Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Pass the wiimote on the left-hand side


Sitting around a cozy kitchen table in the late-afternoon cool of the year’s first real summery Saturday, the requisite Coronas – sunshine beer! -- washing down a loaves-and-fishes joint of scavenged cheeba, the conversation somehow (my fault?) turns from whatever it had been – gardening, travel, Arrested Development, poutine – to the topic of videogames and their mind-bending near future.

I think it was the upcoming release of the Opera web browser for the Nintendo DS that got us started; at least, that’s what I gather from my notes scribbled on the back of the Wild Rose Brewery & Taproom flyer promising me of 15% off any drinkable, eatable or wearable next time I’m in Calgary. Stoners who care seem to agree: the combination of dual screens, touch interface, full wi-fi web browser, massive installed base and commodity pricing – and also, you know, games – means… something. Something big. Much of my noted discussion is obscured by a later sketch diagramming my plans to camperize my minivan, but from what I can make out we were excited about the possibility of some kind of internet phone application – no more quarters to The Man!

Easier to make out, in big block letters laid down with a firm hand, is a phrase I wish I could seal in a Quantum Envelope and mail back in time to the Beat poets:

“MOTION SENSING IS THE NEW RUMBLE”

No surprise the party partisans are down with the Wii, when they can get it. All that arm-waving and carrying-on not only provides a fun vector of entry for non- or casual gamers (that’s code for “girls”) but also acts to counteract the screen stereotype of the slack-jawed stoner, swaddled in a stinky alpaca poncho someone left at his place, twitch-clutching the control pad as Super Nintendo bleeps and explosions emanate from the perfectly good TV somebody just totally left in the alley, dude. Images of fun-buzzed young hipsters prancing around like giddy fauns with wiimotes are going to be key in our upcoming “Today’s 420!” image-rehabilitation marketing campaign, alongside chic lady CEOs with posing with their Vuitton vaporizers and smiling astronauts hotboxing the ISS. Coming soon to a bus shelter near you.

Anyway, the New Rumble. In a recent entry on games blog Destructoid, poster Reverend Anthony ran down his list of the “top five gameplay innovations to look forward to this year,” and right there in the middle – between the “procedural generation” of Will Wright’s Spore and the real-time conversation system in BioWare’s Mass Effect -- was the first thing my Friends Indeed and I thought of when the Wii concept was unveiled: swordfighting! Specifically, true motion-tracking, one-to-one swordfighting, unlike the, sub-Morrowind slash-triggering of Red Steel, which was as disappointing as getting a “Lettuce Garden Kid” for Christmas in 1983. Realistic blade battling of the type wishfully mimed by every nerd who picks up a wiimote would be the killer app for motion sensing; how you gonna keep ‘em down on the button-pressing farm, once they’ve seen sword-swinging Paree?

Deep technical and design problems lie in the way of realizing our D&D dreams. One that worries me is a sort of feedback deficiency: onscreen, your flashing blade will now and then be blocked by solid objects – other swords, trees, people’s skulls, etc. – while your actual arm goes wwhiffff through the air. How do we get that delicious curtain rod-on-curtain rod feeling of contact that makes fake swordfighting so fun? The wiimote’s anemic rumbler is inadequate to the arm-rattling task; what we need is a special swordfighting wiimote with beefed-up feedback, a heavy-ass hilt packing one of those old-school pinball kickers that’ll splinter your damn ulna. OK, one problem solved.

More fundamental: you ever watch people playing Wii Sports tennis – or, dear Lord, Wii Sports boxing? It’s random, frantic, desperate and not a little dangerous to bystanders. Any swordfighting game is going to be Dark Honor: Legends of the Blademaster on the box but Random Beating: Flailings of the Spastic in play – especially in a multiplayer game; might as well simulate seal clubbing, or a LARP session. But we – our ancestors, actually -- may have solved this problem, according to another bit of scrawl from the flap of a pack of du Mauriers. See, at the dawn of the modern age, dudes had a similar difficulty. It was necessary to turn the barbarity of sword-butchery into a gentlemanly pursuit: fencing. Over time, a complex framework of rules governing the flow of combat were developed. Basically, the first fencer to “establish a threat” has priority, or “right-of-way”, meaning his hits will take precedence over those of his opponent, even if said opponent has… he…zzzzzzzzzzzz…

Huh? OK, maybe not such an exciting idea. I’m sure Nintendo or one of their third-party developers will figure out how to make swordfighting work on the Wii. Or… well… hey! It doesn’t even have to be on the Wii! Sony’s launching a new camera peripheral for the PS3 that could support decent motion-tracking capabilities, and their controller infrastructure already supports Sixaxis tilt-sensing… shit, it all adds up! Motion sensing is the new rumble; Sony’s going to sneak out from under the cover of their dark cloud of early marketing mistakes and eat Nintendo’s lunch with a wiimote knockoff!

I ought to be snobby, dismissive, indignant or otherwise fanboyish about Sony’s biting the Wii thing, but somehow I can’t muster it; the daydreaming legions of gamer-stoners are getting impatient, on side with whoever manages to deliver the rattle and clash of real-time swordfighting to their flag-curtained squats.

I mean, to their airy urban-minimalist lofts. Today’s 420!