Like many of the best small and idiosyncratic games released on itch.io, A Firm Handshake feels like a rejoinder to the design norms that predominate in much of the commercial games industry. Rather than superficially complex systems stretched paper-thin over endless hours of repetitive gameplay, it offers a series of concise vignettes based upon a single core mechanic, while still leaving the player room to experiment. In the understated words of its creator, Torfi Ásgeirsson, the game is simply about ‘what it would be like to shake someone’s hand’. Yet this self-depreciating description, as well as the game’s simple structure, belie an experience rich in humour and semantic depth.
Each of A Firm Handshake’s short acts is very simple. The player must use the arrow keys to guide a businessman in a brown suit towards other identical businessmen and shake their hands. In each act this scene plays out slightly differently. In one, once a man’s hand has been shaken, he begins to follow the player’s avatar. Each new recipient of a handshake queues behind the last until the player is trailed by a snake of identical, brown-suited businessmen. In another act, the player must cross four lanes of sumo wrestlers that move up and down across the screen like traffic. If a wrestler collides with the player as they cross his lane, he will attempt to push the player’s avatar off the screen. If he succeeds, the player respawns in their starting position.
Such intertextual references to both digital (Snake, Frogger) and non-digital games (Sumo wrestling) are exemplary of A Firm Handshake’s subtle depth. Likewise, despite the game’s mechanical simplicity, it still facilitates player experimentation. It was enjoyable to test the limits of its simple interactions and create my own personal challenges within them. This is not to suggest, however, that the game will be of interest only to enthusiasts. Its uncomplicated challenges and control scheme make it accessible to those new to videogames, while the real amusement it offers is found in a form of physical comedy that is intuitively appealing.
Like slapstick cinema, A Firm Handshake makes physicality a source of humour and fun. Its businessmen move with an absurd gait distinct from, but reminiscent of, that of Charlie Chaplin. In contrast to their pumping legs, the men’s upper bodies are held stiff and immobile except for a reflexive reaching of the arm and hand. The result is that they appear ridiculous and uncanny, like aliens attempting–unsuccessfully–to pass for human. The handshakes only serve to double this effect. They are wonderfully rubbery and over exuberant.
As in Chaplin’s work, the choice of the businessman as protagonist and absurd figure of fun hardly seems incidental. As a social convention the handshake is strongly associated with both traditional masculinity and the world of business. The entwining of these two associations is reinforced by the game’s aesthetic design. The men’s brown suits, the orange backgrounds and potted plants are all evocative of a 1970s office, while the end credits see the men milling about as though around the water cooler. A Firm Handshake might thus be read as a critique of the ways in which dominant forms of masculinity have been enforced economically via the workplace. In this context, the handshake appears as an automatic act of a traditional bourgeois masculinity that is both homogenising and absurd. The question, ‘what it would be like to shake someone’s hand?’, might be more complex than it seems.
Game: A Firm Handshake
Platforms: Windows, macOS, Linux
Release Date: April 27, 2021
Images are screenshots of the game taken by the author.
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