What could happen if the Xbox One motion controller got things right?
Where a lot of angry words are being directed towards Microsoft for their somewhat confusing Xbox One reveal event (Is it a set-top box? Is it a games console?), I thought it would be a good time for me to write about the whole ‘motion controller’ thing known as Kinect, and perhaps put some context around what is potentially a major selling point for Microsoft’s future endeavours.
The best way for me to do this is to reflect on how the Kinect was used on the Xbox 360 in both the most effective and most uninteresting of ways.
With new levels of interactivity there come new challenges and motion control tech is no exception. In fact it represents a very significant hurdle that has been the cause of much head-scratching within the games industry: how to bypass the need for a lump of plastic with buttons on it. Once that hurdle was overcome, a new problem presented itself: if there is no lump of plastic with buttons on it, how can a player achieve full character functionality? How does a player get their character to run, jump, and move around the game world in general?
So there followed a spate of games in which body motions took priority over immersive experiences. ‘Fitness’ games that catered to Zumba fans, dance fans, UFC fans and family-friendly entertainments, alongside a number of Arcade releases that didn’t really stoke the fires of my – or anyone else’s – hardcore premium gamer.
Almost three years later, the potential for this level of interactivity remains high without any apparent means to tap into it. Sure, there are games that have Kinect functionality. Streamlining awkward menu systems in Skyrim, giving quick commands to squad mates in Mass Effect 3; small stuff like that which was equal parts useful and annoying. “Better with Kinect” became the tagline that reminded me to play with the TV sound turned off and my headphones on, or turn off the Kinect ‘functionality’ entirely, lest some idiotic NPC said something that made a menu open up or caused an errant fireball to sprout from my fingers.
I’d almost given up hope for this little oblong device. Then I played Fable: The Journey.
It was not the most brilliant of the Fable series as far as gameplay goes. When I wasn’t watching cutscenes – very good cutscenes, by the way – my choices of character movement were limited to what I could shoot at. Badly, depending on how good a mood the Kinect was in. I was constantly being reminded to “sit up straight” and “uncross my legs”. It was like gaming with an overbearing elderly relative in the same room.
BUT the gaming experience as a whole remained compelling and that was the lynchpin in the whole ‘you are the controller’ rhetoric of the Kinect. Gabriel’s quest in Fable: The Journey was MY quest; I felt as if I had bonded with him, even though the story and game structure were very linear. The inclusion of his beloved horse, Seren, as a living creature I had to take care of throughout the driving sections, heal at a resting point when she got hurt, and eventually let go of as the story came to a gut-wrenching finale, was sheer brilliance. My hands, not a multitude of stick-twiddling and button-mashing, but my actual human hands, were the tools that established and ended these relationships.
What the Kinect had been designed to do – to put players into a game world at least partially – had been achieved in Fable: The Journey more than any other game that had graced the Xbox360 system. It was still an average title, to be sure, if I looked at it from a purely gameplay-oriented perspective, but the emotional response I had to being a part of these characters, their actions, and the resulting consequences, was something that I hadn’t garnered through the use of a controller before. Not in over two decades worth of gaming.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Kinect for the Xbox 360 has been both underused and underappreciated by developers.
Now however, it’s being reengineered and will be sent out as standard with the Xbox One package. With refined tech the potential for new and more immersive gaming has increased, IF Microsoft can find the right developers to capitalise on it and sell their ideas to gamers who want new experiences. It would be a shame if this second wind were to be wasted on a plethora of fitness and cheap children’s entertainment games… and voice commands.
Of course I’d expect to see Kinect functionality integrated into mainstream games to some extent or another, but it’s that unique form of world interaction, even if it’s just using my hands, that I want to see more of. I want more direct player involvement, not more ways to jump around my lounge looking like a sense-deprived moron.
Kinect for the Xbox One has to be focused on games that get us well and truly stuck to our characters, their stories, and the relationships they form with each other in their unique game worlds. In terms of gameplay satisfaction it could go in directions never before achieved with the aforementioned shiny lumps of plastic. How much more impact would in-game monstrosities have if players had to fight them off with their hand and body movements? How much more emotionally attached would players be if, through their character, they reached out to reassure or comfort another? How much more would I give a sh*t about a protagonist if I DIDN’T have to “press X” to avoid their untimely death?
The Kinect is currently being perceived more as a means for Microsoft to spy on people, partially because the internet is full of rumour-mongering idiots and mostly because Microsoft has not yet presented their new Kinect in a true gaming light. It didn’t make a huge impact on the hardcore community on the Xbox 360 and nobody can understand why it comes as standard with the Xbox One.
Microsoft need to carve their names into the next-gen console war with this device as a uniquely appealing selling point, with a strong line-up of games that make full – not partial – use of Kinect. I would go so far as to suggest that the success or failure of Xbox One as a premium gaming experience will depend on how well they do so.