Test subject: The Kids
By pure coincidence, on the day that I bring Kinect home, the kids (two daughters, 4 and 7) are also given a marble run set. Marble run, in case you don't know, consists of various twisty-turny bits of interconnectable track that you put together and roll marbles down. A bit like a luge rollercoaster for small glass balls. I was intrigued to see which of the new distractions - Kinect or the marble run - would end up being most popular with the kiddles.
Initially, they were more interested in marble run. We spend a lot of time assembling the track into numerous permutations, trying to figure ever more ingenious ways of making the most exciting layout with the pieces available. As play goes, it's pretty open-ended, hands-on, creative, constructive, educational and a lot of fun. Eventually, though, I suggest we take a break from marbles and try Kinectimals. They are instantly enthused when they get a look at the box and see the ickle fwuffy baby tiger on the front. They can't resist Skittles. Adorable little f*cker that he is.
Above: Kids wouldn't stand a chance if Skittles started selling drugs outside schools
At first it goes well. The girls 'ooooh' and 'aaaah' in all the right places during the intro movie. They choose a baby big cat, give it a name (Foo-Fee) and can't wait to get started. But when they get into the game they struggle. They point at things on the screen and keep inadvertently entering menus and pausing the game and don't have a fuggin' clue how to get back to where they were.
They also move around too much for Kinect. It's a device that prefers its players to stand in one spot - to be well disciplined in the art of playing Kinect in a way that Kinect finds agreeable. From the comfort of the sofa I get more and more agitated as I watch them fail over and over and over. I offer some navigational instructions. First calmly, with a calming intonation of parental support.
"You're doing great, but you need to stand back a little bit sweetheart."
"Never mind darling. Try again, but this time move to the right a tiny bit."
It's only a matter of time before I get proper wound up at their inability to comply accordingly and be good Kinect compatible children.
"NO! PUT YOUR LEFT ARM DOWN! YOUR LEFT ARM! YOUR OTHER ARM! PUT IT DOWN! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD CHILD KEEP YOUR LEFT ARM BY YOUR SIDE OTHERWISE THE GAME KEEPS PAUSING. HOW HARD CAN THAT BE! NO DADDY ISN'T CROSS WITH YOU. WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU CAN SEE THE VEINS IN MY HEAD TWITCHING!?"
Inevitably the kids get pretty pissed at dad barking orders at them. They get cross, frustrated and huffy. Just like dad. Soon they're sat down and watching while I'm throwing the imaginary ball and running frickin' Foo-Fee around Fiddlers Beach on my own.
We all decide that marble run is a much better family activity.
It's not completely the end of Kinectimals. We go back to it a couple of times, but it's just not for them. They love the animals, but they find it too fiddly and the activities aimless. They lose interest really quickly. The only two Kinect games that have held their attention and enthusiasm for more than 15 minutes are Joy Ride and, just like the missus, Dance Central.
Above: The kids playing Dance Central. This game is great for children because all they have to do is dance.
So it’s really hard for them to completely F*CK IT UP
That said, not once in the entire six weeks have they come to me and asked "Can we play Kinect please?" Marble run, on the other hand, has seen plenty of action. Do not underestimate the entertainment value of small glass balls and an s-bend.
Verdict: Uninterested in anything Kinect currently has to offer. Prefer playing with marbles.
Test subject: The Mum
My mum always used to be a firm believer that video games were a big pile of stupid. When I was a kid spending hours shut in my room playing games that came on cassette tapes she'd always be on my case. "You'll never get a job playing that rubbish" she used to tell me. Turns out she was wrong. But me getting a job in the industry as a professional word writer still wasn't enough to change her lowly opinion of games.
It wasn't until she discovered Wii Bowling that she was willing to admit that playing games could actually be an enjoyable way to spend an evening. It wasn't a complete embracing of the culture - she still doesn't know how to turn the Wii on and even if she did figure it out eventually (like the monkeys with the typewriters), she has not a single clue as to which channel the TV needs to be switched to. However, under careful supervision and with adequate guidance, she's always bang up for a bit of Wii Bowling.
Above: The gateway drug to other bowling games
With all that in mind, I knew Kinect Sports' bowling would be the best/only game to try with her. And, sure enough, she absolutely loved it.
She totally got it. Straight away. To her delight and amusement, she beat me in the first game we played. She loved that there were no controls. She loved that she didn't have to remember fundamentally important things like which buttons to press or which way round to hold the controller. Don't get me wrong, my mum's not stupid - far from it - but like a lot of 'older generationers' she is mentally incompatible with any form of technology invented after the 1970s. So, for my mum and people like her, removing the mind-boggling obstacle of controller operation is an absolute stroke of genius.
Above: Mum has just about figured out how one of these works
She also loved the video playbacks at the end of each game. And she found it hilarious that if she waved her arm, her avatar's arm would wave with her. My mum finds simple things like that inexplicably amusing. She spent a lot of time waving at the TV with a funny look of childlike wonderment on her face. It reminded me a lot of that bit in Forrest Gump when Forrest waves at Lieutenant Dan before diving into the water, leaving his shrimp boat to crash into the pier.
After playing and having an absolute great time, her exact words were "So this is going to replace the Wii then?" That, I imagine, is exactly the kind of thing that Microsoft wants people like my mum to think. She doesn't know who makes what. She just knows that as far as the bowling goes, Kinect has taken it to the next level.
Verdict: Thinks bowling kicks ass. Unaware that it plays other games that are not bowling.
Most non-gamers will get *some* enjoyment from playing Kinect. The exact amount of enjoyment ranges from 'a bit' to 'a lot' and is currently determined by how much they will like either a) bowling or b) dancing. Because in the six weeks since Kinect launched, it's become pretty obvious to me that those are the two most fun things that Microsoft's controller-free future has to offer. They're the only two reasons that my Kinect gets called into action anymore.
That said, it does both those activities way better than Wii and, consequently, Kinect has replaced Nintendo's console as the thing to switch on when I want to keep non-gamers entertained for an hour or so when we've run out of conversation and things have got a bit quiet and awkward.
For me, as a proper gamer that plays games that are proper, I'd be lying if I said I hadn't enjoyed Kinect's admittedly limited offering of fun experiences. Kinect Sports' bowling and Dance Central are both great. I've even played Kinectimals on my own on more than one occasion. It doesn't beat playing with a controller, but the potential for new, creative experiences is definitely there and I can't wait to see what the likes of Tetsuya Mizuguchi (Child of Eden) and Suda 51 (Codename D) do with Microsoft's big long shiny black thing.
Did you buy Kinect at launch? Are you still playing it? Is it going to be the centre-piece of your Christmas entertainment schedule? Tell us the answer to these things and any other Kinect-related talking points in the comments.
Dec 23, 2010