At Wednesday night’s “unveiling” of the PlayStation 4 in New York, Sony did not show us the PlayStation 4, which makes this the most postmodern unveiling I’ve ever attended. However, the various Sony honchos who took the stage at the Manhattan Center auditorium did describe the heart of the machine. It’s “the gamer,” or maybe it’s the “consumer”—same thing, apparently. The word “social” was used as a noun at many points, as it, too, lies at the core of the PlayStation 4. And then there’s the “supercharged PC architecture.” You want gigabytes? Brother, you can have all the gigabytes you need.
And apparently the world’s game developers need them. One after another, self-respecting game creators took the stage to shake their heads and lament the severe “limitations” they have been forced to endure prior to the advent of the PlayStation 4. If it’s unseemly for representatives of a multi-billion-dollar mass media industry to whine about the constraints on their creativity, that didn’t seem to bother any of the men (there were no women) who regurgitated Sony’s pipe-dream talking points last night.
To hear these guys talk, the greatness of the heretofore unseen (and still unseen) PlayStation 4 is matched only by the awfulness of the PlayStation 3. Lead System Architect Mark Cerny explained—in a patronizing story-time tone reminiscent of Bobby Jindal’s 2009 star turn—that we have the internet now, and people like to be on the internet all the time, but “there are limitations to the experiences [the PlayStation 3] can provide in this new world.”
A producer from Sony’s Evolution Studios said that he and his colleagues had been sitting on their idea for a global peer-to-peer team-based persistent-connection trophy speed online network synergy car game for a decade. They even trademarked the name, DriveClub. You can see why they’d want to lock that down. The trouble is, they were never able to make it until now—apparently because the PlayStation 3 didn’t have enough social. The Evolution producer then showed us how DriveClub players can challenge online friends to beat their best race times, a feature already present in practically every racing game made in the past two years.
It was an evening of cognitive dissonance. For the first half hour, Sony’s people exhausted their buzzword thesaurus telling us how the PlayStation 4’s technology will make “new experiences” possible. “In the past, creators’ visions have been constrained by the limitations of technology,” said executive David Perry, but not anymore.
This proclamation of a new era was followed by a trailer for Killzone: Shadow Fall that was indistinguishable from countless other trailers we’ve seen for first-person shooters in the past. It hit all the standard plot points. The fresh-faced recruit hops off the troop transport. A building blows up. Much loud shooting ensues. (Here’s a rule of thumb. If the title of your game contains a colon, odds are it’s not a “new experience.”) Later, representatives of the Japanese studios Capcom and Square Enix stopped by to show the audience that they planned to make PlayStation 4 games with dragons in them. Sony’s tired thesis, the notion that more technology necessarily produces innovative artistry, was convincingly refuted by the content of its own event. It was like watching the Flat Earth Society unveil the year’s hottest new globes.
Even when the ideas were somewhat fresh, there was no guarantee that they would have any appeal. During a discussion of a new app “ecosystem” that barfs PlayStation all over your phone/tablet or any other device, a breathless Sony flack imagined one fantasy that would soon come true: On your telephone, you will be able to watch video clips of other people playing a fighting game, decide which opponents you would like to fight, and then challenge those people to fight (later, when you’re using the actual PlayStation 4). You can tell we live in a privileged society when we have to work this hard inventing things to desire.
On the other hand, Sony promises to solve plenty of first-world problems that really do exist. The new system will not take so long to start up—you’ll be able to pause, put the system in a sort of sleep mode like a laptop, and then start back up where you left off. The tedious process of downloading games to the PS3 will also be streamlined on the PS4. Not only will you be able to begin playing games before they’re fully downloaded, but the PS4 will also assess your tastes and pre-download portions of games it thinks you will like. It’s a clever idea that would essentially reduce the download time for a game purchase to zero (although it’s probably impractical for players whose internet providers enforce a monthly data cap). On the other hand, there’s a certain creepiness to it—Sony is essentially saying that it will mine your personal information to determine which stuff you’re most likely to buy, advertise only that stuff on your console, and act like it’s doing you a favor.
The PS4’s emphasis on a console tailor-made for YOU is the culmination of a recent trend in which Sony has made the PlayStation (or at least the marketing thereof) all about ego reinforcement. The company’s executives flagellate themselves at the altar of The Gamer. “The living room is no longer the center of the PlayStation ecosystem—the gamer is,” said Andrew House, who runs Sony’s game division. He insisted that the PlayStation will “give gamers the experience they want, and frankly that they deserve.” House had a nice line reading here, with a touch of shame on the last bit. It’s as if he were confessing that the last 20 years of Sony game consoles had been a fraud perpetrated on the poor, innocent players who were dumb enough to purchase such inferior machines.
What gamers deserve, according to Sony, is more of the same, made marginally shinier. The man from the Evolution studio breathlessly told the crowd that some of the DriveClub cars featured virtual carbon-fiber exteriors in which the physical response of every thread in the fiber is calculated separately. More than one producer marveled at the increased number of “polygons” he was now able to cram into his latest predictable genre sequel—“polygons” being industry lingo for “size of penis.”
The evening’s one aberration was Braid creator Jonathan Blow, who talked about The Witness, his upcoming open-world puzzle game. Taking the stage after a litany of let’s-blow-stuff-up trailers, he cracked, “I don’t know how I can follow all those explosions.” His segment of the event alternated between a cogent exploration of the lazy design choices that plague many mainstream games and Blow’s own determination to avoid those mistakes in The Witness. A lot of open-world games try to wow you with bigness and include a lot of filler, Blow said—true that—but in The Witness he tried to make the island world as compact and dense as possible, so that every inch of the surroundings was a potential point of interest.
Savvy self-promotion? Sure. But it was refreshing to hear someone argue that smart games require a conceptual shift rather than an injection of supercharged-PC-architecture steroids.
If Blow was a high point, his follow-up act—Heavy Rain creator David Cage—provided a counterbalance. “When people ask me what feature I want in future consoles, my answer is always the same: emotion,” Cage said. (Never mind that “emotion” was explicitly advertised as a feature of the PlayStation 2—the PlayStation 2 is old, and therefore it is a shitbox of lies.) He then launched into a cretinous analysis of media history. Cage asked us to consider black-and-white silent films. Their images were indistinct, Cage noted, and the actors had to exaggerate their actions. These films struggled to convey emotion because the technology was just too darn limited. Cage argued that until the PS4, video games have been akin to those old worthless silent movies. But because the new box has a super-fast processor, games will finally be able to convey emotion.
On the big screen behind Cage, he illustrated his points with scenes from Edwin Porter’s 1903 silent film The Great Train Robbery, which is only one of the most important and influential motion pictures ever made. Touring the nation to sellout crowds for years, The Great Train Robbery introduced the concept of cross-cutting—in which the action on screen cuts back and forth between two scenes taking place at the same time, creating remarkable dramatic tension. So, to recap, Porter expanded the cinematic vocabulary in a way that forever affected the way we perceive moving images, and David Cage saw fit to look down his nose at him.
As Cage was wrapping up his lament over the inherent terribleness of early film, the most iconic shot of The Great Train Robbery appeared behind him: A bandit shooting his gun directly at the audience. That image was more arresting than any of the glitzy, high-polygon explosions that Sony shoveled into our eyeballs last night. And it crystallized the deepest fallacy of the whole affair—the idea that creativity needs to be free of limitations.
Creativity thrives under limitations. People who love games understand this implicitly, since the best players find the most creative ways to succeed within the confines of the rules. The Great Train Robbery is a masterpiece not in spite of its limitations but because of them. So if David Cage doesn’t think he can produce an emotional work of art with a PlayStation 3 and an eight-figure budget, maybe he shouldn’t be in the art-making business.
Expanding the technological capabilities of our game machines is not inherently bad, but treating new tech as a magic bullet is a self-destructive delusion (if a familiar one). The reason that so many games suck is not because the technology is too modest. The reason that so many games suck is because so many games suck. Making art is hard. No microchip changes that.
And yet Sony’s developers insist on the myth of “more.” More polygons and more gigabytes because surely this time, they will lead to the promised land of creative expression. In practice, this dogma hasn’t done much to improve games. Quite the opposite. As production budgets balloon and the cost of entry shuts out independent voices, the worship of “more” is likely to be the ruination of console gaming as we know it. The industry’s arms race with itself simply is not sustainable. Yet here’s Sony, blithely promising to build a bigger gun. They’d better watch out—the recoil’s a bitch.