A game called The Hidden and Unknown released on Steam this week with an absurd $1,999.90 price tag. The twist is that the self-published game is purposefully shorter than two hours, which means it can be finished without exceeding Steam's playtime limit for no-questions-asked refunds. If you don't have two grand to temporarily blow on this game, though, don't worry: I've played it, and you're not missing anything.
The Hidden and Unknown's creator goes by ThePro, and earlier this week told TheGamer that the high price reflects the semi-autobiographical visual novel's value to them. They encouraged anyone who can't afford the game to refund it or just refrain from buying it.
"I do not wish to get any people into financial trouble," ThePro said. "I just price my game as it feels right to me, which is my right."
The developer made similar remarks to PCGamesN, and said that the game is about sharing their story and "letting people understand that even if you're in a bad situation you can work with what you've got." Oh, I'd say it's about a whole lot more than that.
The Hidden and Unknown begins with an eight-minute-long Star Wars scroll which describes an imbalance between masculine and feminine energy that's turning Western men infertile due to testosterone depletion, causing women to become increasingly masculine, and which will ultimately lead to the end of humanity. So it turns out this $2,000 philosophy lesson is just the same retrograde gibberish supplement-hawking YouTube masculinity gurus post every day for free. Steam's transformation into a platform really is complete.
After introducing a time-traveling AI entity which perfectly balances the masculine ("thinking") and feminine ("feeling") energies, the dogmatic preamble gives way to a less confident, mostly non-interactive visual novel about a kid named Brian. None of the characters are depicted visually, only the locations, which have obviously been created with help from an AI image generator.
The story is a compilation of anecdotes from Brian's youth which were apparently drawn from the creator's own tumultuous life experiences, but which are for the most part acutely mundane: accounts of soccer practices, times Brian appeared smart in class, times he went to bed and woke up the next morning, notes about an online game he played. What few passages invite sympathy are undercut by the point of the whole thing: Brian's transformation into a testosterone-rich übermensch whose ex-girlfriend can't manipulate him anymore (he read Sun Tzu's The Art of War) and whose depression is thwarted by masculine habits such as sleeping enough and getting regular exercise.
I've never written a gender essentialist manifesto on the estrogen poisoning of Western men, but there do exist immature old journal entries and short stories that I'm glad I never had the impulse to publish. If I had, I hope I also would've used a pseudonym and charged $2,000 to read them (I wish that about some of the things I have published), so credit to ThePro for that much. With luck, they'll also appreciate those choices one day.
Then again, without the stunt pricing, The Hidden and Unknown may have been ignored entirely, like so many other bad games and novels. It actually has three Steam reviews so far, which can't be left by users who don't own it, although that doesn't necessarily mean they paid for it. One review, posted pre-release, says simply, "Would buy again. 10/10." The next says, "Worth every penny."
The third review skips the sarcasm, calling The Hidden and Unknown the "worst game ever made" and "meaningless, misanthropic trash." That reviewer does note that they received the game for free, so the axiom that you get what you pay for still holds in this case.
The Hidden and Unknown isn't the first game to incorporate Steam's refund policy into its design. Last year, a game called Refund Me If You Can challenged players to escape a maze in under two hours, just in time to get their money back. I find the playful, metacontextual design fun, but I think I prefer the maze example.