It's time for E3, the annual bonanza of stunning stage shows, luminous trailers and nervous-looking men who say "innovation" 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 can 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. Here's everything you need to know about Sony's PlayStation conference; Microsoft's Xbox event was earlier, and we wrote you a guide for that, too.
We won't bother with individual software publishers, because everything good they make generally has a cameo on the hardware-maker's stage, though yesterday Electronic Arts announced a yarn game that was so cute you could cry about it, and I've been playing Bethesda's cute, free Fallout 4 tie-in mobile game, Fallout Shelter.
The Games You Should Pay Attention To
Firewatch, by Campo Santo, sets you as a volunteer fire lookout in the wilderness of Wyoming. It has a striking visual style, with beautiful burnished sunsets sliced by forest silhouettes and high, wild aquamarine skies flecked by winging birds and mountaintops. In the game, your one point of contact is a dispatcher called Delilah, and the story unfolds through your conversations with her across a walkie-talkie. It's expected sometime this year, and you won't need a PlayStation 4—you'll be able to play it on any computer, too.
Dreams is by Media Molecule, a studio well-liked for aiming to pioneer creative play on Sony's platforms since Little Big Planet, a playful toolkit for making and sharing game levels with the style and visual texture of an arts and crafts set. The studio hasn't said much about what Dreams is all about or how you play, but the concept of playing with your own creative works remains delightful in the abstract. This one is only for people who own a PS4, but we don't know exactly when it'll be out.
No Man's Sky from Hello Games has captured imaginations with its vivid, optimistic space exploration aesthetic since it was first teased in 2013. The game is a theoretically-infinite series of planets to explore and discover, each holding the possibility of its own life and atmosphere. It's set to release later this year, and while it'll be exclusive to the PS4 for a little while, you'll be able to get it on your Windows PC later.
The Last Guardian is practically an urban legend at this point: Though it's theoretically been in development since 2007, and its iconic director has left the project amid rumored technical difficulties, fans were still overwhelmed with joy to see something resembling a technical demo of The Last Guardian, an atmospheric game about a boy and his giant feathered cat-dog friend-gryphon. We are asked to believe in a release date of 2016.
Final Fantasy VII, released in 1997, is something of a generational anthem. We'll have more on that this week at Offworld, but fans have been gasping for a remake for nearly two subsequent hardware generations, and in this brief digital film, they are being promised one, for some unknown future time. Nobody wants anything as much as they want their childhood back.
The Business Facts (extra-nerdy)
The SJWs are winning. We noticed more space offered to women presenters, devs and characters during the Xbox show yesterday, and Sony launched its conference with a message of openness. Yes, we were promised "a reality where games and gamers come first" (shudder), but we were also promised a world where "games are filled with intelligence, insight and emotional narrative, [are] hubs of global connection and collaboration, [and are] the cultural zeitgeist."
We were told that "the new reality of gaming is expansive, inclusive and boundless." We saw practical and effective women heroes in big brands like Assassin's Creed and new properties like Horizon Zero Dawn. If my eyes were not deceiving me, even the numb-looking Call of Duty 25 or whatever had women avatars in the demo. I don't know what the scene is like on the ground at E3 right now, but the effortless, not-fucking-around attitude to making sure there were women characters and messages of inclusivity at both press conferences feels entirely new for E3.
The PlayStation 4 is your preferable in-home media device. The war for the living room has mucked up the last two hardware cycles, as people who wanted to see video games snoozed through guys in suits promising you streaming sports games and in-home media hubs or whatever. But like millions of people these days I use my PS4 for Netflix and Spotify, and pretty soon I'll be able to order a la carte network television channels on the Vue media service, which is something I've wanted for ages.
None of these exciting games are coming out yet. Microsoft's earlier event was almost depressingly grounded, a double-down on its library of what already exists, what we could have already guessed was coming imminently. It's hard to win a spiritual battle when you don't make evocative future promises, and Sony smashed the war for hearts and minds so handily that it's easy to ignore the fact I still don't have an urgent argument for why you ought to upgrade your PlayStation 3 to a PlayStation 4 right now, nearly any more than I do about the Xbox "pleeeease upgrade" One.
The E3 juggernaut might be kind of bad for games as a medium. I felt a deep ache blossom in my chest for cheerful, ambitious Sean Murray of Hello Games, who with No Man's Sky is coming up with the kind of interesting, spirited technical experiment that, left to its own, could quietly inspire an entire generation of fans of all ages, wandering the world from their computer. But on stage, humbly promising literally infinity, this game now creates incredible expectations, a certain bar The Consumer expects it will reach, certain questions it must be able to answer, and immediately. What if it needs more time? What if it needs to turn out a little differently? Can it ever get out from under the awe created by this glimpse? Will it be chained to the awe in that room today for the rest of its life?
Of course pomp and flash has always been part of E3, and to decide whether or not games "live up to the hype" has unfortunately been much of the work of writers in my field in a prior age. Some people still think that way. People I know have been clamoring for "FFVII remake" or The Last Guardian in some cases since they were genuinely children, based on glimpses of things they remember from a long time ago. Literal glimpses; desire for The Last Guardian is itself rooted in a backward-facing longing for games called ICO and Shadow of the Colossus both more than ten years old. Still memorable, of course, deserved classics, but would those kinds of opaque, occasionally-tedious puzzles make sense today? Would we want them to?
We don't think about play and design when we emotionally engage with marketing trailers. And because of an ancient itch, Sony has to bring us this strange, old, too long-awaited Frankenstein's tech demo, the boy and his gryphon looking like they each fell out of completely different toolsets. Thanks to the (admittedly lovely) gryphon's help, the boy pushes an obstacle and avoids falling by grabbing the animal or being grabbed at the right time. The terrain falls away on schedule. It is a work of theatre that still tells us very little, and one more year may not buy you many more answers when eight years have been spent with no finish.
As-yet unsubstantiated ambition in the service of Gamer Demands, Gamer Nostalgia, drove the event. Media Molecule's Dreams has been in development for four years, but we don't know lots about how it works yet, either. We see an FFVII teaser, but no sign of Final Fantasy XV, the actual sequel that's meant to be coming soon, or Persona 5, a much closer and more tangible torch-bearer for the last flame of superstar Japanese roleplaying games. Men were on their feet in near-religious fervor because of a Kickstarter for Shenmue 3, a sequel to a game made in 2001, on the Sega Dreamcast.
Our obsession with recapturing our childhood, resurrecting memes and masturbating our nostalgia is strangling games, says I. The games of today should greet a new generation outside of the traditional walled gardens with their specific vocabulary, says I. Then you wave a Final Fantasy VII "trailer" in front of me and I cry. Twice. It felt good, of course.
But these are appeals to something other than progress, and no matter my own personal reactions, I'm just not convinced altogether that the future of digital play has to do with giant hardware-makers at all. I am not generally someone who bets, but I'd make a bet this is the last big home console generation, at least of this familiar format. And I also bet someone $50 that The Last Guardian will never actually come out. That is a strange and prideful bet, I know, but part of me hopes it won't. I wouldn't want to see anything have to live up to this much hope.