I plug in my microphone, take care to close the windows, and load up the game. I haven’t sung in a while — despite being in and out of bands ever since my late teens — but One Hand Clapping has me intrigued. It’s a puzzle-platformer that you control with your voice, developed by students from the University of Southern California.
OK, not entirely with your voice: movement in the game is handled using the keyboard, but you definitely need a good set of lungs to get anywhere in this world. The contextual puzzles include hitting specific notes, holding a pitch, and matching melodies to build platforms and manipulate your environment. This means that One Hand Clapping falls into a niche category of games that are embarrassing to play in front of other people, joining that other unforgettable mic-controlled oddity Seaman.
Getting started, I’m nervous about how the old vocal chords might sound. It’s not just the paper-thin walls and possibility of the neighbours smirking at me later. It’s the fear that my voice may have degraded over the years, and that it may not be what it was. I’ve had a crisis of confidence with my singing voice for a while now. It’s been a problem ever since a particularly bad gig where I embarrassed myself in front of a room full of strangers. I haven’t tried so much as karaoke since, and just mime and mumble through any social event that required me to sing.
A prompt appears on-screen. I try my best to calibrate with a low hum and a bar fills up. We’re good to go.
In One Hand Clapping you play as a wanderer on a pilgrimage. There is almost no text, apart from input prompts, with the journey and its significance left up to the player to interpret. One might reasonably infer this is all very zen Buddhism, with the game's title coming from the old master Hakuin Ekaku's famous kōan: "Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?"
The game suggests its own answers.
When I begin to play, the fear of sounding stupid slowly dissipates into nothing, a symptom of the game’s superbly judged structure. One Hand Clapping is paced to comfort the player initially and ease them into using their voice, almost like going through a vocal warmup before a performance. The first puzzle, for instance, requires players to simply blow or hum into the microphone, in order to make a pile of junk form a platform letting the player jump to a higher ledge, while another later obstacle challenges you to subtly change your pitch to build a bridge with the soundwave. Both puzzles use a similar logic, but the later one clearly requires a greater level of versatility on behalf of the player, as any sudden change in pitch produces an insurmountable peak or a deep gorge that is impossible to cross.
As if that wasn’t enough, the game continues to build on these challenges and add more complexity as you progress, introducing a bunch of other obstacles like rock barriers. Here your voice has to thread the bridge between the different objects in your way to cross the gap, as they can block movement if they intersect with the platform.
This was the first area in the game I personally struggled with, but in spite of that I never got frustrated with the task at hand. The ability to see your voice rendered on screen as part of the environment may be a novelty, but it's one that never seems to get old, giving every action a satisfying and vital piece of feedback. It also provides the player with a helping hand if they need it, allowing them to gauge just how high up the screen their voice is actually registering.
Which means that, if you’re ever stuck, you won’t be for long. You can just sing a note, check how high the ramp appears on screen, then reset it to try again at a lower or higher pitch. It’s easy to pick up and clearly communicated to the player, meaning that even the most nervous singer has a chance of getting from A to B if they take the time to work out where they’re going wrong.
Another example of this is a circle puzzle that requires you to harmonize with your own voice. Here there are multiple circles inside of each other that indicate the pitch you are singing at. You need to match the ones highlighted with a dot, and then hold the note long enough for the highlighted circle to complete a full rotation. It’s another clever use of the idea, with the inactive circles providing a decent framework for judging your vocal inputs and whether they're on the right track.
In addition to puzzles, there is also a reoccurring hermit character who appears throughout to challenge the player. He's the closest thing the game has to a boss, tasking the player with copying his melodies, before running on ahead to ready more tests. It’s a welcome addition to the game and one that culminates in a brilliant — albeit ridiculous — Freddie Mercury-esque singalong atop a mountain, where the player must perform vocal gymnastics and some nonsensical sounds in order to emerge triumphant.
One Hand Clapping is charming, colourful, and full of smart and interesting ways of exploiting its central mechanic. It doesn’t really have a sophisticated tale to tell: instead, the game's journey is all about exploring the possibilities of this unique control scheme, and what's going on in your mind while you sing. When you lose yourself in singing along to anything, even for an instant, it's a pure kind of joy.
With all that said, I should emphasise this is a fairly short experience — at least for the moment — clocking in at about half an hour to forty minutes. The current build is a complete and contained adventure in and of itself, but I’d love to see some its ideas further expanded upon. One Hand Clapping is still currently being developed and, if you feel like putting your vocal chords to the test, you can name your price for it at Itch.io.