"Everything is amazing right now--and nobody's happy."
It's the year 2012--it's the future! There's a robot with a camcorder on Mars, and our phones get the internet! Cars drive themselves! Even video games have evolved almost beyond recognition--photorealistic graphics, downloadable content, online multiplayer, incredibly immersive experiences--and we who call ourselves "gamers" have more games to choose from than in any other time in history.
But in the words of comedian Louis C.K., "Everything is amazing right now--and nobody's happy." Everything we dreamed of when we were kids is now within arms reach, but it’s just not as cool as we expected.
What we expected: 3D has been around for a while in films, so at this point it would basically be perfect, right? Playing games in 3D would give players an unprecedented level of immersion, with things literally jumping out of our screens into our living rooms. 3D glasses would be cheap, comfortable and effective, and every game would support it--hell, maybe we wouldn't even need glasses at all!
What we got: 3D is supposed to make things more immersive, but in reality it simply puts another barrier between you and your games. Watching plasma bolts fly directly at our faces in the Halo Anniversary edition should instill us with the fear of the Covenant, but instead it just sort of makes us feel nauseous. It’s mainly because instead of things coming out of the screen, 3D usually just makes them look like they’re sitting inside of them. That’s just not what we expected or wanted. And let's be honest: You're only going to use those expensive 3D glasses a handful of times before you forget to charge them, and then just stop wearing them altogether. The 3DS is another story--some swear by its glasses-free 3D, but others swear it makes their eyes bleed. Either way you look at it, it’s not perfect, even if games like Super Mario 3D Land and a few others showed that it might, eventually, reach the heights we hoped it would.
What we expected: Motion controllers would make sports and action games feel more realistic than ever, transforming everyday controllers--in players' imaginations, at least--into whatever fantastical objects can be displayed on-screen. This would apply to everything from swords and shields to tennis rackets and steering wheels, and the battlefield/court/track would come alive as players' enthusiastic real-life actions translated directly into the actions of their avatars.
What we got: We were all pretty excited about the Wii--there's no shame in admitting that--but what we first saw six years wound up to be a lot of smoke and mirrors, and even the upgraded MotionPlus and PlayStation Move controllers haven't been enough to make up for it. Once everyone realized that you could play Wii Sports tennis by sitting on your butt and flicking your wrist, it was pretty much over for motion controls. And anyone who says they like playing Mario Kart Wii with that plastic wheel is a liar. It can work for swordplay--as in the case of Zelda: Skyward Sword--but those instances are unfortunately few and far between. Personally, we're glad that Nintendo is going in a different direction with the Wii U.
What we expected: What could be better than motion controllers? Easy! What if there were no controllers at all? If a complex array of cameras and sensors could detect the very movements of players' bodies, transforming us into the controllers? Gesture-based or controller-free motion controls would free up players' hands once and for all and allow them to interact directly with a game's world--no barriers, no middle-man hardware, just you, a screen, and a million digital faces waiting to be punched.
What we got: Kinect. The first time Microsoft introduced Kinect to the world (at E3 2009, when it was still called Project Natal), it was with a video that showed 1:1 movement tracking, in-game characters speaking players' names aloud, and a kid scanning in his actual skateboard to use in a game. Obviously, the device didn't quite deliver on all that. The main mechanics in Kinect Adventures are jumping and ducking in place, and most games that have tried to do anything more complicated with Kinect have bombed (see: Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor). Kinect excels at tracking large, easily discerned movements—expressive dance moves in Dance Central, simple hand motions in the trippy Child of Eden, and even dribbling a basketball in NBA Baller Beats. Those games are certainly a blast; they're just not what we were hoping for.
What we expected: Games would become like Youtube videos or Facebook photos: Log into your account, and you can access them from anywhere. Hard drive fried? 3DS stolen? No worries, just log back in and re-download all your games and saves. Progress would never again be lost, and the barriers of physical hardware--as well as physical borders between regions--would be eliminated. Plus, less physical packaging would mean lower game costs, and less harm to the environment.
What we got: Okay, so a lot of that has come true: The Xbox 360 uses cloud saves, most digital games can be transferred to new devices, downloadable titles are often discounted, and Sony is making some real strides with day one digital releases and bundling PS3 games with their Vita versions. But there’s an ugly side to this new digital age. Platforms like Steam and Xbox Live Arcade restrict game purchases to a single account and lock users into a content ecosystem that they'll likely never escape. Meanwhile, some well-intentioned PC DRM is getting ridiculous, making it impossible to play a single-player game offline. Digital games can sure be convenient, but we'd have preferred not to be treated like criminals to pay for that convenience.
What we expected: Gamers would rejoice and join hands, singing songs of their glorious triumphs and coexisting peacefully as a connected global community of like-minded and friendly competitors. There would be no lag, no one would ever quit out of a match before it finished, and everyone would play fair.
What we got: Needless to say, the rise of mainstream online gaming hasn't exactly gone over like that. It's virtually impossible not to fall victim to a few hateful slurs or otherwise immature remarks every time we play online. Often online gaming brings out the ugliest side of many gamers, with the rest of us racing to mute as many obnoxious players as possible before a match starts. On the plus side, at least publishers are giving players the tools to build their own clans and teams within games, which can help with weeding out the jerks. And even Nintendo seems to finally be catching up to the online revolution--it appears they might finally be dumping Friend Codes on the Wii U.
What we expected: By now, games--like everything else in day-to-day life--would be controlled almost entirely by voice. "Lights: dim; door: close; Xbox: on!" Such would be the mantra of our everyday routines. Any in-game function that previously required entering a menu or taking thumbs off the joysticks would be accomplished by simple voice commands, and even the most complicated games would carry them out with elegance and accuracy.
What we got: We still can’t turn our systems on with voice controls. We understand why this is the case, but it’s still a bummer. When we wake from our cheeto-comas we don't want to have to search around for the controller--the Xbox should turn on when we say so! And the games that do bother to include voice controls--Skyrim, Mass Effect 3--do it as a half-functional afterthought. When voice commands work, they're great (don't pretend you don't love shouting "Fus Ro Dah!" when no one's home), but when they don’t work it makes us feel like idiots shouting at a hunk of plastic. Surprisingly, it's actually non-game apps like Netflix that have benefitted the most from Kinect's voice recognition capability.
What we expected: The plot of the forgotten .Hack games, essentially. The final barriers to full gaming immersion would have been removed, and gamers would be inserted directly into virtual worlds by way of sleek headsets or even more direct means--if not quite at the level of The Matrix (who wants a USB jack in the back of the head?), then at least through devices that tap directly into one's senses.
What we got: Seventeen years ago, we got Nintendo's Virtual Boy, one of the most awesome failures ever conceived. Now, there are vibrating chairs and unreleased Vitality Sensors with no realistic applications. Even the most ambitious arcade games haven't made any real strides toward virtual reality. We expected better by now. The only thing that comes close is the Oculus Rift--the Kickstarter-funded, id-endorsed, head-encompassing display rig that looks like some kind of bulky mind-control contraption. And which, by all accounts, is awesome. Who knows? Maybe it really will happen one day.
What we expected: Physical interfaces would go the way of the Dodo when touch screen technology replaced keyboards and power buttons on everything from phones to fridges. Handheld games would reach new heights as portable systems from Nintendo, Sony, and even Apple eschewed the primitive A/B/L/R layout and gained--through the magic of touch screens--infinite arrays of digital buttons with unlimited potential, unprecedented customizability, and perfect accuracy.
What we got: Touch screens are how millions of people play games today, but the best examples of those controls are in titles with very simple controls. Sure, many iOS shooters play fine on an iPad, but on phones your thumbs can obscure two thirds of the screen. Nintendo proved that more complex touch-controlled DS games like Kirby: Canvas Curse and Picross 3D could be great, but have stepped back from those types of games on the 3DS. Only the larger, non-touch top screen is equipped for 3D, a clear sign the new handheld isn't as focused on touch. It's a shame, because touch controls have great potential, which we hope to see fulfilled on the Wii U.
Life improvement games
What we expected: In our digitally connected lives, everything would be a game. Games would teach us to cook, play the drums or do Kung-Fu; even dishwashing and homework would have point systems and leaderboards. Lacking in confidence? Try Oprah's new therapy game. Addicted to drugs? Dr. Drew can get you clean with 12 challenging steps--across 12 engrossing levels.
What we got:Deepak Chopra's Leela may be an interesting experiment, but let's be honest: it's not focusing anyone's Chi. And while it might be fun to play, Dance Central doesn't make players better dancers, and likewise for Guitar Hero, Cooking Mama, and Def Jam Rapstar. They're fun, but that's all they are. The exceptions to this may be the exercise games, and though evidence there is anecdotal, it's not difficult to believe that constantly being mocked by your overweight Mii in Wii Fit is one hell of a motivator. Oh, and we did get pretty good at drums from all that Rock Band.
What we expected: Game A.I. would be so advanced that computer-controlled enemies would be indistinguishable from human opponents. Games would anticipate players' movements and actions, and NPCs would react with intelligence and forethought. They'd even talk back, and conversations between players and their games would evolve organically, allowing for ever-changing game worlds in which no two players' experiences are alike.
What we got: A talking man-fish and a disillusioned balding man with a pet little boy. And we didn't even really get that last one. Sure, there's no denying Seaman was fun for what it was (though to this day we're not really sure how to define that). But Peter Molyneux's Milo demo wound up as so many others of the famed developer's projects over the years: only a tease. The thing was never released, and so we'll never know just how sentient that little kid really was. Now the best that can be hoped for is a Seaman remake on 3DS. Fins crossed?
The future is now
Now that you realize you're currently living in the future of gaming, how do you feel? Happy with what you've got, or wishing it was like you dreamed it would be? Answer in the poll below, and then feel free to explain yourself further in the comments.
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