Walking to work the other day, I had occasion to observe a woman parking her car. All those at the back who just looked at each other with THAT look, you know, the one that says “are we in the right place?” or “has he finally lost it?”, can calm down. You see, watching this otherwise harmless action got me to one of my ‘thinks’. My thinks are legendary (in my own lunchtime), leaps of (il)logic taking me from random idea to random idea with all the alacrity of a stumbling drunk attempting to mount a camel to ride home having never seen a camel before. One moment I will be thinking about trees, and then I will go to squirrels, and squirrels will lead me to reminisce about my property one lecturer at university and that will get me on to the ludicrousness of words, and then whether English people speaking a foreign language conceptualise what they’re trying to say in English and translate in their heads as they go along and so on and so on ad nauseum.
Wake up at the back there, I’ve nearly reached the beginning of a point. Watching that woman park that car, which was a new one with funky ‘parking sensors’ made me start to ruminate, apropos of nothing at all, on the advancement of technology, and the double edged progress that it brings. On the one hand for example, those little beeping sensors on that bumper make parking the car easier (in theory at least). On the other hand, as more and more cars have these bloody ingenious little beepers, we are slowly breeding a generation of drivers who have surely lost out on some skills of parking (like knowing how big one’s car is, and spatial awareness) that earlier generations of drivers must surely have had, they having learned to drive in ‘beep free’ cars with bumpers that simply ‘bumped’.
And this brings me (somewhat ramblingly, I’ll admit) to games. I’ve been a gamer long enough to remember a time when dying mid level meant starting all over again. When memorising the layout of a platformer’s map was crucial to avoid the brain melting infuriation of doing the whole bloody thing far too many times. When progress in any run and gun (the natural grandfather of the modern day FPS) was bought at the cost of frayed nerves, super quick reflexes and practice practice practice. Nowadays though, gaming has moved on. It has embraced a ‘wider audience’. Think about it for a moment, when was the last time that you played a current gen game with no ‘save points’? My guess would be that unless you are a hard core retro gamer, you’d be hard pushed to think of an example. Megaman, Metal Slug et al are mentioned in a certain ‘tone’ these days, where people emphasise their incredible difficulty and their ‘niche appeal’ in the modern market. But that niche appeal is only due to the fact that as gamers we have generally grown soft. Even the most hardened MW2 (you knew I’d get it in somewhere) player with all of his l33t skills would I suspect struggle to one credit Megaman. The bar has been lowered generally, to the point where the average FPS or platformer can be finished in perhaps a half dozen gaming sessions at most. RPGs continue to weigh in at 30 – 100 hours, and are generally viewed (even in gaming circles) as the preserve of a ‘special’ kind of gamer. Yet it wasn’t THAT long ago that a game would conceivably last for weeks or months, and NOT just because games were ridiculously expensive – they were (by modern standards) ridiculously hard too.
Now, I won’t complain too much of course, its great for a self confessed ‘average gamer’ such as myself to know that most games in my favoured genre (FPS) can be finished by even someone with my n00b abilities. On the other hand one can’t help but feel that the industry has somewhat ‘dumbed down’ as time went on. However, these days it’s not just games (and this is where my real link to that blessed lady parking her car comes in); back in the old days it was just you and a controller, usually consisting of either a joystick or D pad together with however many fire/punch/kick buttons were required. As time went on, more buttons were added to cope with more sophisticated games that required more sophisticated commands. Gamers would need serious skills to compete as games became more complex and challenging – my favourite ever magazine quote was from the lovely Linda Barker writing for Your Sinclair in a review of F16 Fighting Falcon for the humble speccy. Linda (I’m sure she won’t mind me calling her Linda) made comment that it was best to play the game with a joystick as playing with the keyboard only would require “28 fingers and the memory of a clever elephant”. Ok, so maybe that was extreme, but the point was that to succeed, you had to practice, hone your abilities and develop serious muscle memory and twitch reflexes. Now though, we stand on the threshold of ‘progress’ in videogaming. Don’t get me wrong, progress is fab – I love the fact that I can talk to people all over the world through the voodoo that is an Xbox 360 hooked up to a decent broadband connection but, like the parking sensors, new control methods are rearing their heads left right and centre to help make gaming easier. It started with eyetoy – an inoffensive little toy that helped to get people who couldn’t find their way around a dualshock 2 to feel included (or in reality make an arse of themselves) by allowing them to play by the simple expedient of waving their arms about. Nintendo clearly saw this idea and ran with it, giving us the flawed genius that is the Wii. Suddenly the big N found themselves where Sony had been trying to get for years – attracting ‘grown ups’, girls and grandparents and other such non-traditional gaming demographics to gaming and they didn’t even have to make it pink!
Unfortunately, the attach rate (number of games versus number of consoles sold) for the Wii is not great, but then again console manufacturers don’t care about that – after all once they’ve sold you their big shiny box of tricks it makes no difference to them if you buy one game or fifty. Therefore, what works for Ninty is now being tried by all. Microsoft have natal and Sony have their ridiculous bloody wand. All demonstrations of these that I have seen so far have shown ridiculously simple games that involve various ways of – yes you guessed it – flailing your bloody arms about the place in order to achieve very little (other than looking like a fool).
I can’t help but think that eventually all console manufacturers and game developers are going to go where the money is , and all games will be of the ‘flailing arm’ variety. Vital skills – manual dexterity, hand eye co-ordination and the memorisation of complex patterns and button sequences – will all be lost in favour of being really good at waving your arms about in front of a motion sensor/camera. Even now, schmups and RPGs are pretty much marginalised compared to stuff like Wii Fit and Wii Sports, and I wonder just how much longer ‘traditional’ gaming can survive. The Wii is a great machine, and some very innovative games have appeared on it, but importantly most of them have crashed and burned – No More Heroes and Madworld being just two examples of games that were of a traditional ‘type’ trying to embrace the innovation offered by the Wii’s unique control opportunities, and being largely ignored by the masses. The ‘hardcore’ gamer is already a marginalised figure, viewed as an anachronism by the majority of the ‘new’ gaming fraternity – how long can madskillz last in an industry that no longer requires them? How long before the dexterity and hand-eye co-ordination of the top tier of gamers is lost through lack of use? In years to come, just like those kids learning to drive now, how will gamers cope without their parking sensors? Will retro gaming die out completely in the new ‘arsey arm waving’ gaming era? I wouldn’t like to guess, but right now I’m just going to go and hug my Megadrive, while it’s still there.
Last five articles by Greg
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