Play the game here.
If one were to judge by the title alone, This is the Only Level sounds like an easy game. There’s only one level? This should be done in no time. The layout of the level reinforces this idea. You fall out of a pipe, see a couple of platforms, some spikes, a button, a gate, and another pipe behind said gate. You take a couple of jumps and hit the button. The gate swings open. You quickly run over to the pipe and get the message: “Stage Complete! But is the level over?” It then takes you to the same level again, except now, the floor and spikes are a different color. Instinctively, you push right and head towards the button. Except it doesn’t work this time; you’ve walked backwards and ran right into some spikes. Oops.
At this point, the player has probably figured out what is going on; they’re going to have to play a single level over and over, and the rules change every time. In this particular stage, the controls are reversed. Left is right and right is left. Not too hard. At the start of each stage, one needs to figure out what the rule change is and how to get to the exit pipe. A clue is usually given in the stage name, such as “Candy stripes of doom” and “Heavy headwind, here”. Once you figure out what the rule change is, it’s usually a simple matter of getting to the exit pipe. But what’s the point of the game? It seems all you do is enter a pipe, over and over again (thirty times, to be precise).
What this game is doing is demonstrating how suddenly changing the rules of a game can suddenly make it unplayable. While playing, there was probably at least one level that you had trouble figuring out how to beat. Now, imagine if the game didn’t give a hint on what to do. No matter how much fun the game is, if the rules of the game change and it doesn’t tell you, it will suddenly becoming frustrating. In the “game” Understanding Games, one of the points brought up about game design was that games need to have a defined set of rules given to the player. It was then noted that a game shouldn’t change the rules at will. This is the Only Level gives the player a chance to experience the possible frustrations involved with a sudden, unexplained rule change.
In some games today, even an explained rule change brings some annoyance to a player. For example, imagine an action game where you get through all situations with fighting. Suddenly, the game decides to throw in a stealth section. If you get spotted, you lose. Instantly. Many players get frustrated at this point because they’ve gotten used to getting out of difficult situations with fighting; now they have to avoid it at all costs. Another example of these sudden rule changes would be the escort mission. Similar situation as above; you’ve gotten used to getting out of any situation by fighting all who get in your way. Now suddenly, you’re tasked with protecting the life of another character, one who, usually, can’t survive very long without the player’s constant help. Both the stealth and escort mission are two sudden rule changes that many players despise.
Now imagine if such a game changes the rules without informing the player. The player would get confused at first, then frustrated at the game for not telling him. Even if the other 95% of the game is fun, the whole experience gets soured somewhat by the one simple rule change. With only one simple level and many rule changes, This is the Only Level manages to capture the frustration a player might experience while trying to figure out the new rules of a game. This simple game demonstrates one of the key aspects of game design, and does so in an entertaining way.