[In his latest Gamasutra column, writer and game designer Ian Bogost explores how an unprecedented event at Wimbledon can illustrate the boundaries of a system never before reached -- and how the console cycle doesn't allow for this sort of exploration in the art of game design.]
Consider two sorts of familiarity that arise in art.
The first is the familiarity of predictability. Through craft, this sort of work gives us what we expect in a well-conceived fashion. It's one of the reasons people enjoy television. The sitcom and the procedural tend to be particularly good at giving us what we expect. In twenty minutes, a banal family crisis can flare up and be resolved. In forty, a duo of detectives can track down and book a murderer. Primetime television is a place we can go to be reassured, to avoid surprises.
The second kind of familiarity is that of deep exploration. Less formulaic works embrace uncertainty, taking us through themes or to places we thought we knew well, but which we later realized we hadn't considered fully.
Novels, feature films, even the intricate story lines of more adventurous television series like The Wire or Lost hope to jostle our minds out of their comfort zone. When done well, this sort of art startles us out of mechanical slumber and shakes us to our core with the astounding novelty of unseen, yet now obvious truths.
We might call the first kind of familiarity the "familiar unfamiliar." It gives us something we already know in a slightly different form. The second, by contrast, we could call the "unfamiliar familiar," because it shows us something we didn't even think to consider about a domain we thought we knew through-and-through.
Video games think they embrace the latter sort of familiarity, but in fact they almost always typify the former. To see why, let's take a look at two events that took place last month, both of which enjoyed so much publicity that you'll already be intimately familiar with them, although perhaps not in the way you think.
The Seven Year Itch
As they do every year, thousands gathered in Los Angeles for E3, the video game industry's main trade event. It's a time when hardware manufacturers, publishers, and developers showcase their latest wares for retail buyers and, more broadly, for the industry and enthusiast press. This year's expo offered no small measure of excitement thanks to new announcements about highly-anticipated products and systems.
Among them was Microsoft's motion control system Kinect, the first revelation of the project formerly known by its code name Natal. Sony followed suit, showing off PlayStation Move, its wand-like physical controller.
Trends in 3D took shape too. Sony announced aggressive support for 3D gaming, but Nintendo stole the show with its impressive 3DS handheld, which offers 3D imagery without the use of special glasses.
For much of its history, the video game industry has counted on five- to ten-year hardware advances like these to drive and refresh player interest. In part that's because microcomputers have come a long way in the forty years since games on computers have been a viable market, growing from literally nothing to the portable supercomputers we enjoy today.
But hardware innovation also underscores an often cited but infrequently analyzed assumption among the industry: new gadgets are supposed to "revolutionize" the way we play. Nintendo made such claims when it designed the Wii (codename "Revolution"), as did Microsoft with the original Xbox, and Sega with the Dreamcast, and on back as far as one cares to recall.
Whether it's a motion controller or a multicore GPU or a 3D display, the industry assumes that new technology embraces unfamiliar familiarity. Kinect, like the Wii before it, is supposed to show us how easy and intuitive play can be, and how mistaken we were ever to think otherwise. Sony and Nintendo's 3D displays are meant to immerse us in experiences that will leave us wondering how we ever tolerated the flat plainness of two dimensions -- just as 3D games of the N64/PlayStation era did fifteen years ago.
The problem is this: while the experiences promised by technical shifts always produce excitement, that excitement is usually short-lived and rarely deeply meaningful. New tech succeeds in buoying the business of games for another few years, but only until players realize that the unfamiliar wild west of technology really amounts to yet another take on the familiar ordinariness of incessant gadgeteering.
One need look no further than the games themselves to see just how familiar are video games' cyclical promise of unfamiliarity. Kinect Sports offers simple takes on athletics. Kinect Joy Ride is a kart racing game. Kinectimals revisits the virtual pet. Ubisoft's Your Shape: Fitness Evolve revisit's Wii Fit and EA Sports Active for Kinect. Dance Central follows in the footsteps of Dance Dance Revolution and its kindred. Over in Nintendo's corner, new versions of Zelda, Mario, GoldenEye, Kirby, Metroid, Dragon Quest, Donkey Kong, and Kid Icarus make their way onto hardware old and new.
It's understandable that we would appreciate these games. Like The Cosby Show or Law & Order, they give us exactly what we expect. Mario still jumps and saves the princess, Link still swings his sword and saves the princess, Donkey and Diddy Kong still ground pound and race mine carts, Samus is still a girl, kart racing is still wacky, and jumping around the living room swatting at shadows is still fun.
But just as sitcoms and police procedurals offer only skin-deep explorations of human experience, so generation after generation of video games offer skin-deep explorations of the very subjects we believe them to be getting so much better at simulating.
On the one hand, there's nothing wrong with this. Just as there's a place for another episode of Everybody Loves Raymond or CSI, so there's a place for another take on fantasy swashbuckling or platforming. But on the other hand, mistaking those examples of the familiar unfamiliar for truly deep and novel explorations of even the very themes they offer reveals a missed opportunity.