Point-and-click adventures provide a rich opportunity for storytelling. The need to collect objects and think about how they interact with others keeps the player fully engaged with each scene, pondering solutions to puzzles and analysing dialogue to see how non-player characters can be manipulated. This intense focus works great for weaving a tale, as no words will go unnoticed. Drowning Cross is an exemplary entry into the genre, featuring a tight pace and creative puzzles. Created by solo developer Origamihero Games, which has developed other titles of similar type, this emotive short story is worth setting aside the few hours needed to complete it.
Jeremy is having a terrible night. Shaken awake from a drunken stupor by a concerned coworker, his memory is wrecked, only vaguely recalling something is wrong with his boyfriend Leo. Spotting Leo’s car wrapped around a tree a short way down the road, Jeremy fears the worst. As he stumbles through the city looking for Leo, Jeremy will need to delve into his boyfriend’s mysterious past to figure out where he has gone.
Point-and-click games are the most self-explanatory of genres: controlled with only the mouse, the player points at items, people, or locations, and clicks to interact with them. The interface is reminiscent of the late ’90s, with the player able to look, use or interact with items depending on which icon is selected. Drowning Cross also has an inventory system, which contains a unique system that incorporates thoughts along with physical objects – the player can drag the thought of Leo over a person to ask if they have seen him, or the thought of a cocktail can be used to order a drink, distracting the waitress long enough to rifle around in the employee lockers. The system works well, although mis-clicking Jeremy himself rather than the item of desired use is easy. Having the player be unable to select Jeremy would improve ease of use, though it would mean sacrificing a few self-depreciating jokes he makes.
The puzzles themselves are of the grounded variety, with the goal of each interaction to gain more information on where Leo might have gone. Each puzzle contains a single solution, which can be frustrating at times; the bouncer at Leo’s work needs proof that we know him, which should not be difficult since Jeremy and Leo live together, however the only evidence the bouncer will accept is a self-portrait of the pair. Why this limitation is in place is understandable, since the photo is an important item used in subsequent puzzles, but when other items such as Leo’s wallet or his work key should be reasonable proof, to have them not accepted is annoying. Perhaps the bouncer’s dialogue could be changed slightly for him to demand photographic proof when offered these other items, rather than a flat denial.
Another interesting aspect of the game is the modern nature of some puzzle solutions. With the genre rooted deeply in the ’90s, many games feature technology of the same time period, but Jeremy is a thoroughly modern protagonist, using his phone to take pictures of things and research information on the internet to follow up on a lead. Simple additions to the genre, but nonetheless refreshing to encounter.
Solving a puzzle will give Jeremy access to new locations, along with new puzzles and people to interact with. This approach works well, as a completely open map can often be overwhelming with choice. As much as I loved Thimbleweed Park, chasing down the last few puzzle solutions was a chore with so many locations available. Something Drowning Cross should borrow from Thimbleweed Park, however, is the in-game hint system. The Steam discussion board for the game assisted me when I was stuck, but a curated push in the right direction would be useful.
Without spoiling the ending, things get quite metaphysical and strange in the last third of the game. With the unusual nature of the area, I managed to stumble into the point of no return, resulting in getting the bad ending since I had not spent enough time in a certain section. The last save was well over an hour earlier before the ending, modern gaming with its autosaves having ruined my instinct to save constantly. A clearer marker of the point of no return, or perhaps a sneaky autosave, would be appreciated, since I would have liked to see both endings. That said, I really liked the bad end, a bittersweet reflection on losing something precious.
The writing overall is strong, and to see a gay character who is just a regular guy is refreshing. LGBTQIA representation in video games still has a long way to go. A handful of positive representations in recent games exist, such as Max’s complicated feelings about Chloe in Life is Strange, or most of the Dragon Age romances. More often than not, however, we end up with caricatures like Sylvando in Dragon Quest XI, who is extremely camp to the point of parody, or queer people simply do not exist in the game at all. Jeremy’s night of exploration has him interacting with a wide array of people, and you can see the moment’s hesitation when he has to choose whether to say he is looking for his boyfriend, or just a friend. Coming out is not just a one time thing, but an experience queer people go through constantly, since most will assume they are straight. Jeremy gets through the night without incident, but protecting himself is something he needs to keep at the back of his mind; it is a subtle, but stressful part of the gay experience, and I do not think I have seen it portrayed in video game form before. The depiction of Jeremy and Leo’s relationship is also on point, as they are two people who clearly love each other, but make mistakes and have fights like any other couple.
I would recommend amending the ‘sexual content’ label on the Steam page to a more general ‘sexual references’, since unless the happy ending I did not get is surprisingly graphic, almost no sexual content is present in the game. Sex is discussed, sure, but not utlised as a game mechanic. The sexual content label brings to mind a hentai game rather than this thoughtful exploration of love and loss. The text size is also enormous. I am usually a fan of larger text, since I am finding more instances where I need to wear my reading glasses when playing games, but this title had me craning my neck further away from the screen. A slider to adjust the font size would work wonders. Drowning Cross is also available on Android, which could explain the chunky letters.
Drowning Cross is a thoughtful reflection on relationships that features strong puzzling from a bygone era. I highly enjoyed my time with the game, and look forward to whatever Origamihero Games produces next.