Yes, I see some of you were surprised that I did a video on the Kinect apropos of nothing last week when there were actual game releases abound. Frankly, I was still playing Arkham City and had deadlines to meet. But regardless I felt a video on the Kinect was warranted. It was like a little nagging loose end in my critical sphere. That’s why I bought one. As much as a depressing number of my commenters might argue, you can’t really condemn a game or gaming system just off what you’ve heard about it. Sooner or later you’re going to have to at least check to make sure, or you’re no better than Fox News.
But as should come as no surprise to anyone who’s listened to me for longer than five minutes, the Kinect left me cold. As entertaining as it might be as an encouragement for families or groups of non-threatening young people to lose their inhibitions in some kind of party setting, it’s thus far of very little interest to anyone who considers gaming from any kind of cultural perspective, meaning big fat losers like me who just want to play single player games on their own and don’t understand why society considers this more pathetic than reading Harry Potter books on your own. The arguments against motion controls are a rant I have ranted many times before, so I’ll just keep you up to speed with the short version: immersion depends upon being able to give commands as quickly as you can respond and physical feedback that instantly confirms that the command has been made, both of which motion controls wilfully defy.
The rather obvious problem with the notion of “controllerless gameplay” is that games kind of need a controller, and precisely nobody was thinking otherwise. When you say that our whole body is the controller, then you say that we have replaced our opposable thumbs and nimble fingers with a control system that is much more unwieldy and much less dextrous. But that’s when you try to use it like Rise of Nightmares was trying to use it, replacing all the standard gaming controls with motions, which is a model that depends on the game being able to perfectly read what you’re trying to do at all times. Which it doesn’t. And that the player makes no other motion but the ones required by the game. Which they won’t.
But there’s still potential in Kinect, as much as that may sound strange coming from me. Have your stupid little party games for people who like to compete with each other over who can embarrass themselves the hardest, but if you want to use it in gamer games, you have to work with the technology everyone’s already comfortable with, not try to revolutionize it all in one go.
It’s no use trying to cover your ears and pretend the Kinect doesn’t have severe limitations. You have to embrace those limitations. The Kinect sometimes has trouble reading your limbs and what you’re trying to do. For that reason, don’t use it for commands that always have to work all the time, stupid. The player is not going to blame anyone but the hardware when they get Game Overed for the umpteenth time. What if you used the Kinect for something that you don’t use all the time, and within the game’s context is supposed to be unreliable?
That’s what made me think about spellcasting, as mentioned at the end of the video. Picture a game, probably first-person or over-the-shoulder, where you’re some kind of scrappy amateur sorcerer, mostly controlled with a normal controller. Perhaps a game with a back-to-the-wall sort of combat model like Resident Evil 4. When things are getting particularly hairy and your options are low, you can take one hand off the controller and attempt to trace a mystic symbol in the air in front of you, then shove your out-splayed palm forward. Maybe you’ll do it right and fuck up everyone’s day. Maybe you made a mistake and bring forth nothing but a disorienting shower of sparks, but it’s just enough to give you the edge you need to escape. There’s power in that idea because it’s not getting in the way of anything else in the game. It’d be not unlike the magic spells from Symphony of the Night that you don’t have to use at all and take rather expert button combinations to pull off.
But no-one’s going to buy or develop for a $129 peripheral that’s only used for such a peripheral game mechanic (ironically). Could a deliberately unreliable control system carry a whole game?
If it could, then it’d probably be in something closer to Child of Eden, which was in itself problematic because it still required a degree of precision on your part, it being designed to be played with either the Kinect or the normal controller. Which is like designing a plane that can either be controlled with a standard joystick or by rolling a ball bearing around a cereal bowl that’s been strapped to the top of your head. So forget about anything as stressful as having to accurately shoot or maneuver around things. Let’s say you’re flying or falling through a serene, beautiful, alien environment, vast enough that you could fly in any direction for hours and never hit the edge. Something like that virtual reality program Pierce Brosnan was messing around with in the Lawnmower Man film. You bank around and alter your rotation by gently adjusting the positions of your arms and upper body. It would have to work while sitting down. If you play it standing up you’ll probably do your back in, and that’s not relaxing.
Relaxation is what this idea is about. It’d be like a cross between AAAAaaaaAAAaaAAAAaaaAA (still the most awkward title in the world to reference) and Endless Ocean. Yeah, there’d be hazards, but they’d be absolutely massive and you’d need to fly directly at one for several minutes before you were close enough to be hurt by it. And there’d be pickups that can be acquired by flying even vaguely close to their position. If you pick them up, great, there’d be a little tone and maybe a subtle little counter showing how many there are left, but it’s not like anything good happens if you get them all. And if you just don’t fly close enough to pick one up, you hear an incredibly sexy member of the opposite sex whisper in your ear: “don’t worry, I think people who go for 100% are a little bit weird, really”.
And that’s the sort of game that would work with a control system like Kinect. No, I guess it doesn’t sound like much of a game. Half-way through writing that description I suddenly realized I couldn’t remember if I was taking the piss or not. But I genuinely would play it, it sounds like exactly the sort of thing I could use to unwind after stressing myself out with a game that’s actually interesting or any kind of challenge at all. It’d probably be one of those games that experts discover is effective in the treatment of stress-related illness or something. Probably shouldn’t charge more than about ten bucks for the game, though, or it might end up causing a bit of it.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.