A History of Violence: So Where Do We Go From Here?
The absence of new business models and platforms is the least of E3's worries - the press conferences were a brutal and troubling experience
Does E3 still matter? By now, you no doubt have your own view on the subject, and we here at GamesIndustry International have made no secret of our own, but this year's expo moved me in ways I didn't anticipate.
A week before the madness started, we published an article questioning the relevance of a show like E3 to an industry that seemingly changes with each passing month, expanding rapidly in every conceivable direction. This question is more relevant now than ever before, but unless you have a very short memory you'll know that this isn't the first time it has been asked.
Each year the same discussion begins, and each year it develops along very similar lines. And for all the compelling arguments that E3 is little more than a lumbering relic from a bygone era, the most convincing response is always the same: exposure. E3 is the one moment that those with no vested interest in the games industry give it more than a cursory glance, and this, we are told, really matters.
"This year, more than any other in memory, the act of watching the E3 press conferences was a truly discomfiting experience"
Exploring whether that notion holds any water would require a column of its own, but for the purposes of this argument I'm taking it at face value. E3 - and specifically the E3 press conferences - are the mask that the industry's biggest companies wish to present to the world, yet this year, more than any other in memory, the act of watching those presentations was a truly discomfiting experience: hour upon hour of elaborately choreographed mayhem and violence, interspersed with infrequent moments of quiet that only served to amplify the gleefully gruesome spectacle.
Goons were impaled by arrows, engulfed in flames, savaged by tigers, strangled, bludgeoned, shot and stabbed, mostly in the neck - E3 2012 was either the year of the bow or the year of the neck-stab, depending on who you ask. The stifling majority of demos were defined by or culminated in acts of loud and glorified violence, often accompanied by enough "fucks" and "motherfuckers" to make Quentin Tarantino blush.
I don't much mind that the Far Cry 3 demo opened on a pair of painted breasts, or that Crystal Dynamics believes that the ugly threat of rape is necessary for its new take on Lara Croft - as always, I'll put my faith in the creators, and allow the work to justify their decisions. But taken as a whole, the texture of this year's press conferences struck me as deeply unpleasant, and far removed from the endlessly diverse, creative and fascinating industry I write about every day.
We're so preoccupied with justifying E3 as the one moment that everyone's attention is on video games that we haven't stopped to consider what those people are actually seeing, and the thoughts that must wander through their minds as they turn away for another year. Violence has been a selling-point in games for as long as I can remember. I'm not so naive that I expect that to change, and I accept that others may see things differently, but I can't recall a time when it felt so dominant, so unapologetically central to how these companies see their audience and judge the value of their products.
"We're so preoccupied with justifying E3 for grabbing everyone's attention that we don't stop to consider what those people are actually seeing"
This was never more clear than during the climactic demonstration of The Last of Us at the Sony conference. Naughty Dog's next project is as beautifully rendered, richly atmospheric and skilfully performed as we can rightly expect from the creators of Nathan Drake and Uncharted. It is also stark and unflinching in its brutality; violence so immediate and forceful it left me breathless. But the crowd responded differently: they applauded as one assailant's windpipe was crushed between a wall and the protagonist's muscled forearm; they whooped and cheered as, moments later, his face was pulverised against the edge of a wooden desk.
The demo ended abruptly, as a human head was vaporised by a point-blank shotgun blast. The lights came up, the focus returned to Sony's Jack Tretton for his closing remarks, and in the brief moment before his unflappable professionalism kicked in, I swear I saw a look of utter confusion in his eyes. He clapped, he smiled, he said something along the lines of, 'How about that, huh?', but there was a glimmer of recognition that, in the world of AAA games in 2012, this is how you leave them wanting more.
What did Naughty Dog think of its game being used so hopelessly out of context, as the climax to so much amped-up, slo-mo destruction? I'd very much like to know. It seems clear to me that the intention behind The Last Of Us is not to whip crowds into a state of frenzy, but to create a sense of unease, a creeping disquiet at the unvarnished, punishing reality of a punch to the ribs or a lead pipe to the head.
Indeed, part of me hopes that it will prove to be Naughty Dog's final farewell to violence as a cornerstone of its work, so it can devote more of its time and attention to all that character, dialogue and storytelling stuff for which it so justly praised. But it's the same part of me that believes SimCity was the stand-out game of the show, and regards David Cage as a shining beacon upon the rocks; the same part of me that wished Watch Dogs' many impressive tricks were at the service of something more interesting than making a clean and efficient kill; the same part of me that hopes this grim parade of violence is not necessarily what we want, only what we are given.
A few years ago, the talented, thoughtful programmer and designer Chris Hecker gave a talk in which he warned of the very real danger that games will end up in the same "pop cultural ghetto" as comics books. As that medium developed, the comic publishers became so fixated on regurgitating the same profitable superhero characters they effectively destroyed their own credibility. Even a Pulitzer Prize winning exploration of the Holocaust couldn't remove the negative stigma entirely, and only now is that veil beginning to lift.
"E3 is supposed to be the best we have to offer, but it felt like the same familiar meal served over and over and over again"
The worth of any form of entertainment, Hecker said, can be judged on four metrics: revenue, units sold, cultural impact, and diversity of content. This year, E3 spoke of an industry with a laser focus on the first, an over-inflated sense of its own success in the second, and barely a passing thought for the others. I won't pretend that I like every movie at the cinema or all of the songs in the charts, but even at their worst the film and music industries have rubbish for every taste, and that is what allows them to endure.
But E3 is supposed to be the best we have to offer - there's no denying the skill and craft on display - but it felt like the same familiar meal served over and over and over again. The next generation of technology that so many of us wanted to see will give us higher fidelity explosions, more realistic bullet wounds, and better particle effects on exploding heads, but I suspect the problem runs deeper. I've seen what Unreal Engine 4 is capable of and it won't save us from a lack of ideas.
I am now in my Thirties. I cannot remember a day when there wasn't a computer or console waiting on the desk or under the television. I expected the friends I played with as a child, a teenager, and a young adult to retain their interest in gaming, but with only a few exceptions they all willingly left it behind. They aren't prudes or snobs or prigs; just people for whom snackable mobile games hold no interest, who demand more substance than a game of motion-controlled bowling can provide, and have no stomach for endlessly shooting the same five guys until the credits roll. They love the look of Bioshock, they love the ideas, they love the world, they want those production values, but do we really have to kill all of those bad guys?
There are exceptions, of course. I am certain we already have the games to change their minds, but, like me, they look to E3 for a glimpse of the present and near future of gaming, and they are left with only this: a knife stabbing a human face, forever.