I finally found some time and willpower today to sit down and finish a task I had inadvertently started. It began with a game that drew me in with its striking aesthetic, and continued with a meandering trip from one that preceded said game to one that followed it. By chance, the fourth and final David Szymanski game (as of this writing) for me to review is actually his Steam debut. Like The Moon Sliver, The Music Machine, and A Wolf in Autumn, Fingerbones is a short, first-person perspective, psychological horror game. As it is the first, it understandably has less complexity in its design, storytelling, and puzzles. I’m not going to pay too much attention to those faults, as they are clearly addressed in Szymanski’s later games. Furthermore, the game is free on Steam, so there’s likely little reason in addressing the mechanics and enjoyability of the game as anyone can easily play it for themselves and see what it’s like. So instead, I’m only going to briefly touch on the gameplay and then dive straight into what has become a mainstay for my reviews of these games: examining the story. Needless to say, the plot will be spoiled here, so if you have any interest in playing, don’t read on. Also, the game features blood, references to sexual abuse, murder, and dismembered body parts, so if that isn’t your thing, don’t play the game. With all that aside, let’s get started!
As I stated, Fingerbones is much like Szymanski’s later games: wander through a setting, in this case a single building, with little context and explore the area. The puzzles are really not complex in the slightest, involving four passwords and pressing two buttons. I will say that the clues were not convoluted or contrived, so you don’t become enraged by fake difficulty, but there is so little to it beyond entering four small words into a keyboard that it’s barely worth the effort. Now, I say effort because you do need some patience to play this game. The layout is tedious. Now it is only one building with a grand total of four rooms, but because the keyboard you have to use to enter the passwords is located in the ground level room, you constantly have to go back upstairs to proceed. This wouldn’t have been so bad had the room itself not been bizarrely long, but I guess that wouldn’t have left enough corners to hide notes in. These notes are important as they give us all our clues and are the entirety of the story. You can read them in any order (only a few trigger events), but there’s a suggested flow to their narrative due to their placement in the building.
As we root through the dilapidated shack of Fingerbones, we discover notes left behind by its former occupant: a science-obsessed man with misanthropic tendencies. He’s divorced from his wife, Lynn, and has joint custody of their child, Katie. He seems to be fairly taciturn, serious-minded, and a bit self-involved.
His writings and musings center around the notion that science and rationality are the most important aspects of life, and that emotions and morality only restrain the natural instinct of human beings. His disdain for such “intrusive” human qualities seem to be analogous to his feelings for his wife and daughter.
Again (or rather for the first time), Szymanski has constructed a gendered split in his characters and their perspectives. We see this between the survivors of The Moon Sliver, Quintin and Haley in The Music Machine, and Autumn’s mother and the world in A Wolf in Autumn. However, Fingerbones actually has more in common with A Wolf in Autumn than the others, as the split is constructed as ideological. This creates an interesting scenario: This man, who looks down on emotion and sentimentality, as exemplified by his ex-wife and child, uses their names as his password. Even though he tries to somehow blame it on Katie, there is no reasoning given for why that would be true.
Even his ex-wife, whom he’s expressed contempt for a few times is so important to him that he can’t bring himself to change his password. This is confirmed when he later writes that he changed the password to the storage room to something he’d “easily remember”.
Despite his protestations and his manuscripts, this reason-ruled man has sentimentality ingrained in him. The split between reason and emotion is commonly attributed to a male-female relationship, with the value of the latter often refuted by the former—and in spite of his logical analysis of his own actions, there is a clear parallel between his creative urges and those of his daughter. Even while trying to explain why his daughter’s actions, drawing pictures, are pointless, his reaction, making her crayons into candles, answers his own question, expressing a need to stave off monotony through creation.
So far, Fingerbones has actually constructed a very interesting narrative exploring the concepts of creation and perspective, with gender playing a symbolic role rather than a prescriptive mold for the character’s identities. To be frank, I spent a great deal of time feeling it was ironic that Szymanski’s first game might have been his best story. Unfortunately, Fingerbones has a structure similar to its successors, dropping the discomfort on you, hard and heavy.
Because this is a Szymanski game, there apparently needs to be a blatant sexual element to it. And it’s here that you can see the roots of this fixation in the other games, from the strange note in The Music Machine recounting a man’s constant obsession with a girl he liked in his youth to A Wolf in Autumn utilizing a coat hanger abortion as a psychological threat: to Szymanski, the most horrifying thing is female sexuality. The (relatively tame) suspicious beauty of Ellie in The Moon Sliver, the (tremendously unsettling) false rape claim and focus on a teenager’s period that was the source of The Music Machine’s drama, the unrepentant hyper-sexual nature of Autumn’s mother… They all are supposed to represent something chilling about the nature of women who have sex. The key difference in Fingerbones is that the fear is from the perspective of the male character. As such, it doesn’t criminalize the women for existing. However, we’ll soon see that doesn’t wind up making much of a difference.
To return to the story, the man and his daughter survive a catastrophe that ostensibly wipes out the rest of the world. Among those presumed dead is Lynn, his ex-wife. He writes that he doesn’t much care about the notion that the mother of his child is likely dead, although we’ve already discussed that even now he can’t remove her name from his thoughts. What does seem consistent, though, is his newfound lust for freedom. With nothing else to hold him back, he becomes perversely obsessed with survival—emphasis on perverse.
Okay, let’s unpack this disturbing little note. Recall earlier that when the man described losing his virginity, that it was a feeling he never experienced again until “last night”. Having written this in the house after the end of the world, there is only one other person that this could be referring to. I know that I’ve said this before, but I’m going to say it again. Yes. Sexual horror and abuse is scary. Yes it can be portrayed in such a way that evokes fear without trivializing or sensationalizing it. However, such an accomplishment requires a level of skill and finesse that Szymanski lacked in his future works, so he sure as hell doesn’t have it now. No, instead what we get in Fingerbones is the story of a man obsessed with human nature as a logical and amoral existence who apparently rapes his daughter. And then he kills her.
He rationalizes killing his daughter after raping her. And to make it even more sick, he keeps her fingers AS A PRIZE.
Yes, this is horrific. But for all the wrong reasons. The scary thing about this story is not inherently the revelation of what the character did, but the unnerving reality that someone constructed this narrative, wrote it into a game, and thought it appropriate enough to distribute to others under the guise of “psychological horror”. To be honest, I had hoped Fingerbones would shed some light on the bizarre, disturbing elements of his future games, but I had secretly wanted it to exonerate him a bit, to maybe add some context for the weird decisions he made in his other games. Instead, I just got confirmation for every accusation I hurled at him, and feel bad that I gave him any benefit of the doubt. His games are creepy and sick because they started that way. They are borne of a hideous mistrust of women and an irrational fear of their sexuality. They find sport in abusing and sexualizing children for the sake of shock value. They obsess over lost virginity. They are crass, contrived and ultimately self-sabotaging. Yes, self-sabotaging—because what makes them frustrating is that they have something in them that hooks you. There is usually something interesting wandering around in the writing that is inevitably crushed by sexist abuse. There are twin narratives that vie for supremacy in Szymanski’s works. Unfortunately, it’s the edgy middle-schooler twin that always seems to win.
I think it goes without saying that I strongly recommend avoiding Fingerbones. For whatever minute charm or diversion the rest of it may offer, it’s not worth enduring such sexual schlock. Honestly, there are much better exploration-based games out there. It wouldn’t be hard to find something with more intrigue and talent, and I’ll also bet that there are stories about sex that don’t nosedive into offensive territory the way Fingerbones does. Trust me, I feel cheated having downloaded it for free. I still had to pay in my time. And so ends my Szymanski reviews. If he comes out with another one, I doubt I’ll bother looking at it. I can already imagine what elements will play out: it will have something to do with Szymanski’s fearful interpretation of women and sex. So I think I’ll keep my $5 and just hope that he stops at some point. Whatever optimism I had in my past reviews is long gone.