One Hand Clapping began life as a student project at the University of Southern California – a short game made freely available on itch.io. The initial idea was inspired by Jonathan Blow’s puzzle games The Witness and Braid, which had a strong impact on developer Thomas Wilson. “I really wanted to make a game that felt visceral, so that whatever you were doing in the game was actually something you were doing in real life. Maybe the skills you used in-game could somehow be transitioned back into reality,” he says.
After a prototype that involved steering a rowboat didn’t pan out, Wilson turned to his own life for inspiration. As a music lover and former member of his high school’s choir, he wanted to find a way to keep his love of singing alive, as he had stopped attending choirs once in college. “It was a bit like my youthful curiosity had been replaced with the reality of having to find a job and become an adult,” he says, “but I enjoy singing a lot, and my research shows that humanity at large does, too. Humans have always bonded over making music, but recently we’ve become reluctant to do so. I knew there was something in there worth looking into.”
What followed were various prototypes for games you could control with your voice, including one where your pitch changed colours on screen. This would eventually culminate in the first version of One Hand Clapping, a short game Wilson made with a sound design student. That iteration, which you can find on YouTube, had you use your voice to overcome the kinds of challenges you’d expect to find in a platformer, including opening doors, lowering platforms, and avoiding enemies.
The version on itch.io is the game’s second iteration, made from scratch by Wilson and 20 fellow students with various degrees of involvement over the course of a year. When asked why he put it online, Wilson cheerfully admits everyone involved just wanted to show off the work they were so proud of. “We didn’t really think it would go anywhere, but then big YouTubers like PewDiePie started playing it. At first, I didn’t know what that meant, or how to make the best of it, but we decided to pitch the game to publishers,” he says. Not long after, HandyGames, a subsidiary of THQ Nordic, picked up One Hand Clapping’s publishing rights.
Throughout the interview, Wilson acknowledges several times that players may have to overcome their own embarrassment when singing, and that he hopes One Hand Clapping will help with that. But if it means the game could have a potentially smaller audience – well, he’s OK with that, too. That isn’t to say the team isn’t hard at work making the game accessible: “In the demo right now we allow you to just make noise for a bit at the beginning in order to get used to the idea of creating sound and influencing the world around you that way. Throughout the game, you’ll also have a guide. We’re still working on calibration options and making it clearer how you can use your voice and what pitch represents. Also, once you know how it works, you’ll continue to get better, and with that comes confidence.”
In addition to confidence, Wilson also hopes to give players a musical education. “In the finished game, information will pop up sometimes; for example, what note you’re singing, and what note you’re asked to sing. Maybe we’ll show a staff with notes to help with sight-reading. I also want players to learn something about rhythm. The game doesn’t need the human construct we placed around music to make it legible, but it could help people who are interested in that.”
Watching streamers play the demo, you usually see people goof around quite a bit. They’re obviously playing things up for an audience, but it makes me ask if One Hand Clapping could be one of those games in which you overcome your fear of singing by having someone there with you. Wilson gives a long pause before he settles on this. “I mean, you can do that?” he wonders. “People like to play together. When Braid came out, there was a video of Soulja Boy playing it with his friends and just rewinding over and over. It’s absolutely not how the game is supposed to be played, but they had fun. I think you can share games pretty much no matter what the game is, and that just harkens back to people going over to their friends’ houses to watch them play as a kid. But we want One Hand Clapping to be cerebral and intimate. We want to create a calming experience with a narrative that makes you think. That’s what will make you feel good about singing, and more besides.”
Learning by doing
The demo of One Hand Clapping includes two kinds of puzzles that are already musical education in disguise. In one, a character appears and asks you to repeat a sequence of notes they’re singing. It’s a test of your musical memory, and an official part of examinations by The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in the UK. Another puzzle shows you what notes chord sequences are made of and how they work, simply by singing them yourself.
Genre: Puzzle platformer | Format: PC | Developer: Bad Dream Games | Publisher: HandyGames | Release: 2021