Friday, January 22, 2016

ONE WRONG THING: The Hand of Fate

Why it's wrong to kill the player character in The Hand of Fate.

You can get The Hand of Fate at

The Hand of Fate is a classic adventure game that holds up pretty well, but it's not perfect. One design decision in particular strikes me as a clear mistake, and it's this:


Killing the player character is kind of dumb in any adventure game. The challenge in an adventure game comes from figuring out what to do - once you know what to click on what, forcing you to load your save and go through the motions again is just a waste of your time. But in The Hand of Fate it's extra problematic, because it goes against the game's established tone. The Hand of Fate is shown early and often to be cartoonishly safe. Even the game's central crisis is bloodless - parts of the landscape are disappearing, but nobody's getting killed.

Once gameplay begins, as soon as the player takes Zanthia out of her house onto literally the second playable screen of the game, Zanthia can encounter a huge swamp monster. Clicking on the monster prompts a confrontation.

The game is showing, right out the gate, that Zanthia is fearless, and that this is justified. The swamp monster, which could easily be a death hazard in other adventure games of the same era, is seen to be harmless.

A few screens later, Zanthia comes across an alligator. She is similarly dismissive of the threat posed by this creature. If the player clicks on the alligator, Zanthia will even - safely - reach out and touch the gator's nose.

Again, the game is showing you that you can safely experiment and explore - you can click anything and it'll be okay. In fact, clicking on dangerous things is likely to be funny!

A bit later, Zanthia finds Marko captured by a giant and apparently carnivorous plant. This situation is played for laughs.

Marko is comically inconvenienced, but clearly not in any actual danger. Again, the game is showing that its world is a bloodless one, where funny things happen instead of deadly ones.

And then something weird happens. Zanthia reaches the island of Volcania, and suddenly, all bets are off. Volcania is dotted with pools of lava. Walking onto them will burn Zanthia to a crisp, sending the player to the Load Game menu. There's no real warning that this will happen - in fact, you don't even have to click on the lava pools. If the game's pathfinding takes you through one, Zanthia will blithely walk right out onto it and die. From a gameplay perspective, it's stupid, because it just means that now you have to micromanage Zanthia's pathfinding while saving frequently, with failure meaning redoing some walking and talking.

But from a tonal perspective, it's even worse. It totally contradicts the lessons the game has taught thus far about how its world works. Suddenly, this friendly cartoon world punishes carefree exploration. Suddenly, there is death. It isn't even important or interesting death. It's totally meaningless - it's just because the player clicked in the wrong place and Zanthia didn't watch her step. I think that what they were going for was encouraging the player to make the Flying Shoes potion, which allows Zanthia to navigate the island safely. But the game doesn't really indicate that the shoes will do this, and anyway the player already knows by now that if they're stuck, they should try making a potion - no additional motivation is necessary. In this case it can actually be counterproductive - in my playthrough, due to the timing of my deaths I never had all the ingredients for the potion at once so I never bothered making it.

In the next chapter, the Center of the World, there's another opportunity to die, and it's just as arbitrary and unfair. There's a triceratops that must be taunted, bullfighter style, with a red cloth so that it will crash into a heavy door and push it open. But if you do it when the dinosaur is in the wrong position, Zanthia is thrown to her death.

There's really no reason for the game to kill you here. Positioning the triceratops is a totally unfair puzzle, as its placement is apparently randomized every time you enter the screen, and no matter where you put Zanthia before clicking, she'll move based on where the triceratops is so that it can kill her. Since the correct solution involves jumping out of the way at the last moment anyway, it's not clear why Zanthia couldn't do that in the other placement as well. And this is a chapter where you safely ride a rampaging T-Rex - why should clicking on a triceratops kill you?

Okay, so, maybe this is just part of a gradual tonal shift in the game, right? Raising the stakes to build tension over time? Except that the very next chapter begins with Zanthia being blown into the sky by a column of lava, and then falling onto a floating island hard enough to bounce and make a Zanthia-shaped hole in the ground - totally uninjured. Zanthia clearly still lives in a cartoon, where the consequences of physical danger are - usually - physical comedy.

In the final chapter, Zanthia finally confronts the evil Hand - twice. First, he's content to inconvenience her...but the second encounter is deadly serious. The last playable moments of the game are a battle to the death.

Presumably, this is intended to serve as an emotional climax, with the stakes and tension at their highest. But tension doesn't hold if you break immersion, which this sequence does in a couple of ways.

For one, it changes the rules. This is the only part of the game where waiting too long or clicking the options menu will have an in-game effect, and that effect is to kill you. And that's the other immersion-breaker - the consequence of failure is getting kicked out to the Load Game screen, and subsequently having to replay some portion of the content leading up to the confrontation, depending on when you saved.

This is a pretty common strategy for injecting tension, but it's misguided. The problem is that the tension is completely external to the game. The player is reminded that they're not in a climactic struggle for the fate of mankind - they're playing a videogame. They aren't worrying about defeating evil and saving the world; they're worrying about whether they're going to have to repeat the same solved puzzles and watch the same dialog and animation again before they can move forward.

It's a really obnoxious note for the game to go out on, especially since the correct click sequence seems totally arbitrary and isn't signposted at all, and any misstep means an instant death and reload from before the fight, guaranteeing that most players will have to repeat parts of the sequence multiple times.

How would I do it, if I had my way? If I were Videogame King for a day?

It's simple - just take out the death. On Volcania, Zanthia shouldn't be able to walk onto the lava. This is consistent with not letting her walk into the swamp in the first chapter, or off of the floating island on which the Enchanted Forest is found. In the Center of the World, always have the triceratops positioned correctly - nothing is gained by having the player walk Zanthia off and back onto the screen until the dinosaur is where it needs to be.

For the final confrontation with the Hand, remove the death traps. Clicking on the incorrect thing should do nothing instead of killing Zanthia. Except the options menu, of course, which should work as normal. The time limit should be removed as well - if the player does nothing, Zanthia and the Hand should remain in a standoff until the player acts.

Yes, this creates the possibility that the player will simply wait an unreasonable amount of time, draining the situation of its tension - but the alternative of killing Zanthia and forcing the player to load a save destroys the tension much faster.

Most of The Hand of Fate is so gentle and forgiving, the few instances where Zanthia can die stand out as jarring and frustrating. They seem to be attempts to create certain motivations in the player, but they're counterproductive and the game would have been better off without them.

The Hand of Fate is a great game that gets a lot right, but allowing the player character to die is one wrong thing.

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