Sigmund Freud famously said that, “The first human to throw an insult instead of a stone was the founder of Civilization”, which certainly does sound like the kind of innovation Sid Meier would come up with. Jolly ol’ Sid is busy with his own new game these days, though, and has left the name-calling to the good folks at Vile Monarch and their recently released Oh… Sir! The Insult Simulator, which came to Steam at the end of October.
Oh… Sir! The Insult Simulator (OSTIS from now on, because there are only so many hours in a day) is a competitive arena-based verbal battler, where two opponents square off in a contest of pithy remarks and hurt feelings. It’s also a surprisingly strong educational game about the fundamentals of English syntax, albeit not one you’d want your seven-year-old to play. I’ve been dipping in and out of it quite a bit of it over the past couple of weeks, and overall I quite enjoy the quick and witty nature of the online experience, although the game still needs some fleshing out and polishing if it’s to reach its full potential.
The rules are elegantly simple. Two players (or a player and the CPU) have to choose sentence fragments from a shared board, and use them to form the most hurtful insult they can. Insults are assigned scores based on their internal logic, their length, and how personal they are. That score determines the amount of “pride” deducted from the other player’s health bar. Each player also has access to two words that only they can see and use, and once per round, can replenish that supply by taking a sip of tea.
There are four types of sentence fragments: nouns, verbs, exclamations, and conjunctions. The purposes of nouns and verbs are pretty obvious. Exclamations give a sentence more impact, but will also end it, which means that you can’t play any more sentence fragments after using one. As for conjunctions, they bind two ideas together, which makes them extremely powerful for crafting lengthy and graphic streams of abuse. Many games are won or lost by control of the conjunctions, so you have to keep an eye out for players who go straight for the “ands”, and react in kind.
It’s worth noting that although the game contains hundreds of colourful words to choose from, “and” is currently the only conjunction available. This inevitably results in longer sentences sounding a little clumsy when your character reads them out. This is a sentence I’d never thought I’d write in a game review, but I can’t wait for the update that adds the words “but”, “so”, and “for”. I only pray that it’s not a paid DLC.
The game has three ways to lock wits with your opponents: playing against the computer, playing local multiplayer, or playing online. If you go the single-player route, you’ve got the option of quick one-off matches, or a “tournament mode” which is really more of a weird collection of disjointed arguments with some faint thematic connections. If anything, I’d call it a story mode, but that requires me to seriously stretch the definition of “story”. It’s a bizarre tale of arbitrary murder and unexplained death, but at least it provides some loose justification for the gameplay.
This context is provided through short cutscenes at the beginning and end of every match. While the speakers may vary, the lines are always the same, with the exception of the ending dialogue, which is dependent on which side won (there are still only ever two possible lines, though). This is fine for the tournament mode, but becomes very tiresome during online play, as you’ll be seeing the same dialogue much more often. You can choose to skip it, of course, but the game won’t start any earlier unless both players choose to do so. I’m forced to wonder if the opening and closing exchanges shouldn’t just be omitted from online play altogether; they ultimately seem unnecessary to the experience.
The characters themselves are reasonably funny, although depending on your comfort level you may not appreciate some of the stereotypes of nationality, age, or religion. Then again, you kind of assume the risk of being offended when you buy a game that brands itself as an “insult simulator”, so complaining about it would just be silly. In general, anything directed at a certain group of people – for instance, the character Grisha, a patriotic and vodka-loving Soviet soldier – is very gentle ribbing at most. The harshest insults, by far, are the ones crafted by other players.
The game’s aesthetics are a mixed bag. The soundtrack, such as it is, is nothing but famous (and, incidentally, royalty-free) classical music that we’ve all heard a thousand times before. It helps set the scene, perhaps, but through overexposure, the songs have lost their ability to impress, especially in this context. Given the low price of the game and its origins as a game jam entry, it’s easy to forgive the forgettable music, but the lack of anything more distinct still feels like a huge missed opportunity for the devs.
The graphics, on the other hand, are just delightful. The game employs a sort of faux-polygonal 3D style represented through 2D pixel art, and the improbably-proportioned characters are charming and adorable. Animations are minimalistic, but sufficient, doing just enough to tickle your eye while you play without distracting you from planning your next move. The arenas vary in quality; for instance, I feel that “Lake” is a tad on the boring side when compared to the glory of “Afterlife” or the creativity of “Pet Shop”, but your mileage may vary. Regardless, they all do a good job of setting the scene and feel suitably distinct from one another.
Reading back what I’ve written so far, I’m a little worried that some of my criticisms might sour some readers on the game. I want to take a moment to stress that I’ve been having a blast with OSTIS, and have played it every single day since it was released on Steam. There’s something very addictive about the mix of skill and chance required to win a round, and the format they take breaks gameplay into convenient, bite-size, ten-minute portions. As the metaphor suggests, it’s very tough to play just one.
I’ve had some fun encounters while playing against other people. As it stands, there’s no way to communicate except through the insults themselves, so you only ever experience the influence of other human beings indirectly: through patterns of word choice, aggression and style that give you a rough outline of the person behind the avatar. I met one fellow who seemed to be trying to freestyle rap, scrambling to build rhymes out of the rather limited options available. Another player repeatedly built compliments instead of insults. You don’t always meet wonderful weirdos like these, but it’s great that the tools allow for and encourage such playful behavior.
At its heart, OSTIS is the fundamental mechanic of competing to build sentences out of a shared bank of resources. It feels like a boardgame in the simplicity of its design, and I mean that as a compliment. The appeal of the game is learning the optimal way to play – and there is a “right” way to play OSTIS – and then taking on other people and seeing how the quirks of their personality (and luck of the draw) affect the outcome. It’s not a deep game, but it offers the potential for consistently engaging and entertaining gameplay.
The fact that there is an optimal strategy does, however, carry the risk of the game becoming stale over time, as more players learn to exploit the mechanics to their greatest advantage. I’ve already had an encounter with a player whose technique mirrored my own to the letter, and we played three matches which were decided entirely by the sentence fragments we received and the order in which we received them. In other words, by luck. I have no problem with an element of chance being thrown into the game; it keeps the outcome unpredictable. However, skill and strategy shouldn’t become redundant just because both competitors have reached a certain level of familiarity with the rules.
I hope to see this rectified by future updates that introduce new words to expand the possibilities for building sentences. As I mentioned earlier, more conjunctions would be a great start. I also think that the possibility to access the occasional adjective or adverb would add some spice to the rounds. At the same time, it would be easy to unbalance the available sentence fragments, so any new types of words would need to be carefully implemented. If done well, though, they’d go a long way towards making our insults more hurtful and colourful.
Thankfully, Vile Monarch are quick to assure us that they have many exciting ideas for future updates incubating in their brain cages. I’m pretty confident that my suggestions are among them; they’re fairly obvious ones, after all. Nevertheless, I’m eager to see what aspect of the game VM choose to improve upon first.
For the time being, I’d happily recommend OSTIS to grammar nerds, English lit majors, the hopelessly competitive, masochistic ESL students, the Queen, the mildly intoxicated, and fans of Monty Python. It won’t be a game for everyone, but it will almost certainly be the game for a few of you – so long as the developers manage to keep the community alive through regular updates.
FINAL SCORE: If Oh… Sir! The Insult Simulator were a character on Farscape, it would be Furlow.