Alright, this one – this one’s a pleasure. Released in 2020, A Hand With Many Fingers is a Cold War conspiracy thriller set entirely in an archive. It consists of you lugging boxes up and down the stairs and cross-referencing files using a card indexing system – which is super interesting, for a bunch of reasons. For example, it’s part of the wider trend of video games looking back towards the past. We see this in games like Stardew Valley, which look away from our urban, corporate contemporary life and towards a simpler agrarian small-town culture. The ironic thing about Stardew is that it’s almost a game looking to get away from itself – looking to get away from computers and the 21st century, and retreat into some pastoral idyll. We’ve talked about this before, when we talked about how it treats surplus labour and food production. Stardew is a game that commemorates the rural past, glorifies it – and in doing so, almost mourns the fact of its own existence. Hand With Many Fingers does something similar: it uses the digital medium to commemorate our methods of data management in a pre-digital age. Hand is a game that revolves around index cards. It offers a digital meditation on a process made redundant by the digital age, turning a real historical method of data management into an aesthetic subject – again, deploying a technique very similar to what we find in job simulators like Stardew Valley or Rover Mechanic Simulator.
And the thing I want to talk about today is how Hand With Many Fingers displaces gameplay outside of the computer game environment – in a sense reincarnating manual methods of data management by deliberately failing to offer digital solutions. The core gameplay loop of Hand is pretty simple. When you enter the game, you have a box from the archive on the table in front of you. You take out bits of evidence, and pin them on the corkboard. Then you use that evidence to find further boxes, cross-referencing names against years and locations in the card index. The index is separated out by continent – each one gets a separate filing cabinet. The different drawers represent years, and inside each drawer is a list of names. If you find the name of someone you’re looking for, you can usually get a couple references to specific boxes, and then trot down into the archive to find them. You bring them up, and start the cycle again. It’s a pre-digital form of data management commemorated in the digital medium. It’s inefficient, but in a nostalgic way, in the way that we all romanticize things when we don’t have to put up with them any more.
Part of the joy of this system is the joy of discovery – of finding files and cards that were sitting in the archive all along. It makes the place almost mystical – everything’s physically there, in the building. All you have to do is find it. You read about a guy named William Colby, who became a legal advisor in 1979. You find his business card, which describes him as a Washington lawyer. You cross-reference those three facts – place, year, name – and you find Colby on the index. That’s a lead. There’s a box of records listed against his card – so you bring them upstairs and see what they say. In this case, you have a 1979 newspaper clipping about Colby’s bank, and a 1979 letter from Colby referring to one of the bank’s founders. “I don’t think we’ve met since that Angola business back in 1975.” If you look back to the newspaper clipping, a seemingly unrelated second article – just coincidentally sitting on the same page – tells you that the civil war in Angola has been raging for four years. The two in combination put Colby and his colleague in Angola at the beginning of the civil war. Does that mean anything? Who knows. You should probably go and check the Africa ’75 drawer for mention of Colby or his mate.
In collating and combing through all of this evidence, you’re also directly instructed to take notes via physical pen and paper. You need to keep track of which boxes you’ve unpacked, and which you’re still to follow up. You need to make sure you’ve got your connections straight, that you’ve captured all parties in all their different times and locations. There aren’t really a lot of sophisticated solutions within the game itself for monitoring all that information. You have a corkboard, some string, and a world map. The notepad is ultimately more efficient – it offers flexibility beyond the limited scope of the game. And that’s just a really nice touch. The game about pre-digital data management pushes you out of the computer environment and towards physical artefacts, towards physical methods. It encourages you to adopt some of the materiality of the period that it’s trying to explore.
Both the pen and paper thing and the working out clues come together to push the gameplay out of the virtual game environment and into the real world. So often in video games, the decision-making process is limited to ludic systems, rather than embedded into the fictional environment. You’re not really thinking about the fabric of the story – you’re figuring out how to game the system. In the Arkham games, for instance, you often have to scan specific clue locations in order to reconstruct what happened in a given scenario. You’re not really doing a lot of actual detective work in those moments. You’re just operating your magic scanner. In Hand, by contrast, you’re presented with information, and given the opportunity to infer. That process steps outside of the closed game system, outside of the binary absolutism of the digital form, and encourages you to use your intuition, your actual reading comprehension skills. If you do make the connection between the length of Angola’s civil war and the last time that Colby met his colleague, that information doesn’t have a fixed value within the logic of the game. You don’t get ten e-points for making that inference – it’s not quantified or collected. There are no achievements for drawing your own conclusions. It doesn’t make Batman speak his next line of dialogue. It just means you can interact with the system in a new way. Hand allows you to manipulate the information network and extract what you want from it. The pen and paper element functions in a similar way – keeping track of the boxes that you’ve explored, and knowing which ones to explore next, is honestly the key mechanic of the game. And how you navigate that element is up to you. The game is a puzzle that you solve from the outside. It reminds you that research – even digital research – is driven by the wit of the person wielding the tools.