Videogames combine two essentially conflicting ideas into one form. It’s baked into the word itself: “video” (the modern diminutive of cinema) and “game.” In cinema we relinquish control over the flow of events and allow someone else’s experiences, feelings, and perspectives to meld with our own. In games we compete to impose the primacy of our own experience, feeling, and perspective on others, to dominate them with expansiveness of knowledge and reflex. These are opposite experiences, and they are both inextricable parts of videogames.
Wii Play: Motion is empowered by these paradoxically symbiotic qualities. It is a collection of 12 shorter games, each developed by a different Japanese studio, meant to take advantage of the gyroscope in the Wii MotionPlus peripheral. Like its forebear, Wii Play, the game is bound by Miis and the sweetly absurd dimension in which they exist. The controls for each game are simple and responsive, to a degree of extraordinary depth. In Veggie Guardin’, the most reductive game in the group, you must hit gophers who appear in one of five holes with a hammer. Players are in constant connection with the hammer’s height, angle, horizontal position, and speed of movement, all of which can be affected with minute adjustments to the Wii Remote.
The beauty of continuous and minutely variable controls is that they actually obscure the point of interaction. Wii Play: Motion gives you more interactive elements than you need to complete the objective. From a design perspective, all you’d need in Veggie Guardin’ would be a way to choose between one of five options within a certain time period. But there is also a layer of kinetic depth between your recognition of what needs to be done, and your ability to do it.
In other games, this quality is glossed over by button presses and magical animation systems that complete the fine adjustments for you. There is rarely any mechanical ambiguity about what you did, and instead the drama comes from performing a mechanical action (press X, say) at just the right moment. Visuals prompt you on a series of different actions (e.g., talk to a character, examine an object, reload your gun, throw a grenade, throw a punch) and players will instinctively understand that the same millimetric movement of their thumb over a small plastic button can be used to trigger these actions. The ambiguity comes, rather, from reading the environment to discern what you’re supposed to do next. It’s the difference between the drama of watching and Wii Play: Motion’s drama of doing.
Treasure Twirl has you guiding a deep-sea diver to the ocean floor to fetch treasure chests and bring them back to the surface while avoiding sharks, jellyfish, and other environmental hazards. Instead of holding down on an analog stick, you hold the Remote sideways and rotate it as if you were uncoiling a rope from a spool, while simultaneously tilting left or right to change the direction of your diver.
In Wind Runner, you steer yourself through a race course with an umbrella pulled by huge gusts of wind. The Remote works as the umbrella handle. When you want to go forward, you hold it straight ahead while tilting left and right to steer. Waving the Remote straight up and down moves the umbrella overhead, and sends you leaping into the sky where you can slowly glide back down. You can also moderate your speed when on the ground by tilting the Remote up and down, almost like an accelerator. In Flutter Fly the Remote becomes a fan that you shake beneath and beside a cluster of balloons to guide them safely through a course of rings.
The non-sequiturs from game to game in Wii Motion: Plus are irrational, and crack the fundaments of cinematic storytelling. There is no persistence of time, place, or action. Yet within each game there is dramatic context, which may lack epic grandeur, but becomes nonetheless dire and persuasive once you start playing. Experiencing anxiety over gophers in hard hats stealing your carrots is a ludicrous scrap of dream logic that combines perfectly with the sensitivity of the MotionPlus controls. It’s an interactive equivalent of the fisheye lens, the familiar dimensions of a scene warping around a once-mundane thing, now swollen with disproportionate importance.
Trigger Twist—a shooting-gallery game that uses the peripheral’s gyroscopic rotation—plays out a series of kitschy scenarios. In one instance you’re shooting down UFOs over a farm field; in another you’re fighting off ninjas in a pagoda, or else shooting at dinosaurs in a jungle. In each of these scenarios you’ll inevitably be asked to protect your fellow Miis from kidnapping. The effect is anxious and strangely melancholy. When combined with the frustration of having to aim with tilt, each scenario gives the impression of a dream where you’re trying to fight off an attacker with underwater punches.
The integration of Miis as participants, actors, fans, and companions is a brilliant continuation of a feature Nintendo has put at the heart of its best games, from Wii Sports to Mario Kart Wii. While this idea functions identically to ways it has in past games, I had an emotional reaction to rediscovering my Miis. I have had my Wii for nearly five years, since it came out in 2006. It seems like an inconsequential period of time in some ways: just another generation in the churn of consoles. Yet, I had forgotten how many fragmented memories remain dormant in my Wii’s memory, the insistently cheerful chibi versions of people whose lives passed through mine.
These small digital ghosts now cheer me on as I fly through the air clinging to an umbrella. There is my father who I failed to make look anything like my father, an ex-girlfriend I haven’t spoken to in two years, old co-workers, a fat and bald man with puckered pink lips I intended to be Frank Black, a beloved friend who had a serious cocaine addiction and so will forever have crazy cocaine eyes. And then there is my Mii. I can see in my Mii what I’d wanted people to see: someone meek and sweet, soft-eyed with a shy, closed-mouth smile. I remember wanting to say something in a man incapable of direct expression.
Videogames have come far in terms of recreating fiction and cinema, but it’s rare to find a game that has room left for emotions derived from the people playing and their relationships with one another. No designer can create a space just for one specific person, but Nintendo has been excellent at leaving spaces open for players to fill in their own thoughts. In this way, keeping a tower of ice cream that reaches into space from tipping over can either be a joyfully bizarre contest between friends, or a melancholy pantomime watched by the ghost of a person who’s quietly slipped out of one’s life.
Wii Play: Motion is a brilliant game, a surreal migration from one childish hallucination to the next, driven by hyper-sensitive connections to absurdly simple objectives; and gradually populated with the ghosts of all of selves who’ve come, stayed, and gone. Like dreaming, it seems to have a disappointingly mundane purpose, the execution of which creates a jumble of strangely articulated actions and incomprehensible desires. And when you’re done, it almost immediately recedes into a thin and forgettable string of scenes that seem completely pointless until the next time you return to them.