Sunday, February 18, 2018

General RPG Characters' Preoccupation with Hand Warmth

Time for another rant about a trope that’s broader than just RPGs (this one’s quite popular in anime), but which does show up in them frequently enough that it annoys me. Yes, it’s time to talk about Warm Hands!

So, something that happens now and then in RPGs is that you have a character, almost invariably female, and also usually sappy and annoyingly positive, who takes someone’s hand in theirs, and from this small touch divines that the person whose hand they grasp is a good person with a good heart. What is the source of this intuition, you wonder? How have they so confidently inferred the hidden nature and plumbed the depths of the soul before them? Why, it’s very simple!

That person has warm hands.

Yup. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. The person has warm hands, so according to your oracular party member, they must be trustworthy. Background history? Discussion of one’s ethics and beliefs? Personal experience with the individual? Considering the person’s actions to this point? Even just looking them in the goddamn eye? All unnecessary. This person’s hands possess a higher temperature than the party member’s own, so they must be a trustworthy and laudable person within.

It’s idiotic. I don’t even know where to start with this trope. I don’t know why I should HAVE to. Hey, uh, assorted RPG writers of companies both big and small, did you guys just...miss fourth grade science, or something? See, there’s this thing about human beings. And that is that we’re mammals. And mammals, it turns out, are warm-blooded. It means our blood--the blood that circulates through our body, including the extremities like the hands--is meant to stay at a specific, constant, regulated temperature, regardless of the environment around us. And 1 of the side effects of that usually-learned-in-elementary-school fact is that we give off body heat. Like...ALL of us. Regardless of the moral fiber of our character!

How exactly does this reasoning work, anyway? The person’s heart must be warmer if their hands are warmer, and warmer heart = better heart? Or maybe the person’s heart is extra functional, pumping their warm blood into their hands much faster than a regular person’s? Because I’m fairly sure these are less a sign of moral integrity than they are of cardiovascular diseases!

And even from the perspective of whatever bizarre reasoning RPGs have for this trope, it still doesn’t make much sense to use as a moral barometer. I mean, even if having naturally heated hands were somehow indicative of a good person, it’s still not a reliable measure to use. What if a decent person happens to just have bad circulation? What, no good human being ever got diabetes, or had a blood clot? For that matter, no evil person ever had a fever?

What about characters like Deekin from Neverwinter Nights 1, Mipha from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Frog from Chrono Trigger, Koops from Paper Mario 2, and Psybe from Cosmic Star Heroine? You’d have a hard time arguing that any of them weren’t highly decent people, but lizards, fish, amphibians, turtles, and most insects are cold-blooded; there’d be no warmth in any of their hands. Or characters like Spar from Breath of Fire 2, and Camellia from Arc the Lad 4? Pretty sure that anthropomorphic plants wouldn’t have much in the way of body heat, but that doesn’t bar either from being decent individuals. There’re plenty of ethical characters in RPGs who are aliens, like Raja from Phantasy Star 4, and Garrus and Padok from the Mass Effect series. Even if they might be warm-blooded, their physiology could be such that the warmth was less than our own. And then there are good-hearted vampires like Joachim from Shadow Hearts 2, helpful ghosts like Pamela from Mana Khemia 1, friendly skeletons like Papyrus from Undertale, and just a whole hell of a lot of nice robots. Go ahead and try to tell me Aegis from Shin Megami Tensei: Persona isn’t a truly wonderful person. Go ahead, try to say it. You’ll live the rest of your life knowing you’re a fucking liar.

And even beyond the fact that body temperature can be affected by health problems, and the problems that arise from RPGs’ trend toward especially peculiar casts, it also seems like it would be easy for a villain to dupe this format of moral checkup. All any villain needs to do is keep his hands in his armpits for a few minutes before shaking hands with the heroes he wants to dupe, and he’s golden! Or hell, why settle for his pits? He’s a villain! He can shove his hand down between his asscheeks for a bit--he passes the moral test, and gives the heroes a good stink palm at the same time! Effective, and diabolic!

It’s just a really stupid, nonsensical trope. It’s silly and dumb to anyone with common sense and even a beginner’s grasp of human biology, and even if you were to take it as somehow legitimate, it still seems absurdly unreliable and easy to fool. Thankfully, though it does pop up now and then in games from developers both mighty* and minor**, this bizarre little cliche shows up in RPGs far less frequently than it does in anime. Still, every time I come across it, the sappy stupidity of the warm hands = good heart thing just makes me groan and shake my head.

* No, Grandia 3’s Alfina, Yuki is not a good person because his hands are warm. He is a good person because he keeps saving your stupid ass.

And maybe also because he actually has the patience to be able to put up with you. Hell, if the measure of character actually were hand heat, then that level of sainthood would require Yuki’s hands to be outright on fire.

** No, Marine from the Millennium series, Bokden showing up and proving that your faith in him was justified is an occurrence independent of the fact that his hand was a degree hotter than yours when you grabbed it.


  1. Pretty sure most RPG writers missed 4th grade everything, and most grades after that. I'm not too familiar with this cliche, but boy does it sound annoying.

    The Grandia 3 mention calls to mind the superior Grandia 2, where Ryudo actively hides the fact that he's decent, and is inevitably outed against his best efforts. No temperature check nonsense to be found. How do you go from that to Alfina's palm reading?

    1. My good man, if we could truly understand how any part of the perfection of Grandia 2 could get, in a single jump of a series, to the ludicrous monstrosity of Grandia 3, then I daresay the universe's mysteries will have opened themselves in totality to our comprehension.

  2. It´s certainly a bit too popular a trope, but I don´t think it´s necessarily bad. While I obviously can´t speak for all of its iterations, I do think it is often meant to be symbolic of something else rather than just about body heat.

    It may be used to convey loneliness on a character´s part, and desire to be comforted through the presence of another, and it may also serve as a roundabout way of saying that one character gets a warm feeling from somebody else. Expressed by having them touch the other´s hand and commenting on the perceived warmth.

    Which brings me to my point that you may have it backwards: it is not that having warm hands means you have a good heart, it is that having a good heart would make others perceive you -and your touch- to be warm, comfortable and soothing. I´d wager this might even -though very sappy- work on a cold-blooded individual, by way of having the one touching them say that, though they should be cold, they feel far warmer than anybody else.

    As for why anyone would use such roundabout words, it may be out of a lack of honesty or shame, similar to the motivation behind the iconic "it´s raining" scene from Fullmetal Alchemist (which I assume you have watched?).

    It may also be out of a desire not to burden the one the words are said to with a confession or any other unwanted responsibility, while still comforting them in a time of doubt by displaying their own trust.

    Naturally, this only works if the two individuals in question already know each other to some degree or infer the other´s nature through some other shown means, not if the grasping of hands is literally the only thing that matters. But that *should* cover a good portion of the instances where this trope is evoked.

    Whether or not you find that to still be shitty and nonsensical is up to you, but I do want to think writers aren´t quite that ignorant and naive. But what do I know.

    1. That's a nice take on it, and I can respect your perspective on it, but I think it's still just too straightforward, basic a thing to read this much metaphorical meaning into it--it's never been, to my experience, approached and treated in a way that implies that the character was judging someone else on a more meaningful level beyond the literal warmth of their hands, save perhaps, at times, sheer blind faith, which still might only have existed because of the hand warmth.

      I suppose that it's quite likely that the writers who use this trope don't usually actually believe in this nonsense themselves, given how obviously bogus such reasoning is. They're probably more using it because it's just an idiom of their culture (or they've seen it in enough anime to assume that it is), the way that writers here might, say, reference romantic compatibility based on astrological signs, even though they know perfectly well themselves that it's a bunch of nonsense. So you don't necessarily have to buy into this trope having any halfway decent meaning in order to keep a decent opinion of game writers. They're probably not dumb enough to actually believe in the hand warmth foolishness--they're just dumb enough to use it anyway. But it's all conjecture, really.

    2. I suppose. I´m honestly not too keen on investigating specific cases to see if they fit my interpretation or not either way, it was merely an attempt to rationalize the trope as a whole, farfetched though it may be.

      As for astrology, unfortunately there are still more than enough people who actually believe in it (though I´m hoping most writers don´t). Some of which I know and have talked to. Including a college student studying biology, bafflingly enough. That said, astrology does have an incredibly storied history, so I guess that, much like many other superstitions, it is hard to get rid of.

  3. Tbh, i always tought it as a metaphor "warmth of the hand = warmth of the soul." I don't know exactly how the concepts of "ki" or "life force" work exactly in japanese culture, but based on anime and videogames, the idea that having a certain kind of soul has effects on the body seems common. Most rpg seem to imply the soul as a source of magic power, so it may also be a source of body heat.