Thank goodness for Roger Ebert. Where would us lesser columnists be without him?
Fear not – I am not going to the bang the old drum of “games as art” again, except to say that Ebert’s argument on gaming is eloquent, thoughtful, and thoroughly undeserving of the scorn poured on him by gamers. So although I disagree vigorously with Ebert’s opinion on games as art, I will leave his opinion on gaming to be dissected by others, and move onto another thought-provoking piece of his: his take on 3D.
3D is the “in” thing across the entertainment sector this year – a $2.7 billion box office will do that to a technology. As 3D TV sets start to roll into homes (presumably ones where people really, really like Monsters vs Aliens), and channels around the world prepare to broadcast the soccer World Cup in 3D for the handful of people ready to watch it, one thing is clear: there’s so much money and pride involved in the technology this time that 3D isn’t going to just fade away in nothingness. Either it’s here to stay, or it’ll crash and burn spectacularly.
Ebert is on the “crash and burn” side, and his argument can broadly be divided into two separate points: “Hollywood’s current crazy stampede toward [3D] is suicidal. It adds nothing essential to the moviegoing experience.”
To diverge from the videogaming sector for a moment – but pay attention, this’ll be important later – what is “essential” to the moviegoing experience is not only subjective, it is irrelevant. I watched many of the best movies of my life on a tiny 20-incher that was, or at the very least appeared to be, made of wood. The movies were still amazing, but that doesn’t mean I want to go back to that experience. No, I’ll take my flat-screen HD monitor, my Blu-Ray, my surround sound. And in time, I’m willing to bet, my 3D, too.
But on the point of the march toward 3D being “suicidal” for Hollywood, Ebert – a critic, rather than a businessman – is on much shakier ground, but this is where his argument becomes relevant to gaming. The reason Hollywood is so desperate for 3D to take off is, as Ebert correctly points out, that the movie business needs theatres to “offer an experience that can’t be had at home.” More to the point, it now desperately needs to offer an experience that can’t be pirated at home. I believe, for a time at least, that 3D can provide that – just as it will for gaming.
Much like the medium of the moving picture now spans everything from videos uploaded to YouTube to multi-million dollar spectaculars like Avatar, gaming is gradually being divided into two streams – there’s the low budget, bang-for-your-buck world of 99 cent iPhone apps and free Facebook games, and the “epic”, “massive” “jaw-dropping” world of high definition, big budget, AAA blockbusters.
Gaming is in fact probably more based on the “spectacle” than even movies are; the jaw-dropping spectacle is pretty much the only thing used to market games these days (think of the advertising campaigns for Modern Warfare 2, God of War 3, or Final Fantasy XIII), even though gameplay mechanics are ultimately far more important to our enjoyment of a game. How many AAA titles do you see with “controls like a dream!” as its tagline, versus how often you see the word “epic,” “stunning,” or “massive”?
However, the simple fact is that the graphical arms race is at a stalemate. We’re well past the point of diminishing returns when it comes to graphical quality – it’s no longer profitable to improve sheer graphical quality of a console to the point where it gives a clear advantage over the opposition.
This is why we’re seeing the industry get behind new technologies like 3D and motion controls. It’s what Nintendo realized before anybody else, and why the Wii has been such a success – a way to offer a new experience that separates a product from its competitors, without costing an arm and a leg. And it’s why Nintendo is set to be the first company set to take the first bold steps into 3D gaming as a real commercial product (let’s all just forget about the Virtual Boy).
The only thing that Nintendo has announced about their DS successor is that it will be playable in 3D. Given how important the DS has been to Nintendo’s fortunes over the past five years, that’s a huge level of trust in consumer demand for 3D technology. Of course, this is already following a familiar pattern to those within the industry.
When the DS was first announced, touch screen technology was regarded as a gimmicky addition, a technology from yesterday that had failed to really prove itself to the consumer – this was, please recall, some years before the iPhone and its multi-touch technology arrived, much less the iPad. Nintendo clearly believes that, despite the skepticism for 3D, it can be like “touch” and “motion” before it and become a technology that sells systems.
So while many, like Ebert, are dubious about 3D in the home or the theatre, or the future of motion control in gaming, in the absence of any other game-changing technologies, this is where the industry is headed.
Where are these new technologies going to take us? To return to Ebert for a moment, he notes that he “cannot imagine a serious drama” such as The Hurt Locker in 3D. This reveals more about his idea of what “serious drama” is than it reveals about 3D. Just as with his views on gaming, Ebert’s idea of what “drama” should be is fixed; everything else is but a gimmick.
And this is both right and wrong. The universal tenets of “good” drama are the same whether in a movie, a book, or a story told to you by a friend. Therefore, whether the drama is enclosed in a 2D movie or a 3D one, it does not change the fact that the drama is well crafted. The rest is indeed just a gimmick – and I would argue that film, moving images themselves, are just as much a gimmick as anything else. Compelling stories can often more easily, and more eloquently, be told in prose than they can be on film.
3D, used properly, will not diminish that – in movies, or in gaming. The same is true of motion controls. It’ll be down to developers to carry 3D on the 3DS – and also down to developers to create games that will prove compelling on the PlayStation Move controller and Natal. I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to seeing what everybody has to offer at this year’s E3.
Last year, I had the pleasure to play the 3D version of Wipeout at a trade show, as well as some of Nvidia’s 3D Vision titles like Resident Evil 5. Is 3D is a gimmick? Of course, it’s a gimmick. But how is it any less a gimmick than, say, shaders, bloom lighting, 5.1 sound, facial motion capture or any of the other hundreds of visual and audio tricks developers have sold their games on for years? All of them are based on the idea of moving the experience closer to our perception of reality – just as motion controls and 3D are.
Is it a scam? Of course, it’s a scam. Everything is a scam, if your definition of scam is something designed to part you from your cash. There will be plenty of awful games that try to make up for their lack of substance with tacked-on motion controls or 3D bells and whistles, but these games exist right now, they just make up for their lack of substance with the bells and whistles of next-gen graphics.
Just as these new technologies offer the possibility to create something new and great, so too do they offer the ability to screw up a winning formula. Which path they take is, as ever, down to the people who make the games.
So I would urge gamers to see that just as Ebert is mistaken about gaming’s possibility to become art, so too are many gamers mistaken, and already overly cynical, about the ability for 3D and motion to transform our living rooms.
There will be a lot of crap to wade through, sure. But hasn’t that always been the case?
Christian Ward works for a major publisher, and thinks time deserves more respect as a dimension.