Video games have really only existed for 30 years, but since their inception, the advancements in the industry have been astounding, writes Emer Sugrue
Hard as it is to believe, in recent years technology has streaked ahead of the lines and dots of the early days and for the first time, real interactivity in games is possible. The three best-selling consoles: the Nintendo Wii, Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360 have all released motion-sensing equipment. Even though we surely have far to go before a real virtual reality is realised, gaming is now taking up a bigger space in everybody’s lives. So, on a scale of Pong to Holodeck, where do we stand?
Physically active gaming isn’t really new. Dance Dance Revolution has been out and exhausting fat arcade-goers for over twelve years now. Arcades have plenty of games involving punching or moving about in some way, but the enormous equipment necessary kept it off the home market. There were some home dance pads back in the day, the earliest unsurprisingly brought out by Nintendo for the NES, but it was fairly crappy. The Power Pad had 12 buttons for some reason, and the few compatible games it had just involved walking around. You go 1980s.
A decade later, when I was growing up, I remember spazzing out to a dance version of The Jungle Book on the Playstation on a more DDR-like plastic mat. Unfortunately, the buttons were a bit temperamental. Especially after a few weeks of stomping around on them. But games were still entirely based on pressing buttons.
In 2006, with the release of the Wii, gameplay changed forever. Instead of pudgy pasty nerds, spending 16 hours a day slowly becoming radioactive in front of their consoles, games are now marketed at fun sexy people, who like to think they might exercise and are willing to spend money on consoles and rarely play them.
The Wii was aimed at ‘casual gamers’ and promoted their non-threatening gentle games (involving bowling and looking after puppies) to people with kids – people who embraced the ads’ central conceit showing families playing games and laughing together. But the real appeal was the idea that the console was closer than ever before to virtual reality. You could move certain entities like you might move your hand. You could play really slow tennis. Wow!
The design of the Wiimote is actually fairly basic, it has an accelerometer to gauge how much it’s being moved, and an image sensor to see where the remote is pointing on the screen. It wasn’t particularly accurate though. Rather than the interactive experience of realistic sword play or spell casting, the traditional button mashing was replaced with frantic remote shaking, although the new Wii MotionPlus is supposed to be a bit more accurate.
The Playstation Move is along the same lines, but in their effort to outdo the four-year-old Wii, they stuck a glowing ball on top. It looks like a cross between a light sabre and a sex toy.
The big drawback of the Wii is that four years on, there really aren’t that many good games. There’s a few Mario titles that are fun, but that dead horse has been flogged so much by Nintendo that we all we are left with is horse soufflé garnished with disintegrated whip.
The Wii has indulged far too much in the novelty of the motion sensor and a lot of the games are just cartoony imitations of real life. You have Cooking Mama if you feel like digital tempura, Nintendogs if you find real puppies just too low-tech and UDraw Studio because paper is lame.
Most Wii games are like when you spend four hours making your Sims clean their house while surrounded in your own filth, but at least you can set the Sims on fire if you get bored. The advantage the Playstation 3 has is superior graphics, so hopefully they will find a way to better integrate motion sensors into the kind of games they already produce.
The more interesting release is the Kinect for the Xbox 360. Rather than remote wiggling, the Kinect has a camera and sensors with full-body 3D motion capture, facial recognition, and voice recognition. It can track up to four players at a time, and the voice software is specially designed to filter out ambient noise, allowing online gaming without headsets.
There will of course be a rake of sporty/fighty/dancey games on the Kinect, brought out in order to elbow in on the Wii’s market, but the wider implications are huge. This is controller-less game play. Just you and the screen. You can tell the game to do something, or just move your hands to select it.
If you buy the Kinect this year, it will be buggy and irritating, just as all 1.0 purchases are, but it is the beginnings of a gamer’s paradise. You will have the world at your fingertips while real life, once again, comes up short.