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Less buggy, still a bit ugly, April 23, 2021
NOTE: The first part of this review was written about an earlier version of the game, which had a game-ending bug; read on for an addendum written after I finished the updated version.
Oof, I have to say I did not get on with Hand of God. Partially this is because I couldn’t figure out how to get to the revolt of robot fanatics promised by the blurb, and instead got stuck in the white-collar drudgery also promised by the blurb. And partially this is because I noticed an ugly detail about the characterization I couldn’t unsee, and it killed my willingness to push past the bug that was blocking my progress.
First things first – this is a Twine game, in default style though with some animated text and changes to the font colors to denote when different people are speaking. The player character is a fortysomething husband and father who’s got a government job helping develop a robot interpreter, and those two strands – family life and robot stuff – are set up to bear equal weight, at least in the portions of the game I got to. You start out at home, going through your weekday morning routine and interacting with your family; then drive to work, and after a nose around the environs and learning more about the project, check in with your coworkers.
The first section is OK as far as it goes. The family interactions are pleasant and low-key, and if they seem a bit schematic (just about the first thing we learn about the player character’s wife is that she’s a GenXer, and the daughter doesn’t have much personality besides liking an MMORPG), well, there’s nothing wrong with starting simple. There are a few implementation niggles – there isn’t any branching but you can choose which order to do some necessary tasks before getting ready for work, and they’re repeatable, meaning you can eat infinite pop-tarts. And the commuting sequence managed to confuse me since I wasn’t sure whether I was meant to be continuing on the highway or taking the first exit in order to get to work.
The writing throughout is a bit weak, with fairly unimaginative prose and a scattering of typos. The author also tends to really overuse certain words. Like, here’s a paragraph from a dream sequence that comes at the beginning of the game:
"The winds blow against your pale, fleshy body, scratching you thoughout (sic) your body. You sweat like a pig as the sun pulses upon your body. It will not be long until all of the water leaves your body and you die of dehydration."
Reading that many instances of “body” is actually kind of unsettling!
Where things really went wrong, though, is at the office. Most immediately, this is where I reached the impasse I described above – after I parked, checked out the other buildings on the campus, walked into the high-security area to check out the robot (whose name and function appear to be setting up a Tower of Babel allusion), then entered my office to greet my boss and coworkers, I got stuck in a similar cycle as at home, except this time I was unable to get a new option to appear no matter how many times I went to the water cooler or checked in with my cube-mate. From a quick look at the html source, there’s a lot more story to come, but it does seem like there’s a bug that blocks the way forward.
More significant than any bug, however, was an ugly realization I made after meeting all my coworkers. Here’s the receptionist, Julia:
"A brown skinned woman in her late twenties, her casual hoop earrings and red headband hide the wit of someone able to obtain an $80,000 job doing nothing."
Here’s Emily, a fellow coder:
"A woman of Chinese descent in a bright purple suit, her smugness radiates wherever she goes. You KNOW that she is the one to blame for your food poisoning. She will handle you (sic) being better than her at your jobs."
Here’s our boss:
"A dark skinned man in his 50s, his imposing 165 cm looks upon you from his shrub enshrined desk…. This man’s harsh demands will never cease."
And just by way of contrast, meet the aforementioned cube-mate:
"A bright eyed young man, his blue eyes light up the room… Andrew is a nice kid."
So to recap – we have a lazy, flashy-dressing black woman who’s living large in a government sinecure; a stuck-up, msg-dosing Chinese-American; a cruel, physically-imposing black man; and a nice friendly blue-eyed kid. I’m sure Hand of God is not intending to be racist, but – excuse my French – holy hell this is some racist bullshit right here. I think the problem is that, much like with the player character’s family, the author is relying on stereotypes to come up with the cast of characters, and possibly had the admirable impulse to make the game more representative by including some people of color. But the problem with doing that unreflectingly is that you can wind up regurgitating some really really ugly caricatures that draw on boogeymen first conjured up by reactionaries and then filtered into pop culture – and racist tokenizing is way worse than no representation at all.
Anyway, like I said this really killed my will to continue; hopefully there’ll be an update to fix the bug and the bad racial dynamics, since I like a good story about robot zealots (admittedly, there’s Battlestar Galactica and then I’m not sure what the second example would be). But for now, I’m taking a pass.
ADDENDUM: Since I wrote the above, Hand of God has seen an update that fixes the aforementioned game-stopping bug, so I went back and finished it. The story does work a bit better now that I’ve seen all of it – in particular, it looks like some of the main character’s negative traits are intentional, and are meant to provide a bit of a character arc (I didn’t mention it in my review, but he appears to have some anger issues and is overly nostalgic for his youth). The weird racial stuff remains as it was, however, including a “joke” about how one time the translator robot malfunctioned and ran around yelling racist slurs – and with the added twist that the enemy hacker the main character thinks is behind the robot rebellion 1) is actually innocent, so the rebellion is unexplained as far as I could tell; and 2) is a Palestinian Arab who’s assassinated in what’s meant to be a feel-good epilogue, completing the perfect record of unpleasant characterization and negative outcomes for POC in this story.
Speaking of the story and the rebellion, I found this rather unsatisfying too. The robots suddenly start killing or capturing humans while spouting Gnostic buzzwords, but their plot (to annihilate humanity via nuclear war) doesn’t seem to square with Gnosticism as far as I understand it. And then the stratagem the main character uses to foil their scheme is about the oldest, hoariest chestnut there is (Spoiler - click to show)(saying a paradox aloud, at which point smoke starts coming out of all the robots’ ears). Maybe the focus is meant to be more on the family dynamics, because that’s where the denouement wraps up, but even there, the final moral – “Your loved ones don’t have to be a shackle to misery. They can be the keys to enjoying life together” – feels oddly negative, and runs up against the overall flatness of the characters.
The choice mechanics of the second half of the game also felt a bit clumsy to me, since the story requires you to be captured – escaping the robots leads to unsatisfying bad ends, meaning seeing the full story play out requires making decisions that don’t make sense for a character who’d presumably be very focused on getting away from the killbots. There were no further bugs, at least!