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June 20, 2016

E3 2016: Forgive or Forget?

Is this Overwatch?  No?  Then E3 2016 gets a 0 out of 10.  Would not watch again.

All right, seriously, though?  I have to start by being honest: I didn’t really care about E3 this year.  In the weeks and months leading up to it, I was basically ambivalent; I couldn’t summon up the will to care too much about it, knowing that A) all the information I needed would be plastered online in days’ time, and B) getting invested in E3 meant sitting through more press conferences.  More played-out buzzwords.  More non-indicative trailers.  More promises of glory that would fail to deliver.  More chomping at the bit to get past the stuff I don’t care about.  More cringe by the barge-load.  The only positive point, ostensibly, would be the annual showcase of Cuphead footage -- which to be fair almost justifies the whole expo.

So as much as it strains my credibility, I have to admit that I’m writing this E3 post while skipping out on a majority of the conferences.  Maybe I’ll go back and watch stuff eventually; I’ve seen a supercut already, but there’s more to digest.  And I will, especially if the Super Best Friends put up their reactions (and I’d assume that’s available via some Twitch stream archives).  But for now?  I want to do something different besides run down the major conferences and companies.  I want to take time out to talk about E3 -- and in particular, a topic that’s been occupying my brain space for the past month:

Is E3 basically The Apology Expo?

To start off, I want to say that I’ve thought back to previous E3s -- at least since I started this blog.  I’ve taken issue with what’s been on display, again and again and again.  So much violence.  So much homogeny.  So much hype-mongering.  I’d be a fool to act as if the whole show was a wash year after year, of course, and that’s true of this year too.  But I remembered that once upon a time, I was really interested in -- even excited by -- The Last of Us.  And that didn’t turn out well.  Once upon a time, I was intrigued by Watch Dogs.  That went even worse.

Opinions may vary, of course.  Still, I think the important thing is that just because there’s a sizzling trailer that captures the hearts and minds of onlookers, there’s still no guarantee of the final product’s quality.  Watch Dogs is notorious for its visual downgrade, and it hasn’t done any favors for itself by featuring a limp story and underwhelming gameplay.  I would think that gamers across the board learned about the divide between hype and reality from the big reveal to the final release in 2014 -- maybe earlier than that, given that Watch Dogs wasn’t the only game to come out that year or before that or after it. 

Yet here comes Ubisoft again, showing off Watch Dogs 2 with a straight face…with a slew of preorder bonuses announced in tandem, natch.  The more things change…

If a bunch of Ubisoft execs walked up to me and sat me down with a trailer for the impending threat sequel, I would knock their stuff onto the floor and shout “I DON’T BELIEVE YOU!” and then run into the night.  I don’t believe that this company can redeem what’s forcibly become a franchise (partly because it sold well).  I could be proven wrong, but this is the company whose marquis franchise Assassin’s Creed has been run into the ground. 

And sure, people are working under the assumption that Watch Dogs 2 will pull an AssCreed 2 and see improvements across the board.  But remember, the Ubisoft that made AssCreed 2 is a relic of the past.  As one of the major AAA developers/publishers, they’ve consistently embarrassed themselves over the years while sucking money from gamers’ wallets with eyes alight and lips covered in slobber.  They haven’t earned anything even close to trust -- only begrudging acceptance and tolerance, in a lot of cases.

So riddle me this: why the hell would I want to shed 60 to 120 minutes of my Overwatch time seeing these guys hype up their line of products, a high percentage of which might help perpetuate the mediocrity of the medium, when they’re one of the companies closest to being the villain?

I’m pretty sure I’ve asked this before, but I’ll ask it again: why does Ubisoft even have a press conference?  Well, there are some obvious (if cringe-inducing) answers.  One: because there’s no better chance for one of the big companies to reach a wide audience.  Two: because it’s the perfect way to impress investors, shareholders, and other corporate overlords.  Three: because as a major company, it can afford to take center stage for an hour or two.  Four: because announcing games and showing off content (such as it is) is the first step in setting the ebon mechanisms of the Hype Engine in motion.

Of course, it’s also a way to help build trust.  Faith.  Loyalty.  Let’s not pretend like any of the companies in the gaming industry (including golden boy Nintendo) haven’t done wrong, because they have.  But those companies can rebuild broken bonds by offering up something substantial as an apology.  E3 is both the symbol and the means for that, especially since I’d think that major companies don’t usually make a habit of outright announcing that they’re sorry or that they messed up.  “Look at these new games!” they cry out with hands clasped tight and smiles strained.  “Get these, and you’ll like us again!  And you’ll have fun, too!  That’s what you want, right?  Please love us!”

And so we have EA, Ubisoft, Bethesda, Sony, and Microsoft trying to win our favor.  Trying to make up for past mistakes with new peace offerings.  Only…are they really?

I don’t know.  I feel like I’m in the minority here (as I should be), but I can’t get rid of my niggling concerns.  As an example: Sony revealed a new God of War for the public, featuring an emphasis on Norse mythology (hell yes), but also turns Kratos into a bearded dad, saddles him with a son, and switches camera angles to make it look like your standard third-person game.  Or, given that there have been a huge number of comparisons to The Last of Us…yeah, it kind of looks like The Last of Us.  However superficially.

I guess the trailer’s been enough to win people over, but I’m not.  I haven’t forgotten about God of War, both in terms of its previous installment Judgment and in terms of the series as a whole.  I’ve never liked Kratos, because I feel like his story could’ve and should’ve ended with the first game.  I get that he’s a murderous madman, but I didn’t find that interesting -- and if I remember right, Kratos’ murder spree in GoW3 basically ended with him ruining the earth just ‘cause.  Which seems to have been run back hard for this new game for some reason…?

I don’t buy it.  As one of the five people unimpressed by TLoU, I feel like creeping closer to the mechanics of that game is a SEVERE misstep.  (Or, alternatively, the dadification of games marches on.)  I’m one of those awful people that thinks GoW pales in comparison to the Devil May Cry games, but in terms of western-developed action games it was arguably one of the best.  Now the trailer suggests that they’re walking away from that mechanical complexity to make the game just like every other game…only now Kratos has a son, so he’s a good character, I guess.  Maybe he won’t kill this kid like he did his daughter.

It’s unfair to pass judgment on GoW right now, I know.  But it’s too late for me and that franchise; it didn’t appeal to me back then, and it doesn’t appeal to me now.  That’s the risk you take when you rely on an established franchise, I suppose; what do you do when your last entry (or the one before that, or the one before that) turned away more fans than it won?  What do you do when name or brand recognition inherently backfires?  Call of Duty has become such an anathema that I’m surprised people can even say its name without spitting at the ground.  Yet here we are with another one -- and a remaster -- on the way, despite the disdain, the questioned popularity, and one of the most disliked YouTube videos in history

It’s like that consistently.  Oh boy, Resident Evil 7 is officially on the way!  Oh, but RE6 was such a disaster that it completely shattered the goodwill of the franchise.  But hey, Dead Rising 4 is bringing back Frank West!  Oh, but it already did that in DLC and updated rereleases, and that’s ignoring Dead Rising 3 being a contentious entry thanks to its dingier color palette, different hero, and darker tone…coupled with a less-than-ideal PC port.  Well, there’s always Detroit: Become Human.  Oh, but it’s by David Cage and Quantic Dream.

I’m having a harder and harder time divorcing the new stuff from old problems and disappointments.  Battlefield 1 may have one of the most-liked videos ever, but it’s still Battlefield -- an EA production long since brought to its knees by persistent online issues.  Gears of War 4 is still on the way, even though the canon it’s picking up on is…not great.  Titanfall 2 is here to…uh…exist, I guess? And not become a laughingstock a few months after release?  These companies are trying to hype me up with games I’ve got no interest in -- or I’m actively repulsed by -- and to say “it’s not working” would be an understatement the size of Saturn’s rings.

I’m working under the assumption that I’m not exactly the target demographic for a lot of these games (if not E3 in general).  But there’s a possibility that I’m not the only one feeling like this.  Ubisoft has to know about the discontent players have felt with their games, right?  They have to know that people are tired of the Ubisoft Game formula, and they’re sick of the controversies that didn’t have to exist.  They have to know that not everyone is keen on Ghost Recon Wildlands -- or, more pressingly, that The Division has seen a 93% drop in its Steam player base since release.  The companies need to appease onlookers, no matter what.  The question is simple, then: are they doing a good enough job of it?  Are they offering up worthwhile apologies, tributes to the fans that have felt wronged and scorned in the past?

*shrugs* Iunno.

That answer’s going to differ for everyone.  So ultimately, I can only speak for myself -- and what was once a lingering sense of doubt has become a concrete form of concern.  I feel like getting excited by the hottest new trailer is a fool’s errand given my experiences with TLoU and Watch Dogs, but on the other hand?  Even the trailers and gameplay footage on display are typically not enough to interest me.  I thought that Keiji Inafune’s ReCore seemed pretty cool when it was first announced…and then they showed off gameplay and I was like “Ohhhhhhhhh.”

Horizon: Zero Dawn basically went into radio silence after its E3 debut last year, and this year it showed up again with -- wait for it -- more third-person gameplay where you shoot down robotic beasts with technological arrows.  I mean it looks okay and all, and it’ll probably be fine upon release, but nothing about it screamed excitement.  Just…functionality, I suppose.  It looks pretty and all, and I’m glad there’s a leading lady in the driver’s seat, but if the game slipped back under the radar for another year, I wouldn’t be too hung up on it.

If I’m not excited about two new IPs -- both of which show off gameplay, however embellished -- then there’s either a problem with me, or a problem with the games.  You decide which is more likely.  Or you could just remember that the next big “new IP” is  an open world game…but with zombies!

It doesn’t help that chunks of relevant information for this year’s E3 was rumored, leaked, or announced beforehand.  Watch Dogs 2 was already revealed, nu-God of War was substantially discussed, and the idea that Microsoft and Sony would release (or at least announce) new editions of its consoles had more than enough ground swell.  It all helps beg the question of why we need E3 anymore, when the information gamers need is readily available online.  (Or ask why few people put out stuff like the Nintendo Directs.)

True, the big expo is a celebration, and a gathering point for fans of the medium -- a way to celebrate what we all love.  But speaking personally, I’d guess that if you’re not there at the show, then it feels less like a celebration and more like an apology…and a backhanded one at that.  Spokesmen will take to the stage to talk about how they’re taking franchises and the medium to the next level, but they’re just as likely to show of disappointments and lies as they are genuine pieces of art. 

The baggage is real.  It’s more real than the hype, in a lot of cases; whereas hype is built on dubious promises and gambles, baggage comes from concrete information based on past, documentable experiences.  There’s a level of subjectivity to it, of course, but let’s not go denouncing that just because we can’t unanimously quantify everything with a review score.  And with all of that baggage, it’s hard for me to overlook the smoke and mirrors -- the potential for disappointment, masked by an earnest desire to shovel virtual soma down our throats -- just because a bunch of suits keep prattling on about “experiences” and “innovation”.  And drag cars, celebrities, and random performances onto the stage.

…But hey.  I said “hard”, not impossible.

The advantage to saying “nope” to all of the conferences is that you get to pick and choose which games matter to you.  And I have, for sure.  With roundups and compilations scattered across the internet, it’s not hard to find what appeals to me.  Insomniac Games is throwing its weight behind a new Spider-Man game, which definitely has promise; all they have to do is recreate the swinging feel of Spider-Man 2, and they’ve effectively won.  Granted I’d bet that they’ve got more than that planned, but it’ll be interesting to see what life they can breathe into the sagging open-world genre.  Plus, it’s nice to hear Yuri Lowenthal in a starring role again, instead of being condemned to play random grunts and get murdered by brown-haired white dudes masquerading as heroes. 

It should go without saying, but I want to see more of Death Stranding -- if only to understand what the hell’s going on there.  I’d imagine that’s kind of the point (i.e. the dirty trick employed by Kojima and crew) to garner attention; instead of flat-out showing what the game is or how it plays, they’re coasting on fan speculation and confusion.  On the other hand, you don’t get bizarre stuff like this in the big-budget gaming space too often, and I want to follow the game through to its conclusion since it’s being spearheaded by a man in dire need of some marbles. 

Also, apparently Kojima was one of the Pillar Men all along.  I’m okay with that, assuming he doesn’t get his hands on the Red Stone of Aja.

I’m wary of admitting this, but I never actually got around to playing the original Dishonored.  Yeah, I know, I’m a terrible person.  Looking at the trailer for Dishonored 2 -- and the information surrounding it -- only goes to show what a big mistake I made.  It’s an intriguing world, for sure; I’m no expert at stealth, but the idea of using magic as a buffer might help make assassinations go a little smoother.  Also, there’s a female protagonist now, which is always a plus.  With any luck, it’ll deliver upon release.

And of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention The Last Guardian -- which seems to have a release date now.   Given the pedigree behind the game, I think it’s safe to say that the trust has been earned, and it’s only a matter of time before the dev team delivers.  Until then, what are they showing off?  An adventure.  A sprawling world, featuring what looks like a close bond between boy and weird giant animal thing.  A sense of danger around every turn.  That’s exactly what I wanted, and I’m glad someone’s out to deliver…even if it’s ten years behind schedule, but whatever.  A delayed game is eventually good.

But you know what my Game of the Show is, don’t you?  Don’t you?

Okay, first of all?  I think “Breath of the Wild” is a sick-ass subtitle.  Second, I feel the call to adventure in my bones.  In my blood, even.  Comparisons have long since been made to The Witcher 3, Dark Souls, and plenty of other open-world games.  And yeah, I’d be lying if I said that that expansiveness has me wondering if the game will have enough meaningful content to fill its expanded Hyrule.  Then again, if the game follows the example set by Xenoblade Chronicles X, then just being able to explore a bold new world is all it takes to justify a purchase.

But what really appeals to me about the game is -- well, it’s twofold, arguably.  It looks like there’s a massive focus on getting back to nature, and Breath of the Wild is primed to actually use nature as an element of gameplay instead of something to stare at on your way to the next objective.  You can climb plenty of stuff.  You can push boulders down cliffs.  You can burn grass and start fires (and trigger explosive chain reactions).  You can gather ingredients and cook.  You can use your shield as an impromptu snowboard.  You can put on thicker clothes to brave cold weather.  You can do everything you’d expect of someone roughin’ it in the wild.  And there’s probably even more you can do that we haven’t seen.

But you know what impresses me more?  The sense of solitude.

It’s apparently been confirmed that towns and such will show up in-game, but in what capacity, it’s hard to know for sure.  There are heavy implications that this game takes place way down the Zelda timeline, presumably after some cataclysmic event.  (It might have something to do with a war against the Guardians, or -- considering the presence of Koroks -- it’s just the world bouncing back following a cression of the Great Sea from Wind Waker.)  Either way, the important thing is that you’re all alone out there, forced to travel and survive on your lonesome to beat out Ganon once again. 

That silence and solitude lends itself to a level of meditation that’s hugely appreciable.  As a guy who got frustrated by The Swapper whenever it had to stop my near-silent space adventure to jabber on and on and on, it’s nice to know that -- for the most part -- it’ll be me with the world.  Not against the world, but acting as a part of it.  Borrowing from it.  Appreciating it all the more.

And that’s why it’s my Game of the Show.  It has nothing to do with the fact that I’m a Nintendo fanboy.


I guess the takeaway here is that E3 isn’t something to be sucked down without thought or restraint.  It has its uses, it has its place, and it has its importance -- a physical celebration of the medium that’s won over so many people across the world.  But it’s not the be all and end all.  Nor should it be; it’s an event and a demonstration, but it’s also a way for companies to sow the seeds of their mercantile machinations.  They want your money, and they’re willing to take your heart -- by any means necessary -- to do it.

The days when E3 was just an event and a celebration are over, I think.  That implies that there weren’t days where it was a corporate tool, but in the industry’s current state?  In a situation in which you can pop over to Destructoid or Reddit or The Escapist or anywhere online, any time, and see how the company du jour has screwed over patient customers?  E3 might as well be a layer of frosting on top of a crate’s worth of sawdust.

But sometimes?  Sometimes, man.  That frosting is still delicious.

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