One of the stranger things about PlayStation Home - and there are a great many strange things about PlayStation Home - is the experience of being in a virtual world without the slightest hint of fantasy about it.
It's hardly real life, of course. We don't live in a permanently sunny West Coast d'Azur lesiure complex, spend our days jogging between the bowling alley and the mall, or stand around in cinema lobbies doing the funky chicken in slouch pants. But this a purely contemporary, commercial, aspirational kind of escapism; a marketing fantasy.
So everyone looks like a 20-something male in bland, high street casual fashion, because that's who everyone actually is. You can only do things you might do in real life - chat, watch film trailers, play a frame of pool, or maybe a videogame. Conceptually this makes sense. It's not alienating, it's easy to identify with, and the socialising and advertising are entirely in context. But you're left pondering the inevitable question: why would you want to spend any time here?
This dislocation combines with one of the other strange things about Home. It's a virtual world populated by console gamers, many of whom are familiar with the interactions and social etiquette of massively-multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft, or even tweenie hangouts like Habbo Hotel.
At the moment - and we must remember that Home's beta only went open to all today - it's an unruly melee of greasy flirting, spammed greetings and aimless A/S/L enquiries. Female avatars get attention everywhere, but in Home, they're absolutely mobbed, relentlessly shadowed, danced at and messaged. It doesn't help that most people don't have keyboards plugged in and aren't brave enough to use voice.
Communication was always going to be one of the biggest problems for a console virtual world. Sony's done a half-decent job in some respects. The preset phrases available on L1 are useful, although a few new additions are needed. Most conversations go something like this: "Hello." "Yes." "I have no keyboard."
The emotes and dances on L2 are animated a little cheesily and without conviction, but they pass a funny few minutes between mute friends and there are plenty of them. ("Good job they included a whole move set under the banner of "Disappointment"," said Eurogamer's head of cynical barbs, Ellie Gibson.)
Voice chat quality is poor, and chat functionality all-round is far distant from what any MMO player or Second Lifer might be used to. A particularly glaring omission is the ability to "whisper" - or send an instant, private text message without everyone in the vicinity seeing what you're saying. You either have to "phone" someone for a private voice conversation via the headset, or use the PSN account messaging system - which may only be a few extra clicks on paper, but in reality, takes you out of world and makes conversations far more clumsy than they need to be.
It gets worse. There doesn't seem to be a way to form a party in Home unless you're actually launching a game together. Permanent and flexible parties that persist across any situation were one of the best features of last month's Xbox interface redesign - not to mention being the most basic requirement for any MMO or virtual world. That means you can only chat with several friends if you're near each other in the world, and only privately if you all go together to a private space.
You can forget about common chat channels for wider circles of friends - Clubs, in Home's world - too. You can probably forget about Clubs to be honest, since Sony is charging GBP 3.99 for the privilege of forming one. Not only that, but in the future - some time after 31st March 2009, according to the blurb - you'll be charged a monthly fee to keep your Club running. That's before you even consider the costs of setting up a club house and furnishing it with cool stuff.
We appreciate that Home is a completely free release, and that Sony needs to make money from it somehow. But charging for social features - especially charging fees on top of one-off payments - is a schoolboy error. In its search for revenue streams, Sony has put a premium, set a high barrier to entry, on the social organisation that should be the lifeblood, the glue of any MMO or virtual world. At a stroke, it's drastically reduced the number of potential attractions in Home, and the reasons players will have for hanging out there.
Sony's also seeking revenue from the sale of virtual items and accessories. A piece of clothing will set you back 59 pence, while an object of furniture costs 79 pence (walking into shops in the mall takes you straight to custom PlayStation Store pages).
We're really not convinced Sony's micro-transaction drive is going to work. Home's muted, realistic visual style - although it's certainly easy on the eye, with warm soft-focus lighting offsetting all those clean modernist lines - counts against it here. The cartoonish exuberance that compels people to spend money in MapleStory, PangYa and the like on rabbit ears or pet dragons can't be applied to this lifestyle utopia. The result is you're faced with spending a Euro on a new neckline or a Scandinavian light-fitting in a cheap simulacrum of real-life retail therapy. Where's the escapist reward - or to put it bluntly, the fun - in that?
All it means in the long run is that, with the default wardrobe items severely restricted in order to encourage item sales (not that the clothes available to buy were all that different in style), everyone's going to look the same. The avatar creator is partly at fault here, too.
In fact, it's quite powerful and flexible, and with some work you can achieve remarkably convincing results. But rather than opt for the Mr. Potato Head-style pick-and-mix of features approach, Home requires you to patiently sculpt your face and frame by tweaking the parameters on a number of preset (and not very appealing) archetypes. Most people understandably don't have the patience; it's so much easier, not to mention more fun, to capture someone's essence with the plug-and-play cartoons of Miis or Xbox Avatars.
A problem with assessing Home at the moment is that, in its current beta state, its defining feature - how it feeds into and connects with PlayStation gaming as a whole - is missing. Even the themed showrooms for Sony games like Resistance - showrooms that will, Sony hopes, convince other publishers to buy floor space in Home - aren't in yet, although they're expected soon. You can't display trophies yet (it's even rather slow to retrieve trophy information from player profiles). Game-launching integration is far from complete.
You're left with Home's own distractions. There's the bowling alley, where you can play very basic and frustrating games of pool and bowling, if you can be bothered to queue for a slot (these really should have been instanced), or simple Flash-style arcade games. The theatre, where you can watch movie and game trailers (not in full-screen) is cumbersome but as a 3D, browsable advertising hoarding, it does work. The shopping centre allows you to buy clothes and furniture or even a new "personal space" (house or flat) for GBP 3.99. Home Square connects them all, and offers a simple but pleasant chance to sit in the sun and play draughts.
It's not a seamless world by any means, but the areas load quickly after an initial download and, sensibly, you can teleport between them, or to a friend's location, at any point. Given how much utility there is in Home (even if there isn't much to do with it at present), the start-button interface is clean, clear and fast and has all the options you could want instantly available. To some extent, this makes up for communication and physical navigation being slow and unwieldy.
Home was never meant to be judged in a bubble, but unfortunately, that's how it is right now. In isolation, it doesn't have a lot of content - but, again, this is a beta, and like any virtual world it will grow organically over time. We're not going to criticise it for being small, or for not being fully plugged in to the rest of PlayStation's world yet.
But - although it's stable and polished enough - Home shows Sony up to be the amateur entrant in virtual worlds that it is. A little consultation from MMO arm Sony Online Entertainment could surely have avoided some of the many simple pitfalls Home tumbles into. There's the lack of basic customer services like an indication of if and when servers are up, for example, or the constricted communication, or the frankly absurd monetisation of socialising.
Then there's the stiff, airless lack of character to it. You can tell Home is the sort of place where pressing Select brings up a "Go to Personal Space" option. It's as glossy, whitewashed and empty as an episode of Laguna Beach, a non-place where non-people have non-conversations. In its anxiousness to offend no one, Sony has made Home appealing to no one. Until it connects with the outside world it's a just a very expensive snow-globe. Home is a nice enough place to visit, but right now, you wouldn't want to live there.