E3 2018: Games learn to put down the gun
This year's E3 jamboree shows that gaming is taking another step towards greater diversity. Ronan Price reports from Los Angeles
A dancing panda, a lesbian kiss, a "healing space" for the elderly with dementia and, of course, bone-crunching violence. The common thread linking them all is probably the last thing you'd guess: video games.
But then that's the biggest myth about this relatively young industry, which now commands €100bn in annual revenue and entertains two billion people regularly. The whipping boy for many of society's ills, from obesity to corruption of morals, video games are no longer a one-trick pony obsessed only with mindless brutality to pander to a male demographic.
More than 60,000 people, from creators to retailers to media to players, gathered in Los Angeles this week for the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, better known as E3. Millions more watched online. This loud, colourful celebration of gaming takes over downtown LA for the best part of a week every June as the industry looks forward to the year ahead and beyond.
The 2018 E3 show was one of the biggest ever, featuring more than 3,000 products from hundreds of exhibitors and incorporating a host of celebrities including actors Elijah Wood, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jack Black and Ireland soccer star David Meyler. Much like cinemas seem currently overrun by hyper-violent superhero flicks, bloodthirsty content remains a mainstay in gaming. But recent E3s have shown encouraging signs that creators recognise the need for diversity and this year the needle moved even further in the right direction.
The three full days of E3 are preceded by elaborately staged and live-streamed propaganda events by the main players including Sony, Microsoft, EA and Ubisoft. Each one strives to one-up the other, employing live performances, theatrical settings and thunderous trailers to win over the attendees inside the venues but more importantly the massive global audience.
"There has never been a more exciting time to be part of the gaming industry, with creators large and small showcasing incredible new games for the more than two billion players around the world," said Phil Spencer, head of gaming at Microsoft, as he introduced the new slate of Xbox games.
Microsoft opted for a conventional set-up, commandeering its eponymous downtown theatre for a showcase that had a lot riding on it. After years of lagging behind overwhelming market leader PlayStation due to a lack of exclusive titles, the Xbox brand needed a shot in the arm to show it was still in the game. The Seattle giant responded in some style, highlighting 50 new games coming to the platform, of which 18 are exclusive at least initially.
Spencer also took the brave and unusual step of foreshadowing the next Xbox machines, a move that could conceivably slow demand for its current devices. "The team … is deep into architecting the next Xbox consoles, where we will once again deliver on our commitment to set the benchmark for console gaming."
He also highlighted Microsoft's commitment to the disabled with a new oversized controller that makes it easier for people with limited mobility to enjoy gaming.
In typical exuberant style at the ornate 1920s-era Orpheum Theatre, Ubisoft kicked off its press conference with a marching band and a troupe of dancers led by a prancing panda, all in the name of promoting upcoming game Just Dance 2019. Later in the show, Gordon-Levitt popped up to reveal his crowd-sourcing project HitRecord would be teaming with Ubisoft to supply music and artwork for the company's big-budget Beyond Good and Evil 2. This a rare example of the public getting a chance to contribute on such a scale to a blockbuster game and certainly the first time they will get paid to do so.
Sony took over a studio complex for its PlayStation briefing, turning an unpromising concrete car park into a series of spaces themed to match its glimpses of upcoming titles including Spider-Man and The Last of Us 2.
The audience of 500 fans and media were first bemused to enter a barn-like structure converted to resemble a church. Then we were rapt as celebrated composer Gustavo Santaolalla picked out the main theme to post-apocalyptic thriller The Last of Us 2 on a banjo. In that odd alternate universe that is an E3 press conference, however, the loudest cheers greeted a tender gay smooch for the female lead that segued into a stomach-churning scene of extreme savagery. Similarly grim themes are explored in Cormac McCarthy's book The Road, of course, but somehow The Last of Us 2 won't get an equivalent free pass for its mature content.
In another space with a giant Imax screen, we were treated to an extended trailer of the bizarre Death Stranding, which makes the narrative of Twin Peaks seem positively pedestrian. Featuring the heavyweight acting talents of Norman Reedus, Léa Seydoux, Mads Mikkelsen and (former Bionic Woman) Lindsay Wagner, it didn't make a lick of sense and probably won't emerge for years to come yet.
All of this, of course, took place before E3 even opened on Tuesday, which kicked off three days of wheeler-dealing, carnival barker-style exhibitor booths and the unmistakeable odour of thousands of bodies crushed into the LA Convention Centre. Spread across three sprawling halls, the expo mixes industry giants with lesser-known upstarts including Facebook and tiny one-person stands. The wares on offer span the gamut from the familiar fare of shooters, racers and sports titles to imaginative indie titles.
Megapublisher EA chose to promote its melancholy indie effort Sea of Solitude, which tracks the loneliness of a solitary woman in an abandoned city. At one of E3's tiniest booths, a project called Healing Spaces explores how people with dementia can be helped connect with their surroundings by playing a digital experience akin to a game.
It's a measure of how far the industry has travelled in a relatively short time, featuring more female protagonists, more ethnic diversity and a volley of ideas that don't involve a gun. Now if only the wider world would acknowledge the change for the better.