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Can Motion Control Ever Be More Than A Gimmick?

Matt Gardner
Kinect, Motion Control, Nintendo Wii, Playstation Move, PS3, Wii MotionPlus, Xbox 360

Can Motion Control Ever Be More Than A Gimmick?

You've kind of got to feel a little bit sorry for motion control. Since the honeymoon period with the Wii faltered, once Microsoft and Sony announced that they too would be leaping on the bandwagon, motion control has been akin to the little kid who is told that they'll never achieve anything great. The practical joker who flunks all of their exams and winds up trudging down to the Job Centre every two weeks even as they see their friends and peers soar as captains of industry and pillars of culture. Sure, motion control is fun, but it's not exactly going to expand your horizons, teach you anything, blow your mind, or push any cultural boundaries.

By making the actions required to perform in-game tasks bigger, by severely limiting the accuracy, consistency, and efficiency of decisive player action, motion control has moved us further away from the realisation of physical thoughts into virtual functions. Instead of being something to help move this industry forward, it has become the lowest denominator staple for mindlessly treading water.


Can Motion Control Ever Be More Than A Gimmick?

Then again, do we really need every single facet of this industry to be looking forward? Does motion control really need to be groundbreaking when it offers simple pleasures that can be enjoyed by anyone, even if they've never held a controller in their lives? Surely a medium that has helped to break down cultural walls must be considered progressive? Surely a platform that has linked grandmothers together with Shoreditch hipsters, seen would-be Disney princesses share something in common with George Romero fans, and had weight watchers, martial artists, and wannabe popstars delight in a communal hobby, surely this can only be a forward step?

You see the girls who indulge in a bit of Just Dance before they hit the town on a night out might not consider themselves gamers. In similar fashion, the gurning uncle popping off rounds in The Gunstringer might swear that he doesn't usually go in for this sort of stuff. Truth be told, my friends and I didn't care what was going on when the Wii first came out, we weren't concerned with terms like "hardcore" or "casual", only that we wanted one so we could play baseball in the lounge, and re-enact Wimbledon, complete with comedy grunts and Sharapova-esque shrieks.

Can Motion Control Ever Be More Than A Gimmick?

But it's never really gone beyond that. Like getting hammered in a club on a Friday night, motion control is bright, a little bit gaudy, expensive, and tiring. It's nice every once in a while, and rather a lot of fun, but it's not exactly fulfilling.

Perhaps this is why I found Datura so disappointing. Here was a game that had looked like it would try and use motion control (in this case the Playstation Move) to explore the immersive qualities of an experimental narrative. But immersion does not sit hugely well with motion control, particularly when it comes to subtlety. There is a constant sense of exasperation; a feeling of disappointment that will always kick in because the technology is not able to match our imagination.

Do you remember the first time you heard about Red Steel? Do you remember imagining a virtual representation of all those times spent pretending at being a ninja or a samurai with a long stick or an empty, cardboard kitchen roll tube? Do you remember the disappointment and the frustration that hit when you realised that lag free 1-to-1 motion control was something of a myth? With Kinect, we envisioned ourselves as Tom Cruise in Minority Report. A little trip to Gamescom quickly relieved me of that flight of fancy.

Can Motion Control Ever Be More Than A Gimmick?


But recognising the limitations of the current crop of motion control devices and embracing them is what has yielded the best results. It's not by accident that dance games, fitness titles, and casual sports compilations have proven popular. These are projects that are designed to suit large gestures, group play. The reason WarioWare; Smooth Moves is the best party game on the Wii is because it takes the fact that that mo-con makes you look like a prat, and places it front and centre.

Back in March, indie dev Douglas Wilson said that motion control was "the slapstick comedy of computer games. It's an excuse, or an alibi, for the players to look like a**holes and make everyone in the room laugh," he said. He went on to state that "all these technologies kind of suck", and that developers should "accept these limitations and embrace them, rather than trying to fight latency [for example]".

Of course, the counterpoint to that can be found in games like Zelda: Skyward Sword and Metroid Prime Trilogy. But were these games good because of motion control or in spite of it? Turning to Red Steel 2 and Child of Eden perhaps gives us better examples of promising traditional gaming experiences made unique through motion control in fine fashion, but those titles are few and far between.

Can Motion Control Ever Be More Than A Gimmick?

The sad fact is that motion control devices perhaps do their best work in a supporting role. The Playstation Move has been integrated quietly by Sony into a number of leading franchises to good, optional effect, creating reasons for replayability, offering new gameplay experiences through triple-AAA titles, extending the legacy of those titles and losing nothing in the process. Kinect has been smoothly integrated into the likes of Skyrim and Mass Effect 3, although mainly for its voice recognition, which arguably could have been done via headset too perhaps.

In this respect, I can't help but feel that Sony have done a better job - noting the limitations of their device and working within those confines. We're still waiting for a flagship title for the Move beyond Sports Champions (fingers crossed for Sorcery), but in the interim, it can add flavours to the likes of Killzone 3 and LittleBigPlanet. Microsoft have thrown money at Kinect, and it still survives on the novelty of full body motion capture, but they've started hamstringing their services in order to fit it in. The Metro update was primarily conducted to make everything Kinect compatible...and it's a fucking travesty. We'll save that particular rant for another time.

So can motion control ever be more than a gimmick? Current evidence would suggest not. For all of the bluster about the Wii, the fact was that very few of the games it spawned can really be called classics. I can't help but feel that we'll look back at the games that defined this generation, and few of them, with the possible exception of Wii Sports itself, which ushered in a new audience and a new approach to gaming, will stand out. Once the novelty wore off for this writer, my Wii sat there gathering dust. Indeed, the only reason it's been switched on in the last few months has little to do with its unique control scheme, but rather that it has become a home for excellent JRPGs.

Can Motion Control Ever Be More Than A Gimmick?

Crucially, when all is said and done, motion control just hasn't had the games to make it anything more than a fad. Developers are happy to pump out mini-game collections, dance and fitness titles, party collections. Publishers are happy to incorporate elements of the current devices into their titles. But it's no coincidence that Nintendo are looking at reverting back to a familiar console setup (albeit by also bringing dual screens to the lounge as well as on the road). Once you "get" motion control, once the novelty wears off, what's there to hold your attention?

Even so, we should thank motion control for the hilarity, for the foolishness, for making us look like buffoons, and giving us many a cracking night in. But it's about time that platform holders (Microsoft especially) stopped trying to ram it down our throats. Motion control offers up a limited, broken, clunky, and clumsy experience. It might never surprise or thrill me. But it helped me play virtual golf with my dad, it led to rounds of WarioWare that literally floored me with laughter, it's given this website a video that's been seen by tens of thousands, and it's helped me feel like a gunslinging badass.

Acknowledging all of that, it seems almost unfair to ask mo-con to blow my mind.

Add a comment2 comments
phil16  May. 14, 2012 at 13:28

Good article. My kinect is packed up in a box and since my PS3 died I haven't missed move. Would have preferred my money back to be honest.

hurrakan  May. 14, 2012 at 16:52

I play games to relax, not to exercise.

The ideal game would allow the player to play in the relaxed, traditional way (with a gamepad) AND/OR in a more "active" way using motion controllers.

Different parts of the game might be more suited to one mplay method or the other - but even if that is the case - the game should not force the player to use a particular method.

The player should have the choice to play by whichever method they find most satisfying at the time.

The logical conclusion of motion-control games would be a room with 360-degree video wall and sound-system, conveyor-belt "trackpad" for walking, weather + smell simulation, and so-forth. Or maybe just some kind of Vitrual Reality solution. It's possible!


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