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Premature Evaluation: Gynophobia


Each week, Marsh Davies roots through the underwear drawer of Early Access and beholds with a mixture of fear and arousal the strange contraptions he finds within. This week, he’s played Gynophobia, a short game about shooting things and being afraid of tits and spiders. There’s even a spider with tits - a lamentable mainstay of monster design that not even Dark Souls could redeem.

Sing with me now:

♫ SpiderTit, SpiderTit, ♫
♫ Let’s be honest, it’s always shit. ♫

And his films sometimes have talking animals in them too! “Chaos reigns!” says a fox in Antichrist. The fox has just eaten out its own womb, so I guess it knows what it's talking about. It’s a film in which the virtues of therapy are tossed on the grill to sizzle alongside womanly sin, Satanism, lust, Bacchic worship, bereavement and an assortment of self-consciously symbolic woodland animals. It would be quite the barbeque even without the Reggae Reggae Sauce of graphic copulation and dick-shrivelling sexual violence.

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Unity prefabs on fire in a single untextured cube. I’ve watched broken walk-cycles jitter in the dark near an invisible wall. All those moments will be lost in time, like piss… in… rain. Which is to say that, compared to a lot of the Early Access drek I play in preparation for this column, but then opt not to write about, Gynophobia is a triumph. It’s operational. It’s content complete, albeit at a running time of 85 minutes, some of which was spent alt-tabbed on Twitter. It costs less than a coffee. It’s not a swindle in the way that some Early Access games are: a bunch of Unity Asset Store purchases dolloped into an inert, height-mapped desolation, sustained only by airy promises of distant development goals.

Instead, it’s a bunch of Unity Asset Store purchases dolloped into duff-looking, but at-least-cursorily designed run-and-gun environs, trammelled by a laughably thin yarn about overcoming a fear of vaginas by killing zombies and giant spiders.

In the film, an arrogant, controlling therapist attempts to chaperone his glib academic wife through the grief of losing their own son by travelling to an isolated woodland shack (of course!) where her fears culminate and their relationship takes on a new, and entirely hideous meaning. He's Willem Dafoe – or at least something that might have been Willem Dafoe prior to centuries of preservation in a peat bog, compressing his wizened face into a yet more stoically creased Dafoe omelette. She, meanwhile, is a sinewy, waif-like golem of passing resemblance to Charlotte Gainsbourg. It's hard to enjoy these gristly forms rutting with each other, as they so often do throughout the film – their bestiality compounding the film's assertion that there is something grotesque and noxious about the animal, natural world.

It is in ur momma’s bedroom where we lay our scene. I know it to be such because there are some pink knickers on the duvet and a book of potions by the bedside table, which, when used, prompts brief textual musing from the player-character about dear mama’s chosen reading matter. That’s environmental storytelling, that is. There’s also a broom which twangs off through the wall when agitated. I press F to use the knickers but nothing happens, so I wander out into the hall where the presence of a spider causes the screen to judder uncontrollably and bars all approach. In fairness, it does appear to be the size of a shoe, which, while small in comparison to many of its videogame brethren, is still not the sort of thing I’d happily approach without a shovel.

My options so limited, I head into what I take to be my bedroom. There’s a computer here, apparently primed with a game called Dead Hunger. Playing it transports me into the world of the game: a simple zombie shooter of no immediate charm. Monstrously lo-poly deadopaths shamble towards me through a sewer system, exhibiting a variety of jolly run-cycles, before falling beneath my blazing pistol and then sinking slowly through the floor. Headshots cut them down quickly, but I once make the mistake of letting them get close and I suffer only a few flails before I’m slain. Luckily, the pathfinding obliges by funnelling the zombies into a conga-line, making bullets to the brain a cinch. A few minutes later and I’m making my way up a ladder to street level.

I speak only for myself, of course. Such qualms were not for the man five feet to my right, who was, with ineffectual furtiveness, tugging one out right there in the cinema, belt buckle jangling. Bath is such a genteel city.

This next section is a little more interesting: I must scour a small number of streets for the means to repair a van, while remurderising the unliving and avoiding one single, gargantuan zombie who slowly trundles after me wherever I go. The gunplay continues to lack subtlety or dynamism, and the whole thing looks ghastly - but the lack of a save system does leave my palms sweaty at the prospect of having to play more of it.

After tussling briefly with the finicky physics to ensure all the wheels are plugged in appropriately, I scoot off in the van. I have won the game within the game! Now returned to the reality of my flat, I receive a text message from my in-game father, who is apparently delighted to hear that I suffer from gynophobia rather than homosexuality, “something that they don’t cure nowadays”. (I leave the reader to decide what level of self-awareness this narrative operates at - I honestly can’t tell.) Moments later, the doorbell rings, and, though I can’t open it, I can peer through the peep-hole. A plasticky-looking female character model with giant round breasts stands outside, and my camera judders with what I take to be a phobic response to glass-eyed, stiff-limbed Unity Store mannequins.

It’s a tad flabby, stagey and a little infatuated with its own sense of portent, oozing with over-egged unheimlich. You might mistake these as flaws of the film, but Antichrist is using a pitch perfect parody of pseudish film stodge to ensnare the goatee-beard crowd watching it. But the joke’s not just on the audience: in a weird, self-effacing way, it seems to be on von Trier as well. A sufferer of chronic, paralysing bouts of depression, von Trier has publicly endorsed the methods of therapy that here seem so ineffectual, laughable. Willem Dafoe's infuriatingly placid attempts to get his near-rabid wife to map out her “fear pyramid” seem just as daft as the dictums so solemnly held by the disability-faking Idiots of von Trier's earlier film.

My other nemesis, the spider, however, has seemingly scuttled elsewhere, allowing me entrance to the kitchen. Therein a draught of some potion sits, appended by an encouraging note from mother. I slug it back, promptly fall asleep, and, in so doing, pass into a violent dreamworld in which I gun down bikini-clad zombabes, evil sexy nurses, chefs and gigantic spiders for approximately half an hour. I won’t spoil exactly what happens when you wake up, but it suggests this whole process has been somehow cathartic. I’m not quite feeling it.

As to the overt theme of lady-killing: having thought about it for some time, I’m genuinely none-the-wiser as to whether offence or misogynistic pleasure is intended, or whether the game is meant to be a comment on these things. I suspect the last, actually, but I would venture that it is simply too crude to be successful at any of the above. But as crude as it is, there are the rudiments of design here: the pacing of resources, the placement of monster closets, scripted climaxes, events that resolve themselves with a bathetic deflation that prompt genuine laughter, be that intended or not.

And then there's the aborted thesis written by Gainsbourg's character – 'Gynocide', a dissertation on the persecution of women as witches that begins as a rationalist, feminist indictment and then derails with the epiphany that maybe women really are touched by some terrible original sin. It's a pattern mimicked by the film as a whole: what sets out to be an artfully shot, beret-wearing examination of grief through the lens of therapy, suddenly devolves into a bonkers slasher flick of toe-curling extremity in its last half, and ultimately posits that women and nature are indeed the tools of Satan. That's true corruption for you: going from arthouse to Eli Roth in just over one hundred minutes.

Gynophobia just doesn’t have the apparatus to deploy these elements to any overall positive effect - it looks dismal, movement is stodgy, collision fussy and its combat lacks any tactical depth or kinetic pleasure. But of the many games and would-be games out there, wrangled from prefab’d assets by amateurs, incompetents or fantasists, and given the facsimile of life by WYSIWYG game-making tools - this at least stands as a complete thing, made poorly, but offered honestly.

It’s weird to say this about a game in which I joylessly spammed bullets at jerky polygonal horror-women for dubious psycho-political motives, but I feel it deserves to exist, and the developer deserves to set a price for it, even if it’s not one I’d happily pay. Thanks to Steam’s new refund policy, of course, whatever price tag this game has can be tugged straight off again: you can claim back your cash for any reason - including, explicitly, that you simply didn’t like the game - as long as it’s within 14 days of the purchase and you’ve played the game for less than two hours.

So yeah, it’s not really a date movie. Nor is his film Nyphomaniac, which arrived in cinemas in two volumes, and is no less provocative, sexually explicit and cruelly insincere. In the film, sex addict Charlotte Gainsbourg is rescued from an alleyway beating by a man obsessed with fishing analogies. She decides to tell him her torrid life story via flashback. As with Antichrist, it's not always clear exactly what parts of the film are deployed as a deadpan satire of film convention and the preening arthouse audience that gobbles it down - but I'm pretty sure Stellan Skarsgard's interruptions about how a blowjob is like catching trout are intended to tip us the wink. Or indeed wank the tip.

This is bad news for bad games of less than two hours in length. Or even, as many indie devs fear, bad news for any game of less than two hours in length. Valve say they’ll crack down on users who appear to habitually exploit refunds to snag under-two-hour-long games for free, but that doesn’t necessarily answer the question of whether it is ever just for customers to demand money back for a game after having consumed its entirety, just because they felt it didn’t meet their expectations.

I don’t mean to be hard on Valve or customers: there are great reasons for having such a generous returns policy (not least because it is mandated by law in some European countries) and I don’t see many easy solutions. The nature of Early Access means that there a lot of opportunities to mis-sell dreams as games, and the ability to plunder prefab asset stores for professional-tier trappings makes it easy for Walter Mitty types to disguise their no-hoper status in screenshots. It seems fair that, before investing in the ongoing development of a game, you get a chance to kick its tyres first (and, possibly, clip through the tyre to fall forever through a void).

That continual smirk prevents this from being as emotive or meaningful exploration of sex or intimacy as the similarly-themed Shame, a film which never laboured its gratuity in the false belief that it was being cheekily taboo. But there are some seemingly earnest and marvellously orchestrated scenes here - particularly excellent is the appearance of Uma Thurman as a betrayed spouse. And yet they are undercut, possibly purposefully, by absurdity elsewhere. What or who is being mocked? Shia LaBeouf's appalling London accent, perhaps? The bildungsroman as a form? The intentional artifice of its framing narrative? Maybe Christian Slater's cloying fatherly wisdom is in fact a precise jab at the pseudish narrow-focus wiffling of Terrence Malick.

Though many indie devs are currently losing their shit over this policy, there are reasons they might welcome this, too: as a means of releasing them from any moral obligation to fix every fringe-case showstopper bug. But there’s a certain sort of game, and I’d say Gynophobia is one, which is probably doomed by this policy. It isn’t making any promises to evolve into an open-world survival MMO with seamless space-to-planet transition and procedural dinosaur combat. It’s just a short game that’s, well, kind of gash - and by the time you’ve decided that, you’ve already consumed a large chunk of it. What’s that worth? Maybe not much, admittedly - but nothing is even less than that.

Valve’s refund policy may reshape Steam’s ecosystem, making the sale of such games - and perhaps subsequently their development - untenable. It’ll push out Early Access scammers and fantasists, certainly, but it also threatens amateur game devs making their first clumsy forays into commerce, and - perhaps of more concern - short experimental games whose charms may not be immediately apparent, or deemed too trivial. Maybe Valve are saying that Steam just isn’t the place for them (or see them as an acceptable sacrifice) and feel that other services like itch.io will accommodate them better.

The answers don’t seem to lie in volume two, alas, which largely manages only to be eye-wateringly unpleasant. But in its final moments it delivers an arch twist so bleakly ironic that I spent the credits laughing at what a wonderfully malevolent prick von Trier is - and maybe what a prick I am for enjoying his mockery and manipulation of me. Despite his films’ unwelcome taste, it turns out I find them surprisingly easy to swallow. Gobble gobble.

I certainly don’t think Valve owe anyone a space on their storefront and they are free to shape their service as they see fit. And it would make this column a lot easier if there were fewer Early Access games of questionable prospect to wade through. But, even though I can’t say I like Gynophobia, and would probably swap the experience I’ve had for a coffee of equivalent value, I sort of regret a marketplace in which it can’t exist, SpiderTits et al.

Sort of.

Gynophobia is available from Steam for £2.79. I played the version with Build ID: 637278 on 05/06/2015.

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Marsh Davies