a review of God Hand
a videogame developed by clover studio
and published by capcom
for the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system and the sony playstation network
text by Hamish Todd
There is no such thing as immersion, and a good thing too.
You can see something strangely revolting played out in recent “games.” Watch that video, or play something like Enslaved (zero stars), or Bejeweled (zero stars) and you’ll feel patronised and lied to. You might ask, of the designer: “You’re trying to make me think I’ve accomplished something when really I’ve not. Why are you working so hard to lie to me?”
The “game” developer looks blankly back at you. “I’m making a video game,” they say. “The whole thing is a lie. All games lie. If I’ve set up an epic, orchestrally scored, well animated, well written setpiece, then why is it so important that it also be difficult to play? Why don’t you just pretend that it’s difficult? You’re already suspending a lot of disbelief by accepting that the characters are real. By taking it a step further and pretending you’re involved in it, you could get a lot of gratification.”
This way of looking at games is an aberration. Games are not about having powerful verisimilitude with tossed-off involvement — it’s meant to be the other way around. I do not have to suspend my disbelief to enjoy Tetris, or Rhythm Heaven, or God Hand. And paradoxically God Hand, with its absurd kung fu, its enormous floating bananas, its thick line between good and evil… would never lie to you in the way that those games do.
God Hand does not do immersion. What it does is concentration, in a quantity which only the deepest games can achieve. In general, games which inspire concentration are usually utterly indifferent to the concept of “fiction”, and God Hand has palpable disdain for fiction — that’s why in place of characters we get unrelenting satire.
God Hand knows that we want to hear the truth. The truth it tells us is always “You are not good enough.” But it isn’t a blunt truth — we can always ask “In what way am I not good enough?” and God Hand will give you a highly detailed answer.
When they began making God Hand, it was just meant to be really really hard — this is what people wanted. The thing is that in order to be truly hard, you have to be fair (otherwise it wouldn’t be fun), and fast (so that a player can have instant feedback on a strategy), and have a carefully calculated amount of complication.
Any asshat can create difficulty by being unfair in the Hitch Hiker‘s Guide to the Galaxy sense of the word. So how do you create difficulty while being consistent? (“consistent” is a synonym for “fair”) What you do is give people some tools, and then demand that they become proficient with them through reasoning and experimentation. You then give them as much information as possible about how well they are doing. If you’re clever, you can present this information up to sixty times per second.
God Hand is the hardest game I’ve ever played. Unlike some hard games, it has no grinding, no memorization, and as small an amount of luck as was possible. What it has instead cannot be easily bottom-lined. But the game is so consistent that it becomes like a math test. God Hand gives you the tools, and then demands that you become proficient with them. The level of proficiency required is so high that at first it just seems obscure. But you will reach it.
There is something powerful and truthful about this process. The astounding becomes the normal. When you overcome something new, it’s a personal discovery. Mikami wanted to demand as much from you as he could. So eventually, he demanded that you discover things.
To me, getting good at God Hand strongly resembles getting good at programming and certain other real-life skills. Like programming, it is not enough to do something fast, clever, bombastic. You are also required to find a way of doing things that requires a small amount of effort from you. So you might find that you can kill a certain kind of enemy with two buttons, but it takes a lot of effort. But then you turn a corner, and there’s three of him, so you need to use other tools. It’s a meta-risk-reward structure. You demand a lot from yourself, and you do it so that you can demand less from yourself. In the pursuit of difficulty, the game starts to ape the real world.
You have to work fast in God Hand, and admittedly, reaction time is not a very intellectually impressive thing. There again, wouldn’t it be nice if we could perform experiments in real life as quickly as we can in God Hand? If you could build sixty Large Hadron Colliders every second, you could work out a lot of stuff.
I do think there is something to be said for games being fast, for the same reason there is something to be said for people speaking fast. Speak fast, and you’ll say more. But speak too fast, and some people may not understand you. This is why we have books, which let people listen at their own speed. Osmos had this efficiency in mind. Bangai-Oh Spirits had it more firmly in mind. Pac-Man Championship Edition DX (***1/2) had it most firmly in mind.
Pac-Man Championship Edition DX’s automatic slowdown is the biggest breakthrough in action game design in a long time, and it is all the more fascinating for being an inversion of one of the previous big breakthroughs in action game design (playing “chicken” with the ghosts in Pac-Man). It’s a pity that the level design is linear to a degree that is somewhat disturbing (it really doesn’t belong in a Pac-Man game).
So we kinda worship God Hand’s fairness. There is a flat fucking lie told by IGN, in the worst game review of all time: “enemies will often come up (or even appear) behind you”. With all the politeness I can muster, I might say that the writer of that sentence misremembered his experience of God Hand. In actual fact, if there is an enemy behind you, then it is because you put that enemy behind you.
The camera hangs behind your avatar’s back, not unlike a stalker. You could call it ugly, but I would say that if you want to make a game that doesn’t require a camera this close to the action, well, surely that’s a poor reflection on your game.
I just picked up Devil May Cry. A lot of it is unforgivably shit, but the combat and art direction are pretty cool. Them and the textures. They have some bloody detailed textures in there. They even hold up today, so I can understand any amount of pride. But, you know… if you care so much about the walls that you’ll risk obfuscating the action, why don’t you just become an interior designer? Devil May Cry’s camera is execrable. Not because it’s fixed — a couple of twiddles this way and that wouldn’t have helped. It is because it’s not functional, and the fact that it came about because of vanity is sad.
It’s easy to take a camera for granted. Well, Christ, a camera is actually a beast of a thing! It’s nightmarishly difficult for a programmer to get it to the expected level of efficiency (which would be the efficiency of the human eye). And what about when the camera goes inside a piece of world geometry? Bearing in mind that this could happen many times a second if you’re, say, going through a tunnel in a racing game. The usual reaction to intersection is to spew the camera out. This is appropriately realistic, but it leads to inconsistency, and that leads to unfairness.
There are only a few ways of completely avoiding camera issues. A partial list:
1. Base the level design around accomodating odd camera angles at every turn. Hence Super Mario 64 having a large amount of towers. This is hard and lead to many in-a-void-floating platforms and other semi-abstract level designs, so it fell out of favour with game designers who were trying to tell a story. Gloriously, we may be seeing a return to abstract level design.
2. Either by reducing the player’s agency or shifting the focus of the gameplay, make it so that you will always know exactly where the camera will point. Hence Uncharted and the Rail Shooting genre. This could be said to make the game 2D.
3. Base the system of the game around controlling the camera. This is what first- and third-person shooters are. This is the easiest option, so first- and third-person shooters are prevalent, and get used to demonstrate new technology.
4. Base the challenges around not seeing things. Hence Smash TV positioning the camera over a door, and also Space Giraffe.
In God Hand, walls disappear whenever there is a chance of them getting in your way. This is a very important aesthetic decision. It was not done out of laziness on anyone’s part.
It also accommodates a bit of (4). In God Hand, they have to have the camera close to the combat, as opposed to Spartan: Total Warrior, where the camera is zoomed out far enough that you will always see an enemy before they attack. Like I said, occasionally it is a good idea to turn your back to one enemy so you can wail on another enemy. You just have to come to terms with the fact that you’re going to need to keep unseen enemies stored in your mind. It’s a little risk-reward thing: it leads to a nice situation where you wonder, “Can I get another punch in before the purple dude runs up to me?”
3D games inherently involve obfuscation, basically, so it should come as a shock to us when a 3D game is as precise as a 2D one (even when it cheats by having a 180-degree turn move and a minimap).
There is an impressionistic setpiece in God Hand which allows us to realise something big about the composition of the game as a whole. The mast of a ship falls over, forming an infinitely thin bridge that is impossible to fall off. We walk onto it, and a bat-wielding baddie comes toward us. We spar with the baddie on a completely 2D plane, flicking the dodge stick back and forth, wondering what the arc of the bat looks like from the Playstation’s point of view. This is how they made such a precise game in 3D: they made a 2D game, and then made all the 2D planes intersect on the exact place where you stand. That’s quite profound, really: every enemy exists in a separate universe consisting of them and you.
“We’ll have a bunch of individual, frictitious challenges, and the player will have to overcome them all at the same time” would be my other guess at the composition of this game.
My favourite of God Hand’s many (separated) frictions is what I would call a rattling friction. Push the right analogue stick (which, due to the no-nonsense camera, can be used properly) upward, and you’ll do a Matrix-style duck: use this to defend against punches and some swipes, possibly many in a row. I can recall this friction in my thumbs better than anything else I’ve ever done in a game. The sound of the analogue stick hitting the top of the circle is important (the PS3‘s analogue sticks are a little too resistant for this). It’s a clear “knock” sound, and a clear “knocking” feeling.
Knock-knock-knock-knock-sweep-sidedodge- Ah! they’re on the floor. Now what?
You have a heck of a lot of options when your enemy’s on the floor. What I personally favour right now is a heel drop and some juggling. The heel drop is, let’s see… it’s like dropping a breadknife blade-first into a sheet of cardboard and watching it stick there. You can follow the heel drop up with some poppy and funny moves, but I guess it doesn’t do that much damage (unless you can get a flying roundhouse in, which you probably can’t with the harder enemies).
I should try and grow out of the heel drop. Maybe take the opportunity to wind up a Granny Smacker (which is also damn funny) or lay in a few kicks.
So, there are occasional (and, of course, crucial!) difficult choices you make in your God Hand style. But yes, I do strongly suspect that the joy lies in the places where you don’t have so many choices.
Combat in God Hand is compartmentalised. There are certain (difficult) things that you can learn to do in certain situations. A couple of examples:
The ability to get whacked into the air, but backflip just in time to stay on your feet.
The knowledge of how to effectively separate one enemy from a crowd.
The turn move.
Canceling kicks when in God mode.
Wall bouncing, which is what I’m working on at the moment.
I could go on for a while. They’re bricks that you acquire, and then pile on top of each other. You’re a builder, and only occasionally an architect.
It’s clever, because it allows you to get better in discrete steps — it’s almost as palpable as an RPG sometimes. Lots of people remark on this with God Hand: the difficulty doesn’t offend because you always know how to improve yourself. As we get slapped around the face by a whip-weilding dominatrix, we take opportunity of a pause in the fight to think to ourselves, “We need to work on our side-dodging.”
Here it is: a game so deep that it becomes an isolated pocket of self-improvement within the mind of the player. Street Fighter and Counterstrike managed this a couple of years ago. God Hand turns its nose up at their fury. In those games, you improve yourself because you want to beat someone. In God Hand, you improve yourself because you want your self to be improved.
In a perfectly fair, perfectly interesting system (which God Hand is about as close to as you can come), difficulty is nothing but a structure. In a perfect world, we might never talk about a game’s difficulty — only its fairness and its beauty. So let’s say you die in a game. You lose some amount of “progress”. This presumably sucks — unless we’re playing a game where levels are still fun the second (or eightieth) time you play them.
Maybe there are some choices (moral or otherwise) that you can reconsider. Maybe there’s some part that you can do in a more interesting way this time around. Maybe you could use some space to practice, which will allow you to overcome the part you died on. The point is, there is a constant flow of interesting stuff.
Thank god Ikaruga is so hard. Its levels are so many-layered, and its difficulty encourages me to play them many times, to discover and exploit their many facets. Ikaruga is set of overarching patterns and subtly assembled machines.
Thank god Portal is so forgiving. There aren’t that many reasons to repeat a puzzle, nor are there many reasons to repeat the first half of a puzzle that you died half way through the completion of. Portal is a series of booming statements.
God Hand is a lip-biting prospect for a games journalist. I’ve done my best. It’s so hard to really divine clever pieces of game design — this is why Anna Anthropy is surely the best games journalist in the world, and it’s not even a full time job for her.
For the rest of us, there will be no magic bullet. Even if the major sites stopped accepting bribes, swore not to do another article on the gaming’s greatest tits, and pledged to report on games only after they had been released, they‘d still be pretty thick people. Having said that, talking about auteurs would be a good start.
Shinji Mikami, man. Why are people faithful to franchises over auteurs? When I was 14, my uncle remarked to me that his friend was selling his company. This confused me. I knew the company was very small, and that its owner was a big part of what made it special. I asked my uncle “What does selling a company actually mean when the company is a rather ephemeral thing?” (I may not have used the word ephemeral). My uncle squinted and said “Good question… Mostly what is sold is referred to as the ‘customer list’. The company will have patents and established brands, and so there will be some people who will be guaranteed customers of the company.” That seemed pretty sensible and straightforward, provided you’re talking about capitalist constructs. If you’re talking about art, you’re fucked.
When it is revealed that, say, a Final Fantasy character appears in some bullshit fighting game, it’s guaranteed that the game will sell. Our affections are literally being bought and sold, people. At best, journalists talk about franchises; at worst, they talk about publishers. As if publishers matter one fucking wit! Don’t be hypnotised! Yeah, the logo appears every time you boot up the game — that doesn’t mean that “Capcom” or “Atari” are really responsible for the stupid thing.
Every time (every *fucking* time) we watch a film, we see at least three logos before anything happens — and then these cunts put “A New Line Cinema production”, “in association with the UK film council”, in the body of the film as well, this being within several seconds of the aforesaid logo. Have you ever heard of someone who was excited to watch a film on the basis of it being made by New Line Cinema? Of course, this isn’t about utility for the consumer. These are companies we’re talking about, and the names are blared out in the idle hope that one day someone will utter the words, “Holy shit, a project endorsed by Warner Bros.!”
People don’t use that exact phrase. But in games, they come close. In the games industry, we have franchises. While everyone knew that there wasn’t going to be any point in watching American Pie 4, every year we get a new Sonic title, which journalists eagerly anticipate because they’re a dull bunch and saying “Let’s just hope this latest sonic goes back to the series’ proud origins” makes them feel like they have real opinions.
By the way, Ivy the Kiwi? (***) by Yuji Naka has great art, a highly elegant and frictitious concept, and almost-serviceable level design (so it’s slightly better than Soul Bubbles). Yuji Naka is the real designer of Sonic, as Ivy’s box art oh-so-timidly suggests.
Right now there’s a “reboot” of the XCOM series as an FPS. I’m no expert on XCOM, but what the fuck? Those in the know will be aware that the guy who’s really responsible for XCOM made the one good 3DS launch title which with shocking irony was nominally a “Tom Clancy” game! This is a strange subculture we have here, especially because I can think of some counter examples to what I’m proposing (Valve, Sonic Colours maybe).
The reality is that “characters” are utterly superfluous to the language of video games. This is a fundamental fact, and the strangeness that we see comes from there being different groups of people with different levels of awareness of this fact.
Game designers are aware of it.
Game writers aren’t aware of it.
Some game journalists aren’t aware of it.
Some game players are completely oblivious to it. This is how we get abominations like fanfiction.
Some games exectutives are aware of it, and are trying to suppress it because characters can be owned on paper, while auteurs cannot.
How many people knew that God Hand came from the director of “All the Resident Evil games that were actually good” and “Devil May Cry”? Everyone hated Devil May Cry 2. Capcom came as close as can be imagined to saying, “Yeah, fuck that game.” Maybe they could have gone one step further: “So here’s God Hand, the game that takes Devil May Cry to its real conclusion.”
I’ll leave you with the two problems that God Hand has. There were going to be some others but then I realised that I was looking at them in the wrong way.
Firstly, God Hand is bigotted. Not much more to be said there.
Secondly, some of God Hand’s quick-time-events are silly. Most of them are okay. With the “pummel” QTE, for example, you can land a couple of blows before entering it if you know what you’re doing, and sometimes it may be within your interests to not use it at all — so there is a smidgen of strategy there. For the rest, I’ll quote Kinto:
“I defend the majority of God Hand’s QTEs thus:
- Their occurrence is predictable; either through telegraphing, like the counter move used against the demons, or through the player deliberately setting up situations where they can happen, like tripping up an enemy so you can stamp on them
- The input icon displayed is the input tied to the mechanic you would need to use to solve that situation anyway. Analog stick right (and no other direction!) to dodge a suplex, attack button to attack etc
- If you removed the button icons they would still work as game mechanics but, and this is the most crucial point, WOULD CEASE TO BE QTEs.
The only QTEs I can think of that don’t fit this framework are the one where you punch the gorilla in the balls and the one on Shannon’s second form that involves dodging an attack and striking a weak point at the same time. Both of these feel appropriately cheap.”