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Opinion: Xbox One is a desperate prayer to stop time Exclusive
Opinion: Xbox One is a desperate prayer to stop time
May 21, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander




Gamasutra editor-at-large Leigh Alexander wasn't particularly impressed with today's "groundbreaking" Xbox One unveiling.

At the opening of Microsoft's Xbox One reveal, my first thought was that I feel old: An amped movie trailer soundtrack accompanies the pan-out on the big Reveal Tent on the company's campus, and I couldn't be gladder not to be there: No wristband, no ambling in line for logo lanyards and pounding sizzle reel, no obligatory applause for yet another annual lime green laser light show. Other people are excited about this, probably. I'm not. I'm become the jaded cynic, destroyer of dreams.

Yet by the end of the console event, I sat disoriented, feeling like I'd seen one of the Big Three take a hard left into a past decade, a fictional privileged nation where everyone owns a giant television they want to talk to, where they entertain themselves with high-end fictional simulations of football season and futuristic, nebulous wars abroad. Where we supposedly want whole-body play. Where the fantasy is that all our living rooms are big enough for that.

The beginning salvo of the theoretical "You" at the center of the living room experience took me back to 2006, where we all giggled a little when Time Magazine's person of the year was "You," complete with mirror on the front of the print magazine. That wasn't long after the Xbox 360's late 2005 launch. The world has changed a lot since then, but you wouldn't know it to look at the presentation.

I didn't have to attend the reveal event to watch it; I streamed it on a PC and took notes on a netbook. I talked to a friend about it on an iPhone. I participated in, processed and ultimately covered the announcements across three different screened devices, none of which was a television. Yet in Microsoft's world, the TV is still the core of the theoretical home for people who want "immersive worlds and epic battles".

My parents and their Boomer friends have those theoretical American homes, the kind with the spacious sofa and the dominant television altar, where they mainly watch on-demand recordings of cable shows. They don't want a game console. They don't want to talk to their television either. I've got friends who love immersive worlds and epic battles, sure. They have thousands of dollars in student debt and tiny, impermanent living spaces; their generation isn't exactly about to broadly become the next generation of home owners. We play games on consoles and we watch shows on television and we Skype and Tweet from laptops, netbooks, iPads, PCs.

We have compensated for the diminishing ideal of "the living room" by multitasking. We're an ever-widening generation of multitaskers, of distractionware-devourers. With the Xbox One, which looks remarkably like a 1980s VCR, Microsoft seems to have acknowledged this somewhat, recognizing the disadvantage of accessing a walled garden anything less than instantaneously.

"The Entertainment Altar"

Its "Snap Mode" promises to let you interact among multiple programs simultaneously without exiting them, like lots of us have been doing on tablet devices and in browsers for the last few years, now. Yeah, we're accustomed to using multiple social and entertainment applications simultaneously -- but it's funny Microsoft thinks we want to do this on a television screen. There's Skype, they say. Has anyone ever wanted to use Skype on their TV, instead of at their office workstation, on a tablet passed around a party, on a laptop nestled in bed? Do they want to? During a... video game, during a television program?

Let's say you did want to do all of this: you kind of need a huge TV. You need an Entertainment Altar where instant voice command is a cool-future status item, where everyone is wont to sit As A Family in the thrall of the Entertainment Altar. You need to live in a fantasy of the privileged that is diminishing amid an economic and technological disruption where it's hard to believe this kind of device is going to be broadly relevant.

It needs nothing less than broad relevance, after all. Microsoft likes to say phrases like "more [something] than ever before" -- what about more money than ever before required to make games for high-end technology? Is there any overlap between the sort of NFL-loving, status-chasing American home that would lavish upon a living room Entertainment Altar and the sort that would desire yet another hyper-real fantasy of war-play, ever more hyper-real, so that now you can see the fine hairs on a man's forearm and the capillaries of his eyes before you shoot him for points? In a multitasking culture, is this the way to make the TV broadly relevant?

I mean, if I wanted to be on the forefront of the video game industry, given the current shift in the way our demographics earn income and use devices, and given the current fatigue with arguments about what, exactly, our role in influencing entertainment culture and in pioneering the medium of creative play ought to be, I might want to tone it down on the whole "more fetishistically real weapons of war than ever" thing. But that's just me.

The thing is, developers will have to want to spend a lot of money making games in order for consoles to matter to gamers, who now have endless less expensive, more open, more accessible platforms on which to play and socialize. And in order for that expense to seem logical, a device like the Xbox One will have to appeal to a much more revolutionary audience than the exact same one that moved the Xbox 360 at the beginning of the current generation.

The company said "groundbreaking," "immersive" and "connected" more times than I could count during this presentation, yet this is a rich boy's black box for playing Call of Duty and Halo on -- and even that assumes fans of those franchises can and will continue to invest in the living room fantasy, will continue to invest in the same game mechanics, the same brands, the same ideas but with better graphics. This is what our advancements have bought us? This is all?

"A movie-soundtracked prayer to stop time"

They'll show us more games at E3, they say. Yes, we are always being promised more in future. We are tired of buying consumerist fantasies. This isn't revolutionary. This is arrested development, the last gasp of the console generation, dropping names and making obeisances to live actors and television and film personalities as if this were still a prior age's clutch backward for creative legitimacy. It is a movie-soundtracked prayer to stop time.

Not only am I unmoved by this "groundbreaking" reveal, but I can't imagine who reasonably would care -- except for the most high-end, most traditional niche "adult gamer" fan who does not represent a broad enough cross-section of the market to stay viable, who never will.

So maybe what I feel isn't old. Maybe what I feel is moved on. I'd like to see the console industry move on too, but judging by Microsoft's performance, it doesn't look good.


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