Spanning 5 long days and 3 conference halls the size of jumbo jet hangars, the Game Developers Conference is an astounding display of the industry's current girth. If you have a particular interest - say, "Facial Rigging" or "Sweater Animating" - this is the one place you will not only find others like you, but relevant classes, lectures and possibly a luncheon or two.
How perfect, I thought, when I booked my flight. I'd had a curious, if somewhat unexplainable fascination with hands in first-person shooters ever since I was assigned a countdown list for an old job in 2008. Someone at GDC - a developer, a publisher, a guest speaker - was going to justify my niche interest. I could feel it.
Outside the hall that hosted the "Designing Games for the 43-Year-Old Woman" seminar and stunk of stale bagels, I encountered my first subject: a PR guy who I knew was repping a number of first-person shooters.
"We love hands," said the gel-haired man who had already booted his Outlook Inbox. "So you coming to this party tonight? I hear they're serving fried macaroni and cheese!" I don't think he was giving my question the attention it clearly deserved. Fortunately, the conference had just begun and there were plenty of other people left to validate my opinion.
"Hahahahaha," belched an inebriated developer two nights later. "Wait, you're serious?"
Was it so strange for a reporter to ask about the significance of well-made hands at a conference with sessions titled "Gamification 201 - 60 Tactics in 60 Minutes" and "Saying "Goodbye" to Shadow Acne"?
As I boarded my plane back to New York City, I realized "yes." Yes, it was weird to ask everyone in this industry about hands in first-person shooters. But it shouldn't have been.
Spoken about like D-list co-stars, hands play a variety of A-list roles that affect the gameplay, graphics, and mood in the US' most popular genre; the fact that most everyone I speak with seems flippant about them might explain why, for the most part, they look and feel, pardon the pun, slapped together. The problem with hands in most first-person shooters is that they have three jobs and they rarely do any of them well.
Job 1: Act
The best first-person games let their hands - not just the cut scenes and the NPCs - do the talking.
During firefights in Far Cry 2, the protagonist's fingers or arms occasionally break. With his good hand, our man grotesquely resets the bone and tends to the wound. The sequence, initiated by the player, takes place nauseatingly close to the camera.
In this one moment we learn valuable information about our hero: He has a practical knowledge of medicine, he's field trained, and he's a total badass. We don't need characters telling us this information, because we experience it first hand and as every film school drop out knows, showing is better than telling.
The moment is also empowering. The game doesn't yank out to the third-person view, but stays close. In first-person, the player feels more like the guy who can cauterize his own wounds than like the guy controlling the guy who can cauterize his own wounds.
When combined, the first-person perspective and emotive hand animations can create affecting moments like these that tell story, flesh out the universe, and envelop the player. What we should take away from Far Cry 2 is that hands, like good actors, need to react. When they're injured, they sting. When they're trapped, they pound for help. When they're broken, they mend themselves. This is a better story-telling method than an AI character looking slightly to your right and grunting, "You're hurt."