PlayStation Move

Iain Simons tests a new controller aimed at casual users.

PlayStation Move
Sony Computer Entertainment

Casual or hardcore? The video-game-playing world has become increasingly factionalised in the past few years between these two smuttily titled gangs. Polarised in their opposition, one is made up of ludo-literate gaming cognoscenti who dedicate large amounts of their time and income to pursuing their love.

Unfortunately, these "hardcores" tend to harbour disdain for the "casual" players - those who drift in and out of a mobile-phone game on the Tube and often barely recognise that they're playing a game at all. For the industry, "casual" has been appropriated as a synonym for "accessible", which is as much an index of the inaccessibility of everything else the games creators produce as it is a measure of how easy it is to play Angry Birds on the bus.

For years, the casual gamer had been ignored, a situation that most observers would pinpoint as changing with the introduction of the Nintendo Wii in 2006. But it is rather unfair, in fact, to credit Japan with the "mainstreaming" of video games, as to do so is to overlook the contribution that Sony's London Studio has made to the leisure habits of Middle England. Its landmark projects SingStar and EyeToy have made an indelible impact on the interactive entertainment industry. These games demonstrated that what happens on the screen is secondary to the social response created off it. Fun isn't something that happens within a game, it is something that radiates from it. This studio put performance into play, literally handing you a microphone, pointing a camera at you and putting your grinning face on the television screen for the amusement of your friends. The PlayStation Move continues that tradition.

For many novice players, being introduced for the first time to a video-game controller is akin to being handed a particularly joyless Rubik's Cube. The controller presents a complex array of buttons and orientations and offers little encouragement to pursue the solution. The Move seeks to remedy this by placing in your hand a "motion controller", a kind of buttoned wand, on the end of which is fixed a gently glowing ball. You've probably seen footage of actors in motion-capture studios wearing black leotards covered in fluorescent orbs. The Move controller is essentially that, but with fewer balls. A small camera placed in front of your television tracks your movements as you play, inputting them directly into the game. The Move is a curious object and it is hard to accept that such an extraordinarily precise and obviously ingenious piece of technology can simultaneously be so utterly infantilising.

For anyone who has experienced the delights of Wii Tennis, this feels like a palpable shift of gear. Sports Champions, one of the launch titles, is primed with a table-tennis game that invites comparison with its popular Wii counterpart. Whereas, with Wii Tennis, one had the suspicion that any kind of arm spasm would probably get the ball back over the net, the Move presents you with far more subtle control.

The player on screen tracks and mirrors your motion with surprising accuracy and no discernible delay. With the realisation that, in effect, the bat you can see is in your hand, spin and backhand instantly become intuitive techniques that you can choose to bring into play by moving your wrist, not by having to learn a series of abstract button presses.

There's a clear ambition here to create more accurate sporting simulations, but it is in the more literally reflective areas that the launch titles impress most. Start the Party uses the camera to place you and your fellow players on the screen - again, you are fully inside the game. Watching oneself on TV is rarely pleasing, but the augmented-reality tricks that the software plays go some way to soothing any disappointment. While your "real" hand is still clutching the stick with the glowing ball, your screen hand is holding something entirely different - a mallet, a foam hand, a fan. All of these objects track and rotate with your body as you move. This suggests exciting possibilities for the future.

The Move is a compelling, surprisingly accurate controller. It does some clever things, and clearly it's going to enliven many parties over the next few months. The tension lies in its aim to be a tool for more accessible gaming. This instant playability makes for some quick-win, easy gratification for the player - "This is just like playing table tennis," you will gasp. Back at the Sony development studios, though, I suspect bigger design challenges are causing a few sleepless nights.

And what about you, the consumer? As you push back the sofa and the coffee table to make room to play on the Move in front of the telly, you won't be able to help feeling that the demands of this relentless (and expensive) accessorising are anything but "casual".

Iain Simons is director of the GameCity festival. Details:

Iain Simons writes, talks and tweets about videogames and technology. His new book, Play Britannia, is to be published in 2009. He is the director of the GameCity festival at Nottingham Trent University.

This article first appeared in the 08 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Israel divided

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis