Hands. You wouldn’t have human civilization without them, meaning you wouldn’t have video games, either. Or, like, houses. But even though hands are front and center in many games, we don’t talk about them all that often. On this week’s episode of Splitscreen, we stop keeping hands at arm’s length. In honor of Resident Evil Village’s Ethan Winters, who just can’t seem to stop losing his, we put hands under the microscope.
In our first segment, Ash Parrish, Mike Fahey, and I explore the history of hands and the curious lack of games that feature the sort of cringe-inducing hand carnage that permeates recent Residents Evil (correct plural). Then we talk about the best and worst hands in games, including Doomguy’s furious fists in Doom 2016, Cyberpunk 2077's hyper-customizable nails, and the hand, the myth, the legend himself: Nintendo 64 platforming sensation Glover.
Then we move on to a lengthy interview with Valve programmer Kerry Davis, who spent years working on Half-Life: Alyx’s hands, which are perhaps the best in video game history. We learn about all the ideas and technologies that went into Alyx’s highly interactive digits—and everything that got left on the cutting room floor.
Get the MP3 here and check out an excerpt below.
Ash: Because your hands are your avatar, was there anything you put into Alyx’s hands to kind of show her personality? Alyx speaks, so you can get a feel for who she is through that, but is there anything you guys did with her hands that helped in the personification of her?
Kerry: Yeah, the artists put a ton of work into that. That’s one of the first things that people mention. They look at their hands, and they’re like “Oh wow, there’s dirt under the fingernails.” So that’s part of it. You’re trying to represent the world that Alyx lives in. What is her day-to-day routine? What kind of activities is she involved in? She was always a tinkerer, so she was probably at the workbench at least a couple times a day, so her hands aren’t going to be fresh and clean. That was the main thing.
I think the biggest issue we ran into is deciding what to do at the wrist. We knew pretty early on that we probably were not going to try to do arms in the game. So then what do you do with the back end of the hand? Is it just a sliced off piece of meat? For a while, we thought maybe we would sort of hint at the arms and have part of a wrist that went past the hand. That just looked kind of weird. You had these articulated stumps on the back of your hand. So that was one of the big conversations.
There’s always that agreement between the devs and the player of “Look, we’re gonna present to you a representation of something, and you are going to have to suspend disbelief and buy into it a little bit. We’re gonna have to work together on this.” We’re just trying to figure out where that middle ground is. How far can we go without actually ruining the experience so that your suspension of disbelief will buy into what we’re giving you. I think we managed to do that with the hands. At least, that’s what the feedback has been.
Fahey: It’s funny because we were talking about ancient hands in our last segment, and Nathan was talking about how there would be a character typing with their solid hands just kind of thumping against the keyboard. It’s kind of a similar compromise, but years later. Instead of, “Should we have the fingers not move and just thump on stuff?” Now we’re like, “Where do the wrists go?”
Kerry: Right. Or you give your animators the task of, “We need to be able to play piano, and we want you to animate an entire piano piece so that you can play it at the piano.” There was some thought about that when the piano came in. It was fun and goofy, and people were like “This is ridiculous. You can’t play piano in the game. We should just cut that.”
And then there was some extreme thought of “Well, gee, we know where your hand is on the keyboard. What if we just let the player move their hand up and down the keyboard, and we fill in the key presses along the way?” So you’re improvising playing the piano just by moving your hand up and down the keys. Which would have been really cool and taken a ton of dev time and pushed the game out another year, probably—so at some point you just gotta take what you got and be happy with it.
Nathan: The headline would have been amazing, though: Half-Life: Alyx Delayed For A Year Because Of Piano.
Kerry: Yeah, I still want to do that. I think that would be a cool side project sometime.
Nathan: But yeah, you were talking about the agreement you end up having between players and developers—just being able to believe in the space and embody your character and everything. So on one hand, the game allows you to pick up all sorts of objects and do very tactile interactions, because I think in VR if you don’t have that, the illusion falls apart. But at the same time, you can’t haul off and punch people in Alyx, which kind of bums me out. I feel like that still breaks the illusion a bit. Why did you end up drawing the line there?
Kerry: I think that was one of those things that, the overall product and schedule, we had reached a point where we were ready to ship it. There’s always more you can do, and that would have been the logical next step. Because some of the emergent play you say—the video of the person blocking the headcrab out of the air with a chair and launching it through a window, which I watched a thousand times on a loop because it was so cool to see—that was the kind of stuff that was emerging very near the end of the project.
We were happy with it, and we’d announced it, and we were talking about ship dates. It was like, “Wow, it’s really coming together.” By the end, we started to see a lot of opportunity—a whole bunch of more fertile ground that could be explored now that we’d answered the 5,000 questions that all of this was built on. But at some point you have to stop asking new questions and answering them because you can do that forever.
So yeah, I think the next step could have been melee combat. That was starting to come together a little bit, and you know people have come in and modded the game and actually implemented various versions of that. So I think we could have done that and been successful. But again, it would have added more months or years to the schedule, and it wasn’t necessary for this iteration of the game. I think it was good where it landed.
Ash: What was the toughest action for your team to make Alyx’s hands do? What was a big sticking point for you guys, like, “If we could just get over this, we’d feel a lot better”?
Kerry: Making picking things up and throwing them feel natural is incredibly difficult. Everybody has this problem. You ask any VR dev, and it’s something they run into if they’re interacting with things. In the real world, you’ve got this physical feedback. You’ve got contact on your skin if you touch something you’re about to pick up. If it has some mass, you can put some pressure into it when you pick it up. We’ve all had that case where you go to pick up a cup that you think is full, and it’s empty, and you end up knocking it over because you expected it to have more pushback when you touched it.
So all these interactions become very natural. You don’t focus exactly on the thing you’re about to pick up. You just know it’s there, and you pick it up while you’re having a conversation or watching TV or doing something else. So in VR, you want that to be the experience, but in VR you can’t feel the thing. You can’t feel the thing. It has no mass, it has no weight. You can’t feel the thing unless you stand directly next to the object and very carefully move your palm into position and then curl your fingers. The point of a video game is to make you feel more powerful and accomplished than you can in real life, and in this case it just makes you feel less powerful and more klutzy. It makes you feel incompetent, and it’s annoying and frustrating.
So the big problem is, “How do we let people pick up things, throw things, interact with things without having to think about it so much?” It turns out the Gravity Gloves bought a lot of that for us, because as soon as you pull something from a distance, it’s gonna end up in your hand, because we make it end up in your hand. It’s kind of a freebie.
Picking stuff up off tables, there’s a whole lot of cheating in there that we kind of do. It’s all about providing the illusion of reality. So when you reach out for something, we can tell that your hand is approaching an object, and we decide “OK, we think you’re about to pick this up.” So, for example, we can see that your hand is moving too far, so let’s pull the hand in the game back a little bit and line it up better with the object—so it doesn’t just knock it over. Or we see that you’ve only reached part way, but now you pull the trigger to grab it and you’re not actually close enough to grab it. So let’s just go ahead and move the hand a little bit further and let it grab that object.
So we’re always trying to anticipate what your action is, and it might be wrong. When you reach toward an object, and your hand is already in a fist, does that mean you want to punch the object and knock it out of the way, or are you intending to grab it, and you just don’t realize that you’re holding the controller in a way that has made your hand into a fist? So we’re always trying to sort of deduce what player intent is and then just do it for them. We know you can’t tell where this thing is—or feel it, or tell how heavy it is—but we know what you’re trying to do. So we’re just going to make that happen for you, and it should feel like you did it. In most cases, people don’t realize we’re doing all these little tricks.
Fahey: Well now I’m going to. When I’m playing the game, I’m gonna give myself a complex by reaching out and grabbing the freaking wine bottles.
Nathan: You’re gonna make an itemized list of every time Valve incorrectly guessed what you were going to do. And then send it to them.
Ash: When people play games where they can express themselves or draw, the first thing they’re gonna do is something rude. Like, you’re gonna draw a dick. So my question is, do you build in the ability to make rude gestures, or are you like, “Eh, this is a close enough approximation,” or are you like, “People are gonna be upset if they can’t flip somebody off, so we might as well just interpret if they’re putting these buttons the right way, we’ll make them do it.” Is there a thought process behind that?
Kerry: Oh, absolutely, of course. We’re all people too, and we have the same absurd senses of humor as everyone else. Obviously, if you wanted to be really dominating about it, you could say, “If you are in your physical hand holding up your middle finger, we’re not going to replicate that in-game.” But that’s kind of silly. If you can do it with your physical body, then when you’re in the game, do it with your physical body.
We actually have code that recognizes various gestures like the middle finger and a peace sign and thumbs up and stuff like that. We put the code in there just because we thought we would want it. We never actually ended up using it. There were some experiments with flipping off the Combine soldiers and having them react in some way, but it didn’t really suit the story. It was a fun gag, but why would Combine care?
So we ended up not really using it, but the mechanic was there. The other problem is that anyone who’s not using [the Valve Index Knuckles controller] loses out on that whole aspect. So you can do it as a level of fidelity, a level of polish, but it can’t be critical to the game because otherwise a bunch of your audience now can’t execute that mechanic.
Fahey: Coming soon: Half-Life: Alyx & Knuckles.
For all that and more, check out the episode. New episodes drop every Friday, and don’t forget to like and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher. Also, if you feel so inclined, leave a review, and you can always drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or to suggest a topic. If you want to yell at us directly, you can reach us on Twitter: Ash is @adashtra, Fahey is @UncleFahey, and Nathan is @Vahn16. See you next week!