Why I love watching my hands in first-person games

Advances in animation and visual fidelity are giving us more expressive first-person avatars.

WHY I LOVE

In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. This week, Tom digs the digital digits of modern first-person games.

If you're playing a first-person game in 2017 your character probably has hands. Let's not take this for granted; in Half-Life 2 we picked up cups and threw them at combine soldiers using magic. Hands in first-person games are great. They can gesture, hesitate, declare intent, swear, punch—all the videogame things. They affect the world and communicate at the same time. I want to see Gordon Freeman's fat wiggling fingers wrap themselves tightly around the cup, and then splay outwards upon release, perhaps curling again to form a thumbs-up as the mug clatters off the soldier's stupid face.

Hands in games keep getting better. Last night I was playing Resident Evil 7, a game that repeatedly tries to murder your hands. They are stabbed, smashed, chopped up with such violence that it's a relief to watch Ethan pour soothing healing juice all over them. Resi 7 wants you to love those hands. When you go near a wall they go up and press up against the surface as if to say 'careful, dear player'. The block button sends them up in defensive claws. 'I've got this,' they say, 'we can catch that chainsaw for you.' Thanks hands, you're the best. 

Of course they never feel like my hands, but this is the other fascinating thing about hands in games. Sensibly, you don't generally get the chance to see other people's hands up close for extended periods. They're amazing, precise, fantastically articulate tools, and I love the way animators bring them to life. Resi 7's engine is really good at modeling the way light interacts with different surfaces. Ethan's hands seem luminous and alive when they pass through the torch light. Thin and pale, they show how hands can capture an entire game's aesthetic. Compare Resi's realism to Henry's big cartoon hands in Firewatch.

I don't find myself embodied in a 1:1 sense by hands in first-person games. I feel like a tourist, borrowing someone else's arms. There are drawbacks. The way Half-Life 2, Amnesia and pals give you telekinetic powers provides a more direct connection to the game world, and elaborate hand animations effectively put a little cutscene between you and the object you're trying to manipulate. Alien: Isolation strikes a good balance. The complicated locks and terminals of the  Sevastopol demand some small manual actions from you, so it feels like you're doing the work rather than someone reaching around to do it for you.

Hands are good at being silent actors too. Use the insect swarm plasmid in Bioshock and your shuddering, convulsing palm communicates the deep discomfort that only comes from having an arm full of angry bees. Think of the scene when Booker reaches out to catch Elizabeth as they tumble through the sky-city—a truly heroic hand moment. Let's put ours together, and applaud the artists and animators putting so much effort into digitising our hams. Also, check out our round-up of the loveliest hand animations in PC gaming, complete with gifs of course.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom stopped being a productive human being when he realised that the beige box under his desk could play Alpha Centauri. After Deus Ex and Diablo 2 he realised he was cursed to play amazing PC games forever. He started writing about them for PC Gamer about six years ago, and is now UK web ed.
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