Microsoft’s Complete Diskinect

Add half a cup of surrealism, two dashes of Cirque du Soleil, and several hundred white ponchos together and the end result is the latest recipe for gaming disaster–the XBox 360’s Kinect.

After Sunday’s pre-E3 engagement party, Microsoft proved itself to be teetering out of touch rather than ensconced firmly on the edge of innovation. Unfortunately, instead of redeeming itself the following day by expanding on the Kinect’s capabilities, the company only dug itself in a deeper hole with a presentation that continuously fell short.

For those watching E3 unfold, Monday’s Microsoft conference started out with a series of extremely egregious demonstrations that showed little and told even less. On stage in a deathly silent theater, the first presenter introduced was a nervous man who barked orders to the console. Every few seconds, he interjected about the mind-blowing nature of this new technology then resumed to shouting action commands to the machine awkwardly. He never followed through or expanded on these statements of the Kinect’s superiority, either. That was all we got. His words were empty and his end point dubious–almost certainly if minds were being blown in the audience as he claimed, it wasn’t at the technology, but rather at the previous night’s incredulous excuse for a show.

The next demonstrations were also disappointing, both banal and over-scripted to a fault. Two Microsoft employees were quick to show the more social features of this new incarnation of the XBox 360, eager again to explain this new territory Microsoft was supposedly extrapolating on. Naturally they were females, as if to imply things with a social and media focus belonged in the court of a female gamer rather than a male one. They explained how useful this would be for calling grandparents, other family members, or even friends. Perhaps it would have meant more if webcams didn’t already exist, or if the new iPhone 4 wasn’t going to have video conference calling right on its network. While “Lollipop” and “Velveteen” tried their best to sell us on the concept, hands free video calling was not worth phoning home for.

It only got worse from there. The announcement that ESPN’s gaming would be free to those already members of XBox Live Gold was laughable at best–the fact that XBL costs monthly is already comical as is. Microsoft continued on with the show to unveil more average features including a pet simulator that seemed to be a 3D version of Nintendogs, an unimaginative fitness monitor, and a dance demo featuring a No Doubt song (“Hella Good”) that was last popular nearly ten years ago.

No, Microsoft, your presentation didn’t make me feel “hella good.” It makes me feel “hella disappointed.”

Absolutely nothing during the Kinect presentation stood out in a positive light. Nothing captured nor enthralled. In spite of this, throughout the show, spokesmen and women kept saying this was innovative gaming; that this was something new, something fierce, and something tremendous. Gaming finally arrived, they told us, and we were lucky to see its second coming. High on marketing jargon, they espoused endless praise for Microsoft, trying to get us to drink the Kool-Aid, go all in–to believe they could turn lead into gold.

But here’s the thing. If you have to tell us how awesome something is, it probably isn’t. Gamers, at least most of us, like proof before we subscribe to your own personal version of Jonestown. And whatever happened to the adage of show, not tell? Did their entire marketing department just forget that golden rule?

Honestly, after watching the first day of E3, I’m not sold on this 3D technology and what it brings to gaming as a whole. I’m not sure it innovates or evolves gaming in any form; in fact, I’m starting to feel it hinders it. By focusing on new and improved experiences, by trying to develop games we can–according to Ubisoft–feel, it becomes a pressing revolution no one in gaming really wants. The thing is, revolutions are supposed to start with a hushed whisper in the streets instead of from the top of a corporate tower. Show me where were the masses demanding the change, asking for the Kinect to force upon them a series of cheap Wii knock-offs and overpriced peripherals. People are supposed to demand change, to riot for it, to yearn for it–not have it forced upon them by a false savior. Throughout the Kinect presentation, I heard Microsoft presenter after presenter tell us gamers again and again that we would be able to finally, at long last relinquish our controllers and be free from their burdens of button mashing.

But we already have a Wii for that. And, I mean, what if we like our controllers?

These are questions Microsoft never bothered to ask. They didn’t want to hear our answers. They knew it would be be an unenthusiastic no, but they wanted to play God anyway. This is what really bothers me about the Kinect. Microsoft sold out, and thought that gamers could be dazzled by a troop of performers and a flashy series of demonstrations instead. They thought they could use a spectacular, otherworldly event to distract us from the elephant on the living room–I mean, stage.

Some of the features seemed utterly unnecessary, too, and hardly advanced. Voice activation isn’t a vital feature for the average gamer; we have no pressing need to talk to our XBox 360 and order it around like a lost dog. There’s yet still the prevalent question of the technology’s quality and usability as well. Just think of all the hotlines that have the option to speak or use the touchpad to choose, and then think of how many times you’ve resorted to the touchpad after the computer didn’t recognize what you said after the fifth or sixth time.

And although Microsoft tried to tell us today that the face of gaming would forever be changed by their announcement, it wasn’t. The face of gaming isn’t able to be changed by voice commands, or the ability to chat with someone across the world in real time. It also isn’t changed by allowing gamers to run in place and jump hilariously over invisible hurdles from the comfort of their living rooms.

The face of gaming has been and always will be changed by great narratives, ever-evolving art design, and compelling new worlds. Microsoft should have learned this a decade ago.

If nothing else, from its lukewarm reception from gamers, I hope Microsoft at least learned that bells and whistles can’t be a substitute for real content. Moreover, I hoped they learned that gamers will see through even the most premeditated of hype–that one can’t simply create a revolution, it must grow by itself into a reality.

Honestly, I can’t help but wonder what Microsoft was thinking at the end of all of this. Maybe they weren’t, it’s the only explanation I can conceive. All of those millions spent on hiring Cirque du Soleil and developing unoriginal, uninspired titles that closely resemble the Nintendo Wii’s library. If only Microsoft had spent their profits on developing a new, brilliant IP instead. Just imagine what could have been.

Oh well, at least we got a new drinking game out of this fiasco. Every time Microsoft says it’s innovative and reinventing the gaming wheel, take a shot. If you don’t end up in the hospital from alcohol poisoning, you’ll at least have numbed the pain that Kinect indelibly brought to this year’s E3.