Going into another year’s E3, a shared sentiment around the gaming community seemed to be one of disenchantment and exhaustion. The landscape of gaming is in a position where some things are trying to change, but other things are staying the same more than ever. People are tired of seeing the same old thing, yet there are so many complaints when new things are tried. It’s a game no one wins, and yet both sides keep trying. From the looks of things, the call for inclusion is starting to be heard. Nevertheless, the status quo is trying to hang on harder than ever, and it in turn produced some of the most lackluster entries in E3 that I’ve ever seen.
Maybe it was a stroke of luck that allowed my excitement to be crushed early on—EA! Mass Effect Andromeda, which I had been waiting for any news of, was barely spoken about, and we only saw that the face of ME:A’s promotional material could very possibly be a woman this time. While that’s great, it’s also frustrating that they gave out all the new details outside of the conference itself. What’s even the point, guys? Why are you making your conference even more irrelevant? Besides that, almost every presentation was of an already existing IP that brought nothing new to the table, and even less in terms of gameplay examples. The only new property they mentioned was Fe, a cute little indie game from Zoink Games starring a (fox?) cub who travels along the forest, listening to the music of nature. And while I really did enjoy the premise of this, it felt almost as though EA was going, “Shit, we had a cute Scandinavian indie developer (Martin Sahlin of Coldwood Interactive) last year, and the crowd loved him. WE NEED ANOTHER.” Which, I am aware, is rather unfair to Zoink Games.
Unfortunately similar in content was Bethesda’s conference. A far cry from last year’s extravaganza, this year seemed to be toned down on the enthusiasm from both fans and developers alike. However, refusing to be entirely like EA, Bethesda did manage to put forward some interesting properties. First is Prey, a game that shares a title with a 2006 game developed by Human Head studios. Although it’s said that this upcoming game has little, if anything, to do with the original game, what I am hoping stays the same in this Dead Space-eqsue looking entry is the game’s protagonist. Originally protagonist Morgan Yu was a man of Native heritage, and honestly it would be fantastic to have that sort of representation in any game, but especially in this sort of sci-fi horror kind of genre (which is still predominantly white). Furthermore, there have been rumors that the player will be able to choose between male Morgan and female Morgan, which makes me even more excited for it. Continuing on, while news of Dishonored 2’s protagonist, Emily, isn’t new, it was a joy to see her in action in one of the few gameplay exhibitions of the night.
Microsoft kicked off the second day with more fanfare and excitement about their games—thank god. While a good portion of their conference was dedicated to new hardware like the Xbox One Slim and Project Scorpio, they did manage to shed some more light on what gamers can expect. Last year’s ReCore, for example, seems to be shaping up excellently, showing off the game’s strengths in solving puzzles using the protagonist’s array of robot friends. And surprisingly, the newest Gears of War appears to be focused in part on the story of Kait (one of the main characters) and her journey to rescue her mother–although it doesn’t appear like players will actually be able to play as her except in co-op mode. The biggest disappointment to me happened to be Scalebound. The game looks awesome, don’t get me wrong, but I’m already tired of seeing this young 20-something guy, full of snark and sword, going on a huge journey with nary a woman in sight. Given director Hideki Kamiya’s design choices (see: Bayonetta), this may be a blessing in disguise, however.
Someone must have sat down with Ubisoft this year, because they managed to go through their entire conference without being entirely cringey or tone deaf (like they were at E3 last year). Even more surprising is that they had some good games to show. While games like South Park: The Fractured But Whole and Ghost Recon: Wildlands continued to put forth boring commentary on social issues and tropes that we should literally be over by now (oh wow! White people raiding a Mexican drug cartel in not-America!? Tell me more!), other games like Eagleflight and Trials of the Blood Dragon showed that the company still had some fun left in them. More important to me, though, was the surprise For Honor gave me. Last year, while I praised it for its stunning graphics, the “white guy fighting for shit” gave me no reason to be excited. This year, however, a new trailer gave us women fighters in functional armor, more races (albeit just one that I remember: Japanese), and a main villain, god of war Apollyon, that’s a badass woman—all of which makes me much more excited for the game and willing to give it a chance.
Another thing to get excited about: Watch Dogs 2. While the first game in the series left fans feeling a little cheated when comparing it to its promotional material, I’m begging for Watch Dogs 2 to not follow the same path. The entire main cast seems to be diverse. The main character, hacker Marcus Holloway, is a Black man, and he’s backed up by his fellow hackers in DedSec: Wrench (a man of presumably Asian descent) and Sitara (who is presumably an Indian woman). Of course, people have already started to complain about having to play as Marcus, but I, for one, am super excited for this change up.
Expectedly, Sony’s conference was the best of them all. While Detroit: Become Human is shaping up to be entirely uninteresting David Cage art school schlock (not to mention hideously white) instead of a compelling story about androids finding humanity, and Days Gone looks like Ride To Hell’s better produced sequel (but with zombies!), the people at Guerrilla Games must have been listening, because Horizon Zero Dawn still looks amazing and they seemed to have nixed the protagonist’s white girl dreadlocks. Of course, I can’t talk about Sony’s conference without talking about Hideo Kojima, who appeared on stage to present his new game Death Stranding. No one knows what the fuck it’s about, but we all love it—in all its “piles of dead crabs on a beach while Norman Reedus holds onto a baby that may be himself, and he’s also naked?” glory. Oh, and Resident Evil is also back to being a horror game, so that’s cool.
Finally, Nintendo opted out of having a conference this year, saying that they didn’t really have anything new to show. Instead, they had a two day exhibition of their games that were already set for release. And while there were other games they showed (Ever Oasis especially looked interesting), they understandably spent the most time on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. This new Zelda game takes a step further into Hyrule’s ever-growing lore than any other game previous and implements complex technology into the world rather than the typical, more basic technology like catapults and stone contraptions. It looks cool for sure, but I have a hard time getting too excited for it. Almost opposite of Game Freak’s re-implementation of skin tone choices for Pokemon Sun and Moon, Zelda’s producer Eiji Aonuma commented that while they thought about having Link be a girl this time around, they chose not to because if Link was a girl, then she’d obviously be Zelda, and in that case “…if we have princess Zelda as the main character who fights, then what is Link going to do?” I’ve said it before: if you’re going to have the game focus on men, then fine, but don’t dress it up like sexism isn’t playing a part here. This is just a lazy excuse, and it’s honestly troubling that the game’s own producer can’t think of something for the characters to do if they’re not fulfilling the same role they’ve already done a million times.
To say that progress hasn’t been made in the gaming sphere would be incorrect. It’s a slow, arduous process, but the showings at this year’s E3 do prove that companies are making some headway—people are listening. However, it also showed that some companies just aren’t willing to make that leap into broader, more diverse stories. In this way, EA had nothing to offer its audience. Sony Interactive Entertainment Worldwide Studios’s chairman Shawn Layden mentioned during Sony’s conference that he thought these games to be “transformative”, and in the wake of the recent tragedies in Orlando and other parts of the world, the need for representation becomes more urgent. Most developers paid their respects to those we have lost, but what Xbox head Phil Spencer said during the start of Microsoft’s conference sat wrong with me. In saying that “gamers stand with [those affected]”, he only means the best, but many of us know all too well that no, gamers do not stand with marginalized groups. Gamers are often vitriolic and hateful as the mass conglomeration we know them as.
While this year was a start in the right direction for more gender and racial diversity, representation concerning gender identity and sexuality seems to be pushed back behind the curtain. We can assume that ME:A will include a variety of genders and sexual orientations, but companies shouldn’t be relying on Bioware and indie companies to lend a voice to these people. From what I saw during the conferences, I can’t say for certain if any of these games do or do not include non-straight/non-cis characters, but I can say that given the line-up of games, I don’t have much hope in the AAA scene. (Although it would be pretty cool if FF15 came out with a gay relationship that wasn’t done terribly.) Things are getting better, but as they get better, the push-back becomes that much worse. It wouldn’t only be nice if games were transformative and inclusive, it’s a necessity. We need to include the voices of all people, lest we lose them forever.