Over the past couple of years, there’s been a trend of small independent game artists eschewing traditional standards for video games in favor of something more artistic and experimental. There’s even a name for this phenomenon: altgames. These kinds of games forgo the premises we’ve come to expect from video games and choose to explore entirely different subject matter. And instead of taking it upon themselves to explain and inform the player of every element in their design, they just as trust the player to accept things as they are and to come up with their own interpretation of the events that follow.
Where does Fingerbones fit into all this? I really don’t know where. Looking at the game, it’s clear that Fingerbones wants to be part of this growing movement, or at least that it was adjacent to it. It was first released two years ago, right around the time altgames were picking up momentum, and it employs enough of the group’s tricks that I feel comfortable grouping it alongside those other games. I just wish Fingerbones understood the movement’s strengths, or at the very least, its own strengths. Unfortunately, those strengths lie buried beneath a mountain of indecision, all but ensuring the game can only reach a fraction of its potential.
What makes that doubly disheartening is seeing how brightly Fingerbones shines when it does realize its potential. To be more specific, the game not only does a fantastic job of creating a sense of place, but it does fantastic things through creating a sense of place. The narrative premise is simple: you’re tasked with exploring this cabin where a series of terrible events occurred years before your arrival. (There’s a little more to the story than that, but I’ll go into more detail later.) This may sound like the game recycling familiar horror conventions, and yes, there is a degree of validity in that. After all, Fingerbones does start us off with a frank acknowledgement that it’s a “psychological horror game.”
Still, I’m not sure how well a straightforward approach like that would apply to this game. Usually, when we think of what causes horror in a video game, it’s a form of violence emanating from a distinct and malevolent Other. That violence could be material (Resident Evil), or it could be psychic (Silent Hill). Fingerbones, on the other hand, doesn’t utilize that kind of horror. Its brand of eeriness is much deeper, more pervasive, and originates from with the self. Again, a lot of this comes from how well Fingerbones creates a strong sense of place, and how aware you are of your being in the world. Everywhere you look, you see the game’s subtle technique at work. The pixelated texture adorning all the surfaces (and I do mean all of them) lends the world a worn patina, creating a temporal distance between you and the crimes that took place here even as your physical proximity promises to close that distance. And you’re forced to walk through the cabin at a slow, meditative pace.
The most immediate effect of these decisions is to open the world up to interpretation. I may not know much about myself, the events that transpired here, or my relationship to them, but I find myself presented with an abundance of opportunities to fill those gaps. The shadow cast by the light in this spot looks a lot like a human figure with its head cut off. Could this be a hint of toward the grave misdeeds that occurred here? Probably not. I should look for something more concrete. So I pour over the knives and tools splayed on the table, wondering what purpose they could have served their owner. Maybe the obvious function (IE murder implements) is the correct answer. However, there’s also the possibility they were supplies the house’s original owner gathered together to prepare himself for the impending Apocalypse, as his notes around the house would suggest. Or may I’m just reading madness into things that aren’t there.
It’s at this point that I feel my own judgment turned back on me, like the world itself is casting scorn on my very being here. Reflecting on my state of affairs for a second, this makes a certain degree of sense. If Fingerbones’ goal is to make me aware of my own being in its world, then it does so to highlight my existence not as a passive subject who is separated from the objects of his observation, but as an active agent alongside them, one that’s always consciously creating meaning. To exist in this world is itself an act of resistance. The alterity that follows from this begins to make more sense.
And the pungent yellow aura bathing the main room certainly doesn’t help. If anything, it makes me feel like I wandered into the infamous Leliel scene in Neon Genesis Evangelion; like I’m inside some hostile alien mind that’s peering into my own and constantly judging me for my presence. Of course, it’s also possible that the house itself is a neutral object, and that Fingerbones more heavily emphasizes the mind’s ability to turn against itself with just a minor set of impulses than it does the house as a living being. In either case, though, the game manages to leave a very strong imprint on my mind without applying that much force.
So you can understand my disappointment when I started reading the notes spread around the house and I saw the game’s interpretive qualities fade away into something more basic. For you’re not set about the house to piece together what happened out of nothing. Helping you in your journey are notes within the house that chronicle its owner’s descent into madness. Reading these notes, you get the impression that he’s a shallow, thoroughly unlikeable man. He’s probably never taken a philosophy course in his life, but still manages to convince himself he’s the sole bastion of reason in a world of ignorance. He even goes so far as to concoct a half-baked rationalist system of morality (which he contrasts against “pop morality”, whatever that is) that inevitably leads him toward the more harmful aspects of masculinity.
These are all very basic readings, which is precisely my problem: where the world opens itself up to a number of meaningful interpretations, the character we’re reading only facilitates the most basic of insights, leaving very little room for plurality. In fact, it’s arguable to what extent Fingerbones even facilitates meaningful insight. The game is only ever interested in presenting the character’s madness, as it does very little to interrogate that madness. Why does he uphold the rational intellect and distrust subjective emotions? Because that’s what the plot requires. What led him down this path to insanity? We can’t say. We know very little about his life prior to that descent, and even less about the society in which he lives.
All we really have to go on are his inane scribblings, which Fingerbones can’t even bring itself to fully condemn, even when it looks like it does. As you progress through his notes, you see his rationalism break down into animalistic urges of destruction. A damning critique? Keep in mind the source: his own notes, AKA his moments of sustained introspection. So in actuality, his rationalism (and thus the identity he’s built around it) remains stronger than ever. It’s by realizing that he’s nothing more than a sack of genes that’s destined to reproduce that he verifies his own capacity to see objective truth in the world. His core principles remain unchallenged. This says nothing of the game’s final twist, which renders the story’s themes explicit in a manner the game can’t possibly support.
Be that as it may, for all the times Fingerbones stumbles, it leaves me feeling hopeful for the future of the video game industry. Even if it does fail in a number of key ways, the promises it holds for what video games are capable of are a marked departure from what we’ve come to expect over many years. It envisions an experience that the player isn’t given free rein over, but one which they approach either with a scientific mindset or as an object for the game to play around with itself. And instead of presenting a world with the goal of elucidating its every mystery, Fingerbones steps back and invites the player to arrive at their own conclusions. Keep in mind that I’m well aware these are the principles the altgames community has built on for a while, and that there are certainly games that commit far more earnestly to them than Fingerbones does. All the more impressive, then, that Fingerbones makes me want more games like this.