For too long, the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) has existed inside a heavily shielded bubble, one in which game makers target retailers and journalists with carefully controlled messages designed to stoke the imagination of the most dedicated of game players. And what have those players wanted? Blood and gore, apparently.
Indeed, at the pre-conference events ahead of the Tuesday start of this year’s E3, it seemed at first that nothing had changed. At L.A. Live on Sunday afternoon, Electronic Arts offered insiders a look at a sequel to “Titanfall,” a military-esque shooter featuring giant robots, as well as the gritty, World War I-set “Battlefield I.”
Then Monday morning at Microsoft’s bonanza at USC’s Galen Center, cheers erupted during a demo of the latest “Gears of War” when a woman used a gun to obliterate an already downed creature.
These sorts of displays do little to debunk age-old stereotypes about games and those who play them. And after another major national tragedy, this one a mass shooting over the weekend in an Orlando, Fla., nightclub, the video game industry’s reliance on games with guns is, admittedly, exhausting, even if Sony, in its evening press event, paid tribute to the victims in Orlando, stressing the power of entertainment to heal in times of pain.
Yet at this year’s E3, which will draw about 50,000 industry types and journalists to the Los Angeles Convention Center through Thursday, there are indications that the industry is on the verge of change. As part of E3 Live at L.A. Live, 20,000 wristbands were given away, part of a fan-friendly makeover allowing the public direct access to many of the games previously only shown behind closed doors.
The result? While there may be an influx of corporate branding — a tortilla chip company has erected a six-story working arcade machine that will act as a concert stage for the likes of Steve Aoki, Wiz Khalifa and Big Boi — E3 may also better represent the vast, increasingly fractured video game landscape, one where independent titles, nascent virtual reality hardware and mobile games collectively vie for our attention.
Amid all the bombast, boasts and silly tech babble (“new water shaders!”), this is shaping up to be one of the most intriguing E3s in recent history. Well, at least if developers and publishers start recognizing the need to reach new constituents.
The console and PC base, according to recent data from gaming consultancy Electronic Entertainment Design and Research, continues to lean slightly more male than the industry at large. And with Microsoft and Sony pushing forward on updated devices — Microsoft revealed that its Xbox One would receive a refresh in 2017 — it shows that consoles are moving toward a PC-like future of more frequent updates, a gaming world at risk of catering only to those willing to stay ahead on the latest tech.
There’s a danger now that those not yet sold on this console generation no longer have a reason to buy in. That’s potentially a shame, because when E3 quiets down and focuses on game experiences, there’s a lot to shout about.
Electronic Arts is introducing a program it’s calling EA Originals, which highlights odder titles from smaller developers, the first of which is a game called “Fe” from the studio Zoink in Gothenburg, Sweden.
“Fe” was described at EA’s press conference as a “personal narrative about our relationship with nature,” starring a spritely, scraggly haired blueish protagonist. The twilight world seems to magically spring to life with each of the creature’s movements.
Sony, too, has some potentially audience-expanding games coming for its PlayStation 4, perhaps most notably the long-awaited “The Last Guardian,” in which early clips show a young boy and a mysterious creature working together to traverse ornate ruins.
Also worth watching: the highly cinematic “Detroit: Become Human,” which aims to dig deep into the emotions of an artificially intelligent being.
While some massive developers won’t be displaying games on the E3 show floor at the convention center — Electronic Arts is staging fan-focused events next door to E3 at its own EA Play through Tuesday — the E3 showrooms promise to be full of invigorating, accessible experiences.
Microsoft showed off a couple Monday morning. There was “Inside,” a creepy sci-fi tale that follows a young boy trying to survive in a world where humans have become little more than scientific experiments. Weirder still, perhaps, is “We Happy Few,” in which humans must stay medicated to avoid the increasingly trippy horrors of reality.
Elsewhere, games expected to shine this week include “Abzu,” a calming exploration of underwater life, as well as the brightly lit “ReCore,” an Xbox One game following a woman and her charming, robotic dog.
Then of course there’s virtual reality. Though VR will be the province of early adapters this year — those working in the space expect between 2.5 million and 3.5 million VR headsets to be sold by year’s end — E3 this year will be expected to prove that the tech is not just a nifty, high-end toy.
Look, then, to Ubisoft’s “Star Trek: Bridge Crew,” a cooperative game for up to four people. Donning an Oculus Rift headset at an event Sunday was like stepping aboard a “Star Trek” film set, where a ship’s imaginary touch screens bleeped and booped before me.
It required only a quick acclimation to the VR space and a love of “Star Trek.” Klingons were posing a threat, humans needed to be rescued and a wave of the hand could activate a transporter or send the ship into warp speed. My crew mates were strangers, but it took only a few seconds to be at ease enough to bark orders at them. Lives — virtual ones, sure — were at risk.
It was also a reminder that all the bluster and swagger about computing power and new tech means little if there isn’t an easily explainable experience to accompany it. Updated consoles bring consumer confusion — as well as, perhaps, frustration from those who already bought in — but games remain best when everyone is playing.
And that only happens when gaming is easy and doing more than putting digital guns into our hands.