E3 2019: Bethesda

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The controversy surrounding Bethesda and the tactics which the conference used to respond it were immeasurably more interesting than the games on show. After putting out a clunker like Fallout 76, there's nothing you can say or not say that will make things alright. You can't be seen ignoring that mess or your audience won't think you're listening but acknowledging it only draws attention to that hurricane of garbage. That being said, the latter is the lesser of two bad options. Tell your audience that you realised you ruined one piece of work and they'll remember that you made a mistake, but don't tell them you ruined it, and you're sending the message that you're willfully ignorant about your failures and so will continue to make them in your future work.

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So we got a nod from Todd Howard to the embarrassing string of controversies burdening Fallout's survival adventure. But it was a brief apology that was then spun into a moment of positivity as Howard made a dubious claim about 76 having the "best" game community, and the studio representatives later announcing features that feel like too little too late. Which is predictable: Fallout 76 will only have so many resources allocated to it and is too far down the track of its development cycle to be rescued at this point. For what's it's worth, players are getting a free new mainline quest staffed with NPCs, but it's wild that an RPG from one of the industry's top publishers would have to announce "Dialogue trees" and "Choices and consequences" as enticing features in 2019.

And characters aren't a defacto boon to your experience. If you want an engaging game, then you need to write characters to be engaging. You must show them full of motivation, personality, and social connections. We got no impression of who the new Fallout 76 residents are or what the story they feature in is about. Additionally, they came across as robotic. The introduction of NPCs also leads Bethesda back to the earlier questions of how you incorporate an explicit narrative or scripted conversations into a co-operative multiplayer game without the two clashing. This isn't Bethesda's only mea culpa, however. They're also adding a battle royale mode, Nuclear Winter. It feels like the least inspired method you could use to try and resuscitate your unconscious project, especially because the gunplay was never what made Fallout tick.

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But the fleeting "sorry" and the updates were only two prongs of the strategy that Bethesda used to reconnect with their audience after the unpleasantness of the last year. Another prong was placing the most voracious of fans in the front row which every company does now, but whether by deliberate planning or pure circumstance, Bethesda had the most disruptive audience members I've heard at one of these shows. I'm happy for those fans that they can get that pumped about E3, but as a viewer, it continues to be irritating, and there were points at which speakers had to stop talking because the crowd was shouting over them. It's hard to see how Bethesda would continue to see that as a professional environment. But the relentlessly upbeat response of the crowd meant that the publisher could announce any small consolation for Fallout 76 fans and still broadcast people screaming approval for it.

The final weapon in the company's arsenal was a handful of videos of Bethesda employees and fans talking about their experiences with Bethesda's games. They described getting into Bethesda products as children, finding likeminded people through them, and even overcoming mental and physical illness via them. One person identified themselves as a member of the LGBT community, another, the daughter of refugees from the Vietnam War. I saw these interstitials enrage both the more sociopolitically-minded and the less so. For that second group, the videos were frustrating because while they were playing, it meant that more press conference time was going by without reveals, but for the first group, the clips were a manipulative attempt by Bethesda to trick their audience into thinking a corporation was their friend. And I don't disagree with that read, but that second group's dissatisfaction with Bethesda sometimes spilt over into vitriol against the people who appeared in the spots, and I don't think that's fair.

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The videos serve to push back against those angriest at the publisher who view the recent debacle with an "us vs. them" mentality which pits gamers against games developers. These testimonial clips attempt to argue that instead, the two groups are one and the same, to the point that the opening ended with groups of people using the phrase "We are all Bethesda". And if Bethesda is you then buying into the studio means fulfilling your own identity, and the company can't be your enemy, because how could your enemy be yourself? This is, of course, disingenuous on the part of Bethesda as an economic entity. What happens within the publisher is fundamentally decided by people who hold a financial stake in it and those individuals are going to sail it into whatever sea makes them profit, not whichever one leads to the most visible LGBT representation or helps people manage their depression best.

There's been a general movement by gaming companies to present their medium as the great unifier of people, but their implication of unification often involves the erasure of the conflicts between various social categories. When the people who head the companies exploit workers and purposefully disservice customers, they're not unified with them, and when irate consumers send death threats to developers because their toy wasn't shiny enough, they're not unified with them. There are ways we might be able to erode those divides, but that's not what Bethesda's marketing serves to do here. What it does is try to place a smokescreen over the differences to suggest that the developers in the trenches, an electrician who goes home at night to play some Elder Scrolls Online, and an executive who mines hundreds of millions of dollars from the publisher are all in it together.

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Such marketing also suggests that commodities manufactured by private firms provide social cohesion, mental health treatment, and other such vital services. While they may deliver some limited support in these areas, for a price, such benefits are ultimately only provided by professional medical schemes, housing, and other utilities that you can't get from video games. In fact, the whole system of private financial interest has served to hinder access to those services. So you've got the economic class who make their fortune by exploiting the average person then using the face of the common citizen as a mask to enable further profiteering, and that understandably got some peoples' hackles up. Finally, the statements Bethesda made here served to conceal and permit the abuse of developers. Seen through these videos, it's not that there was a wave of deserved criticism and then a wave of predatory, harassing behaviour, it's all just "feedback" which "sometimes challenges [them]".

Where I think our conversation needs to become more nuanced is that it needs to recognise the above while also recognising that the people who served as mouthpieces for Bethesda still had authentic and valid experiences with the medium. It's counter-productive to say we stand by non-white people, labour workers, and women, and then when we see those people pop up on screen, to tell them to shut up or that it's ridiculous that they might have used a video game as a crutch when struggling with a psychological disorder. These customers and employees may be speaking in service of Bethesda, but we can recognise that developers can help line an organisation's pockets while still ultimately lacking power within it and being exploited by the system around them, and we can do the same with for the other participants in this PR exercise. These people and their experiences are not illegitimate because they were used to profiteering ends; they are legitimate experiences used for illegitimate means.

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While we're getting all class conscious, let's also make mention of the racial representation in Deathloop. This wasn't just an expansion pack with a black protagonist or a AAA game where one person in a group of three was black; this was a new AAA title where two of the main characters are black and one of them a woman. And while the industry still has miles to go on race, we should stop and acknowledge that one of the most beloved speakers at this E3 was Ikumi Nakamura, an Asian woman. Presenters like Nakamura are proof that you can be an energetic oddball on stage and still do it without making the audience uncomfortable. But I also understand that it's nerve-wracking to get up in a theatre in front of thousands and talk when your job is not in communications, so I'm not here to knock every programmer and artist in front of a camera at E3.

I've spent relatively little time talking about the announcements at the conference here, but that's in part because a lot of them are dismally unremarkable. News on Elder Scrolls Online and Elder Scrolls Legends was only ever going to appeal to niche communities. I've actually not heard much at all on Elder Scrolls Legends since 2017, but as it's not received the negative press Artefact has and it's still up after two years, you've got to believe it's at least getting by. The joke in the Rage 2 trailer was about five years out of date and that Commander Keen mobile game can only have fallen out of some parallel Earth timeline.

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The publisher's reprieves were in Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot, Wolfenstein: Youngblood, and Doom Eternal, bloody animalistic killfests that skip the filler and go straight for the jugular. At the moment, that's what Bethesda has the highest hit rate with. The wackiness of Rage 2 wasn't amusing people, the mobile releases don't please many core fans, and even with its the enchanting world-building and exploration, Fallout 4 had its fair share of shortcomings. But with the heavy metal brutality of Doom and the cathartic carnage of recent Wolfenstein games, it's felt like the studios behind Bethesda's games were at the top of their class, so why not pursue this game style further? Notice that like the new Battlefield V content, Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot allows players to get behind the trigger of a Nazi gun, but without the same problematic implications, because you're not firing from the perspective of a Nazi, but someone hijacking their hardware. Also, look at how the traversal mechanics Id are introducing to Doom reinforce the series' current strengths. Doom (2016) was about staying on the move and never slowing down, drawing circuits across the maps as you tore your way through alien hordes. It only becomes easier and more enjoyable to play that way when you can dash, swing, and climb over obstacles that might break that circuit.

What I will say for Bethesda is that there have been years where they've had a lot less to show than they did Sunday night. But look at the identity crisis on display here. Bethesda's recent breakthroughs in the shooter genre have been about unapologetic, edgy aesthetics and their conferences have often matched. It's not been sweet indie curiosities; it's been Andrew WK telling you that you "better get ready to die". But now Bethesda has a lot to apologise for, and in 2019, every company wants to look progressive, which means applying a welcoming, gentle hand. Consequently, this E3, Bethesda presented themselves as a fluffy, understanding organisation, but also the guys telling you to "Go to hell" and letting you make demons explode with blasts from your energy rifle. Representation of the vulnerable should be constant, but the company would do better not to play the good Samaritan next year to such people next year. They should focus on what they excel at because we are not all Bethesda. Thanks for reading.

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