Sony’s Vita, a touchy problem

Some friends have asked me what I think of the Playstation Vita, Sony’s new handheld console that was released in February. I always have the same answer.

“It’s a slick, impressive piece of hardware that I couldn’t care less about,” I tell them.

Why? Because for all its fancy tech, the Vita carries the underlying threat of unchecked console gimmickry. As a follow up to Sony’s last-generation PSP, the Vita is a touchscreen-oriented machine designed to take on competitors outside of a strictly gaming space, with improved features commonly found in mobile, non-gaming devices. It’s also one whose primary function is supposed to be playing video games.

There’s an unnatural dichotomy that arises from this. Before the Vita, touch incorporation in console games—relegated to touchscreen interfaces on Nintendo’s DS and 3DS—has historically taken a different approach than the touch implementation of, say, iOS games.

Non-gaming platforms are a different story. They usually play host to less complex games, mostly driven by dumbed-down mechanics where one can play simply by deftly swiping or tapping at things on-screen (I need not explain how this limits the scope of what most mobile games strive for). Should a developer want gameplay that feels closer to a console experience than a casually oriented mobile one, the only available compromise is resorting to obtrusive on-screen virtual controls.

The DS and 3DS solution is that only one of their two screens has a touchscreen interface, so that functionality generally complements, rather than headlining. But the Vita’s single screen has multi-touch sensitivity in addition to the console’s regular controls. Almost overnight, the line separating simple, casual game design and more traditional console-oriented gameplay has morphed into a disconcerting Venn diagram connecting two fairly disparate markets.

Why does this matter? Because with its foundations firmly set in gimmickry, Vita developers now have the ability—and moreover, are likely bound by a certain amount of pressure—to dilute a “pure” game with obnoxious, extraneous elements designed to take advantage of the console’s more superfluous features.

As is the case with any hardware release, a certain amount of this is to be expected. (See the blatant 3-D effects featured in Nintendo’s 3DS launch lineup as a recent example.) Where, then, do traditional games qua games fall when they can be stuffed with shallow console-specific features?

Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, a wonderfully written, modern-day Indiana Jones-style love letter to pulp adventure on PS3, is an alarming wake-up call on the Vita. The series is one of Sony’s biggest cash cows. Naughty Dog, for its part, is regarded as one of the most talented game studios in the world. The Vita’s Golden Abyss was outsourced to another Sony team; from the get-go, the big news was that you could use Vita controls.

“You can still play it like a traditional game,” Abyss’ developers assured us. “It’s your choice.” Whether by corporate meddling or not, this is a lie. It’s true that touch functions for the primary actions of series protagonist Nathan Drake—platforming, gunplay and surviving thrilling set pieces—can be mostly ignored with traditional controls. But the Vita-exclusive garbage remains prominent enough for concern.

You can follow Steve Haske on Twitter @afraidtomerge.