Xbox One: conceived in an age of prosperity, it's the wrong console for our time

Microsoft's vision of the future is a group of wildly gesticulating children and screeching voices aimed at a beautiful black box that can switch between CBeebies and CBBC in one barked order from a five year old.

Microsoft described the new Xbox One as "a new vision for the future comes to life". I've assembled many speeches around this theme over the years, never for a games console.

Then again, there has never been a console as over-engineered as Xbox One. You operate it using a voice recognition system devised by Mircosoft's top aural engineers. You can scan menus using a new sign language developed by Microsoft's ergonomic technicians.

Microsoft is the sort of company that probably hires TV ethnographers and viewing psychologists. In the wildly chaotic living room of the Watsons, though, the will of dad still prospers. Without control of the "remote", order does not exist. With Xbox One the TV watching quacks have won the design war. The patriarchy has been deposed as we move into the new era of Microsoftocracy.

Well Microsoft, my vision of your future is a group of wildly gesticulating children and screeching voices aimed at the beautiful black box that can switch between CBeebies and CBBC in one barked order from a five year old.

Worryingly, particularly for the middle aged grumpy gamer, is that Microsoft's user experience experts have, in their words "refreshed" the "class-leading" Xbox controller with more than "40 technical and design innovations". I don't want the controller to be "refreshed". I'm used to it. It's perfect in every way. I spend more time using the old unrefreshed controller than I do driving my car. We've been on many adventures together and I don't want to trade it in for an upgraded and refreshed version. Microsoft should hire some political philosophers alongside the audience ethnographers. Edmund Burke could have told them that "change always brings certain loss and only possible gain".

Yesterday's global screencast of the launch event carried it's own pre-launch hashtag: #xboxreveal. One thing that was not revealed was the price of the new system. I'm pretty sure that we'll all want one but can we all afford it? The company has spent a lot of time bringing people closer together with the integration of Skype and improvements to the use of Xbox live for multi-player online gaming. It looks impressive and I certainly want to play with one as quickly as I can.

But the price of the "liquid black" console will be the real game changer. Microsoft has sheepishly admitted to Wired that games discs will have to be installed onto the hard drive. This strongly suggests they will create a fee regime for second hand disc purchasers. If true, it will significantly reduce games ownership in my constituency and I'm sure will create a consumer resistance to the new device that Microsoft's team of market researchers may have underestimated.

We are told to expect more news about the repertoire of available games during the E3 conference next month. Yesterday's list of games was limited, only using the unsurprising Call of Duty franchise to showcase the new kit. Microsoft promise early and new franchises. They're going to have to deliver on this if they want early sales.

Xbox One looks like the next generation of big telly gaming and viewing. Yet without knowing its' price or games catalogue, how can one judge its' value? It was conceived in a time of ever growing prosperity and no-one, not even the Microsoft pointy heads will know whether Xbox One will triumph in tough economic times.

Tom Watson is the MP for West Bromwich East, and Deputy Chair of the Labour Party. He is also an avid gamer and campaigner for media integrity.
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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear