The Xbox 360: When games get too real.

The art of play.
Dec. 15 2005 6:40 PM

The Xbox 360

What happens when video games get too real.

The Xbox 360 is the best game console ever designed. It's fast and powerful—games look as good on the 360 as on high-end PCs that cost six times as much. It's easy to navigate and has lots of useful secondary features—the ability to play digital video, stream MP3s, and so on. The lineup of launch games is solid: Call of Duty 2 (into which I've already poured too many hours) is an exceptional World War II shooter; the spy/stealth thriller Perfect Dark Zero is smooth and entertaining; the visually spectacular fantasy game Kameo: Elements of Poweris loaded with eerily beautiful backgrounds and insanely detailed battle scenes featuring hundreds of creatures. So, after spending countless hours with my 360, why do I find myself thinking: Is that all there is?

One straightforward, and already much-proffered, answer is that the games available for the 360 are, at least so far, solid but not spectacular. There's not yet a game—a Haloor a Grand Theft Auto—that will consume your life. The 360 was supposed to bring a dramatic step up in graphics and game play, but so far it's simply offering very good versions of stuff we're already familiar with. From this angle, the system is only one or two brilliant games away from living up to its hype, and once developers learn how to take advantage of the 360's capabilities, we'll see it deliver.

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This seems right (if obvious): The system can't shine unless the games do. The real question, then, is why it seems to be getting harder to make excellent games. Graphically, of course, games have never been better. But in terms of the experience of playing video games—at least in the traditional single-player form—it's not clear that we're better off today than we were a decade ago. Rankings of the best video games in history are generally dominated by older (as in pre-2001) games. This is partly a function of nostalgia, but it also reflects a widespread sense of discontent with today's games.

One source of that discontent—and one source of my disappointment with the 360—is what you might call the "paradox of realism." After a certain point, the more "real" a game gets both graphically and experientially, the harder it is for that game to seem real. When it comes to the way video-game characters appear, this phenomenon is known as "the uncanny valley." As technology improves, on-screen avatars look more and more like real people. When they start looking too real, though, we pull away. These almost-humans aren't quite right; they look creepy, like zombies.

The same logic applies to game play and narrative. After a certain amount of graphical improvement, it actually gets harder to suspend your disbelief and truly immerse yourself. The closer a game gets to resembling the real world, the ways in which it's different become more obvious, and the more psychologically jarring those differences become. Flaws that in earlier-generation games could be written off as the inevitable product of technological limitations now seem glaring and inordinately frustrating. Sometimes these are small things. Why, in Call of Duty 2, do your fellow soldiers keep running in front of you as you're drawing a bead on an enemy? Why can't two people walk through a door without getting stuck in an Alphonse-and-Gaston routine? Why can I jump over that wall but not this fence? And sometimes the flaws are bigger: Why doesn't this story make more sense? Would a person actually do this?

These flaws aren't new, and many older games that have these same flaws were similarly doing the best they could to mimic reality. But by necessity, there were limits in what these earlier titles could represent. As a result, gamers had to fill in everything that was left out—the game was often created as much in your mind as on the screen. (The extreme version of this is a text-based game like Zork, but all games require some of this kind of work.)

Today, gamers have much less imaginative work to do. But as the amount we have to fill in shrinks, the gap between representation and reality widens. This doesn't mean that we should go back to playing The Legend of Zeldaor use the 360 only to revel in the nostalgia of the old arcade games that are downloadable via Xbox Live. For one thing, the paradox of realism isn't much of an issue in online multiplayer gaming—one of the 360's great strengths. When you're in a death match on Halo 2, you're not concerned with being able to suspend disbelief—you're concerned with blowing the other guy away. There is hope for traditional single-player games. The theory of the uncanny valley posits that at some point we should be able to build avatars that are faithful enough that we can see them as human. One hopes the same is true of game play.

Game developers, though, need to recognize that the more they can do, the more they have to do. Amazing graphics and artificial intelligence are not enough to make a game that people will experience as real. One solution is to abandon, or at least be less concerned with, the quest for realism. The Grand Theft Auto games, after all, have clumsy controls, don't look especially great, and have fantastical plots. But they're amazingly well-designed and offer gamers a kind of freedom that hasn't been seen before. That ends up being more than enough to create an engaging world.

If a game does want to be realistic, it needs to be seamless; these new systems make the seams all too visible. In Perfect Dark Zero, for instance, your character is for some reason incapable of jumping, and your missions are left so unclear that the game has to provide help arrows to point you in the right direction. And if you play King Kong on a regular television, meanwhile, you'll come across scenes in which it's almost literally too dark to see where you're going. In both cases, it's hard to get immersed in a game while you're blundering into walls.

The price of cutting corners—and that's what some launch-game developers did, according to Xbox honcho J. Allard—is now very high. The artist Robert Irwin, talking about design, once said that if there were inconsistencies between the way an object looked and the way it felt, people would sense that almost immediately. That's why, Irwin said, "It's absolutely essential that everything be done all the way through." Games that are done all the way through: That's a Holy Grail worth seeking.

James Surowiecki writes the financial column at The New Yorker.

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