I’d grown to be a young woman, the last in my tribe, tasked with running to the ponds for water to keep our crops alive. I’d just returned from one of these long errands when my ageing mother took me aside to tell me that only by raising my children could we ensure the tribe’s future.
Just then, I spawned my first child. Unfortunately, I was carrying no food, and the hunger that had gnawed at me as we spoke was to be my undoing: as I picked up my child to nurse them for the first time, the extra energy expenditure tipped me over the edge of starvation. Within seconds, I was dead. I only hope that my mother was somehow able to save my daughter.
Developer Jason Rohrer, known for experimental and art games including Passage, The Castle Doctrine and Chain World, calls One Hour One Life his “love letter to human civilization”. Aptly described as “a multiplayer game of parenting and civilization building”, it may be his least abstract and most approachable game to date.
In the game, you start life as the helpless infant of another player, entirely dependent on them to nurse and care for you. Over the next few minutes, you’ll grow into a weak but independent child, able to help your community. With luck and cooperation, you’ll survive to have children of your own, becoming one link in a generational chain.
The game world on the server is persistent, but your character and their life are unique. Every time you die and respawn, you do so as an entirely new, randomly-generated person. You can communicate with other players via a text box, which allows you to type just one or two characters when you’re a baby, before expanding to allow full, if brusque, sentences as you grow to adulthood.
One Hour One Life‘s difficulty curve can be punishing on an emotional level as well as a technical one. But it’s also rewarding – I felt genuine pride when I learned where to find fertile soil to plant our fields or how to crush a gooseberry with a flint chip to produce a seed that would, in time, give us a bush to provide dozens of berries.
The importance of cooperation and mutual aid in the game rapidly becomes apparent. Although there are built-in tips on what you can do with any given object, it is other players who provide the hands-on lessons in survival. It’s only because of my fellow players that I learned that sitting by a fire would dramatically reduce my energy expenditure; that dying brown fruit bushes could be restored with water, and that leaving one row of carrots to flower produces seed for the next planting.
Solo foraging can keep you alive for a while, but to establish a safe home and food supply for yourself and your descendants, you’ll need to farm, build and hunt, and that requires more than one pair of hands.
Women are uniquely important in One Hour One Life, as only women – without the involvement of any men – can have children. This design choice is a reflection of the Rohrer’s own views. “Every woman in the world is at the end of a chain of women who had at least one daughter, going back for 400 million years like endlessly nesting matryoshka dolls,” he says. “Women are the branches of the human family tree, where men are just the leaves.”
In One Hour One Life, the disproportionate importance of women, and thus female children, in sustaining your tribe through multiple generations leads to its own emergent gameplay. When times are hard, it’s not uncommon for male babies in particular to be rejected and left to starve by a mother who has only enough food resources to sustain one, while more sentimental players may struggle and die in a vain attempt to keep multiple offspring alive against all odds.
If you live past infancy, the game can be easier to play if you spawn as a male child. Once weaned, you can survive on your own and try to learn and help your community as best you can, but your mistakes are less likely to result in someone else’s death than if you were a woman. But, as Rohrer points out: “As a male character in this game, you feel your lack of importance acutely. If you wander off into the woods, you can live out the rest of your life, but you will do it absolutely alone, with no means of bringing other players into the game to join you.”
If the game’s design and mechanics lend themselves to matriarchies, they are also arguably rather bioessentialist (although not heteronormative – the most common family structure I’ve seen while playing the game has been centred around two or more women). Although the ability to spawn new players is unique to female-coded characters, Rohrer says that gender-coded behaviours, clothing and performance aren’t linked to sexual attributes. “There are two biological sexes in the game, but there are as many genders as people want to play,” he says. “After all, in this game, you are often tasked with playing a character who does not match the gender you identify with in real life.”
Not all women will be fertile, either: “It all depends on the flow of players into the game, and the way the child placement algorithms shake out.” However, he emphasises, “this is not a game about player customization. It’s about playing a character in a unique situation in each and every life.”
One Hour One Life is free and open source, but the game is primarily played on Rohrer’s own game server, for which you’ll have to pay $20 to get lifetime server access and support. When you sign up, you’re sent a unique login key, along with a download link to clients for Windows, macOS and Linux, plus the full source code and Linux server source code that you’ll need if you want to run your own private game server.
The game and its community are at times reminiscent of the early days of Minecraft, sharing tips, support and discussion on the official forums, a crafting recipe wiki and a review board, where players have taken to telling their characters’ stories.
The game can be tough, particularly while you’re learning your way around, and especially if earlier players have pillaged the resources of the area you spawn in. Childhood is difficult to survive and, if you’re an Eve – a reproductively mature woman spawned ex nihilo to balance user numbers – you’re at the mercy of both the environment and the needs of your potential brood of offspring.
Despite, or perhaps because of, its challenges, One Hour One Life‘s gameplay keeps dragging you back, while characters’ limited lifespans lend themselves to casual play.
All survival games are ultimately about forging your own story, but the interdependent community aspect of One Hour One Life means that the stories you create are intimate, complex and multidimensional in ways that few other games approach. Here, the pain of losing a family member and the joy of raising a child to adulthood are recreated in a moving microcosm of the human condition.