Most mystery stories involve flashy detective work and sharp deductions, culminating in a dramatic reveal. In the novel Murder on the Orient Express, there’s a point where detective Hercule Poirot gathers everyone together and dives into a detailed breakdown of exactly how a murder occurred, and how deep its roots ran through every car on the locomotive. Indie game A Hand With Many Fingers isn’t about the grandiose reveal. Instead, it finds joy, and meaning, in the process of tedious discovery and mountains of information.
A Hand With Many Fingers doesn’t have any grisly murders to dissect, or clues written in blood. You play as an academic sorting through a massive archive. Based on a real-world Cold War-era story, developer Colestia has you slowly unravel the threads of a global conspiracy using simple newspaper clips and other available pieces of archived information. You start with a single box, containing a name and some other information on the death of a banker in Sydney, and eventually find your way to the bottom.
As you search for information, you develop a rhythm. For example, from the first batch of info you’re given, it’s easy enough to suss out three key points: Francis John Nugan (a name), 1980 (a date), and Sydney, Australia (a place). Taking this info, you can head out from your small work area to a larger set of filing cabinets, sorted by global regions and year.
Sifting through the cabinets, you might discover a card reading “Nugan” in the 1980 files under Australasia. Except listed there, you’ll just find some markings: OS, and then a series of numbers. So you head down the stairs, into the archives, and find a massive collection of boxes.
This is the loop: find information, discover some details, find more. As you pull out newspaper clippings, receipts, and correspondence with a bevy of redacted information, the search for any salient detail to create links and find more info becomes feverish. Of course, there’s a corkboard, some thumb tacks, and red string, and the game teaches you how to pin articles and link them together. A bank’s new branch might be helmed by suspicious people, or the timing of financial prosperity and the outbreak of violence might be uncomfortably close together. My red string links them, as my mind whirs to fill in the gaps and conversations that could have been taking place.
The game doesn’t really tell you that you have to do this. You need to put articles and pictures on the corkboard to progress, but I went overboard, linking twine between articles, trying to link all these names, dates, and locations. I’d gaze out the window of the in-game archive, wondering why that car across the street was just sitting there. It’s always there.
At one point, I scoured an entire cabinet for any mention of a certain last name, frustrated when I just ran into loops. I knew the connection had to exist; I knew this man was in this location during this year. What was he doing? Who was he working with? The telephone rang, startling me on another trip down to the archives for more boxes. I picked up, and no one answered. A couple boxes later, and as I was looking over a heavily redacted message, I saw another car directly outside, headlights on and engine running. When I peered out the window, it sped off, tires skidding in the quiet night.
What struck me most about A Hand With Many Fingers is how it builds its sense of paranoia. Every time I turned the corner, I was wondering if a trench coat and a silencer would be waiting for me. I grew suspicious of everything: the window blinds I couldn’t close, the security camera lingering overhead, and even whether the archives I was perusing weren’t trying to trick me. After an hour, I realised I had been subconsciously turning up the volume on the music playing on my speakers nearby. Was I afraid of being scared, or afraid of someone in-game hearing me rustle through papers I shouldn’t be?
Just as you hit the breadth of its conspiracy, A Hand With Many Fingers slams you with a surprise. It’s a moment that left me a little gobsmacked at how well it worked; it sent chills down my spine, like every step was suddenly more precious as I held something that felt too dangerous to be caught holding.
It’s been a good couple years for detective games. Disco Elysium turns your thoughts, emotions and instincts into RPG party members, conducting a raucous debate inside your brain as you try to count boots in the mud. Return of the Obra Dinn turns busywork into a dense mystery, much like the archival work I’m doing now. Virtual sleuthing has become a fast-growing sub-genre, but A Hand With Many Fingers feels very traditional and old-school, reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective more than Phoenix Wright. It’s blissfully short, taking me only a couple hours to finish, so it makes for a good evening getting lost in a web of info and secrets.