E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) is the video game industry’s biggest convention. It is where the companies that head the market show off their latest games and make their biggest announcements. E3 took place last week among the usual flurry of media action, new game footage and announcements. However, it was also haunted by the growing shadow of discontentment. Matt Lees of the video game website Cool Ghosts wrote a forceful article about why his website is not covering E3. He points out the industry’s inability to change meaningfully and to respond tactfully to tragic events. He argues that the industry continues to push out the same kinds of games and continuously circle around the same arguments. I agree. Video games are too often callous and cold in how they deal with violence and politics. E3 itself frames games entirely as a product and almost never as art. Even when a game’s themes or emotions are examined, it is too often a marketing bullet point to make a game more appealing because it is “emotional” or “ground-breaking.” This article is not so much a counter to any of those ideas. The point is to add to that dialog by giving examples of games and advertising that break convention. The conversation about the game industry’s woes can be so negative, when there is often a great deal to celebrate. This celebration should not take away from the criticism, it should broaden the conversation. Here are some games that seem to move past the tropes of video games into something new.
Horizon: Zero Dawn
Many games that allow you to explore a world are un-holistic in their design. They have a story that is completely unrelated from the primary game of exploration. The game splits in two under the weight of telling a linear story with a level structure and providing a space to explore and play with. Horizon seems to have sidestepped this by making the narrative about discovering the secrets of the world. By making the world new and mysterious to the player character, it allows the story to concern both the player and their avatar discovering new things. If done correctly this could lead to everything in the game having narrative propulsion. This is also a new setting and a new franchise that seems to be trying new things. In a industry overburdened with sequels and reboots, this is something to be cherished. One of my favorite games so far this year is Hyper Light Drifter. A independent game that created an interesting world and gave much of that world real emotional weight, while telling a linear story. If Horizon is the bigger blockbuster version of that, count me in.
God of War
This is an unusual pick. It has many of the typical checkmarks of a game that contributes to the industry’s artistic problems. As examples: the main character is a brooding and aggressive caricature of masculinity. The game centers around brutal and decisive violence. It features an absent female character who appears to be either dead or kidnapped. To the game’s credit, it seems to be using those elements to explore deeper themes, like fatherhood and the origin of violence. In the demo, Kratos – a mighty warrior and the star of three previous God of War games – goes out with his son to hunt. Kratos is gruff and has little patience, but also clearly loves the boy. The dynamic of a violent man trying to help someone become like him results in moments that are both brutal and tender. These moments explore how violence shapes our perception of reality and how violent culture is passed from generation to generation. These are heavy themes. This could all come apart when the game comes out, but there seems to be a maturity and grace present that is rare in similar titles.
There is so much that gets me excited about this game. The clear ballet inspiration that goes well outside of traditional video game muses. The idea that jumping and moving through a video game space can be a form of expression. The aesthetic that is simultaneously video game like and new to games. It taps into the same experience that made games like Bit.Trip.Runner and Proteus so compelling and unusual. It seems to be exactly the kind of new thing that would remind me how powerful games can be and how much more we can do with them.
This is beautiful. To be fair, a lot of the games shown at E3 are beautiful. Big budget games allow for an incredible scale and simulation of reality. However, because such games are the product of big teams, it can be hard create an artistic and composed beauty. Only a passion project could have color palettes and moods as evocative as Abzu. It has a personal beauty. A artist, whose style can be distinctly recognized, made a game that rings with individual vision. Seeing games that seem so intimate and singular at an industry trade show is remarkable.
There’s not a game, but a principle to be excited about here. This short trailer reveals little of the game’s purpose or meaning. It shows nothing of the game’s mechanics. This is a bizarre thing, likely being funded because of the names attached to it. The fact that something so strange and arty is gathering hype and recognition at a show like E3 is something to be excited about. Death Stranding is proof that the industry is ready for new ideas.