The Hex Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac, Linux
Developer/Publisher: Daniel Mullins Games
Pony Island was an intriguing little title that kicked off 2016 with a surreal and santanically themed deconstruction of the medium, and a game that I thought was quite intriguing overall. So naturally there were a lot of expectations placed on its developer, Daniel Mullins Games, to create a follow-up that follow a similar mold, and in the tail end of 2018, The Hex was released as yet another deep dive deconstruction of games and the culture that surrounded them. A title with a bevy of lofty ambitions that shines with many instances of billiantness and cleverness… but there is a limit to how much one can do with a title that only lasts about 6 hours.
Starting from the top, The Hex is set in a quaint inn where a collection of characters informed by popular video game tropes and traits have gathered about to enjoy a sullen evening of drinks, when the barkeep receives a warning that one of the denizens are planning a murder. News that casts a shroud of doubt and mistrust upon the occupants, who find themselves preoccupied with assorted tasks throughout the night, during which the playable character rotates, and the player is given an extensive introduction to each of these characters by seeing the game, or games, they originated from. Ranging from a mascot platformer in grungy attire, a man full of muscle who professes to come from a cooking game, a jaded sorceress, a scruffy post-apocalyptic scavenger, a space marine, and the vaguely detailed protagonist of a first person title.
This broad spectrum of characters, and the vast array of different games they originate from, is reflected throughout the gameplay of The Hex, which is primarily established as a point and click adventure title, but deviates across a broad range of genres reflective of each character. None of these iterations are necessarily compelling games on their own, but by being joined together as part of a singular package, placing the story first and foremost, and keeping the WASD and mouse control scheme consistent across all genres, it makes for a compelling experience through and through. An experience containing very few low points or instances where the game devolves into something overly repetitive… unless the player wants to.
It has some interesting criticisms to make about each genre, is not afraid to make weird detours in its approach, and ultimately uses the gameplay to great effect by punctuating several narrative beats without being too overt about them. In isolation, I think that every flashback section has something rather poignant to say about the relationship between the gaming community and the game development process, whether it be balance issues, deviating from player’s expectations, or even communities making or revising games themselves. If anything, this topic is meant to be the core and center of The Hex, the way in which communities affect games, and how games can affect communities, but in looking over my notes, through screenshots, and the recesses of my mind, I’m not sure if that is necessarily what The Hex is, at its core, about.
So what do I think The Hex is about, or at least wants to be about? Well, that is a question I have been trying to answer for about a week, and I honestly am not sure. On one hand, it is this grandiose tale about game development, a pretentious fall from grace, the way in which flippant behaviors can turn even the most promising and bright-eyed individuals into bitter and spiteful individuals. It is a metanarrative that casts game assets as sapient creatures with their own wills, universe, shifting occupations, and desires. It is about a sort of AI exerting the will of a developer, and banishing unwanted assets to another realm. And it is about creating a digital demon using unconventional coding methods, and forever contaminating an engine with a malicious witch.
It goes really deep on a lot of subjects, does a number of things that are either esoteric references or completely original ideas that come across as deliberate references to another work, and is positively flushed with compelling and creative ideas. Yet, when trying to parse every bit and scrap together into a cohesive narrative, I was left finding a number of holes that I did not know how to fill. And I tried, but the internet did not really help me. I read through a story synopsis, but I still cannot help but look at the absurd, surreal, and bizarrely vindictive conclusion of the game, and everything leading up to it, with a twisted expression, unsure what to make of it.
Take for example, the story of Super Weasel Kid, the first playable character of the game. He was a mascot platformer who debut in a very lively and bubbly game named after himself, and the title was showered with praise from those who played it. The sequel, subtitled Radical Road, was a more edgy and ‘mature’ affair that faced a more mixed reception, while retaining a number of die hard fans. Then the third game, which was a partial reboot series and remake of the first game, was a glitchy mess handled by a new developer, who swiftly killed the franchise. All of which is represented through a mixture of character explanations and what are mock Steam user reviews. Which does not make much sense considering that, as is later revealed, these games were all supposedly released in the 2000s or earlier. There is a lot to unpack regarding the similarities to Sonic the Hedgehog, the trend of companies purchasing and mistreating beloved franchises, and also the need to manage fan reactions in an age where everybody can make their opinion plainly visible on the internet. But as a whole… I just don’t know what to make of all this.
To diverge from narrative discussions for a moment, the presentation of The Hex is not the most immediately attractive thing, boasting a not especially distinct art style that, while doing a good job of capturing and unifying character of different ideas and art styles, comes across, well, kind of ugly. Something about their expressions, the way they move, and the general makeup of them gives the game an art style that turned me off initially, and while I did gradually get used to it as I played, I would not say that I especially liked it, but rather found it to do its job well enough. Well, with the exception of the very end of the game, which undergoes a significant artistic shift, and harkens back to the grungy minimalist presentation of Pony Island for a decent chunk of time.
I would ultimately say that The Hex is a game less than the sum of its parts, boasting a slew of intriguing concepts, creating a setting and world that I was eager to learn more about, and doing it all in a rather polished manner. Yet it is also a game that left me barking questions that I kind of doubt have answers. All of which caused me to become more than a little crestfallen once I saw the story reach its unprecedented conclusion. Because while I would certainly say that The Hex is an impressive, compelling, and overall good game, I did not feel that it reached its full potential.