Too many fingers spoil the glove
Rifling through newspaper clippings and redacted files in a non-descript government archive, I can’t help but feel paranoid that I’m being watched. It’s some time in the 1980s, and a clip of Ronald Reagan is playing on the TV in a small office – naturally, he’s talking about terrorists from foreign countries. I’m deep into A Hand With Many Fingers, the latest game from indie developer Colestia that’s based on the real-life events of Australia’s Nugan Hand Bank scandal.
Colestia’s timing couldn’t be better, what with the recent news that the secretive “palace letters” between the Queen and former Australian governor-general John Kerr must be released to the public. The 211 letters concern the 1975 dismissal of popular Labour Prime Minister Gough Whitlam – a constitutional crisis for Australia that some suspected was the handiwork of the staunchly anti-leftist CIA. As for how a disgraced global investment bank may or may not fit into the picture… well, it’s complicated.
Somebody’s got to do it
At first blush, A Hand With Many Fingers is a straightforward investigative sim where you do unglamorous, but important work: piecing a case together with fragments of files. You’re supposed to unravel the inner workings of the Nugan Hand bank, which was supposedly one of several fronts for the CIA. Founded in the ’70s by an Australian lawyer and an ex-Green Beret soldier, Nugan Hand employed a questionable number of ex-intelligence officers, and did a number of questionable things like launder weapons and drug money.
The game starts off as a bit of a fetch-quest – write down information, cross-reference card catalogues, go down to the basement archives, and bring document boxes back to the office. You’re provided with a whiteboard and a world map, so you can indulge in your best impression of Charlie from Always Sunny trying to prove a mad theory with thumbtacks and reams of string. As a fan of period thrillers, this was the ray of sunshine I needed in the middle of lockdown: the illusion of being useful, but also throwing myself into the heart of a real-life unresolved case. Did I mention you have to take pen-and-paper notes?
Then this goes here…
Each time I arranged a piece of evidence on my boards, the satisfying link of pin and string produced a little jolt of serotonin in my system. But after completing a few boxes, things start to get creepy. The phone on the desk started to ring, but when I picked it up, there was no one there. When I went down to the basement to fetch another box of files, I swore I heard a noise. I caught a glimpse of a lit window in the next building, which quickly darkened. After reading semi-redacted descriptions of Hand’s military activities in Vietnam, naturally, I felt a little anxious.
Much like the real Nugan Hand case, there’s nothing simple or straightforward about parsing a conspiracy that spanned decades and continents. The game’s strengths lie in the small victories of uncovering buried nuggets of information, subtle layers of suspense, and an understated sense of purpose. Of course, you can “cheat” – that is, dig into Wikipedia and Google as much as you want – but it won’t really help. At times, cross-referencing my digital boards with my hand-scrawled notes became a little overwhelming, but it only added to the atmosphere of intense, focused research. This is the sort of activity that demands a little sweat on the proverbial brow – after all, you’re playing the role of a forensic detective struggling to understand a frozen piece of history. My only genuine frustration was fiddling with mouse sensitivity.
A Hand With Many Fingers illustrates the quiet fervour of trying to understand something much bigger than yourself – a web of obscure moving parts and shady characters who have, to this day, never been convicted of a crime. Even if you’re not as keen on the niche thrill of chasing a conspiracy, Colestia’s work is an important dissection of power, hegemonic greed, and corruption during the Cold War, as well as its ideological impact across the world – issues that unfortunately remain all too familiar in 2020.
[Reviewed on PC]