Searching For Whimsy...And Inspiration

About two hours into playing Activision’s hyper-realistic war shooter "Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare" I started feeling uncomfortable. It struck me that I was shooting people, virtual although they may be. This is a strange thought to hit a veteran gamer. Back in the day I fragged with the best of them…through "Wolfenstein," "Doom," "Quake," "Unreal" and countless adventure-based derivations of the first-person shooter motif. This was a funny time to get religion and cop to the obvious bloodlust that underpins much of video game interactivity. But I have to admit that the level of realism, visual and aural, in "COD: AW" took me by surprise. It is a tour de force in many ways. The movie-like tug of the narrative compels interactivity and learning as you go. Dimensional sound and headset chatter from commanders thrust you into the firefight sensation. And the human modeling of every character, including an animated Kevin Spacey, vaults the uncanny valley into reasonable verisimilitude.

And the full effect of this unprecedented narrative and immersive achievement in video gaming is that it feels like I am shooting people to an unsettling degree. I began feeling guilty.  

And so I fled the hyper-realism of COD for the equally well-made "Dragon Age: Inquisitor," the latest in a role-playing franchise. Here, too, the graphics prowess and 3D modeling of the latest generation consoles (Xbox One in this case) is leveraged toward a kind of fantasy realism. We get beads of sweat and highly articulated faces on humans and every hair and spot of grime on otherworldy beasts. The net effect is brilliant in drawing you into these worlds, even if you may feel as if you need a shower afterwards.

It occurred to me that the place to find sheer fantastic verve and anti-realism is the mobile universe of gaming. While there are a number of indie console developers who are using non-realistic and illustrative motifs ("Limbo" and "Journey" come to mind), most of the high profile console games follow a hyper-realistic and somber bias. There is a clear line of demarcation developing between the aesthetics of console gaming and that of handheld and mobile gaming. If you want whimsy, pick up a handheld.

Media and marketing professionals would do well to spend some time this holiday gaming on both consoles and handhelds to rediscover what well-done media experiences are all about. For instance, for all of its failure this cycle in the console wars, Nintendo continues an impressive run on its 3DS. The latest chapter in the Pokemon RPG saga is not kid stuff when it comes to the richness of the world created. These collectible warriors are all the progenitors of the cute and cuddly game heroes that now dominate mobile. But the playthings in Pokemon games actually evolve, and maintain our interest because they mature both qualitatively as fighters and visually as digital avatars.

Just as mobile video can be more absorbing than the more cluttered and distracting desktop viewer window, gaming on handsets offers unique sorts of immersion and even claustrophobia. The recent adventure game series "The Silent Age" is set in a dystopian future who main environmental is eerie quiet. The game insists you experience it with headphones at start. It deliberately drops you into a slowly paced but absorbing gamescape that feels composed of construction paper cutouts. The game exemplifies the impact visually and aurally of minimalism. The still or missing details in the game are made more involving from the coordination of visual and soundscapes.

These are all instances of mobile games that are moving beyond leveraging only the touch interface but are exploring the unique experience of handhelds.

Likewise, some games are beginning to think harder about the mobile space. "Monument Valley," which uses M.C. Escher-like perspective tricks as part of the game play, is among the most inspired games I have seen this year. It plays with the 2D plane of a touchscreen to change your perception of how pieces fit together and create unlikely new planes merely by changing perspective on an object. The vertical scroll of gameplay has the avatar climbing ever higher, essentially reverse scrolling up the screen. While early mobile-first games like "Angry Birds" and "Fruit Ninja" played with the basics of touch, these games are widening the scope of “mobile-first” by thinking about the aural element -- the ways in which we encounter space and perspective on a small handheld screen.

As is so often the case in digital evolution, gaming is often scouting the parameters of design sense and crafting immersive spaces for users. these are all techniques that media and marketing can lean back this holiday season and learn. So-called “gamification” that uses rewards and challenge-based design to compel interaction is only halfway to understanding the full dimensions of gaming’s importance and value.    

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