Longtime gamers know that console wars are usually followed by periods of relative calm when the games themselves take center stage. With three apparently viable consoles and two well-established handheld systems all in place, now would seem to be such a time. It's been seventeen months since the launch of the Wii and PS3.
At the risk of ignoring many interesting games, I believe three just-released titles provide a telling snapshot of the gaming landscape. Grand Theft Auto IV, Mario Kart Wii, and Wii Fit provide three very different experiences for gamers and represent three distinct legs of a "gaming tripod" that illustrates the evolution of the medium in some useful ways. If you can bear with my awkward metaphor just a step further, I'll suggest that a tripod is apt because its primary function is to provide support and stability for a device (in this case, the games industry) perched on top.
GTA IV is the grand epic narrative experience - the evolved descendent of RPGs, adventure games, and other genres that rely on storytelling as a central component of the player's experience. Obviously these games contain ludic properties as well (rules, interface, timed objectives, win/lose missions, etc.), but at the risk of reawakening the slumbering narratology vs ludology beast, I believe GTA IV, more than any previous GTA game, aspires to provide an immersive storytelling environment and an empathetic connection between player and protagonist (Niko Bellic).
Mario Kart Wii is the latest installment in a series that has always focused on playful colorful fun. No backstories. No cutscenes. No story-mode. The avatars are significant only to the degree that they represent various sets of racing characteristics. Most players don't associate meaning or identify with the characters in any certain way. Large bearded homophobic men will happily race as Princess Peach in a pink buggy if doing so will give them a racing edge. It's hard to imagine two video games more different - stylistically, tonally, structurally, and aesthetically - than GTA IV and Mario Kart Wii. And that's a good thing for my tripod theory.
Wii Fit (available now in Japan and Europe - I played it at GDC in February) is something altogether different. I initially assumed its appeal would be based on integrating the balance board into games that could make unique use of it (snowboarding, surfing, etc.). I was trying to squeeze it into a paradigm I understood, and seeing the balance board as simply another game controller, this made sense to me. While it's clear the device can function in this way (and it ships with a collection of "balance games"), Miyamoto clearly has something very different in mind. If he were a tripod-metaphor man, I feel certain he would see Wii Fit as the third stabilizing leg of the gaming tripod. ;-)
Wii Fit is designed to function as a health station for families. Combining yoga with aerobic and muscle exercises, the system builds a game framework around these activities to provide feedback and make them more fun. Your avatar levels up (or down in this case, since it's based on weight and fitness) by grinding through repetitive but fun and rewarding tasks in a persistent environment tied to real time. The persistent real-time environment is the world you live in. When you check back into Wii Fit after that beer and bratwurst bender...your avatar will know about it and suffer the consequences with you.
Your Wii Fit avatar connects to you on a substantive and physically realized level. Instead of slicing your way through armies of orcs slouched in your chair munching Funyuns, Wii Fit presents you with an avatar who can only succeed if you do. She may not look nearly as cool as your Mage in her flowing robes and open midriff, but your cute little Mii has eliminated a layer of separation between you and your on-screen persona that no video game has ever removed. Guitar Hero and Rock Band come close, but Wii Fit requires your whole body and extends - if you "play" it right - into your whole life.
So in an odd and unexpected twist, Wii Fit arrives as a perfect complement to the narrative and the ludic. In its own unique ways, it is neither and both of these. Some will consider it no kind of game at all. It's a glorified scale that connects to your TV. Others, I believe, will engage with it in a variety of meaningful ways, both mentally and physically.
If you look at it the way I do, Wii Fit (and the door it opens to consumers putting a versatile gaming device in their living rooms) GTA IV and Mario Kart Wii look like three stable legs of a sturdy gaming tripod. At least for now. Who knows? Maybe this thing could become a four-legged table.