If there’s a piece of video game hardware that ever really impressed me, outside of the return and rapid advancement of virtual reality, it has to be Kinect. Microsoft’s natural movement input camera turned your body into a controller for the Xbox 360, and it worked surprisingly well in translating a person’s movements to a character on a TV screen. Playing games like bowling with Kinect, picking up an imaginary ball and flinging it down an imaginary lane only to see all that kinetic energy made “real” in a video game, felt like a form of magic.
As Kinect started to get hacked to serve as the eyes for robots or to help improve the accuracy of surgeons, I thought for sure we’d see the device become an important part of not just the gaming landscape but of innovations in technology in general. When Microsoft announced the Xbox One in 2013, Kinect was an essential part of the design. Microsoft was envisioning a future where you were constantly talking to and waving your hands at your TV to control shows, make Skype calls, and play video games–and while I had a whole lot of problems with the console at the time, it still seemed like the sort of Blade Runner/Back to the Future/Minority Report technology that marked many visions of the future.
Seven years later, the future is here. With the Xbox Series X/S, Microsoft has dialed back on just about all of the ideas the console-maker once seemed to think would compose the future of gaming. But it’s not only Microsoft–the same is true of Sony and its PlayStation 5. The next generation is here, and if I’m being honest, I’m finding it kind of boring. The games I’ll be playing this holiday season seem pretty similar to the games I’ve been playing for the better part of a decade.
Before we go any further, let me offer a caveat: I haven’t used either an Xbox Series X or a PlayStation 5 as of this writing. GameSpot’s Michael Higham has been testing the Xbox Series X and is so far impressed by its capabilities, in particular its fast loading times and Quick Resume, the ability to suspend one game and quickly open another (and another, and another). All my impressions of the new consoles are based on what the general public has been shown so far in press conferences, trailers, and blog posts. It’s entirely possible I could pick up a controller in a month and discover my thinking right now was wrong-headed. And it’s definitely possible that the increased horsepower of these new consoles could lead to innovations nobody is expecting–games that don’t just look prettier, but alter the landscape in less outwardly obvious ways, like amping up artificial intelligence.
With that disclaimer in place, let’s talk about what the new consoles are really offering. Xbox Series X has fast load times, Quick Resume for suspending, switching between, and picking up games where you left off, and backwards compatibility. PlayStation 5 has fast load times, a spiffed-up controller, and PlayStation VR. Both are bringing more powerful graphical capability to the living room. That all seems… fine. Nice, even. Waiting less time for games to load and seeing better reflections, light beams, and in-game hair all seem like they could improve the experience of playing a game.
But none of those things are out here trying to revolutionize the experience of playing a game, and that’s where I’m left wanting. It feels like the big swings and bigger failures of the eighth generation have left both Microsoft and Sony playing things incredibly safe. They know you like your shooters, your platformers, your sports games–so they’ve just made consoles that will now play all of those better. They will shake your controller in novel ways. They will include ray tracing. Fast travel will be faster. But they will play in basically the same way they have for years.
The boring, technically-minded upgrades of the next generation have me longing for the big ideas of the past one, even if many of them were sort of disastrous. And it’s true that innovation doesn’t always yield good results by its nature. If you look back at Microsoft’s Xbox One press conference from 2013, it has an intense, almost weird focus on entertainment and television. The entire first half of the presentation is focused on talking to your Xbox to get it to play Star Trek: Into Darkness and switch to ESPN. There’s barely any discussion of games, and that’s bad.
But at the same time, Microsoft was imagining a wholly different future, and there’s something to having a vision and trying to realize it. In the same presentation where it spent too much time discussing how you could switch TV channels with your voice, Microsoft announced a Halo TV show and transmedia plan, and Quantum Break, a video game melded with a TV show. Some of the Halo plans came to fruition, though we’re still waiting on that show. The actual result of Quantum Break was more tortured than what was originally announced, thanks, seemingly, to Microsoft shutting down its whole TV initiative within a year. But at the time, I remember thinking Quantum Break sounded like a great idea–and I still think it’s a fascinating storytelling experiment. I’m glad the concept of Quantum Break existed, I’m glad people pursued it–and I wish game developers had more opportunities like that, even if they don’t all work out.
The PS4 also offered a bunch of potentially cool technological ideas at its announcement. The DualShock 4 controller’s touchpad, light bar, and motion control capabilities all sounded like they could bring serious changes to in-game interactivity–but most of those features only got a real workout in Media Molecule games like Dreams. Even more interesting were the seemingly big plans of tying the PS4 to the PlayStation Vita and to smartphone apps for remote control and second-screen support. Most of it eventually fizzled (RIP Vita, gone too soon) or was implemented in fleeting ways. But there are games out there that use your smartphone as a controller rather than a DualShock 4, and every time I fire one up, I’m surprised at how much those titles lower the barrier of entry for non-gamers to join in the fun.
The most salient example of what I’m getting at is the Nintendo Wii. It brought fairly solid motion controls to a ton of games, not the least of which were The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and Super Mario Galaxy. The Wii offered a way to play games that felt wholly different from what we were used to, and not only that, it often felt better and more intuitive than playing games with a traditional controller. When you wanted to fire a cannon at something, you pointed your controller at it. When you want to swing a sword, you’d swing your controller. Those are things even people who don’t play a ton of games can understand, and what made the Wii so exciting was the way it not only offered new ways to play games, but offered them to an expanding audience.
And yeah, the Wii, like Kinect and Sixaxis, are pretty solid examples of good tech ideas going bad. Most Wii games were gimmicky shovelware, and even in the best Wii games, you could cheat by shaking your controller rather than moving it around as intended. The Kinect invaded everything about the Xbox One in a completely intrusive and privacy-eroding way, while Microsoft failed to push any games that made the technology exciting. The PS4’s control-expanding ideas went largely ignored–so much so that the touchpad that gobbles up much of the DualShock 4’s real estate is usually nothing more than a giant menu button. There’s an argument to be made that the Series X and the PS5 are getting back to what matters–the games–while jettisoning a bunch of needless garbage that takes away from the experience of games. I don’t think that argument is necessarily wrong.
The Wii, Kinect, and PlayStation Move might have become tech gimmicks that produced more bad games than good ones. But they also created new experiences that don’t exist elsewhere, and opened gaming to people who haven’t built up decades of gamepad muscle memory. I do think we lose something when the focus is just on making existing games better, and not imagining new kinds of games. It’s true that a lot of the ideas in the last generation failed (somewhat spectacularly) to do that. I hope the games industry hasn’t given up on trying, though.