Five of the Best is a series. Every Friday lunchtime, UK time, when you’ve mentally clocked out for the week (but want to look like you’re still working), we’re going to celebrate a different incidental detail from the world of games. How lovely. Last week, we talked about potions. They’re the kind of things you don’t appreciate at the time but get all excited about when someone brings them up later – like, well, now.
Hands! We love them. We paint them, we put metal rings on them, we wave them. And, oh my, those opposable thumbs, aren’t we special. You wouldn’t see a cow drinking a cup of tea would you? Hoofy hooligans.
I see my hands now, flopped on the keyboard, awaiting orders, just like a set of hands in a game. Weird to think of it like that, but think how many hands we’ve seen in games. So many! Hands thrusting into gauntlets and flexing before our eyes, hands holding guns, hands swinging swords, hands casting spells.
They’re so important, particularly in first-person games. They’re often the only part of a character we see – for a long time at least – so they need to convey a lot. Think of the hands in Overwatch and all the work they do, all the character they bring. Moira’s pointy evil science hands; Sombra’s free twiddly hacker hand; Torbjorn’s chunky crank hand. They evoke so much.
But do you ever stop to celebrate them? I bet you don’t so today we will, we’ll give them a hand (I have not even a hint of remorse). Here are Five of the Best according to me. I hope it sparks your memory and you have some to share with me – I’m sure I have overlooked so many hands. Let’s talk in the comments below.
There are slight BioShock spoilers below. Nothing gratuitous but it could dampen a plot point so beware.
BioShock’s hands are brilliant because they’re cemented to the story itself. The whole game, you stare at them, from the cinematic introduction onwards, intrigued by the clue in front of you. Then, when the twist is eventually revealed, it’s all the stronger for it. Quite subversive, really, playing on an element we take for granted and hiding a surprise there. And it’s not, of course, the only one in the game.
That’s the big reason, but I’m also a fan of the main character’s left hand scrunching like a claw. The plasmid hand, the power hand, which releases lightning or fire or whatever other super-power you’ve injected yourself with. A constant reminder of the game’s central conceit – a conceit which makes both your character, and BioShock, stand out.
Who cherishes their hands more than a surgeon? Steady, skillful hands are everything. Look how upset top surgeon Stephen Strange got when he broke his hands in a car crash: he was inconsolable for days! It was only when he found a floating cape and grew a goatee he started to feel better.
How mischievous, then, for a game to make you a surgeon but have your hands be your biggest obstacle. In Surgeon Simulator, you know what you want to do, but actually making your wobbly, clumsy, rubber-glove-like hands do it is a whole other story.
It’s hilariously hard, even in virtual reality, where you have a controller for each hand. Case in point: the wonderful video of a real-life surgeon – not Stephen Strange I’m afraid – attempting brain and heart surgery in Surgeon Simulator VR. How he throws those organs around! Um, I hope he doesn’t do that in real life.
Hands aren’t just for first-person games. Slap! How could you think that? And who can forget the hand in Dungeon Keeper, your god hand, hovering like a puppeteer’s over your playthings below? Its witch-green fingers wiggling as if in delight at some cruelty they’re about to unleash. And there was nothing more delightfully cruel than the slap, the waspish back-handed remonstration which had your minions recoil and come back harder, like a horse whipped on the flank. Though there were some, like the Dark Mistress, who enjoyed it. How deliciously dark Dungeon Keeper was.
The hand was in perfect keeping – and reinforced – the upside down, be-the-baddie theme of the game. It is a dressed-up cursor, really, and why not? Is your cursor not an extension of your godly being in games like it – a hand, of a kind, ready to tinker with toybox in front of it? Dungeon Keeper’s hand, then: a wonderful touch (still no remorse).
The Legend of Zelda
Hands up (I won’t ever stop you know) if you know what a Wallmaster is? It’s the recurring bastard – baddie, sorry – from the Zelda series, which grabs you and chucks you back to the beginning of a dungeon or room. You know a Wallmaster is coming by the growing shadow on the floor, the ominous shady spread, and if you don’t move, you’ll be snatched! How can you not remember such an infuriating enemy?
But there are two other pairs of hands from the Zelda series I want to mention too, and they are also giant and disembodied. They belong to Ocarina of Time boss Bongo Bongo and closely related Windwaker boss Gohdan. Bongo Bongo bangs a giant bongo you’re standing on. But what I particularly like is how their hands push you around the level and off the edges of platforms – they do more than simply slap down and hurt you. It’s a big-boss problem, isn’t it? They have to be fightable – they can’t just smash everything and annihilate you. But usually this results in lazy hand movement routines, as if the boss were slouched against some deity-sized bar, absentmindedly squashing bugs on it.
There’s something else about giant hands, too. We’re subconsciously drawn to them, hence all the times they crop up in games. Maybe it’s because our brains think about them more than any other part of our body. It’s a scientific fact! Have you heard of the sensory homunculus, a sculpture proportioned according to how much brain power we spend on each part of our body? Take a look at it, it’s in this article.
Of course, hands aren’t only used to communicate with games. They can become skilled tools for communicating with each other. Sign language is wonderful. I learnt a bit when my son was younger, through Sing and Sign. Sing and Sign’s a way of teaching rudimentary sign language to parents so they can communicate with toddlers before they learn to talk. It helps alleviate their frustration when they want to tell you something but can’t. It’s a great idea.
Tacoma is a game with sign language in it. You use it to interact with the space station you’re exploring, inputting passwords and so on. And there’s a solid and convincing reason for it – it’s not put there simply because it seemed cool.
Here’s Steve Gaynor from developer Fullbright explaining why (Gamereactor, 2015): “We realised one thing the computer could interpret clearly would be if the user was using sign language. You could enter text that way without needing to touch anything and without needing to talk out loud, because talking is louder than typing, and you don’t always want to be – for instance if you’re entering a password – [saying it so] somebody could hear it, right?”
Tacoma uses legitimate American Sign Language, too. There’s a very endearing video I found of a super-excited sign language YouTuber discovering this for the first time. It’s a reminder of how much us humans rely on hands, and how many uses we have for them around the world. Sitting in your pockets, catching basketballs, engaging in conversation, the list is endless.
Those are my five but what about you – which hands do you remember?