Exploding Barrels

Exploding Barrels
The Hands' Job

Chris Plante | 15 Mar 2011 12:36
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Mirror's Edge, a first-person free running game, creates a sense of female protagonist Faith's equilibrium with her hands. They pop up when she runs into a door, reach when she leaps for a ledge and as she walks across a wire 20 stories above the earth they wave to signal that she's leaning too far left or right.

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When Faith wall runs, one hand drags against the wall alongside her. Faith sticks to the wall as long as that hand is against it, a subtle visual cue to the player that when the hand drops, so will Faith. We understand Faith's flow across the stage by how fast her hands pump up and down, and we see whether or not she connects with objects by how they latch to walls, ladders and rails.

There's a lot of hype about 3D improving depth and spatial recognition in videogames, but as we're beginning to see, the hands may be the real tool for guiding the player in complex environments.

The Problem

Too many developers ignore the potential of what's sitting right front of them - in front of us - for the entire game. The hands are gloved. Or bare and unrealistic. They barely animate and when they do, it's generic pointing or knocking. They're characterless, joyless and designed to serve a literal role in the same capacity as the health bar or the ammo counter.

Developers might think hands aren't important enough to warrant a lot of time and money, but what else in a game do we look at from tutorial to climax? Games like Mirror's Edge and FarCry 2 were praised for their immersion; hands played a big part in these small success stories.

The Solution

Before GDC, I had a chance to sit down with a few men from Splash Damage, the team working on Brink. None of them could take credit for the hands in the game and they were, at first, reluctant to talk about them.

Even they seemed a little surprised by how well they had designed their hands. In Brink, my character vaulted and slid, the hands providing that Mirror's Edge sense of balance. They also were customizable. Depending on the player's size, skin color, outfit and duty on the battlefield, my soldier's hands - along with the rest of his body - changed.

Splash Damage elaborated that the hands, arms, and guns would be just as customizable as the character's shirt or face. This part of the body, as they pointed out, would be what the player stared at for the majority of the game. It should feel like them. They should connect with it.

For the past two decades, FPS hands have been little more than a gun's babysitter. When it's hungry, they feed it ammo. When it's tired, they lug it around. Hands deserve better - not just in our games, but in our discussions.

This decade, developers are tapping current gen consoles for their full potential and trying new techniques to create believable fantasies. With so much blood and sweat spent on wood splintering, fabric shading, and sub-surface scattering, what better time than now to set some niche obsessions of the past aside and worry about something new?

Like 10 digits and 2 palms.

Chris Plante is a New York-based pop culture writer who has written for publications including Esquire, Popular Mechanics and MTV. Read his work daily on The Daily, IFC and ctplante.com.

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