the end of things

1. Whether we like it or not, all things must eventually come to an end.  We’ve all had that experience where we’re reading a book that we love so much that we never want to put it down, or a song that we can’t stop listening to… but eventually we do, and we have to, because we don’t want to ruin the thing that we love by wearing it out.

This is why it’s sometimes hard for me to stay engaged with a game once it’s outstayed its welcome, and especially when the game in question doesn’t actually have an official finish line.  I’ve put in probably close to 30 hours in The Division by this point; I’m level 23, I’ve only got a few more main missions to go before my Penn Station base is completely finished, but I’m starting to grow weary of the game’s repetitiveness.  The side missions and encounters and diversions are all identical except that tougher enemies take more bullets.  I’m no longer wandering the streets looking for collectibles, since I know that once I finish all the side missions they’ll automatically pop up on my map anyway.  I was hoping I’d stay engaged long enough to hit level 30 and do a little cursory exploration of the Dark Zone, even though I don’t care about PvP; now my goal is simply to make it to 41st Street, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, to see if my day job’s location is accurately portrayed.  (Spoiler alert – it most likely isn’t; with a few exceptions here and there, the NYC that’s portrayed in this game bears little resemblance to the actual NYC.  I’ve already glanced at the map and immediately noticed that there’s no exit/side-street for the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, which bisects 4-5 blocks between 2nd and 3rd Avenues; then again, the game also features a 2nd Avenue subway, so perhaps this near-future Manhattan has done away with the tunnel altogether.)

This is not to say that I think The Division is a bad game; frankly, compared to Ubisoft’s other recent offerings, it’s a hell of a lot more enjoyable to play, and in many ways it reminds me of what Watch Dogs could’ve been.  But I find myself turning my brain off the longer I go; I ignore cutscenes and narrative beats because they’re meaningless at this point.  I finish a mission and they show me recovered video of atrocities committed by the game’s “enemies”, but I find it hard to care considering that I just killed hundreds of people single-handedly.  All I’m doing is moving from waypoint to waypoint, mowing people down, hoping they drop something useful.  This was fun for the first dozen hours, but it’s growing monotonous; there’s no depth.  I continue to hide behind cover and pop off shots here and there, the same way I did 30 hours ago, but now I have a portable turret.  I spend too much time agonizing over the relative merits and statistical improvements of different kneepads.  Do I sell?  Do I deconstruct?  Is there any point in engaging with the Advanced Weapons Dealer in the Ops Base before hitting level 30?

I need more co-op time, I guess.  That made the game a lot more fun to play, because suddenly I could think tactically instead of simply rushing from cover to cover; my friend and I could consider locational positioning, and work on flanking and suppressing.  Granted, this too eventually gets repetitive, but at least we can still talk to each other instead of simply listening to the horrible, horrible stereotypical New Yorker voice acting of each safe house’s side-mission giver.

Then again, I’m not necessarily in any rush to get it out of my house; if my rental Q is to be believed, I still have more than a week before Quantum Break and DiRT Rally show up.  But I do need to put it away, soon, because otherwise I’ll just feel like I’m wasting time.

2.  Oculus Rift reviews are dropping all over the place, and they all seem to be saying the same thing:  “a key to a new era of entertainment“, “like nothing you’ve ever experienced before“, “It [has] changed how we think of games.”  I guess this is good?  That hopefully this isn’t a fad?  I have no stake in this tech one way or the other; I think I’ve said this already, but in case I haven’t, right now the only VR set that I’ve got any eyes on is the PSVR, because my gaming PC is more or less busted and I can’t afford a new one right now, much less a new one AND a Rift.  I’m curious, I suppose, but until I actually experience it I will remain skeptical.  (I also wear glasses, and I suspect that wearing glasses underneath a VR headset is problematic.)

I’m also a little skeptical of Sony’s ability to make their VR unit compelling for more than, say, the initial launch quarter.  Considering the horrendous support that the PSP and the Vita have gotten, it’s hard to have faith that PSVR will be worth the investment – especially since it sounds like any PS4 owner would have to upgrade to the PS4.5 in order to get the most out of the VR setup.  As someone who’s owned multiple iterations of iPhones, of course I’m going to upgrade to a more powerful PS4, irrespective of my decision to jump on the VR bandwagon, but not everyone can make the same jump, and the more I think about it, the more of a mess it becomes.

3.  Regarding the aforementioned “all things must end”: I’m currently reading Anthony Marra’s “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” and it is slow-going; it’s beautifully written but there’s tragedy on every page, and it’s the sort of thing where I have trouble sticking with it, if only because there’s only so much Chechen atrocity I can handle in one sitting.  (There is a section describing the plight of teenaged refugees being kidnapped and executed, and the remaining family members asking for portraits of their missing loved ones; and while it is poetic and beautiful to read, it’s also gut-wrenchingly devastating; I was reading this on the evening commute, and it was all I could do to keep from bursting out in sobs.)

4.  I finally got around to seeing Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” over the weekend.  I’m… I’m not sure how I feel about it.  It’s impossible to discuss without spoiling it, so I might make a separate post about it.  I’m glad I saw it, and I’m sure it would make one hell of a play, but I’m also wondering if I’m starting to get a bit weary of QT’s tics and mannerisms.  (It also didn’t help that the film’s opening credits introduce the film as “The Eighth Film from Quentin Tarantino”.)

5.  I was going to wrap this post up by talking a bit about Corey Feldman’s IndieGoGo campaign, but I don’t feel like mocking him.  I mean, if you click on that link, most of the mocking is already done for you; you will cringe and recoil in horror involuntarily, whether or not I prepare you for what you see.  Frankly, I have no business making fun of him; I have an album of my own that I’m trying to finish, and while I’d love to raise some funds to be able to hire my friends to play on it and have it recorded and mixed by a guy who actually knows what he’s doing instead of me simply dicking around on my Macbook, I’d be lucky to get even half of the pitiful amount he’s raised.  If you’re making art, and you’re sincere in your desire to make something that you believe is important and beautiful, I don’t want to make fun of you.  I’d rather be angry at myself for not working as hard as I should, because I at least have some measure of control over it.

So instead, let me leave you with maybe the best remembrance (of many) of the late, great Garry Shandling.

“Make the spiritual search more important than the problem,” he told me once. Better than anyone I know, he understood that the search was the destination, that messiness was better than tidiness, that the complexity that makes us suffer also is the source of all beauty.

The Right Touch: On Controllers, Touchscreens, and VR

Critical Distance’s latest bi-monthly topic for the Blogs of the Round Table is as follows:

Joysticks. Keyboards and mice. Mashing a controller with your fist. Touching. Poking. Waggling. Wiggling. Moving your head around a virtual reality world. Directing an arc of your own urine. The ways in which we can interact with games have changed from simple electrical switches into much more complex and nuanced forms. We can even adapt and alter controls for people who have difficulty using traditional methods.

Some of these methods work, and some don’t. Most of us we be familiar with complaints about the Wii’s “waggle” controls, the thumb-numbing frustration of virtual buttons on a touchscreen device, or the gyroscopic motions that ruin the 3D bit of the Nintendo 3DS.

How do we move forward with controls in games? Are the old ways the best, or a barrier to entry? Are you looking forward to playing Farmville on the Facebook-ulus Rift?

A few months back I talked about the difficulty in having a “Citizen Kane of videogames“, in a post that was responding to what GB ‘Doc’ Burford thought that game might look like (1, 2).  He made a number of great points – and, indeed, his ultimate premise that the Citizen Kane of games will be a first person shooter now looks awfully prescient considering what’s happened with the Oculus Rift in recent weeks – but I felt that the ultimate problem with a game achieving that sort of status came down to the control scheme.

Citizen Kane is a movie that can be experienced by anyone with access to the movie (and the senses with which to properly perceive it).  I’m not sure what the “Citizen Kane” of music might be, but let’s maybe, for the sake of argument, call it The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” – if you have the proper equipment with which to play the album, and a set of working ears, you can experience it as it was meant to be experienced.  Same thing goes for books (and my personal CK of books, “Infinite Jest”) – all you need is a copy of the book and the ability to read.

The problem with games, however, is that it’s not just the game that you need in order to properly experience it – you also need to be familiar with how to play it.  You need to be trained – by experience or instruction – on how to interface with the work in a way that is distinct from the passive consumption of other media.   Gamers, as a general rule, have had their entire lives to get familiar with gamepads and/or mice and keyboards, and so even if a new game is introducing a wildly different control scheme than anything that’s come before it, gamers will have a natural advantage in terms of becoming acclimated to that scheme.  They’re not hunting and pecking for the buttons; their fingers are already where they need to be, and moving and interacting with the digital world soon becomes second nature.  Many non-gamers, meanwhile, will take one look at a modern game controller, perceive it as an obstacle and pre-emptively surrender.

The Wii made great strides in attracting non-gamers to the medium; having a 1:1 relationship with what was happening on screen made a lot of intuitive sense.  I have vivid memories of my in-laws, in town to take help look after my wife after her foot surgery, standing around in my living room playing golf and bowling – and my wife, immobilized in a chair, kicking all of our asses, actually.

The Kinect was supposed to make this even easier and more intuitive by completely removing the need for a physical device.  Of course, the original Kinect camera wasn’t necessarily as precise as it needed to be, and I hear anecdotal evidence that the Xbox One’s Kinect, while certainly superior to the previous incarnation, still has problems here and there accurately tracking physical movement.  The larger issue, though, is that nobody really likes running around and jumping and waving their arms all that much in service of a videogame, and it would appear that most games these days have taken the hint and aren’t really utilizing motion controls all that much, if at all.

Touch-screen devices – smartphones and tablets – have made huge inroads in terms of getting non-gamers involved in gaming.  For the most part, controls for touch-screen devices are incredibly intuitive, and more and more “non-gamers” are playing games on these devices.  Virtual buttons and d-pads are tricky to get the hang of, of course, but most of the people I see on the subway are playing Candy Crush Saga, and so they don’t necessarily deal with the same frustrations that others do.

Indeed, even my one-year-old son has some understanding of how tablets work; my wife and I have downloaded some drawing apps for him, and he intuitively gets that he can touch the screen and things will happen in direct response to his touch.  (Likewise, my mother, who claims to be totally in the dark about technology, has no problem playing Solitaire on her iPad.)

Still, the next big thing appears to be VR technology.  Facebook’s already-infamous $2B acquisition of the Oculus Rift, plus the sudden reveal (and positive reviews) of Sony’s Project Morpheus, seem to indicate that VR is not a fad (at least, not in the way that 3D now appears to be).  People who try it are instant converts (or, alternately, instantly nauseous).  But the converts seem convinced that VR is the real deal, and considering the pedigree of the recent hires at Oculus, one is tempted to believe them.

And yet, will strapping a silly-looking helmet onto one’s head really appeal to the non-gamer?  Is that how we will experience the Citizen Kane of games?  Fellow BoRT writer Matt Leslie at Lesmocon writes:

The main problem I can see with VR is that it’s overwhelmingly antisocial. I can’t picture a world where two or more people would sit around in a living room all with these things strapped on, nor would you let other people “watch” you play it. You can argue that its strengths would be in single player games anyway, but a single player game that you’re basically forced to play alone is not going to be the new hotness. Videogames have become highly social and are not something near-exclusively played by little kids and closeted nerds any more, so any advance in the technology needs to acknowledge that.

His point is a good one, though it should be noted that if there is any company that can figure out how to make VR less anti-social, it’d probably be Facebook, right?

Ultimately, the reason why I keep viewing this topic with the Citizen Kane qualifier is that, for all intents and purposes, whether and how a creative work can be accessed matters in terms of keeping the medium moving forward.  Gamers have adapted to new controllers before, and will continue to adapt – even though it seems that the Xbox360 controller more or less set the standard as far as handheld controllers go (and as evidenced by the iterative similarities of the XBO and PS4 controllers).

The Wii and the Kinect were novel approaches to attracting a wider audience into gaming, but, sadly, they became novelties themselves because there was no truly great game that took full advantage of what those control systems had to offer.  It would appear that VR has much wider potential in terms of immersion, and one can create a wider variety of games for it – but it’s also going to be expensive, and silly-looking, and the whole nausea thing can’t be ignored.

In my opinion, touch screen controls might very well be the key towards making games easier to play for the non-gamer, since so many non-gamers are already using touch screens and have an intuitive grasp of how they work.  This is also why the Steam controller is so interesting to me, personally speaking – of all the new controller ideas, the Steam controller’s touch pads seem like they might be the most capable – and the most intuitive.

And so if the ultimate goal of controller design is to get more people involved, then it seems to me that they’ll respond easier to concepts they already understand.

NOTE: Because of WordPress weirdness, I can’t include the little widget that allows you to see other submissions for this BoRT topic.  But I encourage everyone to check out the BoRT page to see further submissions as they roll in.