To put a games console at the heart of your house is to create a magic circle into which you can step with total attention – and which in return grants access to digital realms crafted to enthral, engage and amaze. As many have pointed out, the $50-plus price point of “triple-A” console games looks like an anachronism at a time when top-notch apps can be had for a dollar, while soaring budgets are a major issue for developers. At its best, though, the bargain remains unique: enter an adventure at the cutting edge of unreality, and for a moment leave your life behind.
It’s an impulse that can quite reasonably be called adolescent, regressive and escapist. Games consoles have never been for everyone. They’re a playground for those who – like my teenage self – want not simply to be served by technology, but to be transported by it. Hence the success of perhaps the most remarkable accessory to grace consumer electronics, Microsoft’s Kinect: a sensor array able to track, and to model onscreen, users’ every movement via stereoscopic cameras.
An upgraded version of Kinect is one of the centrepieces of Xbox One, and rightly so – because what seems gimmicky when you’re waving at it to change TV channels can become, in the middle of play, little less than a miracle. Kinect is not just about controlling a machine with your body: it’s about becoming an active, physical presence within the screen itself. Like deities descending from a higher plane, it’s the closest we’ve yet come to incarnating ourselves within virtual worlds.
If this sounds grandiose, that’s because it is. It’s far too early fully to judge Microsoft’s latest creation, of course, let alone to back winners in its combat with Sony’s forthcoming PlayStation 4. Despite the ferocious competition for attention and dollars, though, there’s something at the heart of console gaming that isn’t going away: the passionate desire to meld play and technology into something entirely apart from everyday life.