Playing games that have extended the design patterns of the last generation on Wii U—Batman: Arkham Origins, Call of Duty: Ghosts, Mass Effect 3, FIFA, Splinter Cell: Blacklist—there is a palpable sense of an era having designed itself into a corner. The addition of a second screen integrated into the controller does indeed feel like gimmickry, but its gimmickry that reveals the thoughtlessly repeated design ideas of the games themselves more than the controller and its touchscreen. Gimmickry is the heart of play, the redirection of something toward a purpose that’s not immediately obvious to produce a sense of discovery and surprise. What’s often described as depth in play is only just a proliferation of branching gimmicks, each leading to a variety of roughly equivalent automations, the choice between which conveys a kind of intimate fragment of personhood to some other player familiar with the sleight-of-hand bylaws and what passes for alternatives to them.
Even when used as just a map screen, the Wii U’s controller points to a dimensional complexity in play that’s absent in the more computationally powerful PS4 and Xbox One. Playing half-hearted ports with minimal investment in the new play apparatus, there is a greater sense of possibility and strangeness than anything I’ve felt from higher screen resolution, more non-playable characters, or more elaborate physics simulations. But since most third-party developers have abandoned Nintendo’s small gesture toward a new kind of thinking about play, whatever advancement their machinery could have led to will remain a theoretical abstraction.