It's time for E3, the annual bonanza of stunning stage shows, luminous trailers and nervous-looking men who say "epic" a lot. The whole experience is often an assault on the senses and on taste, and it can also be intimidating for people who are interested in video games but don't have up-to-date Brand Literacy or Consumer Habits.
Luckily we at Offworld will piece through the marketing-speak, tell apart the videos of trundling forearms and apocalyptic landscapes, skin away the dire trappings of "gamer culture", and unearth for you some tiny gems of merit. We start with Microsoft's press conference; Sony's is later. We won't bother with individual software publishers, because everything good they make generally has a cameo on the hardware-maker's stage.
The Games You Should Pay Attention To
Tacoma is the next game from the Fullbright Company, creators of instant classic Gone Home (read about it in our recent feature on games about being in houses). It takes place 200,000 miles from Earth, on Lunar Transfer Station Tacoma, and you explore to uncover what happened to the station's crew. The short debut trailer is worth watching for the part where someone inputs a password using sign language. You won't need an Xbox to play Tacoma; it'll also come out on PC.
Ashen, from studio Aurora44, appeals to fans of the "Fumito Ueda aesthetic", I think (I wrote about long-anticipated, yet still nonexistent The Last Guardian when we launched this site). This trailer is wonderfully atmospheric, set in a sunless world, but suggests little about what it'll be like to play. It's also exclusive to the Xbox One, and I don't know that I would recommend you buy a whole new machine for a game where the people don't have faces.
Beyond Eyes, from Tiger & Squid, places you in the role of a 10 year-old blind girl looking for her lost cat. You rely on her other senses to guide her through a pretty, dreamlike space. This one will come out on Xbox One first, but you'll also be able to get it on your PC or if you have a PlayStation 4.
Cuphead, by Studio MDHR, borrows the style of 1930s Disney cartoons to create a fun, classic-looking action game backed by original jazz recordings. You can play it on an Xbox One or a Windows PC.
Recore's trailer looks unique, but gives you very little indication of what it might be like to play. People are excited about it because it's got some good names attached—Keiji Inafune, best known for originating Mega Man, and some members of the Metroid Prime team, if you liked that one. It's exclusive to Xbox One.
Even though I want holograms jumping out of my video games and into my living room as much as I want actors to run into the audience during plays, Minecraft with Microsoft's HoloLens was impressive. As you can see from the video demo, where a man in all-black wears a visor and looms over a tiny woman running through a toy city, the HoloLens tech lets people not only project Minecraft onto walls and tables, but players wearing the lenses see and interact with a holographic image that other players can also interact with via their own devices.
The Business Facts (if you care)
There were women. Contrary to popular belief, feminists don't watch television with a pad of checkmarks and take down quotas of the media we consume, so I cannot offer you a ratio, but Microsoft's conference had women on stage, women's voices in products, and women characters on the screen who were not there to titillate the sea of mostly checked-shirt dudes in the audience, bathing in lurid green Xbox light. Well done.
Although company execs promised to "push the boundaries of creativity, technical innovation and of course, fun," and said things like "you will see how we are continuing to invest and innovate," Microsoft's presentation was primarily oriented around urging people to upgrade to to hardware that launched last year. The cornerstones of its brand are still upcoming "triple A" sequels like Halo, Gears of War and Tomb Raider, and lots of Xbox 360 owners haven't been given a compelling reason to buy the latest Xbox One yet. So there's been a lot of work done to ensure consumers can trade up without losing their old games, or that they will get older games when they buy new incarnations—you know, to make sure you can play old Halo and new Halo.
Microsoft forgot about its creepy Kinect camera that body-scans you and and makes you talk to it. Once, the company tried to forcefully ship one of these gesture-seeking devices with every Xbox console. This year, an entire press conference passed with no sign or mention of it. I mean, it's possible I missed it; between the part about Forza and this high-performance Gaming Controller there were so much vrooming sounds that I felt myself drifting off gently, like when I was a baby and my mom used to drive me around in the car seat to get me to bed. But I think the rise of VR and holos and stuff means we can expect hardware-makers to finally let us stop waving our hands futilely at our TV.
You will be able to enjoy the equivalent of an Early Access program on a console for the first time. You may or may not know that some games are able to appear on the PC-based Steam platform in "early access", which basically means you get to play games before they're "done" and while they might still be broken, ideally to help participate in building both revenue and commnunity for those games. Xbox One will get a similar "preview" program for "select" games, which includes free trials before you buy in. Between this sort of thing and increased attention to the modding community, it looks like Microsoft is trying to address some of the advantages PC games have historically offered over consoles.
Here are some of the quotes I wrote down: "the most ambitious game world that we have ever created" "this is by far the most ambitious game Rare has ever created" "play in a world with limitless possibilities" "we put fans and gamers at the center of whatever we do" "gamers can play the games they love on the newest devices" "we showed you the greatest lineup in xbox history" "new and innovative games, blockbuster franchises you know and love, trailblazing independent games from a new wave of creators who are redefining development and play".
The word 'epic' had four occurrences, I think, though I stress I found it hard to pay attention the whole time.