We Are OFK and the Seamless Game

Games Features Team OFK
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<i>We Are OFK</i> and the Seamless Game

Is there such a thing as millennial art? If there is, the first word that comes to mind when I try to describe it is frictionless. Of course there’s art made by millennials, and art about the “millennial experience” (whatever that is), but that’s not quite what I’m talking about; rather, I mean art that someone, somewhere, thinks will appeal to millennials, capture a market demographic or, Hannah Horvath style, “be the voice of a generation.” 21st century capitalism is designed to produce as much consumer frictionlessness as possible; millennials as a group are supposed to have had lives approaching terminal frictionlessness, making them allergic to hardship. The art they’ve/we’ve gotten lost in can retain that same frictionlessness, but for different reasons: escapism and ease, wholesomeness, parsability.

Molly Fischer calls this the “millennial aesthetic,” the know-it-when-you-see it blend of pastels and rose gold, luxury-as-function furniture, and soft curves that dominated architecture in the 2010s. Not just a design choice, though, the millennial aesthetic is deeply tied to conspicuous consumption and advertising, which take the rough contours of human experience and smooth them into something digestible. The millennial aesthetic overlaps significantly with theorist Sianne Ngai’s definition of cuteness under 21st century capitalism as “an aesthetic, if not the dominant aesthetic of consumer society.”

We Are OFK isn’t quite the millennial aesthetic, and that’s only partly because most of its characters would probably be considered Gen Z. In parts, it’s directly a reaction to the corporatized branding that the millennial aesthetic holds dear, as well as general corporate culture—the “we’re all one big family” structure, the too-expensive vending machines in the lobby, the health insurance that’s not so good but better than nothing—that, as media like Severance have shown, we’re increasingly seeing through. It is trying to be a game in which the oldest smidge of Gen Z, or maybe the youngest millennials, can see themselves reflected: those a few years out of college, working corporate jobs, and realizing that over the past few years, they’ve let the artistic practices they once held dear slip away from them.

But it does hold tight to some of the more treasured aesthetic foundations of millennial art: not just in its soft color scheme, or its liberal use of emojis, or its similar use of slang, but in its construction of a picture of creative youth that feels ultimately shallow, like what it is—an advertisement for itself.

OFK is a virtual band and genre experiment directed by Teddy Dief and produced by his studio, Team OFK. Not quite on the level of Hatsune Miku or other artists that exist as vocaloids or holograms, OFK nevertheless have their own Twitter page and website, as well as a series of music videos with distinct art from what appears in the game. It’s the studio’s first project, and as their name implies, they are interested in weaving all threads of the experience—the game, its branding, and its social media presence—together as tightly as possible.

Teddy Dief has described the genre blend as follows: “You’ve probably seen a music biopic movie or tv show: a story of the rise-to-fame of some band you know. You’ve probably heard songs by a virtual band, animated characters playing music recorded by real creative artists. We Are OFK is both of these things.” This is obvious from the moment when you boot up the game, when the start menu (which looks like a streaming service’s homepage) asks you “Who’s watching?” This turns out to be a more auspicious question than it appears at first. OFK, in trying to be a game, movie, and music video at the same time, creates a narrative problem for itself: how much control do you want to give the player over the experience they’re about to have?

The first place this comes through is in its dialogue. As a zillenial (yes, I know), I often felt like the game was written by someone young enough to understand how texting slang works, but not quite up on how adults two or three years out of college talk to each other. The cadence of characters’ voices is for the most part spot on, especially Carter and Luca, who are on opposite ends of the expressivity spectrum: Carter is chill and prone to poetic announcements, while Luca is frenetic, but both are well-acted and have some of the standout dialogue in the first three episodes. The talking and texting, however, alternate between feeling like they come from real twenty-somethings talking, and like they come from someone who’s seen twenty-somethings talking on TV.

This ties into a related issue: the texting that makes up the main “gameplay” part of OFK, where you choose a response to a friend from two or three options, often just feels like pressing enter to progress the scene. When you remove these parts, most of what you’re doing is watching a movie.

The songs are the game’s best try at solving that problem. Each episode of the game is themed around one of the five songs off the band’s EP, which release a music video at the same time each episode unlocks. The section themed around “Follow/Unfollow,” the first song on the EP, involves actually controlling Itsumi as she plays a game while the song plays in the background. This was the first time the game reminded me of the touchstone I had for it coming in, Sayonara Wild Hearts, a rhythm game that implements songs as well. While “Follow/Unfollow”’s lyrics didn’t resonate with me, its rhythms recall some of the best songs from that game, like “Begin Again,” that use a beat to raise energy and keep you moving.

The difference here is that Sayonara’s levels are built around its songs, and vice versa; navigating to the beat just makes sense. OFK’s song levels, in contrast, skip between sections of the level at a predetermined speed, making you complete tasks for the amount of time the game wants you to. There is no flexibility, meaning that while you’re technically in control of the character, the game will progress whatever you do—not just a no-fail state, but in important ways a no-play state.

This part of the experiment that is OFK has interesting implications for what gameplay entwined with TV actually is. Games have been “cinematic” for a long time. Games have increasingly become episodic as well, both for development and pacing reasons. The difference here is that even in these preexisting structures, there is only superficial room for player input to actually have an impact—in other words, for the game to be played.

To take the longer view, you could say that all games are like this in some way: they have a predetermined narrative and path that you can deviate from, but not usually meaningfully. But playing OFK just feels different, even from narrative games that feature one story, branching dialogue, and no action segments. There is so little engagement that it ceases to feel like a game at all, and more like one of those choose-your-own-response episodes of Black Mirror Netflix released a few years ago—interesting for a minute, but ultimately too split between focused narrative and player-oriented experience to be successful.

This all brings me back to the frictionless. Some parts of OFK are much more successful than its gameplay; the art direction, for example, is blurred and beautiful, illuminating clubs and practice rooms with different registers of fractalled light. Characters’ outfits are bold and super cool. But it all has a smoothness that approaches the millennial aesthetic—washed in blue and pink, characters standing at long smooth bars and dancing in a sea of young, beautiful, and nondescript extras. The music, too, while fun to listen to, is unobtrusive. I could play it on repeat and enjoy myself, but then again, I’m 26—do I really want to listen to a song about following (or unfollowing) someone on social media?

All of it is easy and (apart from the odd out of place phrase or stilted line read) goes down relatively smooth. But that smoothness keeps OFK from feeling like a game, while its insistence on QTE dialogue responses keeps it from being successful as a season of TV, either. The issue is not with OFK’s subject matter, which trends toward soapy twenty-something drama that’s usually trying to be fun rather than overly serious, nor is it with its fascination with trappings of digital culture like emoji, streaming setups, and televised mecha robot battles.The issue is that all these things are presented as setpieces for a story whose stakes and motivations start and remain flat, only barely passing the boundaries of stereotypes about youth culture: we have a difficult breakup, we have a hostile job, we have expensive rent and boba—Gen Z, am I right?

Ultimately, OFK seems designed to capture an audience interested in a diorama of young life in LA. Clearly, as countless shows and movies have shown, there is an audience for this. I think that OFK’s particular way of splitting the difference between game and show (and album release vehicle) is more interesting as a signal of where games might go in the next couple of years, as studios begin to experiment more with games that feel (thematically and structurally) like TV shows, and are therefore, in theory, more digestible to people who don’t usually play games. But this approach also loses the ways games can use player choice to build narrative in a way that’s unique to the medium, and can therefore accomplish things that TV can’t. For escapism, frictionless can be nice, but eventually I want something to hold on to.