"Thatís what a ship is, you know. Itís not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails, thatís what a ship needs. But what a ship is... ...is freedom." - Jack Sparrow, Pirates of the Caribbean†
As I watched the Xbox One reveal a couple of weeks ago and as I have watched, and participated, in the many discussions it generated around the internet, I began to ask myself just what it was that caused an uncomfortable knot in my stomach when I thought about the console.
Sure the DRM is distasteful, the Kinect vaguely disturbing, and the used game policy an affront to the first sale doctrine and I donít like any of those things, but there is something... else. As something of an introspective guy, I began to reflect on this and on other issues that have plagued the video game industry in the past few years - online passes, on-disc DLC, intrusive DRM, the creation of the used games boogeyman, and the catastrophic "failure" of studio after studio in the face of seemingly good sales numbers. One thing led to another, as introspection will, and soon I found myself asking why I liked video games in the first place. What was it that drew me to this particular form of entertainment?
Ultimately, my thought process ended in one word: Freedom. Like most forms of entertainment, video games are primarily a way to escape from the pressures and stresses of the real world. When I play Red Dead Redemption I donít have student loans anymore. I am not concerned about the pile of paperwork waiting for me on my desk the next day. Suddenly, I am a bounty hunter in the last days of the Old West going where I will and doing as I please.
Video games allow me to do things that I cannot do in real life. They give me super powers that defy the laws of physics. They allow me to wander fantastic worlds or explore the distant reaches of the galaxy. I can be the hero or I can blend into the crowd. Itís all as I choose; I can have the escape from reality that my psyche needs from time to time.
But there is more to the freedom that video games offer than just becoming someone else in a different world for a while. I can choose what type of experience I would like to have. Some days I feel the need to blow things up, Michael Bay-style. Other times, living a life of voluntary simplicity and running a farm is just what the doctor ordered. I am never required to play game X or Y at any particular time. I can visit the worlds I choose as much or as little as I would care to do so. These days I can also choose when and where to I want to have these experiences, within reasonable limits of course. The point is, while video games give me a freedom I do not often experience in the real world, there is also a kind of meta-freedom in the world of gaming as well.
To steal a move from Captain Jack, characters, environments, and game mechanics are things that a video game needs. But what a video game is... ...is freedom. It is freedom from the stress of the real grown-up world. It is freedom from the limits of the physical world. It is freedom for the mind to explore new concepts and new worlds.
So what does this have to do with the Xbox One and the vague sense of dissatisfaction I have had since it was revealed?
What it boils down to for me is that there are so many restrictions, and restrictions at multiple levels for that matter, based on what we know about the console so far. First there are the real-world restrictions. The console wonít work without the Kinect. The console will have to communicate with someone or something via an internet connection every 24 hours or so. Games must be authenticated to be played. Used games will be restricted-access both in the real world of retailers and in the virtual world of DRM.
Then there is Xbox Live. There are many who love Xbox Live and to some extent I can understand the reasons why they do. But only to an extent. The virtual world of Xbox Live is an extremely restrictive environment where the user is constantly bombarded by advertisements and where his/her activities are data mined (one must assume). To top it all off, the user is asked to pay monthly subscription for the privilege!
Microsoft has set out to create the most restrictive console environment to date, both in the real and cyber worlds. From all appearances they have been successful. To paraphrase a member of a video game forum that I visit frequently, Microsoft is telling us exactly when, where, and how we WILL use their product, our opinions or feelings on the matter be damned. Whether or not they will be successful in the marketplace remains to be seen and, of course, there is still time for changes if Microsoft believes the backlash against the console is too strong. Either way, it will be interesting to see what happens.
I have identified that knot in my stomach - it is a sickening feeling that I am watching my freedoms, and meta-freedoms, as a gamer slip away and limit my ability to escape the stresses of real life for a short time, perhaps the most valuable part of the hobby to me personally.