Friday, November 12, 2010

Kinect Review: Part 2: "To The Core"

Kinect is a motion sensor designed by Microsoft that is compatible with the Xbox 360. It promises to reinvent the medium of video games by allowing players to control their on-screen avatars without the need of a controller. The concept is simple: you are the controller. A player stands in front of the sensor and performs a series of simple movements; jumps, ducks, flails arms etc and the character in the game mimics these gestures. The effectiveness of the system is dependent upon the software (the game) and how many points of reference on the human body the game itself is aware of. A game like Kinect Adventures which comes packaged with the sensor only picks up the most basic movements and the most dominant parts of the body. Head. Hands. Legs. A game like Dance Central, however, is cognizant of the entire body and the subtleties of various movements.

There is much skepticism and even disdain directed at Kinect. Some of the skepticism is purely technical, a healthy disbelief in the functionality of the system. The disdain comes from seasoned gamers or the "hardcore" or the "core" gaming elite who recognize Kinect for what it is, a concerted effort to bring a casual audience to the Xbox 360. Nintendo and it's wand has dominated the casual audience for a while now, and Kinect is clearly Microsoft's take on the motion control concept and their way to tap into a market that has alluded them up until now. To someone like myself who loves the mature and intelligent video games one finds on Xbox, someone who loves shooters and RPGs and competitive online play, Kinect represents a threat to serious gaming. It also represents an insult. I recognize what you're doing, Microsoft, we say and I'm not falling for it. Give me Black Ops. I'm not eight years old.

I want to demonstrate how both the skepticism and disdain for Kinect that comes from the "core" gaming audience is not only hypocritical, but, very simply, wrong.

Before you read further, know that I consider myself a "core" gamer. I do not care for "casual" games typically as they are almost always directed at a nonexistent intellect. I play Halo: Reach almost every night and have played Halo competitively for nearly five years. I'm just getting into Black Ops, which is fantastic, as well as the other Call of Duty games, and my next games will likely be Dead Space 2, Gears of War 2, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and Batman: Arkham City. I have not owned a Wii, nor will I ever. I have had fun playing it on occasion, but it is almost entirely devoid of the kind of intellectual, artistic experiences one can find on the PS3 and Xbox 360.

Casual games and casual consoles are almost always meant, very simply, to make money. One can praise the Wii for being revolutionary, but, in my eyes, all the worth of its innovation becomes moot when considering the library of games it offers, and the endless sea of money-making peripherals. If an iPod cut your thumb every time you turned up the volume or selected a new track, would you want to praise its touch-sensitive technology? For me, that's the Wii. Little cuts to the thumb, and punches to the gut, thanks to its spotty control mechanics and its terrible game selection. There is another aspect to the Wii I find particularly insulting and that is its growing predilection for nostalgia. Nintendo lures not only the casual audience into its deceptive embrace, it now manages to lure those "core" gamers who rail against the casual market, by offering them up new incarnations of the games they grew up on. "New" Mario, Super Smash Brothers, Resident Evil 4, and now GoldenEye.

And this brings me to the issue of hypocrisy among the "core" audience that refuses to acknowledge Kinect. Almost all of those core gamers who bleed their eyes out in front of Black Ops have a Wii seated right next to their PS3 or Xbox. They will make fun of the Wii because they are aware of its purpose, but they simply will not be able to control their love of nostalgia. They will buy every version of their favorite games such as GoldenEye, despite not needing said experience to happen ever again. But Kinect...well Kinect is stupid. Kinect is for kids. Kinect is just about money.

The hypocrisy of refusing to experience Kinect because it's meant for the casual audience while partaking in the nostalgic experiences the premiere casual console offers, is very clear, but there is another layer of incorrect thinking to this line of thought which leads the core, elitist audience to a fundamental error. Ironically, the core audience is refusing to experience something they have longed for their entire lives.

Ignoring the marketing campaign directed at family fun and children, smiling people, and cartoony avatars, there is an aspect to Kinect unrelated to the actual software itself that directly appeals to the core gaming audience.

Sorry to generalize, but chances are that if you are among the gaming elite, you, at the very least, tend to be aware of the science-fiction genre, Star Wars, Star Trek, or you tend to be unabashed fanboys of such things. Even if you hate these franchises and have never really been impressed by the sci-fi genre, you most likely have fantasized about living in a world where you could tell a computer what to do or that you could cycle through holographic menus with your fingertips not unlike Tom Cruise in Minority Report.

Kinect gives you this experience.

This is the irony. These core gamers obsessed with their worlds of blood and battle and experience points, who adore Jean Luc and his futuristic toys, who long to live in a world where their technology is just as advanced and responsive and personalized, who refuse to experience Kinect because it's childish, are actually shutting out an experience meant for them, an experience that offers them the futuristic world they've always craved.

Once a player plugs Kinect into their Xbox and goes through the Kinect ID process, all they need to do is stand in front of the sensor, wave, and then the system will recognize their face and sign the player into their profile. This gesture takes a gamer to the Kinect Hub, a series of menus not unlike the dashboard. It is separate from the Dashboard, making Kinect function like a console within a console. I like this, because it in no way interferes with what the "serious gamer" wants to do. It simply accentuates it.

In the Kinect Hub, players can hold their hand before the screen and cycle through the panes presented, select applications like ESPN or Zune. The more enjoyable way to navigate this menu is by your voice, however. At any point I can say, "Xbox" and then a list of options will come up. The rule is simple: if you see it, you can say it, and the Xbox will recognize your command. If there is a lot of ambient noise or if the volume on the television is loud during a video it may not be able to hear you. But I have rarely encountered a scenario where the Kinect did not recognize my command, even when speaking softly. I can say "Play disc" and the disc in the tray will start to play. "Pause". "Rewind". "Play". "Kinect Hub". All of these commands and several others elicit the appropriate response from the technology. This may sound mundane on the page, but I cannot emphasize enough how enjoyable it is to play with the system in this way. I went to my kitchen and as I was walking I said, "Xbox...pause" and the video paused as I got a drink. On my way back I told it to play and it obeyed. You truly feel like you're in the future and thus far, this is my favorite aspect to the technology. What's interesting is that the impressiveness of this functionality wears off after a few days. You simply become used to it. You casually talk to your Xbox and it obeys. You become one of the characters in said sci-fi stories that nonchalantly have a conversation with their computer.

It is simply good technology. And, unlike the Wii, it is truly revolutionary. In Kinect we see the future of all interactive technology. To miss out on it would be like refusing to watch a "talkie", refusing to turn on a light, refusing to listen to a CD, or refusing to talk on a cell phone. You will miss the first significant step into the sci-fi worlds we have only previously dreamed of experiencing.

And, above all, it's just fun. Fun is something the "core" audience simply doesn't care about anymore. The blowhards at IGN and their legions of followers, the jaded and lifeless gamers that trade in their cartridges and discs at their local Gamestop to get their next digital hit, have lost sight of what this medium is actually supposed to be about.

Fun.

So many gamers don't actually enjoy video games any more. They play to accrue experience, to be able to talk with their friends about a shared experience, to beat opponents, and to forget about their real lives. This is understandable but the fundamental need to experience a childlike joy and wonder has been lost, traded for the non-innocent and overly critical world of "hardcore gaming". There are quips and witticism about every game that fails, undo praise to franchises that succeed only due to their name, and scores are assigned, reducing opinion, thought, and idea to a simple numeric value, something that saps the life out of these artistic and interactive experiences.

It is as if the core audience doesn't want to have fun. If people are smiling and jumping up and down and if something isn't hyper realistic and dripping in blood, they are disinterested and dissatisfied and formulate their unjustified opinions and disdain on nothing but air. This is a shame because they will miss out on an experience that is so universal that it appeals to all audiences, both core and casual. This is the brilliance of Kinect one will not find anywhere else. It appeals to your Grandma and your eight year old cousin, but the technology is so brilliant and tangible that it will appeal to you as well. And, unlike the Wii and most casual games, the technology and the software is intellectual. You have to think and you have to move on your feet in order to play a Kinect game. It's not the deliberative intellectualism one finds in an RTS or a lengthy RPG. It's more akin to the intelligence and activeness required in an actual sport or athletic activity.

The simple act of seeing your avatar move as you move reignites the childish joy one felt the first time they pressed A to make Mario jump. I firmly believe that you simply must not have a soul if you don't smile as you play River Rush or Rally Ball, or see anyone do a little dance and their avatar do the same dance. There is something magical in this experience that turns everyone into an laughing child. It is unavoidable and wonderful. Kinect reminds us of the days when we wanted to play video games with another person in the same room. It makes watching people play video games fun again and it inspires us to stand up, in the same space, work together, and laugh together. It tears down the layers of social etiquette and self-awareness we build up during the course of our daily lives.

Thanks to the file-share system in Kinect Adventures which allows you to share the photos taken during games with your friend, and the built in mic in the sensor which allows voice-chat without the need of a headset, the sense of distance between you and your online teammate is not so noticeable anymore. Watching your avatars interact in the middle of a game also strengthens your sense of connection. Video Chat works well also, with only a minor delay, and allows your online pal to be more than a disembodied voice in your ear. You can have a conversation with one another as if you're in the same living room.

If it were buggy and did not work, the magic would quickly fade away. I would not be so quick to praise Kinect if it did not work. My critical mind would win. But it does work and it works surprisingly well. There are occasional blips and a game like Kinect Adventures will not recognize certain things you do, but it doesn't have to. It's so much fun and the games themselves varied enough and actually demanding of one's skill, that a little moment of "lost translation" will go unnoticed.

Only the most cynical and jaded gamer will ignore the joy this console immediately evokes. Kinect succeeds where any other motion control technology will fail because there is no barrier between you and the game beyond the television. It reminds us of our childhood by making us jump up and down and behave happily and unselfconsciously, so it succeeds in the way of nostalgia. It sneakily gets us off the couch and moving, and it brings people together (a concept we Xbox Live gold members who sit in dimly lit rooms in our underwear in beanbag chairs sipping Coke as we kill each other in Black Ops believe refers simply to our ability to join a party and talk to each other through a headset), and it does revolutionize gaming.

Prior to experiencing Kinect I never thought that it would actually appeal to the core gamer in me. I thought it would, at best, provide a little distraction and maybe a few laughs. But, when I play, I find myself taking it seriously, strategizing, using my body as I would use the controller. I realized today that River Rush, one of the Kinect Adventures, is a combination race/platforming game. I had previously not actually considered its gaming influences or how it related to my gaming life. I realized, while timing my jumps from cloud to cloud and ledge to ledge as my raft hurtled downstream, that I was Mario in this situation. I was the Prince of Persia. I was Tim of Braid. While this is not a traditional platformer and only a mere microcosm of what this technology has to offer, I realized that I wanted to collect those coins and hit a good jump just as much as I want to earn that kill and that XP in Black Ops. You will find yourself anxiously and vigorously trying to succeed so long as you keep an open mind. We gamers love seeing flashing corns and rising experience bars. We have a "gamer lexicon" ingrained in us and Kinect recognizes this. If we see a coin or an orb, we yearn to have it. What Kinect permits is for us to reach up and grab it in a new way.

So far I have only played Kinect Adventures and Dance Central. Adventures is a fun compilation that will quickly get old. But it's always fun to do a quick River Rush or Rally Ball and the gauntlet is a legitimate workout. This is what I love about Kinect. It forces me to move. It forces me to literally play a video game. This is a good thing and it's an interesting new way to play the medium I adore. There's a level of tangibility to the experience and there are real-world results thanks to the experience one simply cannot find in traditional games. I actually feel better because I have played Kinect Adventures and Dance Central almost every night since release and done situps and pushups during load screens. It tricks me into working out. It's so much better than the gym because it's actually fun. I can earn achievements, score higher points, play with my friends and family, live out a fantasy, and actually enjoy myself as opposed to enduring the sterile drudgery of a gym.

In the future I would like to see Kinect function with the dashboard so there is uniformity to the experience. It does not work with essential applications like Netflix and this is a bit of a disappointment. Microsoft likely did this on purpose so as to extend the life of the system by gradually making it applicable to other parts of the dashboard. All Microsoft needs to do is keep making games and fund artists who will think of using this technology in new, fantastic ways that marry traditional gaming with this new format.

Kinect in no way destroys serious gaming. It simply offers a totally new and innovative way to interact with the medium you love. It is so much fun to head over to the Kinect Hub and play one of these games and get moving for about 30 minutes and actually be happy, and then settle on down to a game of Halo or Black Ops. It works the body, the mind, and provides a more complete emotional experience of video games.

You will find joy here. You will find a challenge. You will find the future.

Kinect is a welcome addition to the Xbox that makes the system feel more complete, rather than fractured between casual and core, and it will in no way deter the core audience from having the experience they desire, which makes their ire all the more misguided.

The first time I saw my avatar move along with me, a huge smile came on my face, and I felt that sense of revelation which has punctuated a variety of great gaming moments in my life. I wish you the same experience.

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