Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Wii's Motion Controls - Not For Everyone

I've been gaming a hell of a long time. About 24 years, give or take; more than three-quarters of my relatively short life. And I've seen a lot of things come and go, attitudes change but stay the same, and generally watched everything repeat on itself throughout different eras.

One thing that has altered things slightly, however, is the strength and range of expressible opinion. As a child who grew up without one of the 21st century's most important inventions -the internet- opinion was something you mostly heard/offered to those you knew. Anyone within physical earshot. Letters and the media gave us all a voice, but ultimately we were in vacuums compared to now where the World Wide Web allows just about anyone with a computer to scream down the other's virtual ear. And we all want to do it as often as possible. It's not a case that everyone NOW has an opinion, but rather it's an opinion that everyone else can hear. And true to humanity's form, we'd rather use that wonderful power to argue and attack each other instead of trying to listen to all these fresh voices.

So it's no surprise, really, that when it comes to something like Wii's new way of controlling games, we find ourselves exasperated by impatience and intolerance.

There's a bit of a narrative jump between the last two paragraphs, so allow me test your patience a little. It won't take long. Certainly no longer than it takes to get used to the Wii remote and nunchuck with certain games, but therein lies the point. Come take a walk with me in the past for a moment…

When gaming first emerged, control methods were a hotchpotch of designs. The earliest of systems used dials, paddles, trackballs and keyboard style pads, but generally speaking by the time we got to the second full generation of consoles, joysticks meshed with all the above making it difficult to say there was a 'standard' controller across the medium. Arcades and increasingly powerful home computers only muddied the waters more.

It took the third (8-bit) generation to bring out a sense of conformity in competing console manufacturers, with the regulation of various D-pads that offered more precision than former methods. As gamers we adapted, but not without resistance. From a personal point of view, my family, who spent years crowding around my Atari 2600 playing Pac-Man, Combat and Spider-Man, baulked against such a change – two buttons and a cross-pad it may have only been, but that was more than enough to remove the simple charm of gaming. The younger members continued to play, but the older contingent decided that for them gaming stopped becoming a past-time and it became something 'past their time' instead.

Gamers slowly moved on. We went from two buttons to eventually six, and even more. The Super Nintendo's arrival was met with school-yard comments of "six buttons?! We'll be running out of fingers soon; how are you supposed to cope with that unless you hold the pad differently?"

But we adapted again. Teenage and casual mentalities growing into more hardcore configurations.

Come the age where Nintendo regulated the analog stick with its Nintendo 64, similar but different cries could be heard in colleges, universities and work-places. "Isn't it just like the old Atari sticks? Bit of a step backwards, really." All said without knowledge of the extra precision afforded by the N64's pad. However, watching some members of my friends and family, who were young enough to grow with gaming when others gave it up after the Atari age died, I realised they were still struggling. They didn’t use the analog stick in the way it was meant to be used; instead they used it like a digital pad: they didn’t utilise the degrees of movement; it was either tilted full-on or left at rest. For some, they still couldn’t work out what the big deal was because that period of adjustment took a while to set in. Classics like Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64 became a frustration, especially when more "reliable" forms of control were available on Sony's hugely successful PlayStation, which stuck to the more 'traditional' style of pad.

Jump five years on and every console used analog controllers. And that became the norm, with those who refused to evolve, leaving gaming. By then the internet was also deeply ingrained in our culture, giving us the ability to shout about any little thing and be heard around the world.

So when Wii flipped the script once again, the reaction was louder than ever before. No doubt had the internet been around or as mainstream during the days of transition between joysticks to D-pads, two buttons to six buttons, six buttons to more and D-pads to analog, we'd have heard the same cries of "why must there be change?" "What's the point?" "This feels gimmicky!" "We're regressing!" And so on. The indignation has remained, but the voice has simply got louder.

Part of the problem now, however, is that gaming has a history. The playing field hasn’t been level since the third generation of the medium, but these days we have those who have left and come back, those who are totally new and those who have maintained throughout it all. The layers are numerous and diverse. And like crotchety old men, there are some who refuse to change or want to change, regardless whether they've seen and experienced this repetitive reactionary loop or not. "The Wii remote doesn’t offer the accuracy of dual analog," they cry. "I don’t want less buttons," they bemoan. "I'll look like an idiot if I have to wave my arms around," they scream. And we hear it all. Never before has there been such a large forum for our voices to be heard, but ultimately we're saying the same things we've been saying the past 24 years. It's all relative.

Which is why we'll continue to get reviews that whinge about the Wii remote not offering what they want. Why some will spend a couple days on a game, in gritted teeth frustration, before firing off a 2,000 word piece about how Wii's motion control is a 'step backwards' or some other malady. It's happening right now as you read this.

Some of it will be fanboy baiting. Some of it will be fanboyism. Some of it will be reactionary anger against a different control method. And some of it will be totally genuine concern. But all of it reflects one thing:

A transition period.

It's so easy to forget that what we're experiencing right now -an inescapable glimpse of the medium's future- is merely a moment in time. While we have some gamers using the Wii controller like some of my friends and relatives used the N64 pad -totally missing the point of its features and then blaming it for their inability to adjust- we have to remember this is just step one of a controller revolution that has been part of gaming's culture since forever. As we saw complaints about the analog stick turn into praise when the majority finally 'got' it; we'll move on. Until everyone considers that as standard and something else will emerge to start the cycle again, complete with moans about how it 'doesn’t offer the accuracy of motion control', etc.

The Wii's remote isn’t perfect by any means. As with most 'Version 1.0' control methods, there are problems that will likely be ironed out and refined for subsequent generations (although it must be said, many of the issues are software rather than hardware related). But at the same time, there are those who will always talk about how they hate motion controls and how sloppy it is, without acknowledging stuff like the headshot rich high scores clocked up in Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition, compared to the GameCube version.

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