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August 8, 2011 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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Games – Anomalous Materials

As video games have evolved over the past 50-odd years, from curious experiments like the “cathode ray tube amusement device” and Pong ancestor Tennis for Two, to the sprawling and epic spectacle we behold today, so too has our relationship with them. Despite how advanced and complex the games we play have become, we still interact with them through physical controls—be it the ever-present and trusty button, in all its varied configurations, or other less-used technologies like motion control.

Even these have undergone continual metamorphosis throughout the years, buttons spreading like pimples over controllers and keyboards, their complexity growing in tandem with that of the virtual universes they allow you to control.

At this point in time, we sit on the cusp of what is possibly the biggest change to how we control games since the joystick gracefully gave way to the controller. The catalyst for such a change can be found in a corner of gaming that has been growing at a rate of knots that’s as startling to gamers as it is developers: mobile gaming. A soaring rise in the ubiquity and popularity of touch-screen phones and tablets has busted a hole wide open in the games market, and there are plenty of companies like Farmville creators Zynga, who are there to eagerly fill the gap and take your money. Personally I think the spreading of games and gaming culture, if only on a casual basis, to as many technologies as possible is a fantastic thing for the industry at large. But it is not without its effects on more dedicated gaming platforms, as the next generation of consoles can show us.

On the not-so-distant shores of 2012 lies the first in a new generation of gaming consoles: Nintendo’s attempt to leap back into the “hardcore” gaming market, the Wii-u. The Wii-u is a sleek-looking little box, boasting high-definition graphics for the first time on a Nintendo console and controlled by what is essentially a touch-screen tablet with the standard controller configuration of buttons on the sides and back of it. Pretty nifty, but the most interesting part about this console is what Nintendo say they are planning to do with that extra screen. Have you ever been playing your favourite Zelda game and started to get bored of having to access your inventory through a menu function in-game? No? Well, er, now you never will be. Because look down. There’s your inventory, your stats, your quest log, whatever you want! Right in front of you! You never have to deal with a fiddly in-game interface again. Now I may be exaggerating a little, but the concept of a personal screen outside of the main game itself is exciting if only in terms of its potential. Another fancy feature: you’re playing a game on your big-ass HD television, but person X wants to use said television for something other than watching you play videogames. Turn off the console and concede to Shortland Street? Fuck no. You can stream the game straight to the controller’s screen, in full HD, just as you were playing it ten seconds ago. That’s pretty cool. Let’s just hope that there are some decent release titles for the console, and that it won’t end up like the half-baked reception that the company’s recently released 3DS handheld received.

As far as the next generation of consoles goes for Sony and Microsoft, there have only been whisperings and rumours at this stage. It’s entirely likely that both companies will sit back and let the pre- and post-sale hype for the Wii-u wash over them, biding their time and seeing how gamers respond to the innovative new control scheme which, besides being incredibly costly to produce, is also fairly risky. See, buttons have been the mainstay of game controllers over the past few decades for a good reason. Having something rest comfortably in your palms allowing you the least possible movement to control your game avatar brings you far closer to the dream of seamless man-machine interface than waving your arms around in your living room or pawing at a touch screen ever can be. In saying this though, there are so many opportunities presented with Nintendo’s new gamble that it’s almost difficult to comprehend right now. Interaction between the Sony’s handheld PS-Vita and the PS3 may pave the way for a similar experience in the near future, but until something more solid comes out of Sony and Microsoft, we will have to keep, as they say, watching the skies.

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