From a ludic point of view, Andrew Wang’s Shadow of the Red Hand is a fairly conventional platformer. It’s short, having been made in a weekend for Ludum Dare 35, and can be played in a matter of minutes, and it does what it’s supposed to. Entertain yourself for a spell by running right for a while, jumping and avoiding hazards and traps. Nonetheless, there is something special about it.
This game draws its aesthetic inspiration from an unlikely source: shadow hand puppets. Every bit of scenery and every prop in the space is made up of hand-puppet models created in Unity—the floaty physics and sharp polygons give the engine away, but Shadow of the Red Hand otherwise feels very little like other games made in Unity. That floatiness gives the game an airy, gentle feeling, despite the fact it’s actually pretty challenging for how short it is, but the decision to structure the game as a side-scrolling 2D platformer replaces the sandbox texture that you find with most Unity games with more of a tapestry feel. Or, perhaps more aptly, it feels like shadow-puppet theatre, perhaps done at home with curtain and flashlight.
The platforms and your avatar—a rabbit—are all made up of the same hand-and-forearm model and all shaded in black, lacking distinct details and therefore adding to the feeling of theatricality. Hazards—like the large red hand for which the game is named that pursues you—are shaded in red. The drama plays out against a flat, peach-coloured backdrop, so everything is in permanent contrast. Your rabbit is at risk of capture, but you can also lose health (represented as white hearts) simply by mistiming a jump and falling off a platform. Running and jumping left eventually gives way to a precarious vertical climb to safety from the crimson hunter, and then the whole thing may start all over again.
Like so many independent experiments of its type, Shadow of the Red Hand riffs on a handful of conventional ludic devices and motifs and gently twists them to produce something intimate, small, focused and poetic. It feels like a fairytale in that it’s both delightfully whimsical and darkly brutal. Each fall or capture spells death for the little bunny, with each blow to the player’s health distinctly carrying the sensation that it was their fault. Much is made of the way games like Dark Souls use ludic difficulty to make a fatalistic commentary about human agency and unfair odds. Fairytales, as morality stories, do roughly the same thing. Their purpose is not to allow the reader to escape into a fantasy world and unmoor their senses but rather to use fantasy as a proxy to prepare them for the naivete-busting violence of the real world. Historically, they were used to instill children with the right kind of moral fear that might, through obedience and observation, preserve both themselves and the social order. Not that I mean to say that one should necessarily come away from this cute little game feeling a wild-eyed, world-fearing moralism aflame in their heart. But I do give Shadow of the Red Hand credit for making use of the tonal dissonance and world-weary subtext of the fairytale to make for a compelling, challenging experience.
Videogames at their best are both highly theatrical and poetic. This is true even when they’re doing their usual thing of being pulp entertainment. In this case, Shadow of the Red Hand pays homage to another playful artform which is similarly denigrated as childlike. All the same, shadow-puppet theatre is compelling to children and to adults because it creates gestalts within otherwise empty space and allows us to imagine scenes, characters and stories with simple tools and our own bodies. Videogames are nothing if not gestalt, and at the same time interact with the concept of embodiment in a number of artistically (and academically) intriguing ways. They allow us to feel things like proprioception while sitting more or less in place. As software, as code, videogames conceptually skirt the line between a thing that is and is not there.
To be sure, both shadow-puppet theatre and videogames are real things that provide mediated experiences to their participants, although the latter is arguably vastly more complex than the former. But the marriage of both—or at least the emulation of one by the other—elicits a sense of suggestiveness, or that imagination and interpretation themselves are part of the mental game we play when we find ourselves working out a coherent, meaningful message from the art we consume. A videogame using shadow-puppet theatre as its sole aesthetic is visually simulating something that is already a gestalt. Am I looking at a bunny or am I looking at some shadows strategically suggesting the idea of a bunny? Well, both and neither. It’s Andrew Wang’s restrained virtual rendition of a simple piece of children’s theatre, and we perform it, messing up our lines and missing our marks, and falling between the cracks, and making space, and failing, and trying again and finally making the jump, and that in itself is part of the story.
The convention of fairytales having happy endings is a relatively modern one, but they’re still fraught with danger and intrigue and drama. Shadow of the Red Hand is modern, too, and so it never gets too dark. It’s just a bit impish, and about as subtle and narratively complex as a tiny one-dev platformer derived from a shadow-puppet show is bound to be. In fact I’ve probably made it seem more complicated and indirect than it actually is. But sometimes simple and direct things contain complex ideas despite themselves. Hand gestures can symbolize a lot of things, from moods to ideas to actions to objects, and for better or worse we construct narratives purely out of suggestion and a sense of cultural continuity all the time. Shadow of the Red Hand is just a story about a bunny rabbit trying to escape capture and find its way to shelter, but it’s also a story about how the mind creates stories. It’s an authored simulation of an emulation shrouded in shadow, and we go and fill in the details ourselves.