Every June, industry types and journalists converge in Los Angeles for the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the big annual conference where console makers and developers have historically announced new hardware, innovations for current platforms and surprise tentpole titles.
It comes at a price. Loud and neon-soaked, E3 is a garish playground of over-hype, testosterone and hyper-sexualized imagery that parades gaming’s basest associations around in full display. And now it doesn’t even feel there are any surprises.
This year I was struck by how underwhelmed nearly everything I saw left me, including titles I was especially interested in. Big publishers so often borrow and steal design elements from each other—shooters and action games especially—that at a glance, many feel indistinguishable.
Realism has been a recent problem. The Tomb Raider reboot, for example, reinvents globetrotting adventurer Lara Croft through an origin story that alleg- edly breaks her down in a forced survival scenario; She suffers a bear trap injury in the demo, but we never see her so much as limp.
In Hitman Absolution I watched unfeeling killer and master of disguise Agent 47 murdering a small town’s police force wearing a borrowed uniform without being recognized. Disguise may be a Hitman cornerstone, but don’t emphasize realism if you’re not all in.
I could go on. Medal of Honor now looks exactly like Call of Duty, whose Michael Bay-ish presence remains a bafflingly universal influence. Even a fascinatingly high-concept game like Watch Dogs, whose premise involves controlling information through the interconnectivity of modern technology, reduces its action to abilities chosen from a skill wheel.
There were really interesting games hiding on the show floor—The Unfinished Swan makes you figure out the spatial structure of entirely white environments by splattering them with black paint; Papo & Yo is a storybook allegory about the game designer’s relationship with his alcoholic father. Most showgoers probably haven’t heard of either.
What’s really frustrating about E3 is that it only highlights typical action bravado. Some of these games will still be greater, or at least more interesting, than their demos suggest. EA’s horror game Dead Space 3 focused on less-scary co-op instead of showing off how its PTSD-stricken protagonist talks to his fractured psyche in single-player; Far Cry 3 was a purported orgy of fetishized violence, leaving its sharp-sounding meta commentary on shooter design elsewhere.
Still, I’m sick of it. The industry is slowly growing up. Can’t E3?
Gaming writer Steve Haske reports from the Northwest.