Thursday, 8 January 2009

My Experience with Playstation Home (beta)

The first thing you are asked to do in Home, assuming there are no connection errors, is to create an avatar. You can opt for one of the many pre-generated freaks, or wrestle with an overwhelming number of sliders to try and create your perfect doppelganger. I chose the second option. Sliders are the quick-time event of character creation: a massively overused device that creates the illusion of depth. At least with a cartoony, caricature-based system (like Miis) you can choose from a finite number of options and say "yep, that's close enough". I'd say you even grow more of an attachment to something like that. Slider bars give you the impression that your perfect simulacrum is only a few nudges of the analog stick away, a mindset that will only leave you with a twisted mockery of the human form and crying bitter tears of failure.

I fiddled with the sliders as best I could, and unable to duplicate my own haircut I chose the least-offensive faux-hawk (there are many). As my twin stared at me with his glassy, vacant eyes, his mouth a grim line, I felt profoundly uncomfortable. "Why... make... me?" my avatar seemed to ask, a tear forming in the corner of his lifeless eye. You see, the modelers for Home have decided to pitch their tent right in the middle of the uncanny valley. The avatars are completely silent too, which is understandable in a cartoon but downright creepy here. I also tried to re-create my wife, but after my third monstrous freak I realised that if my wife found this funhouse-mirror version of herself I'd find my next day's lunch wrapped in divorce papers, so I gave up.

After creating your avatar you are immediately plonked down in your own personal space, an ultra-modern, sea-side apartment that is indeed very pretty and nicely rendered, but utterly sterile and devoid of life. This is a common theme running through Home. When you leave you apartment (it won't be long, there's not much to see) you will discover that the world of Home is divided into tiny, discrete areas, each requiring an initial download and a few seconds of loading time. I opt to go to Home Square, which is a central hub that connects to the rest of the areas.

When I first enter it appears that Home is being haunted: All of the other avatars appear as translucent ghosts until their appearance has been downloaded. Once finished it reveals the typical behaviour of any social network. Groups of male avatars (teenage boys) cluster around a scattered few female avatars (middle aged men) and perform typical mating rituals ("r u horny?", sexy dances, finger guns). Oh yes, Sony have provided a number of animations with which to impart life to your mannequin. There are many, many dances and everywhere you look there are groups of people doing the running man in unison. Posters and animated billboards abound, each advertising a different Sony product. The trailer for LocoRoco2 is oppressively cheerful, like a stern edict from Sony HQ ordering me to have fun.

The Shopping Center is Sony's hilariously misguided attempt to make a little money out of this abomination. Here you can wander around a bland, sterile mall and buy items of bland, sterile clothing and real estate. Fancy a new summer house? It can be yours for only $7.95! Why yes, you are expected to pay real world money for virtual clothes, furniture and real estate. This is nothing new, but it's usually done in the context of a larger game, where the items confer special abilities or attributes, or are worth something in real-world dollars (like in Second Life). Sure, some games let you pay money for alternate costumes, but at least there's a game to play them in. The kind of hubris that allows Sony to do this is unfathomable.

The Cinema is basically an interface for watching trailers for Sony products. Are we detecting a theme here? I feel like I'm in some sort marketing experiment (although I guess I am). There's also the trailer for Watchmen that everyone has seen anyway, which you can watch in poor quality in a huge, deserted theater. I feel like Charlton Heston in Omega Man, but at least he got to watch a cool documentary about Woodstock. I'm sure Sony will implement virtual popcorn at some point (you will be micro-transactioned accordingly).

Now we enter the Bowling Alley. I hope you find the sound of bowling balls clattering into pins soothing. Here you can play several games like bowling and pool, there's even a few arcade machines. Here's the funny part: if one of these games is occupied, you can't use it. You have to wait your turn. What the hell? I can kind of see the point, you're supposed to chat and mingle while waiting for your turn, but it's still stupid and it gives the mistaken impression that these games are actually worth waiting for. Instinctively I wander over to the arcade machines (it does not occur to me that if I wanted to play a game I could quit this awful thing and play Fallout 3). The arcade games are Carriage Return and Icebreaker, a Tetris-like puzzle game and Breakout-clone respectively. There's also Echochrome, which is a good game but if I wanted to play it I'd just quit Home and load it from the menu. Each of these games is on a time-limit, by the way, so can't hog the machine. A few people are using voice-chat in German and they must be having a scintillating conversation because within the staticky garbled mess I make out the words "arschloch" and "sheisse". No wonder voice chat was disabled within a few days.

Home is a perfect example of something created by a corporation. There isn't one drop that hasn't been scrutinised by a gaggle of marketing experts and filtered through the PR department. What results is a crystal clear product, distilled of all life and personality. They aimed for somewhere between The Sims and Second Life, but misfired spectacularly. I feel like I've sullied my hard drive just by installing it. Sony's claims that it will become a "system-seller" seem beyond laughable at this point. I hope they've got some serious tricks up their sleeve, because at it stands, Home just seems like the most elaborate, frustrating user interface on Earth.

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