Looking at Fingerbones a year later

On March 20th 2014, I released Fingerbones on Gamejolt.com.  It was my first attempt at a horror game, my first project in the Unity engine, and my first title that wasn't in some way focused heavily on mechanics and action gameplay.  I didn't expect it to do very well, since...well, let's put it this way.  About two dozen people downloaded my previous game, Down We Go.  I expected similar results with Fingerbones.

So it was quite a pleasent surprise when I woke up the next day and found that Gamejolt.com liked the game enough to feature it on their front page, and it was rapidly garnering both plays and positive feedback.  Soon afterward, it began to make its way through Let's Play channels, all the way up to Markiplier.  And that's what started my career as an indie horror developer.

A few people (including HarshlyCritical himself) still consider Fingerbones their favorite of my games.  A fact I find somewhat baffling, since over the past year I've become quite dissatisfied with its note-based narration, its puzzle design, and its heavy-handed story.  Since the game will be releasing on Steam in the near future, I thought this might be a good time to write a bit about what I like and don't like about it.

It goes without saying that this is going to be super spoileriffic, so if you haven't played Fingerbones for yourself... well, you can do what you want, but it's free and its short, so why not give it a look?  You can download it for free on Gamejolt here.  Or, just wait until it shows up on Steam.


Let's start by talking about what I was trying to do with the game.  Fingerbones was heavily inspired by Agustin Cordes's point and click adventure Scratches.  While I had some deep issues with the game's puzzles, I came away amazed at its ability to create tension and outright terror out of thin air, with nothing more than sinister implications, atmosphere, and a few creepy noises.  I similarly had some major issues with the indie game Home (not to be confused with Gone Home), but also admired its ability to build tension through a mysterious narrative. 

Fingerbones was supposed to be the same thing, and for the most part I think it worked.  It's a narrative crescendo, where every note builds paranoia, discomfort, and tension, until the last revelation.  Most horror games start at 7 and build to 10, whereas Fingerbones starts at 0 and builds to maybe 2.

That said, if I had to do it all over again, I'd probably find some way to tell the story that didn't involve scattered notes.  They are just such a cliche in indie horror games.  To a ludicrous degree.  And without some solid in-game explanation, their presence is also pretty inherently nonsensical.  In my defense, I did try to explain them.  The Father is a former writer who can't seem to keep his thoughts straight unless he writes them down, and the bunker is in obvious disarray with stacks of cardboard boxes and scattered items everywhere.  So you could see why he would be writing things down, and how the notes would end up everywhere.  Still... there's a reason I tried different things in The Moon Sliver and The Music Machine.

I think the pacing dies a bit at the end, too.  The ending was supposed to be a horrifying revelation, but in hindsight it feels rushed and kind of anti-climactic.  I'd like to think that I made up for this with The Moon Sliver's ending.

While we're on the subject of storytelling, I'll also mention that I really wish I'd made the gameworld more interactive.  Even if it was just being able to examine things and get some flavor text.  The static environments of Fingerbones feel really shallow and unimmersive without some sort of interaction other than pressing buttons and reading notes. 

I think the story itself works fairly well.  It delves heavily into moral philosophy and utilitarianism, and is supposed to leave the player with the idea that materialism/utilitarianism uninhibited by conscience is an incredibly dangerous, monstrous thing.  There are holes in its argument, but in general I think it makes a fairly strong, hopefully thought-provoking point.

But the very fact that Fingerbones has a "moral" is one of my biggest issues with it.  I've never liked fiction written just to communicate a message, and I have no idea why I decided to do something like that myself.  But it's never sat well with me.  The Moon Sliver and The Music Machine were more about telling a story from my own worldview, rather than "saying something," and I feel much better about them.

The puzzles in Fingerbones are a mixed bag.  The idea was to give them some purpose other than "solve this puzzle because I need you to be stuck here for awhile," and to tie into the story by giving psychological insight into The Father.  However, in hindsight the only codeword that really says anything of interest in "lynn."  The fact that he still uses it as a passcode tells you something about his relationship with his ex wife.  I think the fact that they force you to read the notes more carefully does help the game a lot, but if I did it again I'd try to make them a little more insightful.  Heck, even having one be the name of a famous utilitarian philosopher would have been better.   

Then there are the ambient sounds and noises that play in the lower area of the bunker.  They're supposed to be The Father's memories, coming back to him as he walks around.  But... well, they're just kinda cheesy.  Very "horror gamey."  I think the idea is good, but the execution was a bit off.

Finally, there are a bunch of little quirks and small issues related to it being my first Unity game, none of which are particularly game-ruining.  Maybe the "correct answer" sound the keyboard plays should have been different, maybe that one material should have been improved... stuff like that.  But again, I don't think any of this really ruins the experience.

In conclusion, I'm still relatively proud of Fingerbones.  I think as a first attempt at a horror game, it's pretty good, and in the end I think it basically does what I intended it to do.  It creates horror with narrative, atmosphere, and pacing.  But as with any past project, I've learned a lot since then.

And again, if you haven't already, you can play Fingerbones for yourself at http://gamejolt.com/games/fingerbones/24118.  Let me know what you think :)

1 comment:

  1. I dont really play horror games myself. I actually do like the atmospheric/psychological emphasis in the genre, its just that most developers have the idea that there are things you cant give up on in horror games, like jump scares. Jump scares have become a standard in horror games, and I just cant stand them. I find them cheap - real terror comes from an appropriate atmosphere and a good message, not from a creepy drawned picture and a jump in sound volume...
    "Fingerbones" does build great atmospheric intensity and catches your interest with its short yet solid narrative, and it does it without jump scares. keep up the good work :)