This year, e3 leaves me feeling uncomfortable. Perhaps even a little dirty.
We’ve seen the young Lara Croft get tied up, bludgeoned, stabbed, molested and shot at whilst we stare at her lovingly blood-stained skin and listen to pants and groans that would sound just at home in the moment of orgasmic climax as they do in moments of terror.
We’ve seen Sam Fisher embark on a mission that seems to have been designed during the collective wet dream of the US army’s propaganda department. We’re asked to delight as he takes on the role of what might as well be an Obama sanctioned one-man-kill-squad, making the “hard choice” and brutally murdering lots and lots of Arabs in order to save America and the whole world.
We’ve seen Quantic Dream (a studio that since Heavy Rain I’ve been counting on as a breath of fresh air amongst the sewage smell of extreme-violence-for-fun) take a loving step back towards the absurdities of Indigo Prophecy instead. For the sin of my hope, they’ve given us a (wait for it) young girl with psychic powers on the run from the police. From gameplay footage, “Beyond” consists of the ability to knock over coffee with your mind, along with what promises to be an endless chain of “dramatic” chase sequences that have become the aspiration of every major studio under the sun since Naughty Dog wrote “you’ve got to be kidding me”. Helicopters crash from the sky, buildings collapse around us, everything explodes, we jump over chasms, and all the while we could be playing Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, Beyond, Call of Duty, or watching 2012 for all it matters.
But wait! Could this be something different – for a moment, the announcement that the new Star Wars game would be “gritty and mature” was promising… until the gameplay happened and “you’ve got to be kidding me” was actually the first thing I thought – without a trace of irony. Uncharted-in-space sounds more exciting to write than this was to watch. No matter how incredible the graphics were. Perhaps when a games developer uses the word “mature”, it means “appeals to adolescents who like blowing stuff up” instead of “fully developed and complex”.
Even the kings of over-the-top chase sequences, Naughty Dog, left a sour taste in my mouth with a franchise that initially promised to be different. As beautifully designed and paced, as absorbing to watch as it was, The Last of Us presents us with a man who, uncannily like Nate, has to kill streams of inexplicably violent men intent on killing you for no obvious reason at all. So, shoot (or stab brutally in the neck, or burn to death) first, and never ask questions later at all.
And if we’re bored of killing the living, we can kill them again, after they’re already dead. Zombies don’t count because they’re not even people. Even Nintendo are headlining a Zombie game (although that at least looks like it might be a welcome return to the low-key tension and genuine scares of survival horror as opposed to shooty-shooty-action-explosion-chase-scene-this-isn’t-really-horror-at-all-horror).
And thinking of Nintendo last, it was perhaps most sad to watch Reggie, stilted purveyor of wholesome family entertainment, get even more awkward than he usually is, “talking” to a sexed up Harley Quinn in a desperate bid to attract the swarms of big-budget-game players that have been dubbed “hardcore gamers” (and depressingly seem to account for most of the console market). Hardcore used to mean a love of complex stats and a penchant for grinding. Now it seems to just mean a love of guns with chainsaws attached.
In short, the message from e3, resounding from every manufacturer in horrible, unbroken unison is this:
Just switch your mind off, stare with a fixed expression at any and every screen you have (if that’s more than one screen at the same time, then all the better), squeeze the universally standard trigger-buttons so handily provided, and pay us for it.
Thank god Matt Stone and Trey Parker were there to take the piss out of us all for it, if only for 30 seconds, because the sad thing is that these are all beautifully designed and produced games that have taken huge teams of artists, writers and engineers years to produce. They’re probably stunningly put together and really fun to play, and I’ll probably play a bunch of them and enjoy them quite a bit.
But I wish there were something different to choose instead, because I can think of so much I’d rather be experiencing through one of the most exciting and engaging storytelling media out there. I’m willing to bet that not a one of them will do for me what Journey did last year, and move me to tears because I felt like I’d lived the struggles of an entire lifetime in a few hours – or do what Heavy Rain did and actually make me feel horror and remorse the one time a gun is fired – or sit me on the couch with James Sunderland as the meaning of everything he has seen and done dawns slowly – or do anything at all but “entertain” me by allowing me to narrowly escape implausibly contrived death over and over again whilst murdering hundreds of people.
Lets hope the last day of the show proves me wrong. I seem to remember Journey being announced on the last day of the show last year.