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June 8, 2012

E3 2012: Everybody Loves Stabbing (?)

So.  Let’s talk about E3…again.

I guess I’ll start with my observations -- not on the expo itself, but hearsay around the internet.  From what I can gather, this E3 has been average at best, disappointing in general, and a spiraling nexus of universe-ending badness at worst.  And even though I think of myself as the Eternal Optimist, even I have to agree with the detractors.  This E3 wasn’t amazing.  It had high points, and even the stuff I didn’t like had merit to some people, but overall I walked away from my TV wishing that I had just seen…well, SOMETHING more.

I’ve gone into detail about my thoughts on this year’s showing several times already, but I’ll save you some legwork (or finger-work) and say this: in a nutshell, it was a very “safe” showing on all accounts.  A safe showing of games we already knew about.  A safe amount of new properties.  A safe number of attempts to try and convince us that System Z will become the entertainment hub of the future.  A safe period to appeal to casual gamers -- and give time for bathroom/food breaks.  The stuff that the core gamers didn’t care about could be ignored; the stuff that did, I assume, managed to codify consumer loyalty, at least until the next E3.  Say what you will about things like the Nike/Kinect partnership or Wonderbook, but more or less, each company showed us the things that we want.  Or perhaps, what they think we want. 

And that’s what brings me here today: is this what gamers really want?

Yeah, yeah, you probably know what I’m getting at.  “Every game nowadays is a Call of Duty clone!”  “Oh great, ANOTHER shooter!”  “The industry is doomed!  Time to take up stamp collecting!”  And I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t part of my beef with the expo, and games as a whole these days.  I’ll be the first to admit that I’m biased against shooters, but more so against anything that’s excessively gritty.  I find it hard to get excited about a world where everything is dirty and dilapidated, and war-torn and hollowed-out; I find it hard to connect with characters who are either faceless mutes, or so cynical and snarky that I WISH they were faceless mutes (why so glum, Marcus Fenix?).  Games that try to be dark and serious and brutal just leave me tired and uninterested.  I think -- and I stress that this is my opinion only -- too many games this generation evoke the same feeling and aesthetic; why is it that with more graphical power and technical mastery, we’re moving backwards in terms of the worlds we create?

Alternate title: How to Turn Your Franchise into a Caricature.

But my bigger issue lies with just how everything has to be so violent nowadays -- as if the only determinant of a hardcore game is the simple equation “blood = sales.”  Think back to the demos shown at this year’s E3.  Tomb Raider had Lara shoot guys with her bow (sometimes setting them ablaze), and in one instance after nailing a guy with a few shots she decides to stab the hell out of him.  Splinter Cell: Blacklist had Sam engage in slow-motion kills as he galloped about, with no shortage of knife kills.  Far Cry 3 had its leading man get about half a dozen knife kills.  God of War: Ascension -- as you’d expect -- stars a man with giant knives chained to his arms.   Assassin’s Creed, as usual, had a hero with no small number of stabbing maneuvers.  Even the people’s darling, The Last of Us, had a little girl managing to stab an attacker in the back.  I’d wager that if there were any cutlery enthusiasts in the audience, they were the ones cheering loudest.

My “Best in Show” award would probably go to Pikmin 3 (though Watch Dogs is a VERY close second).  You know why?  Because it’s colorful.  It’s not so much about turning your enemies into punctured sacks of flesh as it is about exploring a strange, massive world and finding treasure -- finding discoveris that are alien to the pilots of Hocotate, but by that same virtue make our mundane items into something fantastic and worth appreciating.  I won’t say that Pikmin isn’t violent -- you DO command a loyal army of expendable ant-like soldiers to headbang your enemies to death and harvest their corpses -- but it does so with a different sort of veneer, and the game isn’t so much about the combat as it is the spirit of wonder and exploration of a new world.

Well, that and the joys of nature.

And you know what?  You know why I think Watch Dogs is so popular amongst us?  Because it’s spewing promise in every direction like a busted fire hydrant.  Using technology to affect the world around you, from gathering data to inciting car crashes, sounds like an AWESOME idea that I’m honestly excited to hear more about.  It has the potential to offer a deep, meaningful story, one with a context that ties in perfectly with our modern society.  In my opinion, the best parts of that demo were when the main character walked around and used his phone to screw with his surroundings; the worst parts were when he ultimately had to resort to gunning down his opponents to succeed.  We’ve had enough shooting this generation; just let us hack our way to victory -- let us use strategy, stealth, and subterfuge -- and I would gladly accept Ubisoft as the best western developer.

You are absolved, Ubisoft.

But until then, we have to deal with more shooting.  More grit and grime.  More murder.  More, more, more, more stabbing.  Given that, I want to ask you, whoever happens to be reading this blog, a question: is this what you want?  Are you happy with all this?  Or more importantly, is this what gamers -- you, or people you know -- would be satisfied with?

Let me be frank.    I’m the youngest in my family, and I’m just about in my mid-twenties.  Most of my friends have, or are about to, graduate from college.  I’ve got family members and friends of the family that play games, but they’re similarly-aged (and even then out of my sphere of interaction).  So when it comes to knowing what gamers want nowadays, I only have a few minor channels in real life to go by.  I’ve known guys that have been excited about Halo: Reach and Call of Duty, and I don’t hold any ill will against them, or the games, or the developers.  But what confuses the hell out of me is how I consistently see comments online taking shots at shooters and ridiculing reboots, but sales numbers continue to astound.  Just days ago, I read through some one hundred pages of E3 discussion on one site that collectively rolled their eyes at the sight of a game featuring excessive gunplay or violence in general.  Or, again, gritty modern warfare shooters.

No face.  Just the way I like it.

While it's nice to know that I'm not the only one that feels this way, here we are in 2012 with all those unsavory qualities manifested once more -- and more than ever.  More grit.  More stabbing.  More blood.  Somebody out there loves this shit, and I’m genuinely curious about who likes it and why.  I don’t want to be “that guy” and just blame dudebros and casual players that don’t know any better; I CERTAINLY don’t want to assume that it’s just the kiddies buying this stuff, because that opens up a whole new realm of fears and concerns.

A few years ago, I headed to GameStop to grab a DS title to celebrate having conquered another test.  While I was looking around, a mom and a couple of her kids -- not even ten, I guess -- came in and perused a bit as well.  The lady at the cashier took notice and made nice with them, asking what kind of games they were looking for.  “Do you like Mario?” she asked.  The kids responded with a tame “Not really.”  And then they went bonkers over the sight of Wii Sports, Wii Play, and even Wii Music (and Dora the Explorer for good measure).  At the time, I didn’t want to think about a new generation of gamers that passed up Mario for minigames, but now I’ve come to accept that a new era may soon be upon us.

The most complex villain of this or any generation.

What frightens me, however, is if that new era is built upon murdering your enemies as fantastically as possible in a world as unsavory as possible.  I’ve heard stories about kids as young -- or younger -- than those two at GameStop getting into Call of Duty.  And since it’s been a few years, those two might have moved on from the Wii to something with a bit more…well, let’s call it “bite.”  But is that because they genuinely want to engage in virtual slaughter?  Is it because everyone else is playing them, and they want to be cool?  Or is it because their options are growing increasingly slimmer?

This was a safe E3 -- an E3 that showed just how polarized games have started to become.  On one hand, you’ve got games that are as cartoonishly violent as an Itchy and Scratchy short.  On the other, you’ve got casual games that are so sugary sweet that they’re practically poisonous (and the fact that Nintendo ended its conference with Nintendo Land, of all things, doesn’t inspire confidence for their reputation or for hardcore gamers).  The middle ground is starting to dwindle.  The myriad styles of generations past seem to be slipping into the ether, one by one.  Sure, you’ll get a few divergences here and there -- the spectacular Rayman Origins and upcoming Legends chief among them -- but it’s a worrisome trend.  Is there anything inherently wrong with violent games?  Well, not necessarily; you could argue that the violence is an expression of art, or message, or just trying to create a thorough experience.  And my complaints aside, seeing Virtua Fighter 5’s Goh use his judo to utterly dismantle an opponent puts a smile on my face.    

The problem I have is that when EVERYONE decides to use violence as an expression of art, or message, or trying to create a thorough experience, it loses its impact.  Sure, those things might sell, but at what cost?  How do developers, who may have gone into the industry hoping to make their dream game about flying through the sky, sleep at night knowing their teams are coding high-definition blood splatters?  What do companies do when a gamer can see a whirling maelstrom of death in human form stab an elephant-man’s brain into a fine jam, yet feel NOTHING from it?

"You know, I always wanted to be a doctor..."

And are developers to blame for all this, or does the fault lie partly -- or even mostly -- to gamers?  We buy the games.  We play them.  We go online and compete.  We buy the DLC, and we buy the sequels.  But why do we buy them?  Is it because they’re fun?  Because there’s nothing else better to buy?  Because of hype and peer pressure?  Or in the worst-case scenario, is it because we’re living out our darkest fantasies?

Obviously, there’s no right answer; nor is there a clear, be-all and end-all formula that’ll solve the mystery.  But from what I can gather, and from what I’ve seen, this is the world we live in.  Company spokesmen will take the stage and trot out their game demos, showcasing brutality in all its myriad forms and earning applause -- genuine applause -- from an audience.  They give us what they think we want.  They give us what we think we want.  We ask, and we receive.  We beg them with our dollars, and they respond with their dollars.  It’s the circle of death. 

What happens next?  I don’t know.  Nobody knows.  I highly doubt the industry is in any danger, and I doubt there’s enough of an outcry from any side to make a change.  All we can do is live in the present, and play the games that we enjoy.   We can try to understand one another, and embrace whatever suits our fancies, and talk about our dream games in hushed yet energized whispers. 

As for me?  Well…I think I’m going to play some Dragon Quest VIII.  It’s been good to me recently.   

See you guys around.  Don’t go stabbing anyone while I’m out.

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