video games

PlayStation 5 Argues That Games Don’t Need to Change

The “5” indicates the height of the console, in feet. Photo: Playstation

When the PlayStation 4 was unveiled in February 2013, its biggest innovation came as a surprise: a small button on its controller, left of center, that said “Share.” Press it, and you could take a still image or video of whatever you were doing in a game and upload it to social media — or start a livestream on Twitch. In the video-game industry, new consoles are divining rods, an attempt to better understand emerging trends and passions among gaming audiences. In 2013, Sony anticipated the desire of gamers to easily broadcast what they were doing and figured it should assign that function a button. The ensuing decade bore this out; every console now has one.

The PlayStation 5 has no addition as forward-thinking as the Share button. Its bets are all hedged on premiums: a controller with haptic feedback capable of remarkable subtlety, immersive “3D audio,” and the promise of top-flight games that fully leverage the system’s robust hardware. Despite all its power and prestige, the PlayStation 5 — which will arrive here in the U.S. this Thursday before hitting international markets shortly thereafter — is a remarkably conservative console, a machine designed with the intention to replicate the successes of its predecessor, and not much else.

Over the past decade, Sony’s PlayStation consoles have established themselves as the exclusive home to uniquely cinematic games that show off the very best of what can be done with video-game technology — they’re not trying to reinvent your living room, like Microsoft’s Xbox consoles, or toy with how you play games, like Nintendo. Like a Marvel movie, Sony leverages spectacle to get asses in seats, and PlayStation games are very good at that.

However, the ways in which the PlayStation 5 will carry this vision forward remain largely intangible, if only because the console is launching with a lack of exclusive games that can really show off what it can do. (There are any number of reasons for this muted launch lineup, up to and including the pandemic.) I’ve played one of the new titles so far: Astro’s Playroom, a free game that comes with the PS5. (More on that later.) The other PS5 game I played for review, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, is also available for PS4, like the rest of the lineup of games launching alongside the PS5, save one: Demon’s Souls, which is not yet available to reviewers. A third game, Godfall, will be released on November 12 by publisher Gearbox, and be exclusive to PS5 for six months.

The lack of games tailor-made for showcasing this capabilities of this expensive machine is a shortcoming shared with the Xbox Series X and Series S. (There the situation is more dire, as the new Xboxes have none.) Like any new bit of technology, the PlayStation 5 is selling potential. If that upside comes to fruition, it’s remarkable how much Sony’s vision for the next few years in video games looks like the last few: affirming the PlayStation 5 as the vanguard of the traditional console experience, with a regular cadence of show-stopping games published by Sony that you can’t get anywhere else. These games — like this year’s The Last of Us Part II or Final Fantasy VII Remake — are the summer blockbusters of video games, supersize fare given the money and resources to dazzle audiences with interactive spectacle that genuinely cannot be found anywhere else.

(These are also the sort of games that, in the previous generation, brought scrutiny to the labor conditions they were produced under. Big impressive games were frequently accompanied by reports of overworked and burned-out employees and high turnover. If a large part of the PlayStation 5’s promise is more of these games on a more impressive scale, it’s almost a certainty that the systemic issues that make game development unsustainable — a “crunch” culture of overwork, poor retention, and a lack of transparency in addressing these problems — will continue, if they don’t exacerbate.)

For now, that shape of that prestige game future is just out of sight. There are promised games, like a sequel to 2018’s God of War, that will doubtless come in the future, but right now the best showcase for what a PlayStation 5 game can be is Astro’s Playroom, the free little diversion that comes pre-installed on every console. In it, you play a cute robot that lives inside your PlayStation, running and jumping like Mario through vibrant worlds primarily designed to showcase the DualSense controller’s impressive haptics, which are far more complex than just vibration. Raindrops seem to ripple across the controller’s inside, sand crackles through it, different surfaces give different feedback. It’s an incredible achievement, but the staying power of these improvements are questionable: The Nintendo Switch also launched with impressive haptics dubbed “HD Rumble”, and despite the console’s monumental success, it’s a feature that has largely fallen by the wayside.

This mostly means that it doesn’t feel especially urgent to purchase a PlayStation 5 right now. Consider Spider-Man: Miles Morales, the follow-up to 2018’s PlayStation 4 game Spider-Man. Its great predecessor remains visually stunning on the aging PS4, and it’s hard to imagine how much better it could look. The PS5 version will make you a believer — the texture of its digital world is much more vivid, its lights more vibrant and lifelike, with technical hurdles like load times virtually nonexistent — but the game is no more or less fun than the PS4 version that goes on sale the same day. In a world where it can be hard to distinguish between video games, action movie CGI, and Pixar films, there are diminishing returns on digital spectacle.

In some ways, the PlayStation 5 feels unfinished. Its menus are clean and pleasant to look at, but it’s easy to trip over navigating them. A number of simple tasks — from turning the console off to browsing your library — take one or two steps more than they used to on the PlayStation 4. And features that are supposed to make games friendlier, like the “cards” that appear when you bring up the systems Control Center menu in the middle of a game, just feel cluttered and overwhelming instead of helpful. (I should also note that many features have been marked as off-limits to reviewers until the console launches on November 12; for example, media apps like Netflix or Disney+, as well as the PlayStation Store, are not yet functional on review units.) So while the experience of playing games on the console is relatively smooth, for now, using the console is a bit like moving into an apartment while the paint is still drying. It’ll probably work out, but there might be a little bit of a mess if someone’s not careful.

These are wholly unrelated to the PlayStation’s pitch of grandiose games that justify its powerful hardware, but worth considering, because the most interesting things about the console are features tucked deep into its menus. Because of Sony’s relentless focus on games, it can be easy to overlook the PlayStation 5’s versatility. The PS5 has a superior set of social features like Share Play, which lets you share your screen privately with a friend and virtually hand them the controller, so long as your internet connection’s up for it. It’s endeavoring to have games launch with baked-in guides with videos that could show you how to overcome a particularly tricky challenge. And, while it’s not nearly as well-publicized, the console, like the Xbox, has a Netflix-style service called PlayStation Now that offers games to download or stream at the reasonable price of $9.99/month.

Modern consoles are not static — they’re platforms that can evolve and change with time and an internet connection. They can improve or regress from their original vision depending on the commitment of developers or audience interest. And this is perhaps the biggest reason for observing the PlayStation 5 from a distance before getting one for yourself — not just because it’s going to take a long while for it to deliver on its promise of blockbuster games, but because it will take just as long to see if its considerable potential will be applied to games that show us new ways to play and connect with each other. Otherwise, it’ll just be another pricey home for expensively made content.

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PlayStation 5 Argues That Games Don’t Need to Change