Microsoft have a problem. And it is one that has been laid bare for all to see for a while now, but unable to bring themselves to admit to – that the Kinect, the once darling device that promised the moon, has been exposed as a mere pretender. Where can we feasibly go when we know the engine isn’t working?
To start with, I must quote Destructoid from their Fable: The Journey review;
“The fatal flaw of Kinect games is that they are built on a foundation of lies.
You are the controller — except most games control much of the action themselves to make up for the lack of input. It’s more immersive — except the waving of your arms at nothing just makes you feel incredibly self-conscious and alienated. It’s intuitive — except the lack of tactile feedback and inherent imprecision of the input makes it far more unwieldy than button-based games. It’s always better with Kinect — except it never, ever is.”
The Kinect was once the darling of the market; a response to the Nintendo Wii, and the rise of motion control gaming. It sold in volumes that surprised us all, not least Penny Arcade who seemed to concede that they knew nothing if this could be so successful. Except, as it turns out, they may not have been wrong at all. The Kinect wasn’t just sold as a device – it was sold to us as a concept, as an idea and as something to ditz about with and enjoy. We watched as programmers tinkered with software for it that promised the stars and wooed us with the kind of potential that seemed to befit its lofty ambitions. It was the future – a future where we were the controller, where we were directly interacting with the game world.
Sad to say, that reality never really emerged.
For you see, the Kinect has two sides to its tarnished self. There is the side we saw in the Dance Central games and in various technical demonstrations; games and ideas that were designed to be novelty in their concept and utilise the actual strengths of the hardware itself. These games have been successful because they knew the Kinect was good for what they were aiming for – motion tracking rather than motion control. By keeping the ambitions simple, the presentation could be as wild and manic as the law allowed – see Child of Eden. And they were good.
The second side is the one most actual gamers have been exposed to – the Kinect as a controller, rather than as a gateway. It’s when the Kinect has been pushed as the control mechanism that things have rarely ever gone its way.
Fable: The Journey is merely another in a long line of attempts at trying to push the Kinect towards a more traditional gaming crowd; the crowd that has stuck doggedly with controllers, keyboards and mice. These people like and expect games to respond to their actions and their commands in the same way you’d expect a feather to react by firing a gust of air at it. Cause and effect. You push a button, something happens. You push another button, something else happens. This is not as complex as many make it out to be, and therein lies the first problem the Kinect has come across in its time; it’s a case of trying to over-simplify something that isn’t really that complicated to begin with. You push up on a joystick, a character moves. Logical, sensible and instinctive. You lean forwards on a Kinect game and something moves forwards, rather than leaning. It doesn’t quite fit in with your mind. You aren’t moving, or pushing up on something, so why does this game suddenly interpret it as a command to move? Especially if you don’t want it to and you are leaning to get something or pick up a controller or a remote. Oh whoops, we thought you wanted to move! My bad, you died but hey! Now you get to do this all over again! Exciting, isn’t it? No wait, don’t turn me off we can still have fun togethe–.
When it has come to the more core games, the Kinect has been dogged in its determination to at least try and pull it off. We’ve seen Rise of Nightmares – a horror brawler game which never seemed to control very well, and was pretty poorly executed in other ways. And of course, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armour – a game that realised it needed a controller as well as the Kinect and still managed to make a complete hash out of the whole thing.
When the Kinect offered an extra for a game, such as Mass Effect 3, the end result was still a bit on the dodgy side – the voice commands sound good in theory, but when you’re ordering people around and have to repeat yourself, it gets a little tired. “Garrus, grenade.” “Garus, GRENADE.” Eventually, you start talking in the most dense and most insultingly Rain Man-esque way, “Garr-usss-gru-nay-duh”, emphasising every syllable to the point of lunacy. It just doesn’t quite cut it, and unless it is perfectly capable of reacting to your command, is a wasted object.
And that’s really the bottom line on the Kinect. For you see, I don’t think the Kinect is BAD. It’s not, because to tell you the truth, it has had some great concepts and ideas pushed for it. But its greatest hurdle and the one it has never really overcome is the idea of simplication; if you must over-simplify, the games absolutely HAVE to respond in the manner that the player expects. There is absolutely no margin for error – when you have stripped it all back that far, to the simple ideals of a gesture, it has to respond to that gesture in the correct manner. If it doesn’t, then it becomes a pointless exercise and the antithesis of what is intended – you haven’t simplified, you have complicated, and the line is so thin and fragile that it takes very little to snap it.
So too must we point out the fall and fall of the motion control world. A world even Nintendo has started to abandon, they who pushed Microsoft and Sony into this arena are now regaining the ground lost by offering a tactile touchscreen controller. And that is good – because there is no real margin for error with a touchscreen like that. It responds to your touch. Easy. Cause and effect. Sure, there will likely still be some Wii Remote games parading around for a short while but I think we all know and accept by this point that everything that looks interesting on the Wii-U does not utilise the Wii Remote. It will be a secondary thing for Wii Sports and a few select titles; a novelty, a specialty tool for the select games that have been proven to be a success with it.
The Playstation Move never really got anywhere and there was a good reason why the Move never really took off – for all its technical advancement on the Wii Remote, it was ultimately only ever doomed to repeat the same mundane tasks. Sony threw a lot of money into a digital movement reading system and exotic tracking but ultimately ended up pricing the device well out of peoples reach. It wasn’t a cheap pretender to the Wii Remote, it was much worse – it was an expensive pretender. When you could almost afford a Wii console by itself compared to two Moves and the other bits needed, it was doomed pretty much from conception. You can’t compete by making something more expensive – that is simple economics.
The Kinect enjoyed a surprising rush of sales based primarily on how different it was, how it was marketed and how it was perceived in the collective consciousness of the consumer hive-mind. But if we had been as aware as some were at the time, we would have seen this whole problem coming. The less something needs to do, the more something else needs to compensate. The Kinect has never really struck the balance between simplified and complicated; it has never really engineered itself out of its own inherent limitations. That is the killer, because progress is made on the back of wanting to overcome hurdles and fix what is broken. Not “That’ll do.” You can’t rest on your laurels when the world is changing around you. You can’t expect people to like you if you squat under their TV and don’t really work as they hoped you would. You can’t sell yourself on promise and potential and then never really deliver any of it.
None of this would have been a problem though if Microsoft had admitted early on that it wasn’t ever really going to do anything for the market that made the X-Box 360 what it is; the core gamer crowd, who wanted its games like Gears of War and Fable 2. But it made the cardinal mistake of promising to that demographic that the Kinect would cater to them; that they would make games for them. And they did – just really really bad games no-one would want to play anyway. To that demographic, that’s worse than not trying at all. At least then you can call them out on it. In this case, all Microsoft and its partners have done is prove the sceptical demographic right – Kinect cannot do games they want. They have tried. And failed. It ensures that any subsequent attempt to make and market a game towards them is met with sound ridicule and contempt; “We don’t want it. You’ve never got it right. Why should we believe you now?” is the reply from consumers, and you do have to concede they have a point. After a while, promises can ring hollow. Like Peter Molyneux himself, after a while we stop caring. Promise us the world again all you want, that track has been playing for a few too many years now and needs changing.
So now the Kinect, like this generation, enjoys the sunset as another generation slips quietly to an end. And we are left to reflect upon this strange device, because Microsoft have insisted that it will not go away. Indeed, if indications are to be believed, it may even be built into their next console as standard. Will this mysterious second generation Kinect find itself capable of navigating the treacherous waters that sunk it the first time around, or will it run aground based on promises and potential it has no real ability to deliver on? We don’t know, but for now we do know the Kinect is a device that could never deliver what it promised; gaming for all is a fantastic concept, as is “You Are The Controller”, but the market is so diverse you can’t feasibly deliver something for everyone, and why make us the controller when there is already a controller there for us to use? Why simplify or complicate such a good thing? We touch, we feel, we push and stuff happens on screen. Our brains are wired to react. We squeal in joy. It’s natural. It’s how we have evolved, playing with toys and seeing things react as we touch and feel them. We have learned this from a young age. It is hard-wired into us.
This is why I fear the Kinect can never be more than a novelty. We are naturally built to enjoy tactile response and feedback. We push something, we see something react. It’s almost an evolutionary remnant but we enjoy it, because it is so clearly ingrained into us. There is a reason in Science Fiction we paint controller-less boards and psychic manipulation as enemies of progress; they just don’t quite fit in with the human need to touch, to feel, to push and pull and toggle and fiddle about. If we can’t touch, we can’t feel. If we can’t feel – are we human?
It seems like a very metaphysical way to end, but it is worth thinking about. The Kinect may yet one day offer us a controller-free gaming experience.
The tough question is – do we really want that?