"Just press the green button"

Oh, those fateful little words. How naive I was to think that they wouldn't affect the ability that my sister was soon to display in a casual game of Rockstar's Table Tennis.

A few days ago I was on my way to dropping my 11-year-old sister to her dance and drama class across town when I noticed that we had a little extra time on our hands. Being the gamer geek that I am, I took her to a local Virgin Megastore to see what was playing on the Xbox 360 booth. As it turned out, they had a copy of Table Tennis running, which I thought would be a nice and easy game for my little sis to pick up easily.

I admit that I was slightly blinded by the prospect of playing this title (I'd played it a few days earlier, but only for a minute or two with an alarmingly tall kid breathing on my shoulder), so in my rush to get a game going I responded to my sister's demand of "what are the controls?" in a rather brash manner.

"Uh, yeah just press the green button. That's how you hit the ball. Oh yeah, the left stick moves your player."

With that, I loaded up a game with players of similar skill levels. My sister had the first serve. After a little prompting from me, she managed to get the ball over the net by... pressing the green button. Being the arrogant experienced gamer that I thought I was, my return shot consisted of a backhand to the left with a little forward spin.

Being that I was on the receiving end of the serve, my return didn't do much to force the ball in the direction I wanted. It returned very conveniently back to my sister where she hit it back so that it landed in the middle of my side of the table. Eventually, I lost the point. In my eagerness to outsmart my little blonde sister, I had completely overplayed and had moved too far out of play to return one of her shots.

Unfortunately for me (and my ego), I went to lose the entire game without winning a single point! How could this happen? Me, a student that has devoted more time to video games than my study! How could my little sister, who has barely even played an Xbox 360, let alone Table Tennis thrash me so thoroughly?

We were a few minutes into our next game (the score being 5-0, to my sister), when I looked down at her controller in disbelief. Instead of adapting the pattern of the ball's spin, as I was doing, she was simply tapping the green button repeatedly with the occasional move of the stick to direct the ball. Because every shot I got from her was a forward spin and she was so near the net, her shots were far more rapid than my tactical shots, giving me, with my n00b skills, no time to react when I dodged my player across behind the table in an attempt to manipulate the ball.

In the end, I failed to equalize and the final score of our second game was 11-6. My faith in gaming faltered, I pulled her away from the booth after she requested another game. I wasn't about to lose another game to a girl, who also happened to be 7 years younger than me!

The way I had lost so dramatically to such an, I assumed, lesser opponent made me think of how I play real Table Tennis. Occasionally when I'm playing with friends I have to tell myself not to go for shots that are too hard. Instead, I find that it's better to give the opponent a chance to make a mistake. As Napoleon said, "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake." If I sit back a little bit from the game, I can take in the bigger picture and hit shots to areas that the person I'm playing against is weakest.

The similarity that I felt Table Tennis had to the real Table Tennis is remarkable. I can honestly say that the feeling of playing the game was closer to real life than I've seen in any other game, especially any that you can pick up for £30 on a shelf. The closest thing I can think of that comes this close to emulating the real world experience is probably a fully featured flight simulator or a racing car simulator complete with pneumatics to emulate gravity. For this "feel" to be so accurately transferred through a standard Xbox 360 controller is remarkable. It also possibly goes some way to explaining why so many games suck.

Sure, the "poor AI, limited online opposition, choppy graphics, long load times, sloppy ports and glitchiness" are things that make games suck, but what I feel is really holding back games is the desire by developers and publishers to focus on content to the exclusion of everything else. Instead of making games that have great "physics", as Steven Johnson puts it in his book, Everything Bad is Good for You, publishers are going after that elusive movie tie-in contract or are devoting teams to creation of high definition content.

Johnson's book also highlights the fallacy of game-haters in the mainstream media (and elsewhere) that look at a game and see "flashy graphics; the layered mix of image; music and text; the occasional burst of speed, particularly during the pre-rendered opening sequences." In my opinion, developers and publishers have fallen into this same trap. Instead of generating eye candy and narratives, developers should focus on games that are about the player "finding order and meaning in the [game] world." The "feel" of a game should always come first.

Anyway, since our games, my sister has asked me at least five times "Are you going to buy that table tennis game?" To which I've replied every time: "Nah, that game sucked."

Update: fixed two typos and a couple of other issues.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.

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