The Hand of God, an opinion of agency with Virtual Reality


One of the challenges of developing games for Virtual Reality, as a platform, is that there are considerations past the surface changes of perception and interaction – you need to revisit previously normalized concepts in game mechanics in order to ‘bridge’ ideas into Virtual Reality. One of those mechanics is the Hand of God, or more so, the consequence of Virtual Reality on the ‘hand’ as a device of immersion and agency. This isn’t a bad thing, because it might suggest a possible ‘lens’ in which to view past decisions in agency.

You might remember the spidery leather fingers of the hand cursor in Dungeon Keeper, or the boulder launching human hand avatar in Black and White. Whilst these are both Molyneux games, the concept of ‘Hand of God’ as a mechanic of interaction has always revolved around the idea of agency within a number of games where you are essentially a towering entity over the ‘land’ – it is a standard concept in city-builders, ‘God’ games, 4x games and even grand strategy games. Your cursor is an avatar, through which your will is executed onto the game area during your play session. Whilst this is a complex concept based on, arguably, a religious familiarity we are all exposed to, the implications of the introduction of Virtual Reality open up the idea of actual agency for the purpose of interaction.

In Virtual Reality, especially with multiple-hand controllers (such as the HTC Vive), your hand location/rotation can be replicated in the game. I’m going to let you for a minute imagine that concept translate to a God game. If the hand of god was originally introduced as, in part, to help us immerse ourselves into the game world whilst providing us with an avatar for the sake of agency, then what exactly do we get out of placing our relative world input location/rotation from a controller into a digital environment? In shorter plain words, what happens when your hand is actually in the game?

Well, I went off and found out. Our company offers us a single day of each week to ‘jam’ with colleagues to produce games or test mechanics. I designed a game called ‘GenesisVR’, which set out to test concepts developed by ‘hand of god’ designers through many years of development in the genres of God games or strategy games.  The scope of the first jam was simple – to translate existing God game mechanics into compatibility to Virtual Reality, to see if that would affect negatively or positively the player experience in Virtual Reality.

With the controllers, the player could grab/grip the ground and pull their ‘area’ of influence across the land. They could grab and throw boxes, swoop over beaches and villages – most importantly they could crouch down in the real world to zoom into looking up close at villagers. The God game, as it was, became an exercise in movement and walking around a physical space to become an agent of change within a digital environment. The feedback was that the player did, in fact, feel like a type of ethereal titan. According to the feedback, there was a clear sense that your ‘body’ as a physical entity existed in the world as a ‘thing’. Watching people lean down to look at houses, pretending to be giants (or being convinced that they were) was a fascinating observation for someone interested in immersion. It was the God game experience that Peter Molyneux wanted when he made his cursors art assets as human hands.

So aside from the obvious settings, like spaceships, submarines and planes (and being an astronaut), the areas that Virtual Reality opens up for game developers is the ability to put previous mechanics through a ‘VR Filter’ per say – it could be that a previous mechanism for bridging the player and their avatar is inherently made obsolete by Virtual Reality, or better yet, would be augmented by it for pushing the envelope on immersion.

Thanks for reading, and I hope that someone makes Crossy Road in VR.

Photo Credit: “.”, © 2010 Wyatt Wellman, Flickr | CC-BY-SA | via Wylio