The Games That Mobile Santa Forgot

by , Dec 22, 2011, 2:31 PM
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“So what are you playing lately?” I ask my daughter and her friends regularly. While I gave up the fruitless and misguided effort to be a cool dad eons ago, the one thing I do know about my daughter’s generation is that video games are their signature art form. The fastest route through the adolescent wall of parental contempt is to talk zombie-massacre strategies in Left for Dead.

My daughter’s shotgun skills are legion, and it doesn’t scare me a bit. Other parents may be put off by the eccentric violence of modern video games, blood spray from head kills and kids celebrating high body counts. As the father of a teen girl who attracted boys as efficiently as high schoolers activate serial killers in slasher films, I always figured my girl was working on handy skills I wanted her to have. Just remember, dear, when your pimply-faced, hormone-addled date gets ungentlemanly, Hitman 2 taught you at least three ways to stop his heart with a credit card. Just in case a Plasma Gun is not at hand.

One of my proudest moments as a dad was when my daughter was mopping the floor with a gang of gamers in online multiplayer Halo. I overheard the following male chatter broadcast over headsets: “Hey! It’s a frickin’ girl playing that character!” That's what they said in embarrassed astonishment when they had all had their asses handed to them. Those are the times you know deep in your heart you did a good job as a parent. 

At some point in 20 or 30 years we will figure out how to talk about video gaming’s place in media history. Because of its lingering and false association with young boys and ineractivity rather than story, neither media critics nor media analysts have known exactly where to fit it in. Back in the '90s I was writing some of the earliest pieces for Happy Puppy (remember that one, old-timers?) about whether video games were art, a question that gets recycled relentlessly now.

Art or not, gaming is a critically important part of the media mix for at least a generation -- maybe two generations -- of consumers. Mobile platforms have played an important role in their evolution. The app model and touch interface have sparked a wave of great innovation both in design and play mechanics. Divorced at long last from the PC/console obsession with increasingly complex gameplay and hyper-realism, mobile platforms freed designers to get surreal and simple, to craft candy-like experiences for a much broader range of players who were defined as “casual,” but in fact at least as devoted to gaming as the purported “hard-core.” Everyday life is just a little more pleasant because of these creations.

If there is one next great stage for mobile gaming, it is in multi-screen gameplay and seamless cross-platform experiences. Despite the great number of wonderful gaming experience available to smartphones and tablets, I am still frustrated that more great gaming experiences aren’t now as on-demand, continuous and ubiquitous as my Netflix queue, Weather Channel or email.

One of the most creepy and eerie-beautiful games this year came from a side scrolling adventure called Limbo. It appeared first as a download on PCs and consoles. On a grayscale landscape, you move a silhouette of a young boy through a bizarre world of shadowy traps and hidden monsters that are chilling when they appear. The price of failure is watching this small child impaled or decapitated, again in eerie silhouette.

Sounds evil, but Limbo is not just a great game. It may be one of the most absorbing, emotionally effective aesthetic experiences I have had this year.

Which is why its absence from mobile or tablet app stores frustrates me to no end. I want to be able to do with this game what I can do already with Neflix and HBO Go, or now with Flipboard and Zite: tap into my ongoing experience with the media from multiple devices in different modes.

I recall speaking at length with a few companies about their forthcoming integrations of mobile functionality with console games at least six or seven years ago. Square-Enix and UIEvolution in particular were working on ways of letting mobile customers access role-playing characters from their Final Fantasy console games and actually modify and advance the character on the go on handsets so the changes would affect gameplay when back at the console. I heard similar things from EA about The Sims and now more recently from Microsoft about Windows Phone 7 and the Xbox 360. Whoever finally gets this kind of cross-platform game execution right will hold the keys to next-gen gaming experiences, I think

For now, I would like to see developers releasing more games across all platforms, including mobile all at once. But, more to the point, I want to see them work on making the TV anywhere idea work with gaming. I want to be able to play Limbo on my Xbox 360 while my daughter kibitzes, but then continue on my smartphone or tablet in bed where I left off.

My daughter can massacre zombies and assassinate space marines like nobody’s business. This aging gamer dad still knows how to outsmart a tree-dwelling 20-foot-tall spider by bear-trapping his spiny legs. But I need a little pre-game practice in order to impress the kid that dad’s still got game.

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