Thoughts on E3 2011

Once every year, gamers from around the world huddle in front of their home/works computers eagerly awaiting the slew of announcements from the industry. It’s a time to see the most cutting edge graphics, the latest gaming experiences and largest number of titles. While E3 has always had an issue of hyping and misrepresenting titles, the thing that struck me the most this year is how overwhelmed each game was at showing some sort of spectacle.

From the crazy chopper showdown at the end of Ghost Recon: Future Warrior to the brief gunfight in Far Cry 3, game after game seems more interested in showing the latest cutting edge scripted scenario for the player to experience. While viewers might grimace at the gritty realism of Lara Croft or drop their jaws at the tank battle in Battlefield 3, the problem is that these games look more like well-polished movies than games.

The numerous warfare games all look like variations of Black Hawk Down meets the latest Roland Emmerich disaster flick. Lara Croft is strikingly similar to The Descent in visuals and tone. Brothers in Arms: Furious 4 is essentially Inglourious Basterds: The Game. And all that even gets shown of Star Wars: The Old Republic is a series of shorts that look fantastic, but show little of what the actual game might turn out to be.

And while these bits do a good job at evoking the sense of place and atmosphere, they don’t do that strong a job of establishing what the game will actually feel like. Gaming, more than any other medium is about that sense of feedback and watching all these clips of concepts of games does little to convey that. Even watching gameplay clips can be misrepresentative as it’s often clearly scripted to show off certain features.

Even when Todd Howard says the dragons in Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim are completely unscripted, it’s clear they were scripted by the demo. We’ve still no idea what it will feel like to have a dragon swoop in up behind us by surprise or reach the top of a hill to see a dragon lumbering bellow. And perhaps there’s no indication that this will actually happen in the game as cool as it is in the demo, when the player clearly has powers and abilities that will probably take a while to gain. Maybe it turns out to be a pain in the ass as the player gets trapped inside some building because two dragons have spawned outside when they are still level three.

We pin a lot of hopes, fears and assumptions on prerendered trailers, snippets of gameplay and brief interviews. Part of me wonders if the entire mode of presentation is completely flawed, if games should really be announced through trailers or at press conferences. It’s something that’s suited to announcing a film or TV show at Comic-Con, but that’s because the act of watching a pilot from a TV show is representative of actually watching that TV show in your living room.

Games are about so much more than simply watching, it’s the interactivity that springs them to life. For the people at the show, actually playing with the WiiU or sitting down to a game of Battlefield 3 can give them a good sense of what the experience might be like. But to the viewers at home, they’re forced to simply watch the act, see a representation of the act through footage of gameplay or, even worse, a prefabricated representation of what might or might not end up being the game through a prerendered trailer.

My concern is twofold. The first is that games are trying to pass themselves off like movies, which they aren’t. The focus on spectacle shows me they want to make games that are more fun to see than they are to play. The second is that the viewers at home are far too quick to make snap judgments and entire assumptions about a game based upon just a few gameplay minutes of footage from a trailer. Games are hours on end, often providing more than just one set experience throughout. Seeing just a few fleeting minutes in the equivalent of seeing one shot from a film and making an entire assumption of what the rest of the film is.

This isn’t to say that we should simply remain neutral. It’s clear that these videos will give us some gage as to what the game might actually be like and as we know what we like, we probably have a good indication of whether or not we will enjoy this game. I couldn’t be less interested in even the slew of shooters they showed, but the Far Cry 3 trailer piqued my interest with the alternate paths, stealthy takedowns and first person cover system. Part of it is the brand, but it also taps into the way I like to play FPS games.

On the other hand, they show off what is clearly framed as a setpiece to get users interested. What happens if the player decides to avoid the chopper altogether and just run off into the jungle? We’ll have to play the game to find out. Perhaps this section won’t end up in the game at all, or will totally be changed to accomidate some other factor of the game we haven’t seen.

The bigger issue is judging the games like Battlefield 3 and Lara Croft off of what are very clearly narrowly defined gameplay slices. I know for a fact that Battlefield 3 is not entirely tank gameplay, that it is simply one slice of a larger experience. But if I was to judge it simply off that, it would mislead me into thinking things about the game that probably aren’t true.

The Lara Croft gameplay clip is probably the biggest offender. This is a very narrow segment of underground gameplay that shows no combat and sets up a feeling of desperation for the character. Now unless Lara ends up an entire wuss for the whole game, I imagine this is an early segment that is supposed to make the player feel fragile and weak. It’s also almost entirely inside a cave, so we’ve no idea what the open spaces will play like. From this point, it looks like a very narrowly defined horror game.

So how should the smart gamer approach E3 coverage? With an equal amount of skepticism and grace. Know that what you see may not be what you get, but also cut the developers some slack. They’re showing you one percent of their game at the most, sometimes not even in a finished state, and we’re so quick and ready to pounce upon that one percent as either a total piece of crap or the glorious return of all things right. Hype and hyperbole makes fools of us all.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing