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Requiem for the A Button

Controllers (from Kotaku)

At E3 2009, Microsoft unleashed a demon.

A week has gone by, and for people like me (gamers) the words Project Natal already mean something. If they don’t mean something to you (or if you missed Vic’s earlier post), let me try to sum it up: it’s a game platform where you don’t need a controller. You just sit (or stand) in front of the screen, and move, and things happen.

More on Natal, and plenty o’ other stuff, after the jump.

A video’s worth a thousand words, so here’s Microsoft’s pitch:

Now here’s what I think is interesting. There were two distinct responses to Project Natal. One was the nerdgasm: OMGOMGZOMGOMFGQOMG!!111!1. And let’s be honest, if this does a quarter of what Microsoft says it does, all those 1’s are warranted. We are staring down the barrel of some severely 21st century shit… even if we have seen this kind of motion capture before, we’ve never seen it outside a carefully controlled, very expensive box. Natal is going into thousands of homes. That’s something to get worked up about, right?

But some folks, such as Tycho from Penny Arcade, had a very different reaction to Natal. He’s pretty eloquent when he wants to be (which he usually does) so I’ll just quote him directly below:

“In general, the freaky-deaky augmented video mechanisms presented by Microsoft and Sony are inert for us – that is to say, we have no reaction to them whatsoever. Absent anything beyond minigames and puppet shows, I don’t know how to contextualize this technology. I can’t be certain that it has ramifications of any kind for the games I like to play, the ones my friends like to play, or for the games that built this industry.”

That’s a hell of a lot of syllables that, at first glance, seemed to add up to three letters: “meh”. But the more I thought about it, the more I started to agree with his reaction. I’m impressed by Natal. But at this point, I’m with him. I’d rather see another great game experience than another “new way to play”.

The big companies are following the Wii in an attempt to find the next great controller… and it’s all happening because the big companies want to “open up the market” of games. They want the young girls, the senior citizens, the obese, the Zoroastrians… any demographic that, for some reason or other, has been turned off by digital interactivity. So they’re making simulations: bowling, tennis, golf, power walking, that look like real activities, and that control like real activities.

That’s interesting to me, but as Tycho said: these virtual approximations aren’t what drew me in to this industry… and I think we’ll find, they’re not thing that will keep people interested once the novelty wears off. If you REALLY want to go bowling, you’re going to pick up a bowling ball, not a shiny white remote*.

Eventually, the industry is going to be left, once again, with the gamers. The folks who nearly pissed their pants with excitement watching the trailer for The Wizard back in 1989, and their ever-expanding progeny. It didn’t take much to get us hooked. Two buttons are enough… hell, one button has been sufficient in some cases. Since I first started playing games, I’ve just wanted to jump into another world. I wanted to find something completely beyond the realm of the real. The less I had to think about my arms, legs and face while I was doing it, the better. Just as long as I could immerse myself in the puzzle of the next moment: how to get Mario through World 8-1, or open the book of Atrus, or beat up some street punks as an insanely buff elected official named Hagar.

What I ask for is, in some ways, a trickier proposition for the Microsofts of the world. I want new stories, new places. I want new things to do, not new ways to simulate my commute. Furthermore, I think I’m not alone among gamers in wanting more experiences with depth, where what we do feels important and interesting (and hopefully, more strategically deep than swinging our arms and hoping for a hit).

The thing from E3 that got me most excited isn’t likely to revolutionize the realm of controls. It’s just a new game from a very talented team, who are making their fantasy duet of “Ico” and “Shadow of the Colossus” into a trilogy.


*****

*If they’re physically able, of course. But games for disabled folks is a whole ‘nother tangent.

4 thoughts on “Requiem for the A Button”

  1. BRIAN FLANAGAN says:

    ISN’T THAT THE MILLER’S CROSSING MUSIC?

  2. BRIAN FLANAGAN says:

    ISN’T THAT THE MILLER’S CROSSING MUSIC?

  3. Matt says:

    Natal looks, so far, like a really neat toy, kinda like the Ewok Village I got for Christmas in 1985. I expect the novelty will quickly wear thin for ‘hardcore’ gamers like myself and we’ll turn back to games that opffer a greater depth of experience, just like I was playing with my Legos years after the Ewok Village had been sold off at a garage sale.
    So-called casual games, which Natal seems most suited for, have their place and can be wildly profitable, but art, entertainment, and technology are advanced by the exceptional pieces of work, not just by the most popular.

  4. Matt says:

    Natal looks, so far, like a really neat toy, kinda like the Ewok Village I got for Christmas in 1985. I expect the novelty will quickly wear thin for ‘hardcore’ gamers like myself and we’ll turn back to games that opffer a greater depth of experience, just like I was playing with my Legos years after the Ewok Village had been sold off at a garage sale.
    So-called casual games, which Natal seems most suited for, have their place and can be wildly profitable, but art, entertainment, and technology are advanced by the exceptional pieces of work, not just by the most popular.

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