|French musician, writer and video game designer David Cage, head of game developer studio Quantic Dream, talks as Sony introduces the PlayStation 4 at a news conference Feb. 20, 2013 in New York. (AFP PHOTO/EMMANUEL DUNAND)
For a longtime gamer like me, the launch of new generation of video game consoles feels something like a special version of Christmas, one that only comes around once every six or seven years. But this time, I can't shake a lingering feeling of trepidation.
In New York last week I watched Sony trot out executives, engineers and game developers to announce the PlayStation 4, which will go on sale this holiday season and compete with Microsoft's yet-to-be-revealed successor to the Xbox 360 as well as Nintendo's struggling Wii U, which debuted last November.
Among the game creators who were there to talk about the PS4's high-tech hardware and slew of new features was David Cage, founder and lead game designer for Paris-based studio Quantic Dream, makers of Heavy Rain, Indigo Prophecy and the upcoming PlayStation 3 game Beyond: Two Souls, which stars the digital likeness of Canadian actress Ellen Page.
Cage talked about emotion, and how the PS4's advanced visuals will allow game creators to convey feelings unlike ever before. Crafting digital characters who can believably emote has always been a challenge, "but with the PlayStation 4, games have now, finally, reached that stage," Cage said. "We are now only limited by our imagination."
I'm not sure I believe that. Cage illustrated his point with a technology demo showing an old man's face rendered in near-photorealistic detail. It looked plenty impressive, with convincing wrinkles and lifelike expressions.
But I didn't see anything in the man's eyes except the glassy stare of a computer construct. I saw no soul, and it felt like a glimpse into the current state of the industry as a whole.
We've reached a point of diminishing returns in game visuals, when a tenfold increase in the number of polygons a console can crank out translates into only marginal gains in perceived visual fidelity. And fancy graphics aren't necessary for emotion anyway - look at the simply drawn characters of The Walking Dead games and tell me those people didn't make you feel something. Hell, look at 1997's Final Fantasy VII and its blobby, lo-fi team of heroes. Yet you cried when Aeris died, didn't you?
Don't get me wrong, I'm already geeking out over the PS4's slick new technology, and I'm dying to see what Microsoft will respond with when the next-gen Xbox is unveiled in the coming months. But I want games to go beyond shooting and driving and semi-interactive movies. I want evolution beyond just CPUs and teraflops and instant replays posted to Facebook.
The video games industry as a whole is moving in all kinds of interesting directions this year, with gaming PCs invading the living room, low-cost consoles like the $99 Ouya set to make their debut and a slew of new, powerful smartphones and tablets that are capable gaming machines in their own right.
But with so many players on the field, the noise and the chest-thumping and the insane 10-month hype period leading up to the actual release of these new machines feels crass and phony and a bit sad. I'm excited for new tech to play with and new worlds to explore and new friends to make on the arena of virtual battle, but please, game-makers: don't forget to show us some soul.