As I press the electric razor to my face, it vibrates in my hand, emitting that familiar shrill hum. I finish mowing the overnight stubble from my chin and shut off the razor. For a second afterward, my hand courses with a dull ghost vibration. As I turn the key in the ignition of my old beater ride, I feel the engine buck and settle into a low idle before I shift into gear. In a confrontation with a knife-wielding assailant, I feel the thud of his rushing body as it collides with mine. Quantic Dream’s new interactive thriller Heavy Rain elevates the rumble function of Sony’s DualShock 3 controller to high art. The tactile sensation of the rumble is tuned so perfectly, you feel precisely what you would expect to feel in whatever situation the game places you.
Microsoft’s Project Natal seems giddy about ushering in an era of controller-free play, but my time spent playing Heavy Rain has made me far less excited about the prospect. From the second we’re born and reach our scrawny arms toward mommy dearest, we make sense of the world through touch. Medical research has proven that babies in orphanages will die without human touch, even if proper nutrition and a sterile enviroment are provided. The more of our senses are engaged, the greater the immersion we feel. Removing the controller seems to eliminate a key sensation without adequately replacing it.
I find it interesting that the majority of the tech demos for Natal have included a driving simulator. This would strike me as the most disappointing application of the technology possible. Players have enjoyed rumble for long enough that we expect—nay, demand!—a jarring vibration when we skid off the track. We expect force feedback when negotiating a sharp turn at breakneck speed. We expect to feel the crunch of metal when we skid into a guide rail or broadside an unsuspecting opponent driver. Pop in your copy of Burnout Paradise. Ok, now go into the option menu and turn off the vibration function. Get ready for the most anticlimactic experience of your entire life. If the first Natal installment of Burnout gets higher than a 45 on Metacritic, I’ll eat dog kibble for a week.
Who knows? The FBI-agent character Norman Jayden in Heavy Rain seems to hold up one possible workaround. Tearing a page from the James Bond playbook, Jayden owns a pair of shades that let him conduct his investigation using an augmented-reality interface. When using the ARI sunglasses, however, he also slips on a black leather glove that facilitates his virtual interactions.
Think about it. Our hands contain the most dense concentration of nerve endings in the human body. If Natal could develop some kind of discreet (translucent?) glove accessory that provided wireless rumble and force feedback to the hands during gameplay, then we’d have something truly worth jumping up and down over. The stretching of material over the fingers as they curled into a grip should allow for even more detailed sensory feedback. Till that announcment comes, I’m afraid the prospect of Natal will continue to leave me a bit colder than it rightfully should.