Welcome to Objection! This is where we take the time to go on-depth on current gaming issues, and let you guys continue the discussion in the comments section. This week we're discussing the impact of new user interfaces on gameplay and narrative – how has Kinect, Multi-Touch and Motion Control affected narrative in games, and how does it influence game design?
To help us out we've brought in Rohan Harris - a regular Game Arena contributor, Independent Film Producer and all round smart guy.
Anyway – on to the topic at hand!
MARK: It seems like, with games at least, the medium really is the message. When we started using a mouse to play video games, for example, point and click adventures were in vogue. Now with Kinect and the Wii, exercise and dance games are going bananas. What’s the balance here? To what extent does the controller affect the games we play?
Firstly, you've got ones designed for a new (specific) input method. I'm thinking of flagship games like WiiSports, or something like Flight Control - a game that feels really strange if you aren't using a specific device.
Then you've got the ones that are a bit of a concern to us - the ones that have been kludged onto a new control system for financial reasons. The earliest examples of this are probably things like console ports of strategy games. It's pretty obvious when you see, say, the original Command & Conquer on PlayStation, that it wasn't designed for a controller.
Even ones that arguably work a great deal better (I'm thinking of Tropico 3 here) are still - to most of us, at least - a bit of a kludge.
You see a lot of this kind of thing on the new motion or touch-based controllers. For every game specifically designed to make use of the advantages of the new interface, there's probably up to a dozen crappy ports of games really best off on mouse/keyboard or full-sized console controller.
I don't think you need more evidence than seeing Nintendo releasing the 'Classic Controller' to see that there are as many problems with new control systems as there are benefits. No one interface suits every genre - and we're frequently beset by the problem of the game being kludged to work with the controller, not designed to best suit the controller.
So, I suspect that the controller affects what we end up playing quite a lot, but probably more in a negative way than a positive one - simply by virtue of people trying to make more money from platforms with very specific input methods.
MARK: I spoke to Mark Pesce – super smart Futurist-type fellow – and he was pretty enamoured with Kinect. But the software being released so far is pretty sub-standard. According to him we’re still working out the control “metaphors” for Kinect.
It’s all about how and why said controller is created, and for what purpose. With Kinect I get the feeling that the User Interface was King, and games were an afterthought. Nintendo on the other hand seem to develop tech in tandem with software - they emerge seamlessly, in response to one another.
Nintendo are the masters of creating controllers that suit their software. Mario 64 and the N64 controller, the Wii Remote and Wii Sports, Nintendogs and the DS. It’s a symbiotic relationship and Nintendo gets that.
It’s such a shame that so many third party developers don’t.
ROHAN: Absolutely. With the Wii you do get the sense that somebody went, "Wouldn't it be cool if we could swing things around to play this tennis game?" and kinda worked backwards from there.
My experiences with the Kinect really gave me the same impression. It's great technology - just look at what third-party folks are doing with it and you can see that. It just seems to be (largely) a technology without a purpose. Or, to put it another way - there's no Killer App just yet, and until they work out what's really possible with it, they won't be able to make one.
The thing that interests me is how changing controller methods are affecting the way we tell stories in video games.
There's always been a strange relationship between games and storytelling. The first games barely had any story - what was there existed solely to set up the conflict / challenge. "Klingons have infected the sector. Kill 'em, Kirk!" or "You are playing tennis on a 2D field with paddles. Have fun with that."
What surprises me is that we have some games which are pure gameplay (either they're purely metaphors or puzzles, like, say, Fight Control or Bejeweled) and others where the narrative is a sort of addition to the gameplay, like adventure games or sandbox games. We have these two different types of games, almost completely different in concept, and yet we lump them together in the same category: "Video Games".
Most of the new control schemes of the past few years have been solely geared toward the former type of game. The purpose of motion controllers is really just for new or changed varieties of puzzle or action games - they don't further the storytelling capabilities of the medium at all.
That's a huge shame, I think - in my mind the most important and unique feature video games have over other mediums is the ability to tell stories in an interactive way.
MARK: Over the last couple of years the user interface has become king when it comes to video games, and that has affected the type of games being developed and consumed. Also, the advent of digital distribution and two dollar games on the iPhone has changed what we want and expect from gaming.
Narrative is generally what frames a game mechanic and gives it purpose - so when new user interfaces give developers fresh toys and concepts to play with, it makes sense that smaller, proof of concept games are developed. When developers really start to get to grips with what can be done, and things settle down a bit, that’s when new concepts and control metaphors can be translated into games with proper stories and narrative.
ROHAN: Traditionally that's been true, but I wonder how the new input paradigms we're seeing will do that.
I can think of a few ways that the Kinect's camera/depth and movement sensing might be able to affect games where your reaction to things might be able to directly change the story, but we're a ways off that being viable, I suspect.
Imagine some kind of stealth horror/survival game where the act of moving too much when sneaking up to an opponent - or perhaps the act of squealing in shock at something - might alert them to your presence. We've already seen something like this in Manhunt on PS2 - you could yell into the microphone on your headset to lure a guard toward you.
Of course, that isn't really all about story - perhaps we'd need something with human interaction as a primary gameplay concept like L.A. Noire to be able to do that - but the kind of facial sensing that'd be required to integrate that with a Kinect seems a ways off still.
I'm having trouble imagining just how motion tools like the Wiimote could potentially help gameplay in hugely story-driven games, either. These control schemes open up whole new avenues of gameplay types - from gesture-based puzzles to unique game concepts that only direct contact with your fingers and hands can offer - but what about more narratively driven games?
I guess my question is this: does waggling a stick - even with serious precision - really offer any help in telling a story interactively?
What do you guys think? Do new controllers have the potential to transform game design, or change the way stories are told in video games? Let us know in the comments below.