Ben Kuchera

This was my E3, and it was pretty great (Hint: skip the pressers and be happy)

This was my E3, and it was pretty great (Hint: skip the pressers and be happy)

I had a wonderful time at E3 this year, due to the fact that I skipped the press events for both Microsoft and Sony. I went to Nintendo’s show, but that was more for my appointment to get a hands-on with the Wii U directly after the event. There has been much negativity about this year’s E3, but everyone writing those articles made a terrible mistake. They didn’t skip the press events.

Let’s run down what happens at these shows. The press files in after a lengthy wait in line, you see blockbuster after blockbuster as company executives bring out a few celebrities and awkwardly stumble through their pre-written jokes, and you get a headache. If you actually like games, and most of us do, the press events are exercises in frustration, aimed at the broadest possible market by appealing to the lowest common denominator.

This is why all the action games shown seem to have been baked down into a few common components, the most pervasive being white men killing brown men. There might have been many franchises shown with this theme, but it’s hard to tell them apart. In the future, every game is Call of Duty. The press events are aimed at a demographic that may not exist, the mainstream gamer who is impressed by spectacle above all else.

These events are shown on television, and chopped up into B-roll for mainstream media reports. These are the games that were shown to be the most commercial, and thus are used to try to drive the idea that each system on display is the best damn system ever. Subtlety and nuance are lost on the giant screens and the shrieking volume of the show, which is why character-driven games are rarely part of E3’s initial marketing push.

The press events are aimed squarely at the 18 to 35 year-old male demographic who loves watching things explode. These events are a carefully packaged product aimed at the international market that spent $1.1 billion to watch the last Transformers film. This is either the second or third year that Microsoft tried to convince gamers that watching sports through their Xbox 360 is the best thing ever. The industry has found out that it’s very hard to make a good Kinect game, so it’s been relegated to a device we speak to in order to make things happen. Microsoft wants to convince the world that saying “Xbox, Bing Football” is just the coolest way to play video games.

On the other hand, Sony thinks augmented reality books are the wave of the future, and PlayStation Plus now gives subscribers extra free games with their purchase. The games are rather old, making PlayStation Plus the official service of charging people to give them things they don’t want to pay for. The only hint of the PlayStation Move came from the Indiecade area of E3, where players happily played Johann Sebastian Joust.

Nintendo showed off the Wii U one more time, with the hope that we’re all ready to buy new hardware just to play another Mario. The press events aren’t even reality, they’re a picture of the industry each company desperately wants to be true. The best way to experience them is through the complaints of the press on Twitter and the endless blog posts about every tiny piece of news. I caught up in ten minutes on the plane to Los Angeles. It was a wonderful feeling.

So why was E3 so great?

When you skip the press events, you gain back a day that used to be dedicated to lines, headaches, and bullet point lists. This allows you to hit the show floor feeling fresh and happy to be there. While this year’s E3 suffered from a lack of big hardware announcements, the games looked wonderful.

Games like Rayman Legends and ZombiU proved that Ubisoft understands how to take advantage of the Wii U hardware, which is something Nintendo had trouble expressing during their own press event. I played Criterion’s rebooted Need for Speed: Most Wanted, which brought the Burnout sensibilities to an open world with real cars. “We didn’t call it Most Wanted 2 because we don’t do sequels to other people’s games,” I was told by a Criterion representative, and that’s a good line.

We were mocked for lining up in an orderly fashion for each race, before we got the swing of slamming our cars into each other, to the delight of the room. I had a wonderful conversation with the creator of Papo & Yo about expression in games. I bumped into the CEO of LucasArts at a surreal party deep in the Hollywood Hills, and he showed me the trailer for 1313 on his iPad.

“One caveat, there is a matte painting in one scene. Everything else is in-engine,” he told me. The video looked amazing. I saw Supergiant Game’s Greg Kasavin at the same party, and he lavished praise on the latest Humble Bundle that included Bastion, and we shared our scorn at the idea that such sales and bundles “devalued” intellectual property.The co-op for Dead Space 3 played very well, and it’s implemented in a way that actually makes sense. The Last of Us looks better every time I see it, and my interview about how Naughty Dog handles their voice and motion capture convinced me that the company is on the right track in terms of story telling. I played the Xbox Live Arcade game Hybrid by 5th Cell, and I was intrigued by the way characters moved in 3D space; ground-based travel has been completely removed from the game since the last time I saw it.

We’re working on a fun story about that game, so stay tuned. THQ had a wonderful show for a company everyone claims is on the ropes. Company of Heroes 2 was suitably brutal, with a wonderful new system for its fog of war. Metro: Last Light looked like it will fix my few issues with the first game.

TellTale has hit gold both commercially and critically with the Walking Dead adventure games, and the second episode of that series looked amazing; based on what I saw it goes for blood in the opening scenes and doesn’t let up. Plus, we were promised at least one cameo from a character not previously a part of the Walking Dead universe, so we’ll see how that turns out. Square Enix is another company with a great slate of games, including Quantum Conundrum, Hitman: Absolution, and Sleeping Dogs.

I’m afraid this article is going to become a long list of games I want to play, but the truth is E3 2012 was absolutely filled with creative, interesting games from a variety of sources, on every platform. There were interesting details to be found, as well. Disney Interactive showed Where’s My Water prominently in their booth, which highlighted just how important mobile games are becoming to certain brands. There was very little emphasis on 3D, although Star Trek was shown on two 3D displays hung next to each other, which proved hard to watch after a few minutes.

Doom 3: BFG was also shown in 3D, but that was mostly to show off the impressive feat of a game running at 60 frames per second in 3D on the Xbox 360. 3D seemed to be nearing death on the show floor, outside of those two titles and 3DS games. Even Sony didn’t pass out 3D glasses during its press event. I was able to play Dishonored, and that went from a game I was woefully ignorant about to a title that’s on my must-play list. It’s Deus Ex by way of Thief, and you can summon a plague of rats to devour your enemies, or simply teleport around the level to kill your selected targets.

I’m hoping to bring you more coverage of that game very soon. Assassin's Creed 3 continues to look amazing, with a new naval sequence on display at the show. Hawken renewed my love for Mech-based combat. The list goes on, and I'm sure I'm leaving some out. Perhaps one of my favorite moments was the Into the Pixel reception, where members of the industry and press walked around the room, looked at framed pieces of concept art from games, and listened to a group of musicians play video game music on a violin and two pianos. Hearing a classically arranged version of the Mortal Kombat theme was pleasantly odd, and the audience clapped when the musicians played the theme from Game of Thrones.

It was a delightful mix of influences, and everyone in the room enjoyed sharing the cultural touchstones that come from a life of gaming. That’s my E3, although it only scratches the surface of everything I played and saw, some of which will be in future stories, and some of which will just be used to plan out coverage for the next year. I spoke to dozens of creative, passionate people about the games coming out this year and next, and there's more than enough good stuff coming to keep us busy.

The trick is to avoid the E3 that Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony want to sell you, and focus on the games themselves. I'm not sure if I ever need to talk to my 360 about baseball, but I do know the games I saw at E3 made me proud of this art form. E3 2012 may have been low key, but why not focus on the games and try to dig for the gems? If you take E3 on its own terms, it's a loud, obnoxious show.

If you roll up your sleeves and aren't afraid to get a little dirty, you start to find the charm in the games. I hope every show is this bad.