Back to the Present: The X-box 720 IllumiRoom and the Wii U

I spend a lot of my time on this blog talking about old titles, because I believe that we’ve built up a large enough library of games and concepts to be able to use the lessons of the past to inform the future of video game development. So, if you’ll notice, I spend quite a bit of time referring to, deconstructing and comparing older titles to newer ones. It’s a similar concept to how film critics refer to cinematography techniques and narratives to address new films. In recognition of that trend, today, I’m going to talk about things so new that they don’t even exist yet. That’s right, we’re going beyond speculation to cymbal-banging, straight-coated concept generation. To do that, we’re going to be looking at two new pieces of technology and their applications. The first is Microsoft Research’s IllumiRoom. The second is the much-vaunted, often-bashed Wii U.

Before we get that started, though, let’s throw some spotlights out! The first one goes to an interesting article of gaming tips for the uninitiated. I know what you’re thinking: if you’re on my blog, then you’re probably already a gamer. That’s true, but it’s nice to be able to point to additional sources when trying to convince people of gaming’s pure brilliance. The next article is a little more standard; it’s a review of the new Aliens: Colonial Marines. It’s a game I hadn’t heard much about before it’s release, but I heard had some pretty hilarious AI issues. It seems like it stems from the development cluster-fuck that the game went through to hit shelves. Oh well.

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Let’s start with the IllumiRoom, because you can’t get much more Tron than that without being Tron. It’s a vaunted peripheral for the post-apocalyptic future-science-machine: the X-box 720. It uses the Kinect to scan the area and determine the appearance and geometry of the room. Then, it uses that information and integrates a projection into your on-screen play. It brings the game into the room. “How is this different from having a large television?” you might ask. Well, in several important ways. Brace yourself, because I’m about to drop some bio-psych knowledge.

There’s a strongly supported theory that suggests that there’s a correlation between the positioning of a creature’s eyeballs and its place on the food chain. Predators, like eagles and wolves, have eyes situated close together near the front of their face. The result is increased depth-perception: an asset for lunging, fighting and spotting details. You know, like a rodent in some grass. Prey animals, on the other hand, like rabbits and deer, tend to have eyes situated in such a way as to have a much larger field of vision, usually near the sides of their head. The result is poorer depth-perception, but an increased field of vision for movement.  Humans, the story goes, were once prey animals that lived in the trees. As a result, a large amount of our physiology resembles a mix between predator and prey. We are omnivores, after all. However, we needed to be able to climb efficiently, so we needed a good grasp of depth, as well. There’s nothing like missing a branch and falling twenty feet. This, and a host of neuropsych research tells us that focus is important to depth, but that the edges of our vision are especially reactive to movement.

Your eyeballs use rods and cones (light sensors) to detect light. Cones exist through the aperture of the pupil at the back of the eye, along with the rods. The difference is that cones are clustered near the middle, in an area called the fovea, in large numbers. There are a few rods, but they’re negligible. Cones detect a wide range of colors and their density in the fovea is what provides you with sharp central vision. When you’re focusing on something, like, say, your television, you’re directing the focus of your fovea. By contrast, the rest of your vision is taken care of by the rods in the surrounding areas. They’re not as densely packed, and include some cones, but they’re highly reactive to movement. Not only that, but they’re responsible for much of your night-vision and the phenomenon that causes everything to look bluer in the dark. So, the areas around the foveal focus-point are less reactive to color, but more reactive to movement. Also, on the flip-side, we have a pretty well-defined focal point for color and depth. That’s the take-away.

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By this point you’re saying, “Okay Trivia, I sat through your little psych lesson, now what does this have to do with horror games?” Well, everything really. While the video I posted may show how neat it would be to have flame pouring out of the screen and an increased feeling of accelerated movement by bleeding the background into the room, it’s best application is in taking advantage of the two points I just out-lined. Humans have a reflex wired into us that uses our peripheral vision to detect potentially-harmful movement that’s out of our focal range. We’re not exactly prey animals, but we share many of their traits. The same can be said for all vertebrates and mammals, etc, but that’s a bit tangential to my point. We can absolutely exploit this for the most epic jump scares ever. Have you ever been sitting too close to your monitor, in the wee hours of the morning, running on no sleep, when the edges of your vision start to blur with exhaustion, then had something move in the corner of your eye? Or, even just sat too close to your monitor and had an unusual movement on the corner of the screen, in the corner of your eye, freak you out?

We can harness that tendency with the IllumiRoom. Part of what makes for a strong knee-jerk reaction is unusual movement. Unusual movement is processed a bit differently than standard walk-cycles, etc. We have portions of  our brain that are involved in novel stimuli and known stimuli. That’s why so many monsters have such unusual movement patterns: to unnerve and disturb. Novelty, especially quick-moving novelty, under the right circumstances, creates a fear-reaction. So, you get the player in the right mental state: on edge or disturbed out of their mind. Then, you hit them with things out of the corners of their eyes. You bleed the surroundings of Silent Hill into their room! Bright swathes of blood red across the wall mingles with rust-brown and a horrible creeping sensation that the shadow you saw moving out of the corner of your eye isn’t friendly. We react to color and sound, and there’s nothing that will rival the level of immersion that this could create in the hands of a master game designer. This could be the boon we need to get the genre back on track. This is a potential tool. Now, we just need the potential talent. I say, “Let’s stay optimistic, but level-headed.”

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From the future to the present, we’re moving on to the Wii U. The Wii U is basically the Wii, but with a few upgrades. The system finally went high-definition, made a more traditional button-based controller (Wii U Pro Controller) available and supports a new peripheral. The Wii U GamePad is essentially a tablet, but also includes a button-based interface. It functions in tandem with all available Wii controllers and integrates Near-Field Communication for scanning credit cards and additional game peripherals. Like a tablet, and it’s mutated Wii brothers, it includes motion controls, as well as adding a camera and off-screen play-time. You can grab it and go! For three hours.

So, that’s the system. It sounds pretty good on paper, but I’ve seen the games get pretty mediocre reviews. Part of the problem is that Nintendo doesn’t seem to know what to do with the Wii U GamePad. I’ve heard quite a few “complaints” that it doesn’t do much that couldn’t be done on the screen and, indeed, doesn’t add much when it does. It seems like sort of a lack-luster stumble into the next console generation. Then again, it always takes a while to get used to new hardware capabilities. Look at the new releases on the last console generation, and those were just graphical and processor-based upgrades. This is the introduction of whole new ways of approaching console gaming. So, because I have only the best interests of Nintendo at heart, as well as its legions of fans, I’m going to make a list of game ideas and properties that would use the Wii U GamePad to its fullest potential. Remember, it’s not enough for it to do something the screen could do, or just take the place of a tablet. Even the walk-away play-time is sort of dull. We’ve owned hand-helds before; they’re nothing new. No, if we’re going for innovation, then we need integration. Without further ado, let’s get to it.

I broke the games down into two-players and one-players. First, I’ll focus on multi-player games, because the peripheral has a lot to add there. Part of the problem with console gaming, especially with the Wii, is that players always have access to the same screen. We all know at least one screen-peeker. Multi-player on the Wii U has, up until this point, tried to integrate the Wii U GamePad into the game by having one player do something that the others aren’t. I think this is a great idea, so I’m going to run with it. It seems to me, if the new Mario game for the Wii U is any indication, that the only problems exist in execution.

Starting off on a familiar foot, horror games have a lot of potential on the Wii. Exploiting peripersonal space could allow for untold levels of immersion if it were exploited. The Wii U GamePad could add a human element. There are a lot of games that are exploration based in the horror genre. However, traditionally, multi-player has taken some of the horror out of the equation by having someone to talk to and make jokes with. One way to harness the power of the human element would be to set one player against the other. The differential information available to each player would allow the person using the GamePad to feel out the tension in the room and set up scares. Who better than an observer to position stalkers and time jump-scares? You’d need to add a level of computer AI to make sure that the enemies knew how to respond to the player (the GamePad could even have options available for what kind of AI you want tagged to a particular monster), and there’d be set-piece monsters, of course, but there’s definitely room for the Wii U to use players against each other.

This would work for any exploration-based game. You could set up dungeons and use a simplified mapping-system to plan encounters on the fly while your friends played through it. On a larger stage, you could use the GamePad to plan tactical movement for groups of enemies while your friends played a more Dynasty Warriors hack-n-slash game. Or, you could use a more Castle-Crashers based style. You could even use Infinity Blade style combat on the GamePad against motion-based sword combat on the classic controllers. You’d have to compensate for relative ranges of motion and reaction times, but that would just allow you to add another element to the GamePad player…. maybe allowing them to control multiple monsters through a command-and-switch interface. The rail-shooter could be enlivened by allowing one player to introduce where and how enemies attack.

There’s also a world to explore in pathing. Stealth games could allow one player to plan the routes for guards while the other tries to penetrate their defenses. This could be balanced by the size of the map and a limit on the number of available guards. Driving games like Need For Speed: Most Wanted could allow one player to take control of the fleet of cops and use the screen to direct multiple cars in wolf-pack style chases, but also allow the player to zoom in on a specific car to take control of it for a more one-on-one feel. If you’ve ever played NFS: MW, then you’ll know that Nitro and your cars sheer bloody-minded tenacity would more than make up for this advantage of intelligence behind the enemy’s wheels. Any sort of route-following game could allow one player to choose the path for the other to follow. You could generate race-tracks on the fly in open-world racing games. If there isn’t a command entered by a certain point, then the game uses procedures to generate the route ahead of the driver until one is entered.

The popularity of the Just Dance games would allow for some interesting gameplay, as well. One player takes on the more traditional role of dancer, but the other takes on another as choreographer. After a brief intro-sequence that allows the players time to settle into a song, the dancer starts to be fed the commands that the GamePad player has been inputting since the beginning of the song. That player is then awarded points based on how well the moves flowed together, or maybe their moves choices are limited to ones that would work from one to the other, but are awarded points for matching movements to song rhythms. this sort of interface would also allow for custom Just Dance songs. I’m not sure if it has those, because I’ve never played the game. I think it would be fun, though, to watch your friend trying to pull off the routine that you worked out, but with the knowledge in the back of your mind that they’ll be doing the same soon. Great drinking game, imo.

My last multi-player ideas are based on differential information again. This time, the GamePad player uses tactical information that’s being fed to them to help direct the other players. They could control way-points, scan for hostiles, look for likely areas of interest and re-supply. This one’s a bit more difficult to work into a single-player game, but I can’t get the Snake and Otacon image out of my head: intel and fire-power. Along those same lines, the GamePad player could be in command of a fleet… in space. Having access to a larger degree of tactical information would allow them to direct the fleet, but also have the other players control specific flag-ships, with their own limited sensors, in a more dog-fighting-central game.

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Transitioning from that to single-player games isn’t as weird as it sounds. Now, we can consider using the Wii-mote and Touch-screen simultaneously. Or, even, just the buttons and the touch-screen, but then it’s hardly more than a tablet with hardware controls. To smooth out the jarring transition to single-player, we could use the fleet-command idea, incorporate a ship AI and allow the player to zoom into specific ships and control them directly. Ender’s Game anyone? You know, like the computer game he played? To make this a bit more dual-control friendly, you could pilot a ship on-screen with one controller and use the touch-screen for large fleet movements. It sounds ludicrous at first, but it would make for hectic, fast-paced gameplay, as well as fill in the bits of space combat where you’re just flying into a void or waiting for weapons to charge.

Of course, there’s the idea of dual-world gameplay. Now, you can create games that allow you to see both worlds at once. This would make for some absolutely amazing horror games. I’ve got a couple specific ideas that would make people terrified to look in their laps. Dual-screens would also let you access your inventory while in the heat of combat in games, like Dark Souls, that don’t want to let you pause. Still just as hectic, but with a more user-friendly, player-immediate, intuitive interface. You could also have a combat game that uses the touch-screen as a spell-casting peripheral or for Infinity Blade-style combat within the framework of a larger game.

Basically, the name of the game here is to take advantage of the unique features of each device and combine them into something more than the two were apart. This will come from an understanding of timing and the type of engagement you want to provide. It’s not enough to simply have another screen; you have to make it an active part of gameplay. Seeing and interacting with two worlds at once, due to a deepening psychosis or strange Cthulhian device, would make for some grade-SS horror, as long as there was purpose to it. Ie. Navigating one to escape the threat in the other.

A lot of these ideas need ironing out; they’re just off the top of my head, but I think they’re the kind of things that Nintendo will start looking into. The Wii U and the X-box 720 are shaping up to be real contenders, if they can get the software support they need. I can only hope the PS4 shows that much promise. Thanks for reading and I’ll see you on the other side.

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