by Nico Giunta
One of my favorite experiences playing a tabletop role playing game is one called Monster of the Week. It puts a more modern spin on the typical fantasy genre, with characters using computers, guns, cell phones, and more to take down monsters in the present day. Character archetypes include tech savvy scientists, mysterious cultists, and my personal favorite: the hard-boiled detective. You get lots of cool detective abilities, like the ability to avoid lethal damage while you have a case on your hands, and the ability to detect when a criminal is lying. The character archetype is all about uncovering information, and sleuthing out the truth. This driving motivation is a common character trait detectives have across different forms of media, and games are no exception.
Enter A Hand With Many Fingers.
A Hand With Many Fingers is a “first person investigative thriller” according to Colestia, the developers, on their itch.io page. At first glance, this holds up; the game is in a first person perspective, and the main point of the game is to investigate a real world Cold War conspiracy using documents uncovered in a CIA archive. However, I believe that a more informative description of the game is “corkboard simulator.” This is because the main gameplay loop in this game involves updating two massive corkboards with information you uncover in the archive. Managing these corkboards is one of the best gameplay mechanics I’ve ever seen. It allows for so much freedom and creativity in the investigative process, and really makes you feel like you’re one of those hard boiled detectives uncovering a case bit by bit. And yet, with all the detective-y vibes that the main character gives off, we know almost nothing about the character you play as. There are neither mirrors nor reflections in the game that show us who we are controlling. No voice acting or inner monologue either; the main character is very much a silent protagonist. It’s assumed that the main character has some connection with the conspiracy they are trying to uncover, but there is nothing concrete we can pin down.
And honestly, that’s ok.
Who you play as in A Hand With Many Fingers isn’t important, what’s important is the actions that the character (and therefore the player) is able to take. It gives the player the ability to project whatever traits they want onto the main character, and leaves the story in the hands of the articles and photographs you find in the archive. The documents the player finds are created by the developers, who stitched together real world information to create them. There really was a bank called the Nugan Hand Bank in Australia. John Nugan, one of the two co-founders of the bank, was found dead in his car in 1980. There is a lot of shady, under the table dealings regarding this bank, and it’s up to the player to uncover what’s really going on here.
So… how does this game work?
There’s a simple gameplay loop that the player is able to follow. First, you have to find a person, place, and time you want to research. For example, when you start the game, you are given a newspaper clipping with the following details highlighted: John Nugan, Sydney, Australia, and 1980. Each important piece of information is highlighted a different color, red for names, yellow for locations, and blue for dates. Once you have all the information, check the card catalog for any possible connections. Any documents that connect all three pieces of information will have a reference number attached to them. Go into the archives to find the box that is labeled with said reference number. Bring the box up to your office, and unpack any articles, pictures, or other important pieces of paper. Then, you can place these documents on the corkboards in your office, to better organize your thoughts, and piece information together. You will derive new people, places, and time periods over the course of your archiving adventure, and will be able to repeat this process over and over to discover as much information about the conspiracy as you can. The game does not stray from this gameplay loop at all. There are no combat encounters, or chase sequences, just methodical archiving and studying. This is not a bad thing at all; the gameplay is extremely compelling by itself, especially the corkboard mechanic.
There are two big corkboards in your office, one blank one, and one with a map. The map automatically updates with any locations mentioned in any documents you find, and serves as an easy way for a player whose geography skills are somewhat lackluster (like me) to find locations easier. You can stick papers anywhere on either board, and connect related documents with red string. Any pictures of important people are affixed to the board with red push pins instead of normal blue ones. The boards do not allow for players to overlap or discard any documents you find. This makes it almost impossible for the player to lose, forget, or misplace information. Real archival work does not have a self-updating map, color-coded, pre-highlighted information you need, or pieces of evidence that refuse to be discarded. All of these serve to make this process more enjoyable, and less frustrating. They can make anybody feel like they have hard-boiled detective skills. You really are uncovering a conspiracy here, all by yourself…
…and there might be some people who don’t like that very much.
This is where the “thriller” aspect of “first-person investigative thriller” comes in. The archives are quite large, with tons of locked rooms the player can’t enter and a multitude of boxes that the player will never even touch. There are hundreds of names, each with their own reference numbers and documents attached to them. Over the course of the game, you will only follow 5 of these names. This helps convey a sense of scale, and makes the emptiness of the archives feel oppressive. There are other ways they conveyed this emptiness; one particularly memorable one was a small radio playing serene classical music on loop. I turned it off after a little bit because it started to annoy me, but then I realized the silence of the archives was much too unnerving for me to continue. This emptiness is carefully crafted, and when something breaks it, it can feel even scarier. A phone rings while the player is in the basement, but when they pick it up, the line is dead. A car idles outside the archives for a little while, and then leaves once the player stares at them for too long. You are being watched, and it’s incredibly unsettling.
The nice thing about A Hand With Many Fingers as a detective game is that despite all of the spooky atmosphere, the game is designed to make the experience of discovering information extremely palatable. The driving force behind detective stories in other media is a search for the truth. As stated earlier, this drive for truth is an important motivating factor most detectives have as an important character trait. However, in A Hand With Many Fingers, it doesn’t matter what the truth actually is, what matters is the journey to uncover it. If the truth did matter, the developers would not have designed each piece of evidence themselves, they would have simply used real world documents and designed the game around them. Chaining together pieces of evidence is extremely satisfying, and they wanted to ensure that this journey to uncover the truth was well paced and designed. It was always about journey, not the destination, and this is exemplified in the game’s ending
As the player progresses through the game, they start to find reference numbers stored in boxes that state that some boxes are marked for destruction. If they look in one of these boxes, they find a key to an unused annex of the building, where one final box awaits them. When they return to their office, they are greeted with a nasty surprise. The car from earlier has crashed into the office, and no one is sitting behind the wheel. Just like the phone call, there’s no one who responds to the player…
…and then the game ends! There’s no confirmation that what you’ve been working on all this time is correct. We aren’t given any information regarding the player character’s relationship to the Nugan Bank scandal. Just a fade to black when the player puts the final documents on the corkboard. This hammers home that the most important part of this story is not the conspiracy itself, but the journey that the player undergoes to find all of the information about it. While this does differ from most other detective stories in media, where the story is tied up with a pretty bow and the wrongdoer is caught, I believe that the experience A Hand With Many Fingers creates shows the joy of simply finding the truth.