How OFF Took OFF

OFF is an RPG Maker game made by the French artist Mortis Ghost that became a surprise hit. The game told the tale of the Batter, a stoic man with a baseball bat going on a quest to “purify” specters in a surreal world that’s probably symbolic. Released in 2008, the game received its first translation in 2011 and it soon took off with a surprisingly sizable fanbase that was taken in by the game’s world and aesthetics.

Now, the thing is, I’m not reviewing OFF. Rather, I’m investigating a topic related to OFF. A few days ago, there was this post going around pointing out that when Homestuck, that popular webcomic from years ago that’s still going for some reason, went on hiatus, people on tumblr split between Danganronpa and OFF as things to latch onto. NightMargin, one of the lead developers of the RPG Maker game OneShot, openly asked:

And you know what? I’m really fucking curious about that myself. So, I’ve decided to take a comprehensive dive into how this game came to be big.

I first decided to look up the Homestuck hiatuses and saw that there were two notable ones: the Megapause and the Gigapause. The first went from April 2013 to June 2013 and the latter lasted from October 2013 to October 14. Now, I decided to look up OFF in Google Trends. Obviously, “OFF” is a really common word so I made sure to look up “OFF Mortis Ghost” specifically.

And to my horror, things immediately started lining up. All those small bumps around 2008 are clearly around when the game was originally released, but it is fucking nothing compared to how things got in 2013, where the total search volume peaked. I then decided to refine the search, narrowing it from 2011 when the first translation was released to, say, 2014.

Fuck! Shit! It’s real! It’s all real! This game literally did pop off shortly after Homestuck’s first hiatus! The original time when the first translation was released is actually nothing compared to this!

Okay, so OFF definitely got big within the shadow of Homestuck. But that presents the next question: how? Looking closer, I saw that the game started rising in prominence in March, before this big hiatus began. So, I went off on the Hunt to see where it popped into the collective consciousness. Now, unfortunately, RPG Maker net is down, as it is half the time when I actually go there, so I decided to go for a more unconventional source.

Earthbound Central was one of the first places the English version of OFF was posted, translated by RecDra. On Christmas of 2012, she put out a revised translation of OFF – it is also at this point that the search results for OFF was no longer flatlining. This is the version of OFF that people played when it started getting popular, which can definitely be seen when the thread reaches April 2013, where there’s just a noticeable influx of Posting. But this is not enough. I need more, I need more blood. Where is the inciting incident where things started to pop??

For a moment, I considered Something Awful. A let’s play of a pre-localized Danganronpa by orenronen went from 2011 to 2012 and around the 2013 period, a let’s play of the second game was going on. I distinctly remember this period of tumblr users throwing themselves at Something Awful’s paywall to experience the game. I considered, “hey, maybe someone on Something Awful decided to let’s play OFF” and people looking for that sweet anime content ended up coming across it.

And lo and behold, one actually started days before the big Homestuck hiatus. So, I actually do think that some people searching for Danganronpa wound up finding their way toward OFF, which may explain the bizarre overlap between the two and why OFF and Danganronpa were the post-hiatus picks for people on tumblr. However, while I think this could be a contributing factor, I still decided to look for more.

I went back to Google Trends, this time only searching for “RPG Maker Horror.” RPG Maker horror games are a popular subset of RPG Maker games, to the point that outside of the RPG Maker enthusiast crowds, horror games seemed to be the only thing people talked about. While OFF was more primarily on the actual RPG side of things, it’s often arbitrarily lumped in with the horror genre because of some of its horror elements.

Unlike OFF, this was something people searched for more consistently, with its relative search peak being around early 2013; from there though, you can see that people started searching this more consistently. In the related topics, you can see games like Ib, Ao Oni and The Crooked Man, all popular games in this genre.

I narrowed it down further to the 2013 to 2014 period. Ib and Ao Oni disappeared from the related topics, only to be replaced by Mad Father and Corpse Party. In general, there was a lot of love for horror-themed RPG Maker games throughout these couple years. Why? Well, they’re good games, mostly (I still don’t respect Ao Oni). In fact, as these games were also generally free, I’m not surprised that people looking for free entertainment would get into them.

There’s also the fact that these horror games made easy content fodder for Youtubers. In fact, if you look up the games on Youtube and search by view count, people like PewDiePie and Markiplier are guaranteed to be in the top videos. If you look up Ao Oni in particular, you can even see that the top videos are all related to PewDiePie. Their fans likely in turn gained an interest in the games that they covered, which may have wound up help cultivate the RPG Maker horror sub-culture.

OFF may have been likely a game found by people that were getting into this sub-culture, dragged in by its common aesthetics.

However, is RPG Maker horror enthusiasts solely responsible for OFF? Well –

While there were points where people looked up RPG Maker horror more, OFF obviously overtook the term at some point, especially shortly after that Homestuck hiatus. So, its status as an RPG Maker horror game may have been more of a contributing factor.

There must be some kind of inciting incident.

I decided to do one last search. I looked up OFF directly, this time limiting the search from March 1st to April 13th, to see if OFF had any significant rise at all before the big hiatus.

And… it’s actually kinda underwhelming? There is of course that Something Awful let’s play that’s going on at the time. There are videos, but they’re by people that’s nowhere near the clout level of the likes of PewDiePie to really get the ball rolling. There is a tumblr post in the first set of results, but it’s merely a fan giving their own theory on the game that has less than 1000 notes. I even redid the search replacing “game” with “Mortis Ghost” and the results were largely the same.

I switched the search to be from 4/13 to 4/30 and things expanded from there. There was a reddit. There was a wikia founded. There were more videos.

But what was missing were videos by big influencers. In fact, filtering the game through YouTube showed me that the most high profile figure that covered the game was Markiplier… who didn’t even play the game until July of 2014. In fact, the description of his first video indicates that he didn’t make it popular, but he was only playing it because of popular demand.

I did another search, this time putting the end point at the end of May 2013, which is the period that includes the height of the OFF enthusiasm. There was suddenly way more OFF content, but nothing traditionally big. No big influencer made a push for the game.

In one last ditch effort, I decided to add Homestuck to my searches, because I wanted to see if there was a conscious effort on behalf of Homestuck readers to convert to OFF. Besides a few snippets pointing to crossover art, there… really isn’t anything. It was just small YouTubers. Small blogs instead of big game news sites. Nothing big at all.

That said, the original forums that accompanied MS Paint Adventures/Homestuck is gone, so, unless I get firsthand accounts of people that were on the forums, I don’t know if OFF was hyped up there, which would make a more direct connections between Homestuck and OFF. And we may never know.

But regardless, I’m honestly shocked.

OFF was not a game that was hyped up by any big name. It really looks like the game became popular because it just happened to be in the right circumstances. The enthusiasm for horror themed games made in RPG Maker, its proximity to some other popular game being let’s played, a long hiatus that left fans of a comic yearning for more… all these factors just mixed together in a blender and out came the audience for OFF. OFF really seems to have had a humble origin, being in the right place in the right time.

Much like the specters the Batter slays, OFF just sort of floated in and infested people’s lives, leaving behind a collective memory of a small yet passionate fanbase. I sometimes hear stories about games only catching on because of luck, and boy, I honestly think that OFF is one of those examples.

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