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The promise of motion control

posted on June 4th, 2008 by bruce
Now Playing: Boomblox

Who wrote this unspoken hardcore gamer law that we can’t enjoy a game that engages more than just our brains and fingertips? Just because our hobby has been sedentary in the past, a lot of people seem to want to treat this as some kind of necessary condition to enjoyment of a game. I’ve wondered why so many people scoffed at the notion of actually having to move their arms to play a videogame or, heaven forbid, stand up from the couch. I’ll be the first to admit this may not be conducive to hours long grinds or extended raid sessions, but Nintendo wasn’t looking to give you those kinds of experiences. Thankfully, it seems the emotionally mature members of the gamer demographic have realized this and accepted the Wii for what it is – something that’s striving to give us a very different kind of experience. It’s striving to give us something that is fun. And why do we play if not to have fun?

The promise of the Wii is that it can deliver a game that gives us engagement with the game world on a level that pressing a button never will, and this is part of the reason that grandmothers and other people, who two years ago would have never considered touching a videogame controller, are playing Wii Bowling right now. Technological limitations may currently prevent Nintendo from fully delivering on this promise, but we’re still working with the first generation of this techology. Just because we can’t play the fabled fully motion controlled light saber game today doesn’t mean we won’t be playing it five years from now.

The Wii appeals to all sorts of minorities, even women.

But what’s so much neater about twisting the controller to turn a virtual key than pressing a button to do so? Well, at the bottom of it all, nothing much seems different. You’re controlling an avatar, a virtual representation of yourself, and they are affecting the state of things in a virtual world via inputs that you perform. But engaging more of your body to perform ingame actions increases the player’s submersion into the game. This is why Wii Bowling has taken such a strong hold on non-traditional videogame players. They feel like they are bowling. For years these people watched us sit on the couch and press colored buttons to make our avatars swing a sword or put the blue key in the lock and open the blue door, and they were unable to see what was so fun about watching a story unfold while being prompted to press a button occasionally to proceed. I realize that simplifies the video game experience greatly but I am talking about the perception of someone outside the experience, not inside it. But now that virtualization has to some degree been removed. You can now use actions very similar to what you would do in the real world to accomplish an action in the videogame.

It’s fun for a lot more people because they no longer have to cross the mental divide between the action in the game and the representation of that action in the real world. It works for them, and it works for me. I’ve found some Wii games that immerse me more deeply in a virtual experience than I’ve ever felt. This will not work for all games and as I stated earlier we’re still in the early stages of the development of this new input. But a lot of people couldn’t have imagined Halo or Grand Theft Auto when they looked at Pong, yet here we are.

What do I consider the current highpoints? The games that best deliver on the promise of the Wii?

The first game was, thankfully, packed in right there with the console. Wii Sports certainly wasn’t deep enough to be called a game, but as a demonstration of the motion control technology, it fit the bill. And it has sold millions of Wiis. I realized after playing Wii Tennis that I was, in some cases, the person I mentioned above. Swinging my arm to swing the virtual racket resonates with me in a way that pressing a button never could have because it demands attention and engagement from so much more of me.

Gamingz ded!11

Zack & Wiki is another example of a game designed to make near perfect use of the Wii controller. It is essentially no more than a puzzle game, but for the most part they are cleverly designed and some really make brilliant use of the controller. Some puzzles demand you to think about the orientation of the object you’re holding, and how you would hold it to accomplish the task you have clearly been given. Some of these are simple but some will require you to use parts of your brain never before engaged by a videogame. The result is a much closer engagement with the game world. It’s no longer a flat rendered image on the 2-d TV screen. It’s turned into something you can reach into and directly manipulate, albeit in a somewhat scripted manner. If there’s a failing, I would say it’s that the game prompts you more heavily than it needs to about what to do with the controller. This is probably due to the fact that people don’t currently have the vocabulary to deal with motion control in a game as we do with a traditional controller. We know the triggers on a Dualshock control the gas and brake, because that’s the de facto standard. But how do you interact with a crank or a level in a game where you’re not pressing a button to do so? Exciting times.

The last example is probably the game I’ve had the most unadulterated childlike fun with in quite a while, and it has come from the publisher I would have least expected it from. Boom Blox will lead to exclamations of glee as your best laid plans come apart but you completely fail to care because the results are both unintended and spectacular. The title quite literally says it all, the mix of explosions with blocks and the orchestra of ballistic delight is as much fun as you would expect it to be. The first ‘amazing’ moment in the game came when I saw that I could get a gold medal by toppling a large block construction with a single throw. At this point, I found myself doing structural analysis on the level to determine its weakest point and testing my ideas about which block should be removed. When’s the last time a videogame asked you to employ a knowledge of physics or mechanics? While not everyone’s cup of tea, it’s a truly refreshing change of pace to me. The payoff is, of course, that a good knowledge of structural mechanics means you get to watch said structures come crashing down that much more quickly.

Steven Spielberg must’ve made this game himself because there’s no way EA did.

The second truly amazing moment came when I was first given the grabber tool. This allows you to highlight a block in the structure and grab it, after which you can actually tug it in three dimensional space. This led to many tense moments as I tried to recreate the trick of pulling a tablecloth from underneath place settings without disturbing them and tugging on blocks that look superfluous to the structure without disturbing it enough to topple everything to the ground. It was engaging and tense, but in a new way. The onus was no longer merely on my ability to detect when to press a button, this was a test of physical skill. Unique for a videogame and again, a welcome change of pace.

So what has Nintendo done? No, they haven’t sounded some dire bell that all the hardcore games you love are dead or dying. Sure, markets change. I love 2-d shooters. And, lo and behold, they still make 2-d shooters, though not with the regularity they once did. They still occasionally make ~great~ 2-d shooters (Ikaruga, the height of the form for many people, is a recent addition to the genre). No genre of game has ever died, markets have just moved away from them. Even the puzzle adventure game, on life support for many years now, is seeing a slow rebirth. Smaller markets within the industry shift, but the overall industry has undeniably grown, to the benefit of both publishers and players. No, I can’t expect as wide a variety of 2-d shooters to be made in the coming year as I once would have expected. But I don’t care because overall, there are more genres and types of games that I love now. Hardcore won’t go away, it won’t go anywhere in fact. It will be redefined.

3 Comments

  1. Stefan said on June 5, 2008:

    One of the other big things about motion control, I think, is that if properly done it reduces the learning curve by allowing people to take advantage of things they already know. Even for something as simple as unlocking a door, having to think “turn the key maps to the “open” action, which is mapped to button C” requires the memorization of several abstract connections. “Turn the key maps to turning my wrist clockwise” and “open the door maps to pushing forward” are things everyone’s already learned, so when the motion controls are well done (as in wii bowling, where my grandfather bowled roughly his real-life average right from the start), the initial learning curve can be reduced almost right out of existence.

  2. bruce said on June 5, 2008:

    I didn’t think to relate what I said to the “learning curve”, that’s a good point.

    I probably should have mentioned Elebits, but I didn’t play it because someone said it abused the time limit mechanic. A shame too, that game was clearly about making a mess, but then they have to go and put ~limits~ on the thing that drew me to the game in the first place…

  3. Stefan said on June 6, 2008:

    I have elebits, and that’s almost exactly what stopped me from finishing it. It’s one of very few games for the wii that I think just couldn’t be played without 6D (translation and rotation) motion controls, and it’s amazingly fun to toss around beds and bookshelves once your gravity gun gets powered up, as well as sneaking around on the silence levels trying to capture critters without letting anything break or make noises. (including catching the things the elebits knock over) Unfortunately the gameplay ends up falling into a cycle of “play this level over and over until I’ve memorized it, because that’s the only way to beat it within the time limit”.

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