E3 2019: The Rest

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It became obvious about halfway through the run of press conferences this year that if the publishers were banishing gameplay demos from their briefings, then audiences were going to have to do more of their own spelunking to know what the games would look like in action. What I hadn't realised at the time was how much digging the average user would have to do to find the videos of those games running. First off, there's no way to tell beforehand which games had demos on the show floor and which didn't. Once you did know, finding demo footage was often easier said than done. Gamespot look to have been the outlet with the most laborious coverage of the expo, but Homer Rabara's show floor camera is long gone and is one of the E3 traditions I miss most.

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There's only Gamespot's main stage left which between breaks, developer interviews, impressions, and hands-on playthroughs, put out over twenty-four hours of live reporting over the course of the event. But I can't find a schedule for those streams posted anywhere. They clipped out a few segments and re-posted them as discrete videos, but it's only in the week following E3 that they're getting around to uploading a significant number of them, so finding news and previews of games during and directly after the event meant scrubbing through a day's worth of Gamespot footage. IGN have arguably organised their look in the event better, but they've also been selective in which titles they discussed, did much less live broadcasting, and a lot of their coverage didn't release until the doors were closed on the L.A. convention centre for another year. Some developers directly posted footage for audience appraisal on their dedicated YouTube channels, but if you don't know who had playthroughs to show off, the best you can do to find those videos is type "E3 demos" into the search box and rummage through the clutter.

It's unusual because, in our age of high bandwidth social media interactions, all the news and entertainment you want is supposedly available at the click of a button, but at E3, that's not so true. The former delivery mechanism that companies had for demos: the press conferences, has fallen away, and there's not the infrastructure there to replace it. From the publisher perspective, this is a potential setback because modern video game marketing is about cutting out the middleman and delivering snapshots of your products directly to the consumer. Conceivably, they could do that with the demos; Ubisoft did put out a sampler of Rollerball Champions during the event. However, in reality, the builds for those playthroughs likely have a lot of company secrets lurking under the hood, and so developers don't want to put them in the hands of crafty hackers who could disassemble them. They also typically break or show ugly blemishes if the player wanders from a specific pre-defined path. Companies, therefore, have a vested interest in giving us the next best thing: footage of those demos and discussions from creators about their contents. However, they appear to be having some trouble with the pipeline for that content.

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Nintendo solved this one years ago, providing not just a press conference every year but then having it lead on to a multi-day stream that showcases their upcoming work. Ubisoft tried to follow suit this time around, but their E3 event came and went without most gamers being any the wiser. While day one of the Nintendo Treehouse garnered 3.7 million viewers, the same day of Ubisoft's livecast earned them only 98,000 viewers; that's 3% of the attention. Ubisoft also managed to cut off the start of their demo of Rollerball Champions, one of only two titles from their conference that I cared for this year. It's a shame because everyone deserves to see the short film they made with Ice T on gamer etiquette, and they were the one publisher I've seen with a sign language interpreter. Of course, even if every company had the equivalent of a Nintendo Treehouse, we also want more impartial commentary on the contents of the show.

E3 themselves partially stepped up to the plate on that one, teaming up with Geoff Keighley for the "E3 Colosseum", a stage presentation which had a host of big industry names talking about what's coming next from them. However, the Colosseum was intended less as a gallery of new gaming experiences and more as a GDC-like platform for talking about current and coming trends in the medium. It's something I appreciate in its own right; it was conscious that we can't see the future of the industry as a set of isolated products and need to view it as a set of broader plans and patterns. Of course, that format is prone to allowing developers to promise the Moon with less of an emphasis than ever on proof of their ability to deliver. A low point for the Colosseum was the chat between Elon Musk and Todd Howard: The two found only tiny patches of common ground between their respective fields and Musk sounded like he'd taken more than the recommended dose of Nyquil before sitting down. He kept muttering that the whole universe could be some higher power's video game without any justification for or elaboration on this view, and when someone from the audience challenged him on it, he was stymied. Eventually, Todd Howard broke the silence by blurting out "42", a pandering joke that didn't make any sense in context.

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The Colosseum interview I would advise people watch was Keighley talking to Will Wright. Wright is currently working on a highly ambitious system which lets users enter memories into a computer program and have it build a map of who they are through the connection of those memories. Maps will apparently include desires and phobias. "Proxi" also aims to tap into unconscious thought patterns and simulate interactions between the mapee and other personalities living, dead, and fictional. I think it's worth listening to Wright not because I'm convinced he can deliver on this revolutionary piece of tech but because, ven as a science fiction concept, it's interesting. But I digress: If there is an effective way to get your demos out at E3, it's likely the multi-pronged attack we saw Remedy and Paradox use with Control and Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines 2, respectively. They demoed the games for press while also sending out footage of them, and it meant those videos were some of the fastest to find.

Control is fond of extreme closeups on faces that don't animate with all the articulation they should. However, I love the building it's set in shifting and responding to your actions, as well as the experience's objectives that have you maintaining and repairing the structure. It's a reflection of organisations and buildings as living, breathing entities. On a more visceral note, the telekinesis in this game reminds me of Dead Space 2's, and I love the chromatic aberration effect when you kill enemies. I also need you to know that the demo included the phrase "Cleanse the Merry Go-Round Horse Object of Power". Control is one to watch, as is Bloodlines 2.

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Vampire: The Masquerade is a tabletop game about exchanges of social power. It's about subservience, whipping others into line, and bids for leadership. In it, relationships are only useful to the extent they benefit you, and other nightwalkers may turn the tables on you the instant it becomes convenient. It all came through in the Bloodlines 2 demo which provided violent, diplomatic, and intimidating options for completing a mission, and also allowed you to try and swindle your quest-giver over. Additionally, it had that speedy location-hopping that you sometimes see in tabletop RPGs. The aim was not to go into one roomy dungeon and clear out all the enemies; it was to follow the leads from one location to another like a noir detective. What Bloodlines 2 can be which a tabletop RPG can't is affectingly lonely. The quest we saw was set in that 3 a.m. period when there are only stragglers on the street.

If you want another E3 game in which charisma can be a weapon, look no further than Griftlands, Klei's new deck-building roguelike. While some RPG video games allow you to smooth talk your way to your success, speech options often feel like a way to skip over gameplay rather than a form of play in its own right. Armed combat will be rendered with extensive depth and complexity, but speechcraft typically consists of pressing the "Do convincing" button. Klei's sci-fi is a rare attempt to systemise dialogue.

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Griftlands was just one of over sixty video games previewed at the Indie Games Showcase, a presentation put on by Kinda Funny external to the expo, but none the less, during it. When E3 booth space is expensive, and indie games are not the money makers that their AAA cousins are, they are at risk of getting sidelined at an expo like this, and so I savour events like the Indie Games Showcase. Many of the titles I'm most excited from E3 are those smaller experiments that don't have to play it safe when the big budget franchises do. Rawmen, a culinary competitive arena game was one of the most delightfully colourful offerings at the show this year, graphically comparable to Splatoon and Donut County. The Gardens Between finds artistic focus by cutting each environment down to a single mountain, many of which are composed of enormous, floating versions of everyday objects. Its environments represent everyday activities not by simulating the settings where those activities are conducted but by building abstract environments out of objects related to those activities. The title released summer last year but is now receiving a Switch port.

At the same time, I'm not sure the jocular nature of the Kinda Funny presenters matched the solemn tone of many of these passion projects, and the Indie Games Showcase is a perfect example of how hard it is to take in all the games at E3 in the runtime of the show. Ultimately, that's probably a good thing as it means there's plenty to discover and mull over even long after day three, but it also means that one publication is unlikely to be able to rattle off thoughts on them all. We're often reliant on more specialist websites to keep us informed on indie development, but when you can see more than sixty such games in one fifty minute block, they likely don't have the resources to speak about every one of them. I certainly can't.

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Another returning presentation keeping the indie fire alive was the PC Gaming Show. The weirdest slot of which was dedicated to Shenmue III. I'm attracted to games simulating everyday activities like moths move to light, but Shenmue III has this odd mix of mechanical realism but fantastical narrative and aesthetics. It makes whole minigames out of the mundane but then uses kung-fu B-movie story, dialogue, and voice acting. And if you thought the faces in Control looked doofy, you should see the absolute mannequins that populate Shenmue III's world. I wonder if the Yakuza series is currently doing what Shenmue wishes it, was providing a Japanese slice of life intermingled with moments of masculine action. My favourite moment from the PC Gaming Show was the debut of Planet Zoo, a spiritual successor to Zoo Tycoon from the studio behind Planet Coaster. In seperately-released footage, Frontier Developments showed the game full of detail and customisation options and described genetic inheritance between the animals and their young. This isn't just tech porn; these are advancements which can increase the believability of and our connection to the animals. While many management games have us disregard the feelings of others for the sake of profit, Planet Zoo's creators say that the wellbeing of the creatures will be the most important metric in the game, and it also looks to allow players to not just entertain guests but also educate them.

And then, of course, there was Devolver's press conference. It's gone from simply being a parody stage show into a full-on sci-fi with a narrative trajectory. I don't think the other actors this year were as masterful as Mahria Zook as Nina Struthers and the conference has lost some of its satirical edge. It's difficult to figure how Struthers holds a senior position at the publisher while also being at the whims of a marketing director, but it does the opportunistic ruthlessness of the entertainment industry. The show this year also talked about the expo as a site for overpromising and overdosing your audience on purchasing intent. But even the people who weren't revelling in the commentary and theatrics of Devolver's show still loved the Devolver Bootleg. We have been drowning in throwbacks to classic retro games for years, but like it not, a significant part of the medium's history is also cheap clones of those games. The Devolver Bootleg is, at last, a salute to that history, a homage to games made off the grid from a company a little off the grid.

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My eye was also caught by Blair Witch, a horror from Bloober Team, the minds behind Layers of Fear and Observer. In a market of jumpscare rides, it's always satisfying to find more psychological horror, and I think Bloober made the right call architecting an original story rather than trying to lift copiously from the existing films. The narratives in movies are written to suit the storytelling mechanisms of the medium, but often don't adapt to games well because most games tell stories differently and don't have space for thick tomes of narrative. Another smart addition to the game is your dog, Bullet. Games have trouble directing players to checkpoints without forcing them to stare at minimaps or potentially immersion-breaking waypoint markers, but Blair Witch has the dog run off in the direction of objectives so that you can give chase, providing a more mechanical highlighting of goals. What I'd like to see from Blair Witch going ahead is more substantial environmental or story curiosities, as we became used to in Bloober's previous games. Before we leave indie games behind, I also have to give props to Nintendo for doing a whole indie day. As inept as that company has sometimes been when it comes to interacting with their audience over the internet, there's very little that they weren't on top of at this E3.

Sometimes it's nice to get away from the big-budget industry so that you don't have to try and unravel the controversies of the major studios. EA had one around the time of the expo this year, Bethesda had one, and now CD Projekt Red have one. To advertise their new ray tracing system, NVIDIA used a screenshot from Cyberpunk 2077 which included a transphobic in-game poster. The poster is an advert for an energy drink which uses a sexualised portrait of a femme-presenting person with a penis and the words "Mix It Up". It's a bigoted piece of art in that it dehumanises a trans human being by presenting them as a sexual object and making a cheap joke about their body. Artist on the poster, Kasia Redesiuk, explains it as a product of both the casualness with which denizens of the Cyberpunk universe modify themselves physically and a commentary on the willingness of the corporations in that world to commodify human bodies. But the question arises "What makes this a commentary on objectification and not just a replication of the same exploitation of trans people those evil corporations stand for?". CD Projekt Red has not given an adequate answer.

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If we're to give an informed analysis of Cyberpunk 2077 as a game, then we can't take imagery such as this in isolation. I wouldn't hold my breath that the satire Redesiuk describes is present in the game, but it's not impossible that through its writing, it will talk critically about this style of degrading advertisement. This is one more reason why it's vital that we see Cyberpunk 2077 closing on that promise of political polemics rather than just being an empowerment fantasy set in a politically unpleasant place to live, but for now, that promise of commentary is all talk. Arguably, there is nothing that could excuse the inclusion of the "Mix It Up" ad spot in the game as it sensationalises oversexualisation of trans people, but even with a more charitable read, it's presenting the target of anti-capitalist, pro-trans criticism without any of the criticism itself. And by ripping this image out of the game and using it to sell software and video cards, NVIDIA and Projekt Red are already commodifying trans people for profit. The goal of the salesperson typically overrides the intentions of the artist, and in huge studios, separate creators often don't act with a singular purpose.

Marvel's Avengers was a different kind of worrying. The Square Enix conference closed with twenty minutes of hyping up the game without the speakers pinning down what the title was going to play like, so you'd assume that they weren't quite ready to talk shop. Confusingly, however, they were taking interviews and providing demos where they got into the specifics of the game. Many games have multiple different classes and characters to play, but we're used to them being tweaks on the same fundamental physics set. To hear that the combat and movement models between each of the Avengers is unique is promising. However, I think it's going to be a big deal for players not to be able to have two of the same hero in a party at one time. You can't have two Thors or two Hulks in one co-op session which feels like telling a D&D party that they're only allowed a single tank or a single caster. I also see a lot of people asking how Black Widow, the most maligned of Marvel's dynamic team, would be fun to play, and it's a little baffling to me. Video games have spent about four decades getting down satisfying shooting and melee combat; I think the Marvel character that fights through shooting and melee combat is going to be okay.

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But there was one AAA game that only sounded better for being discussed outside the press conferences: Doom Eternal. While the marketing for the game primarily plays it as brainless gore, the folks at Id have been describing it as thoughtful violence. We don't always admit that that concept exists, and even as dyed-in-the-wool video game fanatics, we can confuse the aesthetics of a game for the character of its play. Doom is an in-your-face metal album cover brought to life, but the way the devs are talking about it, Eternal is also a mentally challenging feat of resource management and ordering your actions. Id also seem well aware that the endgame of Doom (2016) started to drag a little and are taking active steps to stop Eternal ending up in the same ditch.

A lot of the chat surrounding E3 this year has been about how little there was to be excited about and the downsizing of the expo with the disappearance of godly forces like Sony. To be sure, the publishers, for various reasons, did not come to the press conferences with their A game. However, I've tried to record everything that was E3 2019, attempting to mop up every little interview and demo, and after that, it doesn't feel like there was a drought of announcements, it feels like there were games for days. You just need to step back from the major briefings and do a little digging. Hopefully, in years to come, the companies involved can give us a more efficient shovel for that digging. Thanks for reading.

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