Emotion Engine: Launching an Icon


Emotion Engine: Launching an Icon
Photo by Nikita Kostrykin / Unsplash.

People are always waiting for the next big thing. That wait — and the tantalising possibilities that come with a major reveal event — can fill an audience with curiosity and wonder. What will be the next big film? Album? Book? TV show? How about the next major interactive experience?

The PlayStation’s future is black

In March 1999, revealed the PlayStation 2, its vision of the next-generation in interactive entertainment.

Source: YouTube.

Games had successfully entered the general public’s consciousness in the ’90s with the debut of the sixth generation of consoles. Lara Croft had become a staple of the medium, alongside Mario, Sonic and even the major characters from Tekken. And now, people wanted to know just how their favourite series would translate to a more powerful system. As was their way, Sony showed off plenty of demos — from penguins following Crash to Reiko from Ridge Racerappearing on a catwalk.

These subtle hints (which weren’t remotely about revealing actual gameplay) were incredibly alluring to viewers, myself included. As someone who was enjoying contemporary games at the time, it was exciting to see where these franchises could go when powered by greatly more powerful hardware. These early demos fuelled my imagination, as I wondered what I’d be playing in the comfort of my bedroom in the coming years.

It seemed that we were witnessing a quantum leap — Sony presented a dance sequence between Final Fantasy VIII’s Squall and Rinoa, which was rendered entirely in real-time. This was mind-blowing, because the sequence looked pre-rendered. Sony were determined to demonstrate that scenes of this calibre could now be played and not just watched.

In all honesty, I didn’t quite believe it at the time.

Carpets and trains set the standard

There were two games that really stood out to me early on: Dark Cloud and The Bouncer. The former was an RPG, and the demo was impressive. It depicted a character building a village from scratch while flying around on a magic carpet. The latter was a beat ’em up, which looked like a modern throwback to Streets of Rage. The effects were remarkable (especially the train crash with water spewing out everywhere). There was a sense that a changing environment could affect gameplay in real-time.

As the demo-reel smashed our collective eyeballs with repeated “wow” moments, the date of March 4, 2000 flashed across the screen in between the demos (this was the Japanese release date — the UK and USA regions would be graced by the PS2’s presence in autumn). In an age before the internet was as ubiquitous in terms of gaming coverage and marketing, major “traditional” advertising campaigns would soon begin, with magazines around the world previewing the upcoming titles that might make it into the launch line-up.

I remember hearing murmurs around the school playground — everyone was sharing stories about what they’d love to see, and we were all so excited. We were fascinated by the idea of seeing our favourite franchises return with glossy new coats of paint.

One more thing…

The PlayStation 2 reveal event reminds me of the well-rehearsed Apple events, with a specific cadence that speaks to numerous audiences at once: both consumers and potential developers. There was a perfect combination of game demos and technical specifications — it’s almost as if Steve Jobs himself had an uncredited role in the keynote.

One thing that Sony did remarkably well was craft a narrative around the technology inside the PS2. The Emotion Engine was a big factor here — never before was a game console processor given an evocative name like this (where nowadays we regularly see names like A11 Bionic and Coffee Lake being thrown around as if these pieces of silicone actually have personalities).

Sony’s narrative was compelling. The main reason they used the name Emotion Engine wasn’t to describe raw power — it was all about the calculations, and the way this enabled characters to more accurately express themselves through facial movements whether in cutscenes or playable environments. In the past, we were used to games like Metal Gear Solid and Tomb Raider III, where characters could only approximate the most basic visual language to convey emotion (like simply speaking and nodding at the same time). With the PS2, Sony were promising to consign such primitive exposition to the video game trash heap: now we were going to get Pixar-levels of emotion.

This analogy was even hyped when the announcement of the console was ongoing.

As soon as the magazines had published their report of the event, all you could see was Emotion Engine everywhere (often represented through Reiko’s smile). Reading these accounts in my latest GamesMaster magazine sparked my imagination. How could all this emotion translate to Crash Bandicoot, or Wipeout, or Resident Evil? Who’d have known!

Sony’s narrative was extra-sticky owing to the fact that Toy Story 2 was right on the horizon at the time. As the hype grew, gamers were beginning to believe that the PS2 could churn out Toy Story 2 quality graphics with no issues whatsoever. Of course, we didn’t really see this level of visual fidelity in games until just recently (Kingdom Hearts III comes to mind) — nevertheless, the PS2’s graphics were impressive at the time.

I remember thinking about how all this tech might apply to a realistic Solid Snake, sneaking into a base with soldiers and bosses who would react much more realistically.

“Yes please, and when can I buy!”

To Lucas, and beyond!

The PS2 was being noticed well outside the games industry — I remember reading a magazine article with a quote from a Roger Ebert interview of George Lucas, who was gushing over the power of the console:

“The thing about the Playstation II is that it works in real time. We didn’t make ‘Phantom Menace’ in real time. Some of the shots in the film took 48 hours to render. We had huge, giant computers cranking every minute of the day. Here they’re doing it in real time as you sit there.

George Lucas

Five or so films in the franchise later, and we are yet to hear of a PlayStation console rendering something like this, not even a specific scene.

Film would indeed play an important role in the PS2’s success, but not in the way we perhaps imagined initially. The PS2 wasn’t just a game console — it was an entertainment hub that had the ability to play DVDs right out of the box. This feature wasn’t available to the competing Sega Dreamcast, and the inclusion of a DVD player is often credited as one of the reasons for the PS2’s early and meteoric rise to dominance. At the time, DVD was the enticing new media standard, and the PS2 was a relatively affordable DVD player that also happened to be a next-generation game console.

If you’re old enough, then I’m sure you’ll remember your first DVD. Mine was Rush Hour 2, and I remember it being strange to navigate my way through a menu of “chapters” with a Dual Shock 2 controller.

What’s next?

7th September 2018 was the day that Sony stopped providing service and support for the PS2, a staggering eighteen years since launch. Rumours are only now beginning to circulate about the fifth incarnation of the legendary console, and with Sony ghosting this year’s E3, I’m wondering if we’ll see another PlayStation Meeting closer to the end of the year.

As I write this, I’m reminded that “PlayStation” doesn’t just mean Anthem or Spider-Man to me — it’s part of my childhood. Sony has such a great opportunity to bring together both past and present fans with the PlayStation 5. Imagine, for example, being able to access an entire PlayStation library with a single subscription (whether streaming or download), so that you can easily play titles like Tekken or Viewtiful Joe and then dive into a round of Gran Turismo 6.

This would be incredible to me, as well as being a massive advantage for Sony. Both Nintendo and Microsoft have leaned into their back catalogues in various ways, both companies being acutely aware of the value of nostalgia. But it’s an area where I think Sony has floundered in comparison; if Sony addressed this with the PS5, they could blast out of the gate on all cylinders from day one.

But for now, as we await the fifth PlayStation, we can always look at the first game console “sequel” — the PS2 — and remember how it was massively hyped on launch, and how it became the highest-selling game console in history.


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