I’ll try any video game, because any video game might have the year’s best idea in it.
I’ve played a game called PixelJunk 4AM, and one idea in it is among the most marvellous I’ve encountered in 2011. It’s an idea that can spread to more games, an idea that feels right for the way we live now.
The idea is essentially that, when you play a video game, you’re a performer. And you deserve an audience.
If you’ve played a video game — really played it rather than just been pulled by the nose through it — you’ve had some fun. Maybe you’ve played a first-person shooter and toyed with the enemies, sneaking behind them or making them look stupid as you rush in and shoot them before they snap into position. If you played a racing game, maybe you hung back until the end and then zipped forward; or maybe you intentionally bounced your car off of a wall, exploiting the game’s weird physics, to boost ahead. If you’ve played Skyrim or any other deep role-playing game, I’m sure you’ve played it, testing what you can do or get away with.
You’ve often played alone. If the game was single-player, you definitely played alone. You were a maestro with no audience, a puppeteer or an actor with no paying customers. You were performing for a wall. You may have told people what you did over Twitter or hoped that some unlocked Achievements hinted at your style, but, no, you were on your stage alone.
PixelJunk 4AM, a game you may never play if you don’t own a PlayStation 3 or care about music games, is also a stage, but it’s a stage with a global audience. It might be wrong to call 4AM a game, if a game is supposed to have a score or a way to lose. Its values are different. The thing is more of a musical instrument. You pay for it. You download it. You plug a wand-shaped PlayStation Move controller to your PS3 and then you swing the Move around to orchestrate a live techno rave-style performance.
You can use the Move to snatch sound samples from thin air and pull them into a looping musical track. You can flick your wrist to play live one-off sounds that snap into the music. You can turn your wrist or reach to and from your TV to warp the sounds you’re triggering.
You play. You perform.
As I mentioned, you pay for this. But your audience does not.
The people who are making 4AM, the musician Baiyon and the game developers at Q Games, will allow any PlayStation owners to download a free 4AM viewer. The viewer won’t show images or video of the people who are playing 4AM, but it will pull in a live stream of any one of their performances, piping through the audio of the performance and displaying a visualisation of the music on their TV.
The non-paying audience will be able to cheer the 4AM player, sending back some sort of affirmative visual blip. The player will see some sort of icon of approval, possibly a smiley face, possibly some other way to signal that they’re playing quite well.
That’s the entire idea. One person is playful. Others watch and approve. The person playing gets to know that, and it encourages them to play some more.
Video game spectator modes are old. Musical games that spit back positive accolades from computer-controlled players are old, too. Even the act of getting affirmation for playing well is old (we call it a high score). But in 4AM we may get a pure test of the evolution of these ideas: I play for my fun and for your viewing pleasure. (I must note that even 4AM‘s execution isn’t brand-new. The gaming service OnLive, for example, also allows spectators to punch in a “cheer” or “jeer” while watching someone play. The 4AM idea is fresher for game consoles, where spectator modes are virtually non-existent.)
If we think of 4AM‘s expression of a success as a new version of the high score, then we can think of it as part of a long continuity of revised rewards. High scores are the oldest ways to reward a gamer. Unlocking new levels, revealing the end of a story… those are old rewards too.
A couple of years ago, a more unusual and more high-tech reward popped up in the PS3 game Demon’s Souls. In that game, players could leave helpful (or unhelpful) messages in the world of the primarily single-player game. Those messages would appear in other people’s games, warning them of danger or welcoming them to it. Players could rate the messages that others left in the world, and, if they gave yours a thumbs-up, then your character would get a health boost. That, I can attest from having played the game, was more rewarding than getting a score.
The idea of live feedback to live gameplay in 4AM descends from blogging and Twitter and Facebook and the many of the other ways we now have to turn our formerly private thoughts and actions into something that is shared and reacted to. Yes, those things may compel people to over-share, but I dare say we don’t share our video game-playing enough, certainly not live for the world to see.
The idea here is that the creativity of my interaction with a video game console can be interesting to other people.
The idea is that my goal in playing isn’t a number or an Achievement but is in earning the positive reaction to my analogue, unpredictable, non-scripted behaviour.
The idea is that I can play and that the way I play is something other people will enjoy, something other people will cheer. The idea is that, in an era when we’re all so connected, there’s no reason you can’t encourage me (or boo me) as I play through a game on my PlayStation 3, even if you’re halfway around the planet.
The idea is marvellous.
PixelJunk 4AM will be out this spring, downloadable for the PlayStation 3.