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Breaking the ice with Kinect

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Posted by: Joe Donato

I see you from across the room, staring at me with those blood-red eyes. You're intimidating, with your subtle nod my way. I'll wave to you and you seem to like that, but I know you really want me to come over and talk to you. But I just can't. What if I fail? What if my friends hear me — I'll never hear the end of it. I'm embarassed; I need a drink.

I literally think I need a drink. I've yelled commands at Shepard's crew in Mass Effect 3 and it's just too damn awkward. Voice commands with the Kinect are a great idea in theory, but in practice there's a certain shame in yelling at your television. Now Skyrim is getting similar support, and I have to wonder what my roommates will think when I start yelling "Fus Ro Dah" like a crazed lunatic.

Voice commands blow open the range of possible interactions in a console game the same way a 100+ key keyboard provides endless shortcuts and hotkeys in PC games. While it will always be quicker to press a button, a voice command is quicker than the several button presses required in, for example, most RPG combat. I only ever chose a single power for each of my squadmates in Mass Effect 3, assigning them to the left and right d-pad buttons and leaving them at that. It worked fine, but I probably missed many opportunities for more strategic combat. With Kinect, I could simply shout "Liara — Singularity!" or "Liara — Pull!" without ever switching powers through the menu.

With Skyrim, the Kinect integration is even more profound. As versatile as the combat options are, it can be a hassle to constantly pause the game and switch to different shouts, weapons, or abilities. A player on 360 will inevitably water down their combat options simply because it isn't worth the effort to use all their tools. With Kinect, a player suddenly has easy access to all of their shouts, quick weapon switching, and more.

In theory this sounds like a huge improvement. In fact, shouting “Fus Ro Dah” makes a ton of sense and, in a really dorky way, it is pretty damn cool. Learning dragon language could end up being an entirely new and original skill to hone.

I want it to be a new, fresh experience as much as anyone else, but the cynical side of me can't help thinking of the negatives. Namely, that moment when the Kinect doesn't quite pick up what you're saying. There's a certain depressing frustration in having to repeat yourself to a plastic toy, and it's an immersion-breaking moment even when you're just saying “Xbox Netflix” more than once. In Skyrim you'd have to worry about your shout not working in a pinch, or even worse, getting misinterpreted as a quick save. In a game that's all about absorbing the player in its world, the Kinect could do more harm than good, pulling you out of the experience every time it doesn't work flawlessly.

That's not even addressing the fundamental embarrassment of yelling at your TV. Maybe it's just me, but it feels really silly unless you're completely alone or playing with voice commands for a laugh with some friends. Shouting at your TV with roommates or family members in adjacent rooms comes with a certain amount of shame. There's a porn-watching metaphor in there somewhere, but I'm not going to touch it.

I have to wonder if shame is a hurdle we will all surpass as the future forces us to do even weirder or embarrassing things with technology. People seem to be fine with iPhone's Siri app — most likely because almost everyone knows about it. Maybe talking to your TV will be second nature one day, but it isn't there yet.

Still, there's some very interesting potential in more prevalent voice commands in games. As long as they work well, the shouts in Skyrim make a ton of sense. Giving squad commands or having conversations with AI (a la Dreamcast cult classic Seaman) could feel natural as well. It's all about using them as an immersion and gameplay enhancing tool, rather than a gimmick.

Saying “open inventory” in Skyrim may be convenient, but it also makes the fantasy world seem a bit too much like navigating Netflix menus. Saying Shepard's dialogue options in Mass Effect 3 is even weirder. You say the choice and he repeats it in his own words, making it less a matter of you influencing his decisions and more him talking over you. You tell him what to say and he rewords it because he is Commander Shepard and he is way cooler than you. I wouldn't call that experience enhancing.

The Kinect is full of growing pains, and as developers try to find more uses for the technology in normal games, there will surely be many more mistakes. Voice commands have a lot of potential, but they're only going to work when they feel just right. Until then, I'll be stumbling in drunk, yelling to the lady in black and desperately hoping I don't make an ass of myself.

Tags: Skyrim, Kinect, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Xbox 360

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