Without wanting to praise Sony's gizmo as the saviour of gaming, there usually comes a moment (however transient) when playing a new EyeToy game in which it seems to make a mockery of anything that asks you to sit down and use a joypad. In Kinetic, Sony's "highly personalised workout programme"-'em-up, that moment came during my very first game in the Cardio Zone, 'Cascade'. Game design was simple (touch the falling blue orbs and avoid the red; typical EyeToy) and when my ineptitude got too much for him to bear, personal trainer Mike hogged the screen to show me how it is done for a while, with his elaborate and unreasonably exhaustive body contortions backing up my impression of this as an illustrative fitness aid only.
But as I start nailing the targets and the levels start rising I realise I've begun to twist and contort just like Mike, partly because the rising difficulty demands it and partly because my own jubilation, adrenaline and inner high-score junkie want to. Doubters be damned, it's actually fun!
As the results screen flatters my happily huffing frame with a Professional rating, a moment of clarity tells me that I've just spent ten minutes playing my fun new game, enjoyed it more than any other I've played recently, and I burnt 66 calories in the process. In the next few weeks I will also smarten up my diet, learn some Tai Chi and spend a disarmingly exotic 15 minutes meditating to the soft whirr of my PS2's internal fan.
Like Play and SingStar before it, Kinetic offers us a fresh and, crucially, fun new way to play with our PS2s. It's another casual revolution in game design that's destined to fly under the radar of dyed-in-the-wool gamers as they pore over shots of the next gen consoles' shiny plastic casings. And just like SingStar, it is essentially just a tool for doing something we can all do perfectly well without a games console, but to label that a criticism or hindrance seems futile or even petty in the face of the actual experience and the wholly amiable intentions behind it. Any game can be criticised on a conceptual level if you're cynical enough to do so without playing it. If SingStar is "just karaoke" and Kinetic is "just exercise", then 99% of videogames are " just pressing buttons and twiddling sticks". The exercise is merely the control dynamic, and as it happens, it is a lot more dynamic than most—the measure of a well-designed control system normally being how invisible it is during play.
An oddly apposite analogy might be that of documentary filmmaking or historical writing: neither engage with the traditional storytelling or creative writing methods that shape our conception of their medium's art, but both utilise the same craft differently to illuminate, inform, edify or even instruct their audience in ways that fiction and fantasy could or would not. Not only does EyeToy: Kinetic do all these things, but it entertains, challenges and rewards at least as much as any other 'normal' videogame. It feels like a wake-up call for an art form that really cannot afford to remain so stubbornly insular and set in its ways as we move into another new generation.
And for something many would dispute being a videogame at all, Kinetic is surprisingly packed, quite naturally, with inert gaming concepts and structures. Difficulty, exhilaration, variety, dynamism, player rewards, cheating safeguards; all have very literal translations in this new context. One game is always different from the next because you'll never make the exact same movements twice; diving out of the camera's view to cheat is actually a valid game tactic; become an expert at the game and you will genuinely (physically) benefit from it. Far from being a gimmicky bastardization of gaming tropes, Kinetic feels like it's reclaiming them from our virtual worlds and educating us on their true meaning, at the same time as it validates the game-like frameworks we are so familiar with as being more broadly useful than we might imagine. By comparison, the 'game' elements and rule sets of other videogames feel laboured, manufactured, distant from the core concept of play and more than ever like the work we always feared they had more in common with.
It is a shame, then, that Kinetic's vision will have to wait for the right hardware before fully realising its goals. The not-inconsiderable space needed to play the game (that's real space, not memory card space) is somewhat less of a problem thanks to the packaged inclusion of a new camera lens that allows players to see more of themselves on screen. However, by far the biggest problem is still EyeToy's light and movement sensitivity, which proves either infuriatingly unresponsive or picks up on everything from mirrors to posters to barely moving curtains and allows them to gatecrash whole games (far more noticeably than in previous EyeToy titles I believe). Unless you're playing the game in a customised workout studio—that is, you're absolutely not the target audience—it can almost entirely undermine some of game designs and could prove a near game-ruining weakness for many.
If this does become an issue, you generally have to just swallow your high-score pride and adjust your game fairness expectations accordingly. As Mike would say, "It's all about burning calories", and you learn to accept that as long as you're moving, you're winning. Even if the game didn't recognise that last flashy back kick, you still actually did it, so who cares?
It's still a bitter negative, and there are others (don't start a workout just before midnight to avoid a nasty crash bug), but they don't nearly justify labelling this a failed experiment. Any shortcomings as a solid piece of game design fall out of relevance in view of its amiable subversion of that very concept, to the extent where the label "videogame" calls for some scrutiny. Between the fun I had playing it, the fitness boost I've gained from it (body fat now 13% and dropping if you want numbers), the awareness and discipline it's taught me and the sheer enthusiasm it's reawakened in me to turn on my PS2 for an hour almost every night, EyeToy: Kinetic distinguishes itself until it is, almost, virtually unassailable.