Dancing Towards the Future

Article written by:
John Oliver Go
Author: John Oliver GoWebsite: http://dangerousblogforboys.wordpress.com
Oliver has a love-hate romance with video games. So much so that all he writes are loving hate letters about his games - or hateful love letters depending on his mood. But he has a love-love relationship with his cats.

Details

Immersion is a tricky concept in video games. Above and beyond graphical and audio fidelity, a game has to play right. But what does this mean precisely? Characters have to act and react as if they were real people. For the player, it is no longer merely enough to just point and shoot. Your character needs to run, dodge, climb, sneak, and generally interact with the environment for the game to pull you into its world. For the world, on the other hand, non-player characters have to react properly to your shenanigans. In a role-playing game, for example, killing someone nearby would assure that pedestrians would stop doing their laundry. For the latter, strong artificial intelligence could veritably serve as an end-all, be-all remedy. For the former, however, things get more interesting. If you are to be immersed in a video game, it necessarily means that your playable character has to be real. But how does this work?

You can kill ANYONE in the game. Just be prepared for a lot of jail time.

In order for your character to feel right, the controls obviously have to feel right. If you press A, your character runs. Press the Right Trigger and he shoots. Click the right mouse button and he aims. On a single video game controller, you have over 20 input options in order for your character to be... a little more realistic. But honestly, it is impossible to do everything a character should do with such a limited control portfolio. A game like Grand Theft Auto sidesteps this issue by not being a true city simulator but a farcical parody of reality (which is why, for all advancements in video game technology, the most meaningful thing you could do to your in-game neighbors is to beat them up and steal their money rather to hug or greet them hello). Anything more complex gets relegated to the cinematic.

For all intents and purposes, video game genres are created not by their worlds, their characters, or even their stories. They are created by what the central character could do with the limited control scheme provided him. This, my dear readers, would be central to how a game could veritably immerse you. Alan Wake could not punch or kick people, but his enemies are ghosts anyway.

But even a limited control scheme has its problems when we're dealing with immersion in video games. Let's go back to our beloved industry's holy grail: the first-person shooter. Halo perfected the dual-analog controls that console gamers have been accustomed to. The left analog stick moves your cybernetic soldier, whilst the right analog stick lets you aim and look around. Right trigger shoots, left trigger throws a grenade, B is melee, A is jump. Once you have learned its controls during the first hour or so, immersion into the game should set in. It makes the game easy to play in order for you to forget about thinking of how to play it and just take in its world.

But does it really now? Theoretically speaking, a shooter's controls makes it easier for you to play the game, but NOT to immerse you into its fiction or its world. Truth be told, a console shooter's control scheme is amazingly precise in order for you to aim accurately, but does not really feel like you are controlling a human being. What it is more likened to is controlling a camera tripod on wheels. It just needs to be said but goes without saying.

Moving around in a console shooter is incredibly straightforward, like a tank that goes in a straight line without due regard for the movement of footwork and jagged terrain. Move your analog stick up, your character goes there in a flawless straight line. Looking around, in the control scheme's quest to be playable, moves your head in perfect right angles and at a consistent speed. It's much easier to shoot in this regard. And what of the jump button? Press A to jump? Press X to reload? This does not make sense on a physical level, but it does make the game easier to play. And why is your gun always held at face level? Immersion, in this regard, is not a master served by how you play the game. The master served by the game is your comfort in playing it.

A keyboard and mouse set-up isn't a solution either. PC gamers have always stressed (and rightfully so) that shooter controls are better with a mouse. But from an immersion standpoint, it actually makes it worse. The best players are those that could induce dizzying bravado in moving the camera at the quickest speed in order to kill their opponents better. Does that sound like a really efficient soldier simulator to you? No, but it sounds like a really efficient control scheme. If people say that such schemes are immersive, then they should ask themselves if they could break their own necks with their own necks.

Now what about the Wii? It was a step in the right direction, but anyone who has played the Wii understands that pointing at the screen is merely a mouse set-up in 3D space. But with sword controls and throwing balls in Boom Blox? We may have witnessed but a tiny opportunity that Nintendo itself has failed to capitalize on. Throwing things and playing tennis with the Wii Remote are immersive in themselves, what I believe truly broke the fourth wall with its gameplay and not having to actually play pretend like a traditional control scheme would. But what else can and has been made?

Yet again it is hampered by the fact that, at the end of the Wii's life cycle, it was merely an alternative (albeit better) control scheme that still used arbitrary buttons to do arbitrary things. Shaking the Wii Remote has been used, moreover, insomuch as it was a button substitute simply because it felt intuitive from a gamer's perspective. Have you honestly played a game on the Wii that made you feel like a true swordsman? Even Zelda's controls were made for comfort rather than immersion, relegating the best swimming controls ever in a video game, but did not make you feel like a real swimmer would, but as an effective submarine. Motion controls can do that too.

It feels great to swim, like a groovy submarine.

Perhaps we are being too unfair in making these allegations. After all, controllers need to have multiple input options which are malleable enough to be used for various control schemes and various game genres - technical barriers, so it may seem. But technology has made strides wide enough to support a control scheme that does not sacrifice immersion in the first place: which is the burden ultimately bound with the Kinect. Graphical breakthroughs be damned, we have never had such a game-changer as the Kinect, and its possibilities for total immersion in video games is unmatched.

With total motion control, there is no longer need for a controller (I would like to note that there could be better taglines than Kinect's own "You are the controller"). And with that out of the way, maybe we can finally be ready for games that actually mimic reality from a gameplay perspective, and not merely from a graphical one. Maybe we are still leagues off from total virtual reality, but the most immersive video games could veritably be made right here and right now. Case in point: Dance Central.

In video games, what we are always doing is to pretend. We pretend to be a soldier, or a racecar driver, or a professional athlete, or even a god. But in a game such as Dance Central, you finally stop pretending and actually be the character that the game wants you to be. The focus has finally stopped being on the screen, and has already shifted over to you. You see your onscreen avatar and you dance along with it. You are no longer playing, but you are finally dancing. When games pretend to be shooting or driving, Kinect has allowed you to let go of pretend and finally start truly immersing, unveiling the very curtain between game and gamer. When the game tells you to dance, you actually dance. Guitar Hero did not do this. It just created a better way to control.

In Dance Central, you have complete control, and the game - with its heavily gamified reward system, actually makes you feel like a dancer regardless of experience. It sought to create an actual human experience, rather than interpret one for the gamer. And in a feat perhaps no other game has ever done before, encourages you to truly be better at it. Other games encouraged you to be a better gamer, but Dance Central encourages you to be a better dancer. What more can we expect of a video game? Perhaps this is the direction that the industry should pursue, as apart from telling a better story as most games now strive for, now that graphics are no longer an issue? And as dancing is a genuine human experience, maybe we could finally stop all of the notions attached to being a gamer altogether.

With Kinect comes a vast new world of opportunity for the industry, not so much as what it can do, but as to what could be possible in the future. Gimmicks such as controlling a game with your eyes or even your mind may arise, but they do nothing for immersion unless the game is about voyeurism and Jedi force tricks. Moreover, If you want to be a hero, maybe button presses are undercutting it as well. If there is one way to be a video game character, then that is embodiment.

And as Kinect was reported to have intricate upgrades such as finger and facial sensors, maybe we can have truly immersive games in the form of more traditional genres such as the shooter, or even create new ones we never thought could even exist. Motion control may now be designated a gimmick, that which no hardcore gamer would dare even touch. But then again, they would be depriving themselves of what could be the most imaginative and integrative experiences to ever touch any entertainment medium. Sir Peter Molyneux once said that games have evolved at so quick a pace because developers have a dream that, one day, they are going to be real. Perhaps they are talking about graphical realism and better storytelling techniques. But perhaps they are also talking about that which matters more: the challenge of gameplay realism.

Ladies and gentlemen, I think we are already there.

   

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