus, evokes this feeling in a short story about the importance of letting go. While the framing story of finding a weird VHS tape featuring the footage of empty servers for a long-dead capture the flag FPS doesn’t quite match with the rest of the game’s theme, once you get started the aesthetic becomes more consistent. Mimicking the look of a 90s Quake-style map, No Players Online captures the lo-fi look that has become popular among low budget indie horror as well as any other, taking advantage of the low level of detail to let your mind fill in images in the corner of your eye. During the short runtime, you’ll find yourself asking if there was actually something appearing on the other side of the level or if that was just a graphical glitch.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a horror game if there wasn’t something that showed up. Since the game can be completed in about 15 minutes, I don’t want to spoil it, but the game uses its idea to tell an interesting ghost story with a surprisingly emotional core. Could it have been extended a bit to give it more impact? Absolutely. There’s some meat on these bones that could definitely support a longer version with a more patient build-up and bigger level to explore, but what is offered in the game works fine, even if the reveal is handled a bit quickly at the end. There was a surprisingly resonant choice presented at the end that gave me pause and had drastic effects on the game.
It never quite manages to reach the creepiness of Vinesauce’s foray into Active Worlds, but the unease captured by an empty space that’s traditionally full makes for a great mood. There’s such melancholy to a setting like this, and No Players Online crafts a story that takes advantage of that. The strong correspondence between the theme and setting helps make some of the cliché and inelegance of the storytelling more palpable. While it still feels like the start of something bigger rather than a complete experience, it’s easy to recommend No Players Online due to its succinct runtime and smart use of nostalgia.
No Players Online is available on PC via itch.io