Let’s say you’re an architect. After many successful years of designing and building homes, you finally decide to build one for yourself, so you go to the hardware store, spot a hammer that you absolutely must have, and immediately ask yourself, “what kind of dwelling could I construct with this-here fine and heavy implement of repeated forceful striking?” At this point you proceed to draw up plans for your new dream home based entirely around the hammer that you just bought for $159 at your local Big Orange-Themed Hardware Conglomerate. It was, after all, a rather expensive implement of repeated forceful striking, and you need to justify its cost by working it into the design at every possible opportunity.
Each element of construction in your house requires the use of this spectacular hammer; components that normally call for screws have been refitted to use nails, and even those that still require screws are having their screws pounded in with ferocity, fervor, and an utter disregard for physics and sound mechanical principles. Even the electrical and plumbing systems have been installed using nothing but your hammer; certain concessions must be made, of course, in order to live in a home for which the standard of design and construction is a single simple tool, but it will definitely be worth it, as your hammer house will forever change the way that architects, builders, and homeowners interact with their domiciles. As any connoisseur of specious, unexamined premises can tell you, any change is good change. Right?
It’s Like Elmer Fudd Sitting On a Juicer
The problem with the hammer house is that it was designed by someone with inverted creative standards; tools must always be the servants of ideas. Any hardware — whether that’s a bucket of nuts or a fancy semi-next-generation game system — is only a means to an end; whenever ideas are not technology’s master, they become its slave.
What’s wrong with designing a house around a hammer? The same thing that’s wrong with designing a game around an input device; in that instance the device (the tool) does not facilitate creativity, but instead shackles it with an arbitrarily imposed set of nonessential standards, the highest of which is the principle of gratuitous change. Requiring people to stand up and perform the Electric Slide in order to open a door changes gameplay in the same way that riding a llama to the dentist’s office changes root canal; you’re still going to the same place, but now your ass is sore and you smell like sweaty ruminant. And for what? To the serious gamer, how you get there is not the point.
The serious — or hardcore — gamer is someone who holds content above all other considerations. Content consists of everything that happens on the screen, which means that the interaction between the player and the hardware is immeasurably less important than the interaction between the player character and the game world; input method can’t resurrect a horrible game, but it sure can ruin an otherwise good one. As such, anything that comes between the serious gamer and a game’s content (like a series of shakes, contortions, thrusts, swings, and convulsions that cause the player to resemble a chihuahua humping a Pringles can) hinders the goal of every publisher or developer who claims to want the hardcore audience on their side. This is where Nintendo went wrong with the Wii, and where certain developers have already gone wrong with the Wii U.
There’s nothing wrong in having fun with an input-centric game like Wii Sports or Wii Play, or even the Wii version of The Force Unleashed, which I played more often than any of its siblings from another system. The problem lies in the fact that those who routinely spend money on games (again, the serious and hardcore) realize that such input methods employ nonessential and convoluted control mechanics — dividing the players’ attention between what’s on the screen and what’s in their hands is a surefire route towards alienation, which will ensure that such games are purchased and played only as a novelty or a curiosity.
UbiSoft’s Wii U launch title ZombiU commits this error in zaftig abundance. Forcing players to constantly shift their attention between the TV and the controller is an immersion-breaking gimmick that hijacks the experience instead of augmenting it, subjugating the game to the device on which it is played. Forcing the player to use the touch screen for contextual actions, such as dragging items from a looted container to the player’s inventory, is a gratuitous attempt at using the software to justify the existence of the hardware, turning what ought to be a completely forgettable, mundane little task into a drawn-out exercise in frustration, tedium, and unpleasantness, kind of like gaming’s equivalent of Brussels sprouts. There’s already a method for accomplishing such things in games; it’s called the A button. Or the X button. Or the right mouse button. Or the E key.
By contrast, the Wii U version of Mass Effect 3 uses the touch screen primarily to enhance its gameplay by keeping the map open at all times, which aids in navigation without the need to pause the game, open the map, find your way, close the map, and resume playing; a quick glance at the GamePad orients the player without so much as a press of a button. Less input, less cumulative downtime, and less clutter on the main screen keeps players in the game much more effectively than, let’s say, placing a series of unnecessary hurdles in their path. After all, just because you can place hurdles doesn’t mean that you should.
Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That
The fact that Nintendo is going after a deeper audience with the Wii U is a good thing. It means that they acknowledge that they made a few mistakes with the Wii, and they’ve addressed them in the Wii U, primarily in the type of gamer that they want to attract to the system — technically, and as far as the differences that are discernible while playing a game, the Wii U is a continuation of the current console generation. Sure, it has twice the usable RAM of the Xbox 360, but that memory is on a slower bus. Its CPU is slower than those of the Xbox and the PlayStation 3, but it’s also more efficient. The Wii U’s GPU is reportedly faster than its contemporary cousins’ GPUs, but that slight advantage is lost in the bottleneck of its slower CPU. In all, it’s a wash.
And that’s okay. The standard of my enjoyment is the game, not the system, the content, not the way that I use the hardware. Some developers don’t get this, and will continue to try to force players to jump through hoops and run in circles and Waldo Pepper their way through each and every title they release by holding the GamePad up to the screen, holding it sideways, standing on it like a skateboard, or swinging it like a baseball bat.
Such games can certainly be fun for a little while, but when it comes to long-term profit and survivability, the company that ignores the difference between gimmickry and innovation does so at its own risk. No console generation has ever been dominated merely by the most powerful hardware, but instead by the system that embraces its role as a facilitator and an enabler of creativity within the context of the software.
It’s been a long time since that’s been a Nintendo console, but I wouldn’t mind seeing them return to the position they held in the industry twenty-odd years ago, when they had so much hand they were coming out of their glove.