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Gaming Without a Controller

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Posted on September 3, 2011 AT 09:01pm

A year before Wii U, L.A. Noire is already a game for everyone

At the pins-and-needles climax of his company’s E3 2011 conference, Nintendo of America president and COO Reggie Fils-Aime promised that the freshly unveiled Wii U and its innovative controller would lead to that ever-elusive dream target market that no console—not even the Wii—has delivered up until now: equal appeal to both the hardcore and casual audiences.

But a week earlier, I’d already experienced Fils-Aime’s vision: I’d spent the night playing L.A. Noire with my casual-gamer girlfriend. And when I took to Twitter the next day, I’d found that two of my friends had also spent the previous night playing L.A. Noire with their significant others. What was it about this game in particular that naturally led to gaming-as-a-couple? After all, even though one of my exes had an absolute addiction to Animal Crossing, I wouldn’t exactly describe it fondly as a romantic activity!

Rockstar’s hard-boiled 1940s detective yarn may technically be a single-player game, but its cinematic feel and chaptered narrative structure really make it a multiplayer experience. See, I’m a decent game player—I can handle L.A. Noire’s Tommy gun shootouts with relative ease—but I’m notoriously terrible at reading people and faces, while my girlfriend’s really into detective shows like NCIS and Bones and much more familiar at sussing out whodunit. Together, we had a deeply rewarding gaming experience—even though I was the only one holding the controller.

Inspired by L.A. Noire’s Cole Phelps, I decided to do some detective work of my own at E3 and investigate just how deep this phenomenon cut. I found stories of gamers not just playing with their significant others, but even with their parents—something unheard of with previous Rockstar Games titles like Grand Theft Auto. During our post-conference Wii U chat, I asked the console’s software lead, Katsuya Eguchi, for his reaction to my findings. While he was coy about whether Nintendo had plans to deliver a cinematic experience on the level of L.A. Noire or Heavy Rain, he did agree that a shared experience with a flesh-and-blood partner is at the heart of his philosophy.

“For me, what’s most important is that experience of playing with someone, the shared experience of moving through that environment with someone, whether it’s cooperative or competitive,” he says. “That’s something I always try to include in my games, because it’s a huge part of the takeaway. When you walk away from the game, you’ll have something that you’ve shared with someone very close to you.”

For years, pundits have touted online multiplayer as the ideal of “social gaming.” But for me, no gaming experience has felt more disconnected. Nameless, faceless, gun-toting space marines whose vocabulary consists of racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs? There’s nothing communal about that. There’s nothing intimate about that. There’s nothing social about that. Intimate, cinematic, narrative experiences are what I’m after when it comes to multiplayer gaming, whatever form those take.

Tore Blystad, game director on the upcoming Hitman: Absolution, agrees, and his team at IO Interactive is taking a much more cinematic approach with this version than previous series entries. “For me, personally, the cinematic experience, the immersion into the game, is by far the most important thing.” he says. “I don’t really care about online multiplayer experiences—games like Red Dead Redemption and Heavy Rain are what inspire me.”

So while the Wii U controller might come packed with 13 buttons and a host of technological wonders, it won’t be the most important aspect of appealing to hardcore and casual gamers alike. I’d also encourage Nintendo to take inspiration from these innovate cinematic experiences we’ve seen over the past couple of years—after all, the most immersive gaming experiences draw you into a world without even holding a controller.

Andrew Fitch, Managing Editor
Andrew Fitch, a proud Japanese RPG and serial-comma enthusiast, has been attending E3 for close to a decade now. His least-proud moment? That time in 2004 when, suffering from utter exhaustion, he decided to take a break on the creepy, dilapidated—and possibly cursed—La-Z-Boy at Konami’s Silent Hill booth. Follow Andrew’s adventures in avoiding cursed furniture at his Twitter feed: @twittch. Meet the rest of the crew.

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