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Video Gaming for Grownups

Our resident old-school gamer takes on the next—generation consoles
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
William Shatner, Sept/Oct 2006

Squinting into the blazing Los Angeles sunshine, hundreds of journalists and industry insiders trooped dutifully out of a darkened soundstage on the Sony Pictures Studios lot last May. It was the close of the first major event at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo—better known as E3—the pivotal trade show for the video and computer gaming industry. The two—hour indoctrination into the wonders of Sony's upcoming PlayStation 3 video game console had peppered us with sales figures that heralded marketing triumphs past and present, enticed us with technical specifications that make your office computer look like a wind—up toy and treated us to never—before—seen demonstrations of dozens of games in the works. I joined a clutch of game—savvy colleagues and, even before the first free frosty beer hit my hand, had to ask: "Did you see anything in there you're really looking forward to playing?"

Let me put the question into perspective. As a segment of the overall economy, electronic interactive entertainment is anything but fun and games. The video game business had a rare down year in 2005—and still brought in $7 billion in the United States alone. Furthermore, the cock of the walk in the industry to date is unquestionably Sony. As of April, the company's PlayStation 2 had sold 101 million units, compared with 24 million Microsoft Xboxes and 21 million Nintendo GameCubes. So if you're Sony and you've gathered pretty near every industry opinion leader in one place for the big "reveal" of your next—generation standard—bearer, you want to hear some excitement at the end of the day. In this case, the buzz never was. Plenty of putatively new games were on display at the Sony press conference—shooters and driving games, futuristic warfare and the Second World War revisited, brutal beat—em—ups and sophisticated simulated sports. But aside from a new high—gloss finish, they were virtually the same games we'd played time and time again.

For the rest of the week I immersed myself in the maelstrom that is E3, experiencing the latest wares from the big three console makers—plus games for video game systems and computers from dozens of software publishers. And if you added up every one of the titles that amused or intrigued me out of hundreds of games on display, they might account for 5 percent of the total. Granted, the percentage of movies, TV shows or CDs that are worth my time is also pretty low. Still, it's disappointing to watch the vibrant gaming industry settle for mediocrity. Can anything stem the overwhelming tide of mediocre superhero smack—downs, been—there—done—that, hack—and—slash dungeon crawls and sports sequels that differ from their predecessors only in shinier equipment and updated rosters? I think so, but the answer isn't building boxes that blast through bits and bytes more effectively. Bottom line, it's kind of like shaving. You could hold in your hand the most perfectly balanced, exquisitely crafted razor, hand—carved from solid platinum by monks who devote their entire lives to the pursuit of tonsorial artistry, but stick a rusty blade in there and you're still going to have a lousy shave.

And the fact that too many decisions in the gaming industry are made to serve guys who haven't gotten around to shaving yet is part of the problem.

What Makes a Game Great?
Video games bear some resemblance to sports, with their emphasis on competition. And they certainly fit in the gaming category alongside Monopoly or chess or poker. But most of today's popular sports and games follow rules established generations ago. Tennis as we play it today has been around 133 years, golf since the fifteenth century—even Monopoly is 73 years old. Enjoyment is based on the player's ability to fine—tune performance within a well—established framework. Video and computer gaming, on the other hand, run on innovation. A major part of the fun is to tackle a new game. What can I do in this digital world? What are the rules? Which actions bring me rewards, and which bring down punishment? What strategies will help me succeed? Even if you've played hundreds of video games, new experiences are still to be had in this young art form—they're just hard to find among the racks of me—too crapola shoved onto store shelves.

Calling video gaming an "art form" may seem pretentious to the uninitiated, but if movies, television and theater can be lumped in with "the arts," then so can The Sims, World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto. Games offer characters, tension and conflict, fictional worlds that are stylized representations of everyday reality. Aesthetic achievements in graphic presentation and musical scoring produce a profound emotional response both in the context of the overall dramatic presentation and in a gamer's appreciation of the pure artistry on display. Which brings us to the second driving force in the quest for excellence in video game creation: the quality of the content.

Bottom line: content trumps innovation in this two—part formula. It's a lot like TV. A show with an innovative premise, structure or presentation excites jaded viewers. But innovation alone won't hold an audience beyond the first week. Content that makes the most of new structural ideas is what delivers winning entertainment. Even well—established forms—sitcoms, police procedurals, hospital dramas—are fresh when the content is compelling.

Notice that technology is not part of my equation for a great game. Is it important? Of course, but not for its own sake. When I started playing video games, auto racing was a popular genre. The cars were represented by a few artfully placed dots on the screen that moved in simplistic patterns on a race course made up of dotted lines—and it was fun. Today, I can climb into virtual versions of every hot car I'll never be able to afford, put the pedal to the metal and become immersed in a high—intensity re—creation of the behind—the—wheel experience. Damn right, technology is important. But creative uses of the latest technology are few and far between.

Can bumping up the computing power change the gaming experience for the better? Absolutely! For example, Electronic Arts' Fight Night Round 3, available for Xbox 360 and soon for PlayStation 3, dishes up graphics that are more realistic than ever before. In it the players take on the roles of celebrity boxers throughout history, and the more my character looks like Ali when I'm re—creating the Rumble in the Jungle, the more I'm involved. Sounds good, but EA took the possibilities of better graphics one step beyond.

In every fighting game on the market, from boxing to martial arts to street brawling, on—screen meters, icons or readouts show how well you're doing. How close is your opponent to collapse? How much has your own strength waned? The Fight Night team looked at the stunningly realistic on—screen boxers they'd created and said, "Wait a minute—why do we have to tell the players how they're doing with text and gizmos on screen when they can see how the fight's going just by looking at the boxers?" The group added the option to wipe the screen clean. An entire layer of artificiality peeled away to reveal two guys in a ring, the toll of titanic combat dramatically clear in their cuts and bruises, the awful facial expression when a blow lands cleanly, the body language of pain and fatigue. Technology paved the way, but it was innovative thinking in the design phase and extraordinary execution by the artists and programmers that let gamers enjoy an amazing fighting experience without the bother of getting physically beaten to a pulp.

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