Game On: Kinect doesn’t boost immersion – it kills it
Kinect

With Kinect Sports Rivals getting a decidedly mixed reception, Mark Butler argues that Microsoft’s motion gaming device actively takes players out of the action – rather than drawing them into it.

Kinect

You are the controller.”

Sound familiar? Proponents of motion control system Kinect argue that it potentially provides the most absorbing and direct kind of gaming interaction possible.

After all, the on-screen movements of your avatar directly reflect your own movements, and as such you are intrinsically linked to the action in a more tangible way than ever before. Right?

Wrong.

This line of thought is, of course, complete and utter nonsense. And the key problem has been staring us in the face for some time now.

The simple truth is that leaping around in your lounge while flailing your limbs and yelling is about as immersion-breaking as someone throwing ice-cold water over you during a lengthy Skyrim session. And it’s a flaw that severely limits the device’s gaming scope.

Kinect simply does not draw the player further into the experience. In fact, it actively distances them from it. The issue is both a technological and psychological one.

Firstly, interpreting physical actions leaves a lot of room for error – certainly more than a simple push of a button – and this kind of rough translation has been dogging Kinect-based titles for years now.

On the 360, such technical bugbears rendered the likes of Rise Of Nightmares and – on a more extreme level – Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor, completely frustrating to play, if not downright un-playable. What possibility could there be of immersion then?

Kinect 2.0 is definitely an improvement, but the implementation remains woefully inconsistent.

In the case of critically savaged Xbox One flop Fighter Within, controlling the game is such a jaw-dropping nightmare that even navigating the menus is enough to drive a person insane. You can’t really be absorbed by a game when such simple tasks prove so infuriatingly out of reach.

But even if the Kinect works perfectly and the game is beautifully designed, using your body to facilitate the action on screen is inherently an immersion-destroying affair.

In his review of Kinect Sports Rivals, Eurogamer writer Simon Parkin neatly sums-up the fundamental issue with Microsoft’s motion-gaming system:

“There is something existentially weird about being asked by a game to pretend to straddle a jet ski in front of a television screen,” he writes.

“Played with friends, there is humour to the mime. But played alone or in earnest, as this game urges, you cannot help but feel ridiculous. The stark reality of the make-believe is fully revealed.”

Using Kinect to mimic real-world action is an embarrassing ordeal of self-conscious stupidity.

Pretending to turn an imaginary steering wheel; punching the air to fend off an attacker; miming a trigger pull to blast at a target: all these things only serve to remind the player that they are in fact merely playing a game. There is no illusion. There is no immersion. It’s all a rather awkward exercise in daft amateur dramatics.

The humble control pad remains the ideal tool for immersion, freeing you to focus your full attention on the screen while your fingers issue commands on an almost subconscious level – allowing your mind to focus on what it’s seeing and hearing, and your imagination to take flight.

With Kinect you focus so much on what your body is doing, and your actual, physical surroundings, that there’s simply no time or possibility to lose yourself in the experience.

Popular hardcore games are already perfectly well served by that beautiful antique innovation known as the control pad, and nothing breaks the spell more than prancing around like a tit in your living room –  just as nothing makes less sense than manually turning to look, or rearranging your stance to move, when a mere flick of a single analogue stick would suffice.

We all know that Microsoft’s original motion-gaming toy sold like hotcakes at launch – but just how many of those same devices ended up sitting unused and idle on the living room shelf, gathering more and more layers of dust as the months slipped by?

Bundling Kinect 2.0 with the Xbox One – increasing the launch price of the console substantially – was a huge risk. And it’s supremely doubtful that it’s paid off.

Using voice commands and hand gestures can be fun, but as the basis for a fundamental gaming experience in itself, Kinect feels like a totally mis-judged exercise: a mildly diverting and impressive peripheral that they’ve tried to mistakenly bill as a paradigm shift in a hurricane of adverts, slogans and hype.

The only titles that seem to work well on Kinect are novelty party games and dance sims – games where immersion is not actually a necessary aspect of the experience, and you can simply have fun prancing around like a loon with your friends.

Much like 3D in cinema, Kinect is not some giant revolutionary leap forward. It’s a fad. A gimmick. And each new high-profile release only serves to underline how little it adds to the progression of the gaming medium.

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