Auckland Zoo is a great place to take a three-year-old – it’s surrounded by a public park, it’s essentially free if you can name a suburb in Auckland, and it has a great kids’ section with all sorts of interesting things to look at, pick up and play with. Last time I was there with the boy we spent quite a while playing with one very clever installation: it was a table covered in a dense, grey, clayish sort of sand that you could mould into different shapes. A projector was mounted above it, shining images of little bugs onto the surface, and it could actually detect the changing contours of the sand, so that the bugs would turn away from obstacles you built up and follow grooves that you dug into the sand. When I took a closer look at the setup, I saw that it was using a Microsoft Kinect to scan the surface – I was genuinely surprised that it was capable of detecting such a fine level of detail. All sorts of clever applications for the Kinect have been developed by enterprising mad geniuses, which always makes me wonder why such a fancy piece of tech is largely wasted on motion-controlled games and racism.
…or indeed shoving a blade through someone’s fucking face.
My topic for today is: Motion Controls in Games; the Being a Big Load of Bollocks Thereof. Motion controls are almost always gimmicks – just about every motion-controlled game I’ve seen uses motion controls to achieve things that could be done just as easily with a regular controller, if not more. It’s telling that the launch titles that accompanied the release of the PlayStation 3 had unneccessary motion controls jammed in, which were quietly ditched in those games that fostered sequels*.
And even when it’s not a gameplay gimmick, when a game genuinely uses motion controls for a purpose that couldn’t be achieved with a gamepad, usually mimicking real life movements, as in sports games on the Wii, there’s still the problem of feedback. Making the motion of swinging a tennis racket or bowling a ball is all well and good, and not something you can do with a standard controller, but without the weight of a bowling ball or the resistance of a ball hitting a racket, the experience is always going to be lacking. The guys developing Clang, Neal Stephenson’s obsessively authentic sword fighting game, seem to pretty much ignore the fact that swinging a sword controller at thin air with no impediment is nothing like the physical experience of blocking and parrying, or indeed shoving a blade through someone’s fucking face. (Their only concern appears to be the fact that by swinging through in real life while your character onscreen is blocked, you’ll get out of synch with them. Their solution appears to be “real swordsmen don’t overswing, so you just need to learn to fight properly”.)
At the end of the day, I’m yet to see a game changer come from motion controls – an innovation that turns them into a core, inextricable part of modern video games. Compare the introduction of analogue sticks on gamepads – the original PlayStation shipped with the old 4-way d-pad and buttons layout, but these days only the simplest of games can be played without twiddling an analogue controller with one or both thumbs.
Still, there could yet be a place for motion controls, and it could be at the intersection of movement recognition and the obsessive compulsive collector’s mentality that video games have been enabling ever since Pokemon invaded our shores. These days, not only do the games encourage you to find and collect every last MacGuffin that the developers have scattered around the game (stars, powerups, hidden messages, nudey photos of your girlfriend and so on) but the systems themselves award you with collectible accolades (trophies on the PS3, achievements on the Xbox) for performing various in-game tasks. I think I see an application here.
With the level of detail that the Xbox Kinect can pick up on, it is theoretically possible for people to earn achievements by, say, punching themselves in the balls, while the device’s microphone listens to ensure that you generate sufficiently loud screams of anguish. Picture it:
“Do it! Right in the nadgers! Do you want those achievement points? Do it now!”
“That was barely a whimper – I don’t think you really want it. Harder!”
“Good. ACHIEVMENT UNLOCKED: GROIN TRAUMA. Now, pick up that lamp – I can see it next to you. Good. Now tell your friend to close his eyes…”
The player is ultimately satisfied, and with any luck their defective genes are excised from the world. That’s it, I’m off to Kickstarter.
*To be fair, the PS3 is probably the worst offender – Sony shoehorned motion controls into the PS3 controller in a desperate fit of Keeping Up with the Jonses; they were technology for the sake of it. See also the PS Vita, whose buttons, analogue sticks, motion controls and multiple touch pads scream “OH GOD, LOVE ME, PLEASE! I’LL BE ANYTHING YOU WANT ME TO BE! USE ME LIKE THE WHORE THAT I AM! OR DON’T, I’M OK WITH THAT!”