Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Truly "Immersive" Gaming

With signs pointing to the current generation of game consoles sticking around a while longer, the biggest innovations of the "big three" console manufacturers in the last few years has arguably been the development of motion-based gaming technology. Nintendo's Wii has had it since its release and received some upgrades like the WiiMotionPlus and in the last few years Microsoft's XBox 360 and Sony's Playstation 3 have gotten the Kinect and the Playstation Move, respectively. The point of motion-control systems like these, if I may paraphrase, is to give players more novel or intuitive ways of interacting with games that often more closely mirror the actions being performed in-game. Instead of aiming by moving a control stick, you can aim by pointing the controller at the screen. Instead of pressing buttons to make your character perform actions, you can now trigger them by doing something that at least superficially resembles the desired action.

I don't deny that these control systems are really cool, even when used for their intended purpose of game control. (Hackers have done some really amazing things with Nintendo's and Microsoft's hardware) The well-known danger is that the coolness of the motion control can sometimes become a substitute for overall quality in the rest of the game, leading to gimmicky, bargain-bin games that rely on the novelty of the control scheme (which might suck anyway) and aren't terribly special in anything else. Even Wii Sports, which comes bundled with the Wii, and its successor Wii Play are well-implemented and fun for an hour or two at parties, but are rather short on depth.

But what about when these new control schemes are applied to the latest in a series of solid games known for their fantastic gameplay, charming graphics, music, and all-around immersive experience--case in point, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword? Fans have been anticipating it for its 1:1 sword control, but now that it's out the response to the controls has been mixed. (Gamestop famously gave it 7.5 despite critics saying the reviewer just didn't understand the controls) Yesterday I found a discussion on Reddit from a disappointed fan; if you don't want to slog through it all, just read the comment that caught my attention:
I'm enjoying the game so far, but in a way I find the motion controls less immersive. When I play with a traditional controller I can easily lose myself in the game. Pressing buttons is like breathing for me. I don't have to think about it. But in SS so far I have been frequently made aware of myself holding the controller, thinking about how I need to move it around, and that brings me out of the game.
He found the motion controls less immersive? It's an interesting theory--players are supposed to be able to get more into games if they're identifying their actions with those of the player character, but this fan found mirroring Link's actions distracting from the game. Pressing buttons and moving control sticks on a traditional, ergonomic controller may seem boring compared to swinging the "Wiimote" like a sword, but it's so easy that gamers (myself as an example) are able to form mental pathways that map the actual manipulation of the controls to muscle memory. You don't have to think "press right bumper" or "contract right index finger" to reload, you just do it. It's a different kind of immersion that is broken by the complex motions involved by motion controls. In light of this, I don't see motion controls making much progress out of the realm of "casual gaming" anytime soon. Thoughts?

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