Boccaccio’s Decameron, written in the 14th century, follows a group of ten friends as they wait out the Black Death in a villa outside Florence. Each of the ten tells ten stories, a hundred in total, over the course of two weeks. It’s a pretty key text in literary history – the style was repeated by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales, and it’s been referenced and adapted and used as source material by a staggering range of writers, including, for instance, Neil Gaiman, in Volume #8 of Sandman (‘World’s End’). There’s just something comforting about the image of a bunch of people hunkering down to wait out the chaos of the world – and telling stories to pass the time.
A similar premise can also be found in 2018 game The Hex, where six characters from different games or genres sit together in a tavern. A storm rages outside, the phone rings – a warning, one of the six is going to commit a murder. It sounds like the premise of a murder mystery, right? Not in this instance. The Hex was developed by Daniel Mullins, who created the 2016 Pony Island. If you’re not familiar – well, you’re in for a wild ride. Pony Island starts off as an arcade game, but everything increasingly gets creepy and weird and eventually you realise the arcade machine is possessed or programmed by the devil, and you’re actually in hell, and the pony starts shooting laser beams – it’s a deconstruction of the idea of games and gaming, and our expectations around genre – and it’s got some genuinely stunning tricks along the way. The Hex continues in that same kinda vein – but in some respects is maybe better suited to the material, as it starts with characters from different genres. You actually expect to see the different types of gameplay – one for the Sonic knockoff, one for the faux-Tekken character – and so on. It fits that motif of characters telling stories – the shift in genres almost parallels the implicit worldview or attitude of the character in question. It creates this really tangible sense of the fabric of their different realities.
Of course, one of the other features of The Hex (and Pony Island) is a certain grim surrealism. In Pony Island, it’s not just deconstructed genre hijinks – you’re in hell. You start seeing Satanic imagery, pentagrams and so on. The Hex again continues that tradition, creating increasingly dark backstories for different characters. Even just to take the first level – the Sonic knock-off starts in a saccharine, sun-drenched happy world, moves through an edgy stage, and arrives at a dulled, lackluster world, where the colours are undersaturated and the cheerful and supportive Mr Shrewd is replaced with the fat, angry Mr Squarrel, who wears a singlet and snores through your stage completion. There’s an angry, bitter edge to the game. In the fantasy RPG, the main character is bored out of her mind, murdering the bunny guiding her through the tutorial because he takes too long and over-explains things. She takes shortcuts and glitches through the game – playing it properly takes too long, is too grindy and dull. The deconstruction is not just playful or convention-breaking – it’s cynical, bored and resentful.
And I want this week to compare The Hex to a game we explored previously – SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech. We talked previously about how this game alternates between a pure, maybe overenthusiastic joy and a ribbing sarcasm meant to relieve some of those emotional excesses. That’s how the game addresses its genre – it’s celebratory and excited, but it knows that it’s being a bit much. The Hex, on the other hand, seems to resent its genres. If Gilgamech is an adult’s attempt to momentarily reclaim some of the joy and spectacle of fantasy, The Hex is an attempt to destroy that appeal, to cast it as irrevocably lost. Gilgamech wants to pretend to maintain some of that childhood experience, and The Hex just wants you to give up. It introduces these dark, adult themes into familiar genres to show how the joy of gaming can’t survive contact with the reality of adult life. The characters’ experience of cynicism and boredom is your experience of cynicism and boredom, introduced on a fictional narrative level to show how inescapably those feelings infect the games we play.
Really, both Gilgamech and The Hex are games about growing older. They’re games about reminiscing, where the genre and style is based around impersonation. Gilgamech has its self-conscious poetry-spouting protagonist, who narrates her actions in the third person, drawing attention to the genre as genre, as artificial construction. And The Hex has its Sonic knockoff, its Tekken sequence, its RPG episode. Both games draw attention to their genre(s), in some sense framing genre as subject matter rather than merely adopting one as a chosen style. And overall the effect feels – maybe a little insecure?
I mean, don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing bad about hating any particular genre. If you can’t stand RPGs, and you want to make a game about how plumb-ass stupid you think they are, you go for it. But approaching video games with this constant attitude of loss, like games were better when you were a kid and you’ll never be able to recapture the magic – I think from an aesthetic perspective, it just feels like a failure of imagination. If you want games to be magical, make magical games. It’s not even a problem of deconstruction, either – there are plenty of stories that take a playful approach to genre and still produce some of the most captivating, enchanting shit around. Consider films like Knives Out or Cabin in the Woods – both play with the rules of their genre, both are to some extent deconstructions, and yet both are magical, delightful films. They rise to the challenge of recreating the feeling that inspired their love in the first place. They absorb the joy of the stories from their childhood, and seek to discover it again for a new generation, acknowledging how silly it is, and yet telling the story in spite of it. Like in the Decameron, storytelling is something done in spite of the circumstances – as an affirmation of life against the plague, against the cringe of genre, against cynicism and world-weary sarcasm. The Hex can’t raise itself to that level. It feels like a game that’s surrendered to the storm outside.