Before I begin this week’s diatribe, let’s run through a quick word-association test; I’ll write a word, and you respond — to yourself, of course — with the first word that occurs to you. And by “first” word I mean the first word that your internal censor deems least likely to reveal the sociopathic tendencies that you’ve been harboring since early childhood but which you’ve learned to mask with a convincing simulacrum of normalcy that most people mistake for a sense of breezy detachment and/or actually giving a shit. And by “you” I mean “me.”
Let’s begin. You’ll find my responses in parentheses.
It might be revealing that my first three answers refer to somewhat obscure TV shows, but the fourth should be known to anyone who grew up in the ’60s, ’70s, 0r ’80s with a pulse and six brain cells, and who put those brain cells to earnest use by basting them in electromagnetic radiation for six hours every day of their lives between the ages of five and eleven. I cannot hear the word “disintegration” or “disintegrate” without thinking of Daffy Duck’s disintegration-proof vest from Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century, which as far as cosmic protective outwear goes, worked exactly as advertised.
That made me think about the concept of “disintegration” itself, and how the popular connotation of the word can be illustrated by the little pile of ash in the linked screenshot above, which I’m assuming indicates disintegration on a molecular level. While that particular scene in Duck Dodgers is funny, witty, clever, etc., and deserving of all manner of adjectival interjection, the concept has a broader definition that has all but disappeared (not disintegrated) in the 60 years since Daffy first discovered the caveats of emptoring an indestructible space vest.
To integrate means to combine two or more objects or concepts into a cohesive whole. For example, while integrated as Devastator, the Constructicons are attributes of that particular larger entity. Once Devastator is done doing whatever it is that mean robots do, he disintegrates into the component Constructicons, who drive-fly-lumber-skitter-sashay off on their separate ways as individual entities once more. Disintegration doesn’t necessarily turn Devastator into a smoldering mountain of molecular leftovers; it simply separates his essential attributes so that the entity known as Devastator no longer exists, but in this case, what is disintegrated can easily be reintegrated.
That’s all fine and such, but what about conceptual disintegration? Concepts are much harder to reintegrate, because their disintegration often occurs more subtly than, say, that of Daffy’s Disintegrating Pistol. It can take years, or even decades, for the disintegration of a concept to show any discernible effects to an observer, but the particular gaming concept that I’m thinking about has already been disintegrated by at least one company over the course of the last eleven months.
After the announcement of the Wii U, I had doubts about the idea of dividing my focus between the lavish visual real estate of a 40-inch TV, and the positively penurious 6.2-inch screen on the GamePad, but I was still intrigued by its potential. The first game that I played on the Wii U — the eponymous pack-in for the ZombiU Deluxe Set — justified my wariness with a GamePad-based inventory management system that used a cumbersome drag-and-drop interface to transfer items between containers and the player-character’s backpack. I assume that the purpose of this design choice is to maintain a plausible degree of suspense, as the game does not pause while the player is performing this task — instead you’re at the mercy of every shambling meatstick who might lumber along and take a bite out of your face while you’re sifting through your Jansport looking for some green herb. Since suspense is the game’s primary means of maintaining immersion, I understand why that feature was included, but I found it to be much more of an annoyance than a benefit.
Consider the heads-up display of a fighter jet, which integrates various crucial flight parameters, including airspeed, altitude, heading, and target information, all in one central location, maintaining the pilot’s visual aspect in the area in which it is most vitally necessary — outside the canopy. Someone figured out a long time ago that the more time that a pilot spent looking at the stuff that could kill him — including missile batteries, other fighters, mountains, and the ground — instead of on fixed, separate cockpit gauges, the more likely were his chances of survival. Successfully operating some of the most complex machines in the world is a task that demands the most exacting immersion, which is made possible only by the integration of vital flight statistics into a single visual aspect; disintegrate those statistics, along with the pilot’s focus, and you destroy that immersion.
The fact that flying a fighter plane and playing a video game are two vastly different activities does not alter the unifying principle between the two, namely, that immersion can be neither created nor enhanced by the disintegration of focus. Prompting players to look away from the TV screen and perform an action outside the established game space, on a low-resolution, low-quality screen, is the worst kind of immersion-breaking disintegration taking place in the industry today; this is evident even in the otherwise-spectacular Wii U version of Deus Ex: Human Revolution Director’s Cut.
While it sports many improvements over its two-year-old siblings, Human Revolution for the Wii U still suffers from a mild case of gratuitous GamePad implementation — in general, and by comparison to other games, the GamePad is used well in Deus Ex, especially when it saves players the trouble of pausing to search for information such as available credits, current praxis points, and an active map, or when it serves as a virtual keypad for entering door codes. Using the GamePad for inventory management, quick weapon selection, hacking, praxis allocation, reading ebooks and pocket secretaries, and sorting goals, should have been left on the main screen; not only is the GamePad’s screen too small and of insufficient quality for these activities, they needlessly compound the disintegration of focus with nonessential use of the touchscreen. For example, using the aforementioned door codes is improved with the touchscreen, but hacking most decidedly is not — nodes slip and slither beneath your finger with even the slightest deviation in planar accuracy, frequently requiring two or three presses in order to accept your intended input while the hack timeout clock is counting down. Fortunately, most touchscreen-centric tasks can be accomplished using the analog sticks and face buttons, which is Human Revolution’s sole saving throw on the Wii U; while the immersion-breaking prompt to look at the GamePad still appears every time you check your inventory, pick up an ebook, or summon the item wheel, it does not force the use of the touchscreen to interact with these items. And that’s a Good Thing.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution was the reason I bought a Wii U back at the end of March; originally the game was rumored to be due for release at the beginning of May, but it arrived yesterday — a little late, sure, but still amid much fanfare and rejoicing. It remains brilliant, but it’s this very brilliance that works against it as far as the GamePad goes; whenever a game’s content can stand firmly on its own across three platforms — Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC — much care must be taken when porting it to a platform for which the sole distinguishing feature is the incorporation of the nonessential. (That means the GamePad is a gimmick, but shh! Don’t say anything!)
Much care was taken with Human Revolution; Straight Right, who also ported Mass Effect 3 to the Wii U and did a similarly admirable job, somehow managed to sharpen the textures, tone down the saturation, restructure the boss fights, and deliver a steady, solid frame rate even in areas that chug on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. If you’ve got a Wii U, and have yet to play Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to those who appreciate having to think their way through a game — I can’t say that the Wii U version is the definitive version of Human Revolution, but it is the best game that I’ve played on the system, even as it disintegrates your focus and breaks the immersion by requiring your face to be in two places at once, especially when one of those places is really, really small.