The search for truth is the key to human endeavour. Why are we here? Is there a higher power? What is the wifi code? Every human that has ever lived has had to struggle with the big questions: some find solace in facts, others in spirituality, each of which represent 'answers' of one sort or another. Now, Resident Evil 7 players are struggling with perhaps an even bigger question: namely, what the fuck does this finger do?
If you've not played it, the Resident Evil 7 demo is a short look at what the full game might be like (Capcom has stated it won't be part of the full game, more a tonal teaser). In the demo, you have to escape a small farmhouse building, cabin-like in appearance and size. There's a basement, a ground and second floor, and a hidden third area at the top of the house. The house is a derelict sort of place, very Jason Vorhees, and there's all manner of spooky sightings – ghost girls, crows in microwaves, etc – to get you worked up while you find the key to escape.
The problem, so far, is that there is no escape. There is a key, but getting it only means you reach the back door – and a glimpse at freedom – before you're accosted by a man who welcomes you to 'The Family' with a crushing right cross. Accessing the very top of the house – and finding a telephone – renders the same result. Either 'ending' (and there are, via multiple phone conversations, different variations on the latter) mean you get a message about the game's release date and The Family meeting you then.
Which seems pretty cut and dried: it's an interactive teaser trailer, a self-contained look at what could be expanded upon next year. But players won't let it lie, convinced there's something else out there. A 'good ending', perhaps, or a way to make a dismembered mannequin finger, which appears to have no use, 'work'. And it's driving them crazy.
This is natural, of course – video game players seek to 'win', or discover a win-like condition, most times they play something - but here they're taking it to its (il)logical extreme. PT, Konami's downloadable teaser for Silent Hills, is the inspiration for this current obsession. That game obfuscated its 'progression' so much that players stumbled upon its secrets, and its reward of a trailer, the natural 'end' point. Resi 7 doesn't look like it's going to do the same, but on we go.
The mannequin finger, of course, is key. It may even be a key: examine it from a certain angle and it sure looks like there's something in there. Found in a desk drawer in a hallway, the item description teases that the finger is made from flammable celluloid. There are mannequin bodies everywhere. Surely there's a way of making it all fit together?
Then there's the hand axe, found in another draw. It can be readied, and swung, but only to break some mannequins and boxes. But then, some of those don't break either. But if they do nothing, then what's the point in them being there?
Well, this entire piece, for one. I'm not saying that there's not more to these items – who truly knows – but I have been told by a reliable source that the finger is a red herring, one which I presume is aimed at getting the community worked up and, crucially, talking about the game. A NeoGAF thread about the demo is currently sitting at over 130 pages. There are breakdowns of the game's audio, Soundcloud files showing alleged backmasking of the song in the trailer, and ripped data which contains whispers from a mysterious woman. There are theories about save icons, theories about speaking into microphones at the correct time, and close looks at the difference between VHS and audio cassette spindles.
All is taken as evidence that there's something more, and each tiny 'discovery' feeds the machine: some people are asking for others to try the Japanese demo, or fiddle with the order of play to unlock something new. The demo has thrown up some things of real interest: an alphanumeric string found on the VHS tape is the same one as the US PlayStation product code for Resi: Director's Cut, which came with a demo for Resi 2. (Resi 2 is being remade, and so now people are thinking that the full release of RE 7 will feature a Resi 2 remake demo.) People have managed to get out of the house, and open a locked (but still boarded) door. The latter shows a fully textured room: the former, an area clearly meant to be inaccessible.
Still, these finds feel like real progress to the people who care, because it's the collaborative nature of the investigation that appeals just as much as what really is behind the doors of the house. After all, what is conspiracy – which is what it is at the moment – if not a framework of understanding, of knowing you're not not knowing, which is of course The Worst Crime. Serial, Making a Murderer, even the various OJ documentaries and shows: each instalment gives new information, regardless of that information's use, and it engages people because they think are involved, think they know more, even if what they know is inconsequential. It's the same with Resident Evil 7 and The Finger, although the parts of this series aren't podcasts or TV episodes, they're YouTube videos and forum posts: a club for like-minded people.
In short, it's a really fucking good marketing campaign. Regardless of The Finger's importance, it's also not the first time a secret something has got the Resident Evil community looking for answers, and inspired some interesting amateur detective work. Back in 1996, with the release of the first game, some players realised that hidden among the game's data was space for more files than the game itself contained: something had been deleted, but what was it? It turned out to be the infamous – and, with the release of Resi remake, later canon – Trevor's Notes: a guide to how to solve some of the game's puzzles, written from the point of view of the mansion's architect. The letters were removed just before release, but references to them were not, and a playable demo disc of the game still had them intact, in data form, on the ROM.
Whether The Finger had a greater meaning before the demo was released, or whether it is just a conversation piece, is something we don't yet know, but I wouldn't bet against someone finding out. Until then, the mystery continues, and the marketing prevails. But when people are having this much fun, who's to argue?