Tuesday, November 25, 2008

In defense of WiiMusic

The game industry needs to grow up.

It's young and as a medium, games provide so many opportunities that aren't being taken.

I think the industry needs the gaming equivalents of Driving Miss Daisy and Life is Beautiful, but increasingly, it seems gamers and game developers, when considering making games that appeal to "grown ups" are limiting themselves to Saving Private Ryan. That narrow-minded approach is perhaps causing players and designers alike to completely ignore one of the most amazing titles of the year, Wii Music.

Movie = Observed, Game = Involved
On the way out of Disneyland last week I was talking to my kids about the new Toy Story ride. The ride is like a video game with 3D screens and a gun (cannon?) that you use to fire at various targets. It's an amazing ride that is a lot of fun, especially for someone who really enjoys games.

I told my 5-year-old that she should tell her Mom all about it, and she stopped me and said "But Dad, you told us not to tell Mom about Movies." It was a great moment for me to stop and think. For her, she couldn't see the difference between a movie and a game. She'd been told many times not to tell Mom about movie endings so as to not ruin the movie, and she thought this game/ride was the same thing.

Of course the ride is nothing like a movie. In describing it, I wouldn't talk about the story, and there is absolutely no way I could ruin it for you because you have to experience it to understand it. While there are some games like movies, I think the greatest strength of games is the fact that they are an 'experience.'

A 'Mini-Rant'
However, it seems that despite interactive being an integral part of games, when attempting to discuss how to make games that tackle more 'grown-up' issues we often limit our approach to that of movies and other observer types of media.

Books, movies and music are all bad comparisons with the whole of what video games offers as a medium. They all make statements to the audience instead of involving the audience in the statement. Interactivity is what gaming offers that makes it the most amazing form of entertainment and media of our time. Interactivity can provide a way for people to experience things and broaden their minds in ways that no other form of media can do. I believe gaming will struggle to be all it can be if we only consider a narrow band of what gaming can be.

Microsoft's Xbox 360 has become the favorite system for gamers. (at least in the US if no-where else) The type of game given the largest advertising budget over the 4 Christmases it's been available, has been amazingly constant:
2005 - Perfect Dark
2006 - Gears of War
2007 - Halo 3
2008 - Gears of War 2
That list I find amazingly disappointing because the approach is all in the same little box. Where Microsoft is putting its top advertising dollars is a very strong statement about who the gaming industry is. I don't want to take anything away from the games, they are great. The problem is, when we look at our efforts to make the industry grow-up or better appeal to adults, placing so much focus on such a narrow slice of gaming, hurts the industry. If we limit ourselves to trying to discuss weighty matters that are of real significance within such a small approach vector, we are condemning video games to a limited role in society.

So why the rant?
After watching E3, I scratched WiiMusic off my 'get' list. I was sure Nintendo and Shigero Miyamoto had lost their collective minds. In the weeks leading to the game's release, I watched the occasional video and read snipits on gamer blogs about the game, trying to grasp what the point was. During that time, it was easy to join the 'haven't played the game, but somehow understand it enough to hate it' mass that seem to define gamers of our day.

The first crack to my shell came from reading a piece from Stephen Totillo on MTV Multiplayer talking about the moment he 'got' the game while playing Every Breath you Take. I'm a fan of Sting and of Stephen's honest writing style, he had me interested.

Then I watched a video from JC Rodrigo on YouTube. I was further interested and thought the game would be worth a try at least and since I had a $25 gift-card to use, so it wouldn't be like a full-priced game anyway.

I've put in over 10 hours on WiiMusic in the short time I've owned it, and I feel like I haven't scratched the surface. It is a game unlike any other I've played, the closest thing that comes to it is WiiFit. (another much misunderstood and much maligned game by "gamers") WiiFit has made me think about myself and my health in a way that I never got out of a movie or any book. By being an experience I was having instead of something I was observing, it much more strongly impacted me.

Another tangent - WiiFit
Simply weighing myself every couple of days and doing simple exercises changed my perception. I became aware of how I balanced my body on my heels and started mentally trying to correct this. I realized how positive an impact exercising (outside of the game) had on my weight. I also had fun in a new and different way. I came to love several of the balance board games and looked forward to playing them for a few minutes as a reward for doing some of the exercises. I didn't play the game daily and play it much less now that I've had it for 6 months, but it has impacted my life. It has changed my perception of myself and my health and has done so by being a video game that pushed the boundaries in a way that made most gamers uncomfortable and has brought it under a lot of scorn. I bristle when I hear such things. If I never play the game again, I can say it impacted my life in a positive way, in a way that no other form of media could, and I'm pretty amazed by that.

So back to WiiMusic.
I've enjoyed singing in choirs and when I was younger I played in bands. I play piano pretty badly, but not horribly (which is how I play guitar). I like music and enjoy a wide variety of it (my interests are far from satiated by the play lists in Guitar Hero and Rock Band). Despite coming from what I thought was a pretty solid music background, WiiMusic made me 'get' music in a way I'd never gotten it before.

The game includes a few music lessons, and in one of them, you play each piece of a band on Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. It seemed dumb, and I was somewhat affronted by playing such a silly song, but no-one was watching, so I played on. Playing each piece, one at a time, seeing how different they were, and then seeing how it all came together to make something that sounded so rich and full was really amazing to me. All the parts were so diverse, but all the sounds jelled together so well. I of course had understood this concept before, but actually playing every part, made me understand it in a way I never had before. Ever since, as I hear music, I'm picking out the parts and thinking about them in a different way that I can't quite explain other than to say I feel like my mind has been awoken.

Of course that was really just the beginning of my love of WiiMusic. Playing the songs in the game, it turns out, is really a challenge. Though most people I talk to think they get that each part is different, in practice, everyone just waves their remove or presses buttons like a mad fool, creating noise, lots of noise, and very little music that sounds interesting.

Playing a song well, at least my definition of well, which isn't quite Peter Gabriel, but nonetheless pretty intense, is hard, really hard. I played Motzart's 'A Little Night Music' over and over with my wife. Each time we'd finish and either she or I would say that we'd messed up on timing or in rhythm that made one part of the song or another sound garbagy, like we were a band learning how to play together, which in fact is exactly what we were doing.

Then there came that moment, after an hour plus of rehashing and playing the same song over and over again, where we really did jell together. It created the same sensation of accomplishment that I got when doing piano recitals and band concerts years ago. We really sounded pretty good. However, in watching the video, we saw areas where we could do better.

That's just one of the great moments in the game. An even more amazing moment comes as you push past making a particular song sound great and start making it sound like it is yours. That's when my creative side starts tweaking things, changing parts, timing and rhythm. Out of that, something new is created and I feel alive. It's the main reason I make games for a living. I love that feeling. WiiMusic provides an amazing workshop where you can create and tinker in a way that has never been done before, and in a way that only video games can do. It has opened my mind to a new world and left me humming my own favorite remixes of tunes that I created.

For me, I am really saddened by the negative reviews and comments that I've seen by the game. Based on the game's low sales, I'd guess that most of the people commenting about it haven't played it, or if they have, it was a brief experience at a friend's house.

WiiMusic isn't WiiSports. The first little bit may be fun, but it's not immediately accessible in the way WiiSports is. It takes time and experimenting, and a little bit of putting yourself into it to understand it. One I 'got' it, it changed my perspective about what games for adults should be like.

Some games can change the way you think and act by giving you information that you can only learn by experiencing it. WiiMusic did that for me. The fact that games are an experience is one of their greatest strengths! WiiMusic, I think, really capitalized on this.

...and it did it in a mature way, at least the way I think of mature -- that of expanding your thinking and changing your perceptions.

For any who have considered the game but passed on it, I hope you'll reconsider.