When I tell friends about video game protagonist murder mystery The Hex – the latest game from the creator of the surprisingly demented Pony Island – I always say two things: 1) that they need to play it as soon as they can, and 2) that it’s about something completely different than it claims to be.
The Hex is, if you take it at face value, a game in which six washed-up video game protagonists staying at a creaky old inn try to sleuth out who’s coming to murder them, and avoid dying in the process. Each of their segments plays out in their genre of origin, meaning that The Hex includes everything from side-scrolling platformer levels to a short JRPG to a post-apocalyptic tactics game. It’s a heck of a ride. But then, in its final act, it takes a left turn, leading to an ending that casts everything up to that point in a wildly different light. Only it turns out, that’s not even the full ending.
(Before we dive into the weeds of this, I super recommend you play and finish The Hex. It’s only about six hours long, so you can polish it off in a sitting or two. It’s one of my favourite games of the year, and it’s definitely worth experiencing in full.)
In The Hex’s final series of Beginner’s Guide-like narrated vignettes, players learn the story of the fictional developer who created all the fictional games and characters featured in the actual game: Lionel Snill. Lionel is portrayed in a vaguely sympathetic light, but as he goes from bedroom solo savant to big shot studio lead, his ego consumes him, and he pushes away his closest friend, a fellow developer named Carla. She, in turn, creates a horror-game-worthy ringleader character named Sado who basically infects a bunch of Lionel’s games. Things get freaky – and then depressing, as we learn that Lionel ends up bitter and isolated, albeit still nursing an ego large enough to have its own gravitational pull.
But Carla’s not the only one Lionel hurt. In the world of The Hex, game characters lead their own virtual lives, and Lionel’s motley crew of traumatised cast-offs want revenge. In the end, a murder does occur, and you, the player, are complicit in it. The characters you spent the game playing as – led by the first character Lionel ever created (and tried to delete), Root Beer Reggie – trick you into helping them cast an occult hex and manifest in the real world. Reggie then reaches through a computer screen and strangles a live-action version of Lionel to death. The camera lingers on Lionel’s body as Sado rises up behind him, portending things which are probably not super great for the future.
And that’s it. Or it was until recently. As Rock Paper Shotgun reports, a dedicated contingent of players have spent the past month following a trail of in-game hints, leading to a cipher that had to be manually inserted into the game’s files. This decoded a message hidden in a secret in-game locket, which led to a final exchange between Lionel and Carla. “If something ever happens to me, can you make sure this gets into a game? Maybe one of your own?” Lionel asks via a messenger program. Carla, after a veritable hail storm of bemused ellipses, agrees to put the file that Lionel sends her into a fishing game she’d been wanting to make. Then she blocks him.
Now the fun part: that fishing game? It actually exists. On November 13, a free fishing game called Beneath The Surface appeared on the Steam store. Its developer and publisher? Somebody named “carla51.” The game itself is actually a pretty fun ice-fishing-themed take on the clicker formula, with you casting your line ever deeper as you upgrade your gear and build automated (and increasingly bizarre) systems that generate cash on their own. If you fish for long enough, however, you discover a locket full of gibberish text. Run that through the secret Hex cipher, and you get a command: “Type Lionel.exe.”
If you want to see The Hex’s final (?) secret without going through all that trouble, you need only download Beneath The Surface and type “Lionel.exe” while playing it. This opens a vignette reminiscent of the ones at the end of The Hex, with Lionel once again narrating his thoughts while you walk through an incomplete version of a first-person shooter level. This time, he implies that he’s learned somebody might be after him, and that somebody might be one of his characters. He’s pretty sure it’s all nonsense, but just in case, he’s left behind an apology. He talks about how he deleted all traces of Root Beer Reggie because he wanted to come off as a prodigy when he released his “first” game, Super Weasel Kid, to the public. He had a collaborator handle that part because he couldn’t stand to do it himself, and he was told that Reggie would be exported to a different game. But, he says, “I never saw him again.”
The level eventually dumps you into a 3D recreation of fictional game Root Beer Reggie. “If you’re out there somewhere, Reggie, I still miss you,” says Lionel. “And I’m sorry.” Then the game closes.
Suddenly, tiny icons of Sado’s face blot out your IRL desktop, and a message appears: “sado.exe installed.”