A few weeks ago, Electronic Arts (ERTS) sat me down with an early build of the company’s upcoming Boom Blox for the Nintendo (NTDOY) Wii. Produced by EA’s Casual Entertainment Label, the much-ballyhooed game, which is due to hit store shelves in May, is the first in a trilogy of collaborations with Hollywood demigod Steven Spielberg.
I have to say I was more than a little skeptical when I heard the announcement, and even more so when I saw the initial screen shots. Anybody who’s sat through Super Mario Bros. and Street Fighter the movies or played through Enter the Matrix (yes, guilty here on all three points) knows Hollywood-game industry crossovers have had a perilously compromised history. But, the demo I played proved me spectacularly wrong. I dare say I enjoyed Boom Blox even more than Spore, which I also played that day and for which gamers have been waiting for with almost millennial fervor for some three years now.
Spielberg’s little opus is built around messing around with blocks, knocking them down by throwing baseballs or bowling balls at them, triggering explosions or chain reactions, and by grabbing, pushing and pulling the blocks. The combination of the Wii’s motion-sensing controller and realistic physics make the game incredibly tactile. (A Jenga-like mode – one of more than 300 puzzles – where players pull single pieces from a stack is edge-of-your-seat fun.) [Read more gameplay deets here.]
What’s astonishing is that Spielberg, who meets with the development team working on Boom Blox once a week, seems to have grasped the inherent potential of the medium as it is. Playing Boom Blox is an exercise in “wouldn’t it be neat if;” the game really explores the possibilities presented by the Wii’s controller and the ability for the console to recreate hyper-realistic physics. It’s a lot of fun and inherently social.
In other words, it isn’t an unthinking translation of the cinematic experience to a game disc – something other famed Hollywood directors have done in recent years and have promised to continue doing in titles forthcoming. According to the producer who gave me the demo, Spielberg has been benchmarking the progress of the game with his kids to make sure play stays uber-simple and fun above all else.
But, Boom Blox struck me as a deeply important game for more than it’s fun, creative gameplay or the mega-star at its helm. Despite being one of the fastest growing, most multifaceted, sometimes celebrated and frequently dismissed forms of media, videogames remain poorly understood. The games industry enjoys vast commercial success, but it is seldom clear where the value is other than in end-of-quarter financial statements. Game proponents are quick to say the industry is now “bigger than Hollywood,” but rarely can they explain why it’s more interesting than Hollywood. Ironically, a film director’s first video game may indeed be getting ready to become one of the best articulations of this.