Exploding Barrels

Exploding Barrels
The Hands' Job

Chris Plante | 15 Mar 2011 12:36
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People inherently speak with their hands, signaling joy, pain, or emphasis. More videogame characters should do the same. They should act. And to act, they need to ...

Job 2: Be a Character

By character, I mean personality. How they look. How they behave. In a third-person game, plenty of thought goes into character. Why do they wear their hair this way or tuck their thermal sweater that way? One argument against designing hands with too much character in a first-person game is that they shouldn't be a visual distraction. The hands should be blank slates, vessels through which players experience the world. Gun rests, basically.

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This idea of an unobtrusive vessel isn't limited to the FPS genre. "Leaving room for the player's personality" is an excuse that has launched a thousand bald space marines, bare-chested barbarians, and black-masked ninjas in a variety of games.

The FPS equivalent of these bargain bin character designs is the "gloved" hand. Often super glued to its weapon, the glove hand comes in one color (black) and one emotion (fearless). It is characterless.

Irrational Games, the creators of System Shock 2 and BioShock, put a twist on blank slate hand design and in so doing have put more character in their protagonist's hands than all of their competitors' combined. The nameless hero's hands are bare. No watches, rings or brass knuckles. No brand logos. No gloves. The left hand has a tattoo of a chain and a cotton long-sleeve shirt reaches up the forearm to the wrist. Alone, they're not particularly memorable.

In the game's world, plasmids are bioengineered injections that provide users with the power to manipulate ice, electricity, fire, air, and some character's minds. When the player activates a plasmid, it manifests through the hero's hands that tremble with frost or glow red with heat. Each plasmid shapes the boney structure with emotion: the fingers curl, dangle, or stretch.

At first an inconspicuous gun rest, the hands in BioShock transform to match the player's style. The player does not feel like the man controlling a nameless guy who points at an enemy to unleash bees and ice. The player feels like the hero who has bees and ice clustering inside his arms, forcing them out through a blistered palm. Irrational found a way for the player to literally layer character onto the generic hands.

Every game isn't a sci-fi, plasmid-soaked epic like BioShock. But people can carry guns differently. Hold a pistol sideways. Sling a rocket launcher over the shoulder. Even change gloves - maybe try mittens!

Hand designs may look generic, but players deserve to imbue them with emotion or swagger. Or at least modify them. In the third-person genre, a character must look like he or she belongs in the world. We shouldn't settle for black gloves in Iraq or Mars and under the sea.

Job 3. Communicate

Character and performance add polish and personality to a product, but the most important role the hands serve is the practical one. The hands are the tools we use to communicate with a first-person shooter. They fire our weapons, open doors, climb ledges. Typically it's a one-way conversation, us talking to the game, but more ambitious titles are using hands to relay info back to the player, creating more tangible worlds.

Developers have begun to understand that hands - like their third-person full-bodied counterparts - can provide context for virtual space. In a third-person game, when the character is near an edge and begins to lose their footing, they waves their arms for balance; when they, approach a movable block, they brace against it with their shoulders. In a first-person shooter, the character should do the same.

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