Today Microsoft announced the Xbox One, their third console. If I’m going to be honest I missed the first hour or so of the announcement but based on my Twitter feed and my knowledge of how tech companies announce things I can reasonably be sure what was said.
“This immersive experience will feature more immersive emotion thanks to the immersive technology of a few thousand extra polygons that enable deeper emotions.”
The word emotion is nearly as common as “experience”, “immersion” and “by gamers, for gamers” at these kinds of events. Which emotion is always unstated, but I presume they mean it might make you cry. When I think of “emotional” moments in games I think of Episode 5 of The Walking Dead, say, or the prayers for Amaterasu at the end of Okami – games that would never, ever be shown at an event like this thanks to being “creative” and “good”.
Those asking, “You know, I like watching TV on this TV attached to my Xbox, but how can I add useless, distracting information to the side of the screen?” – well, feel lucky, for Microsoft has answered your prayers. You can now watch TV, not on your TV, but on a Xbox whose channels you can control with your voice.
Indeed, Microsoft is going to produce their own TV series. Is it Halo? Of course. Every Microsoft event must mention Halo. Recall when Microsoft announced a “new trilogy” – and it was a trilogy of new Halo games? Steven Spielberg will be producing a series based on the immersive storytelling of Halo.
The Halo television series was compared to Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones for its ability to create a world. Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones are also famous for their complex, emotionally conflicted characters. Halo’s lead is a non-entity, a faceless blank slate for the gamer to project themselves on – hardly a compelling hero, unless they switch the focus to others.
Anyway, on to the games that are games and not TV shows based on games.
Electronic Arts was introduced with a typically hyperbolic intro about how they will bring intelligent, dynamic, original games rich with emotion to the Xbox One.
The game they were talking about?
At the Playstation 4 press conference, they introduced the “original experiences” of the PS4 with footage of the latest Killzone. This reveal tops that moment in absurdity because at least then it was knowingly bullshit (additionally, Sony showed actual original experiences with Jonathan Blow’s game and that one platformer). Here, EA fully commits to the idea that Madden, FIFA, UFC and NBA Live are the height of storytelling. You will now hear the roar of the crowd, and that will finally make Madden realistic, unlike those shitty Maddens of the past.
That’s a strange theme to these conferences: games from the last generation are worthless compared to the technological advances of the next generation. Call of Duty: Ghosts models the dirt under the fingernails of your character, a detail that apparently advances the game’s emotion and detail beyond what Modern Warfare 3 was capable of. Developers discuss tiny technical advances that supposedly create deeper emotion than was possible before – and only reveal how little they understand emotions or what creates them. Animated films are not “realistic” and yet they can create deeper emotion than many live action films.
Electronic Arts claimed their new football partnership will transform not just the Xbox, but the sport itself. You can now discuss the game with friends and play Fantasy Football on your Xbox – so the big innovation here is that the Xbox One lets you do what one can already do on the internet, but now on one screen instead of two. The Microsoft partnership with coaches and players was mentioned off-hand, and I possibly imagined it.
Forza 5 was introduced with a spiel about memorable experiences in gaming: bringing an Xbox to a friend’s house to play Halo, unlocking your first achievement and the first time you painted a Forza car & traded it. Here I might have to admit a generational gap – as a gamer who started gaming in the primitive days of the late 90s, I never experienced any particular joy over my first achievement, and am generally ambivalent towards their existence. Yet somehow, despite my lack of knowledge, I don’t think the first time you traded a car in Forza was a formative experience for many gamers. The cars look nice though.
The one original game shown was…it’s hard to describe. Quantum Break is inspired by scripted television, and it may very well be a television show, since most of the trailer was live-action. Even a pre-rendered trailer usually gives some hints about how a game is played, yet I’m just at a loss here. Are FMV games coming back? Are we due for an immersive new take on Night Trap?
We closed out with Activision’s latest Call of Duty game, Ghosts.
Call of Duty’s developers, Infinity Ward, have tried to innovate by not following up Modern Warfare 3 with Modern Warfare 4 but instead a different identical game where you shoot a lot of people. Call of Duty: Ghosts was first teased in a live action trailer featuring different masked warriors throughout time, an impressive trailer that nonetheless just makes you want to play as one of the more interesting historical soldiers and not the dull modern people with guns. Give me a game about samurai or tribal hunters with spears and I’d jump onboard. Another Call of Duty? Not so much.
Call of Duty: Ghosts is the latest first person shooter to bring in a big Hollywood screenwriter to gussy up the cutscenes between gunfights. This time the writer is Stephen Gaghan, who wrote Traffic and Syriana. His story promises deeper immersion, emotional immersion, emotional technology, immersive immersion…
Call of Duty: Ghosts features leaning, sliding, and a dog teammate as the extent of its new, innovative mechanics. And the developers trash the graphics of their predecessor – while Modern Warfare 3’s arms were “beautiful at the time” (a sentence never before uttered by humanity), the new game’s arms show dirt under your nails. Dirt! Under your nails! One can also customize your character’s appearance, though sadly you can only choose helmets and not hats. Why, Infinity Ward?
Call of Duty: Ghosts pushes the idea of emotional connection with the game’s characters via a melancholic trailer. Once again, a game that will ultimately turn out to be just another first person shooter is sold on a “emotional” trailer.
Remember Gears of War, whose ads were set to Gary Jules’ “Mad World”? Or more famously, Dead Island’s trailer, a short film set to sad music that inexplicably was universally adored as an example of the newfound storytelling prowess of games, even though it showed nothing of the game (which was nothing special)? Now Call of Duty: Ghosts joins the tradition with a sad trailer of downbeat narration, promising a character-based drama in a apocalyptic world when we all know it’s just going to be a parade of new locales to shoot foreigners in.
Ultimately none of this matters because the console war narrative is unchanging, even in what’s probably close to the last days of gaming consoles. There will be posturing, rabid speculation, fanboy wars over what console they’ve never touched is the best. Already there’s gloating over the increase in Sony’s stock price after the Microsoft press conference (8%) and childish glee in the impending ‘death’ of Nintendo’s Wii U. Maybe it was a good idea to miss the first hour, to skip the ages of social features no one will use and technical specifications that sound impressive but mean nothing. The Xbox One press conference is devoid of substance and yet will be a focus of obsession.
On the plus side, the excellent Xbox 360 controller has hardly been changed beyond fixing the d-pad. So there’s that.