E3 2018: This year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo has wrapped up and has brought a lot of conversation around the games announced and/or shown at the show. Andrew and D. talk about E3 as an expo/convention and the target it seems to be aiming at for the future as well as games they saw and were intrigued or excited by (including Ghost of Tsushima, Death Stranding, Cyberpunk 2077, and, yes, Fallout 76). Let us know your thoughts about the games from this E3, if you’d like––we’d love to hear what you thought of this year’s show.
E3 tends to throw a lot of information––and games––at the public. D. Bethel has thoughts on a few of them.
Having been a console-first gamer my entire gaming life, I tend to pay close attention to the news and videos coming out of the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). At this point, I don’t get particularly hyped about the games that get announced (I hear people that hit social media after a press conference exclaiming, seemingly in earnest, “I NEED THIS GAME NOW!” Chill, dude) especially since few games shown at E3 anymore are surprises, having been announced months or years earlier. If anything, being a guy who is way into process, I’m excited to see what state these previously announced games are in and what kind of games they actually end up being. It’s like a big public presentation of the middle portion of the transition from idea to final product.
With that in mind, there a few games really stood out to me, with a few that may have slipped under the larger coverage of the show.
The games I discuss in Shortcast 59 are only from the Sony press conference. Though I’ll be broadening my scope for this Spotlight, there was one game from Sony’s exhibition really got its hooks in me.
Sucker Punch is a studio with whom I’m nominally familiar. I never played the Infamous series of games, having been an Xbox 360 owner at the time of their release, but the idea intrigued me enough and the general response to the series was always positive, nor had I touched a Sly Cooper game as 3D platformers never really appealed to me despite the series’ general good regard among the community. With that said, I hold neither Sucker Punch nor their upcoming game, Ghost of Tsushima, to any metric aside from what they show of the game itself.
And what they showed of Ghost is fire.
In fact, it seems like a game made specifically for D. Bethel. According to Sucker Punch creative director, Nate Fox, Ghost is a wholly linear, narrative-focused game that takes the player through 13th century Japan in the midst of a war with the Mongols. With that, teenaged Dan, the Japanese history nerd, perked up. Additionally, it’s a historical samurai action game with no supernatural elements whatsoever as Sucker Punch aimed for “a grounded game.” Comicker D. Bethel, who’s making a western webcomic with no supernatural elements, perked up as well. Combined with the deliberate combat that looked similar (though let’s hope it’s not too similar) to Bushido Blade and Way of the Samurai, super gamer nerd Dan became invested.
Like with Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption before it, the idea of a AAA grounded historical game that isn’t simply a tactical war game nor an RPG seems like an avenue less explored by big studios; so to see Sucker Punch tackle it (and with Red Dead Redemption 2 out this October!), I’m definitely keeping my eye on this one where, before, it wasn’t in my field of vision at all.
Sable – Shedworks (PC only at the time of this announcement) – Late 2019
Here’s where I walk back my console cred and mention a PC game. E3 held what it called its “PC Gaming Show” that showcased upcoming PC games in the same manner that other press conferences showcased console-focused games. Tucked among those games was Sable, and I can’t believe it’s real.
Games––like any art––start with an idea; often, that idea can be rather abstract.
I’ve watched the trailer a few times and I know it’s a game, but I couldn’t tell you what kind of game it is yet. The visuals stunned me. Surely a lot of people are going to be calling this a “hand-drawn” game, which it obviously isn’t. Instead, it’s doing some high-level and artistic cell shading that eerily––EERILY––evokes the work of French cartoonist, Jean Giraud (aka Mœbius). Most accurately, it seems to be an homage to his long-running Métal hurlant (a magazine Giraud co-created and was published in the US as Heavy Metal) strip, Arzach.
Created by the two-person UK developer, Shedworks, their main source of inspiration seems to be from the strides in open-world development that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild made than directly trying to interpret the work of Giraud into a video game space. Instead, the game apparently focuses more on the exploration and interaction with this breathtaking landscape rather than on RPG-like character growth and battle. Apparently, there’s no combat at all in the game, which is an intriguing proposition (No combat?! How is that even possible?!?!) that brought with it, to an extent, an internal sigh of relief. Finally, something different aside from just the visuals.
My joy doesn’t come from gleefully pointing out that this game seems to ape Mœbius’ style or comic at all––there’s no joy in that––but that this game vivifies his aesthetic perfectly. This must look like what the artist had in his head from which he could only capture still frames and arrange them on a page. Of all the games being written about, Sable genuinely gave me pause.
Sea of Solitude – Jo-Mei (PS4, XBox One, PC) – Early 2019
As an academic English person––albeit one who specialized in Composition and Rhetoric––whenever popular culture reveals a literary depth to it, it draws my attention with laser precision.
I heard on a podcast––sadly, I don’t remember which one, but probably Waypoint Radio––about a game shown during EA’s press conference that caught people off guard because Cornelia Geppert, the creative director of German indie studio, Jo-Mei, got surprisingly emotional and thoughtful when presenting the game, Sea of Solitude.
While “getting emotional” seems to be a highly subjective term––Geppert comes across as more nervous and genuinely excited to show off her game at the largest gaming trade show in the United States––her candor with the game’s themes andwhat they are trying to say with the game surprised me more.
A major argument in the discourse around games is that they are superficial entertainment, escapist power-fantasy exercises and that’s the baseline level of appreciation for them. Some even argue that such an angle should be our only appreciation of them (“Keep politics out of games!” “Keep your X agenda out of games!” “Games should be more like they were before!” etc.).
The problem with that is games are made by people who think very hard about their games. Like with any creative product (or any product), the consumer doesn’t usually see the majority of effort that went into making it. That’s part of why we are so quick to offer hot takes on games, movies, comics, toys, videos, etc. We are reacting to the product put in front of us, not seeing the complex web of thought, ability, and troubleshooting behind the shiny veneer. To an extent, good games look effortlessly made.
Games––like any art––start with an idea; often, that idea can be rather abstract. This has become more visible as creators have been more vocal with their process. From Hideo Kojima’s thematic and increasingly abstract approach to his Metal Gear Solid series to the small and decisively personal games like Brothers and Papo y Yo, consumers are seeing the level of critical and artistic effort creators put into their games.
Usually we hear these things after a game’s release. That Jo-Mei presented their literary ambition first, before the trailer, partly illustrates why I liked their segment of the press conference so much. This seems like a huge step forward for the developer whose previous games don’t seem like anything that really broke through to the larger critical discussion.
Luckily, the game looks stylish and fun––like LIMBO or INSIDE crossed with a post-apocalyptic anime––I’m excited because it piqued my academic interests while also being a game that––superficially––looks like it’ll be a fun time.
E3 has been particularly exciting this year. After a year or two of the industry being hit hard by extreme successes (2017 was an outstanding year for games) and existential dilemmas (voice actor strike, labor issues, continuing GamerGate behavior), seeing good games at the show as well as developers tackling some of these issues (both positively and negatively) head on puts this E3 ahead in a lot of ways. At the very least, we get good games out of the static as developers, journalists, and players try to move the medium forward and upward.
AN OPEN WORLD: With Bethesda’s surprise announcement of the still ephemeral Fallout 76, video game-focused documentarians, NoClip, announced that they will be doing a series covering the development of this new game. They started, however, with a comprehensive look at the history of Bethesda studios. After watching the documentary (embedded below), both D. and Andrew realized how far the studio has come, how big it has gotten, and how much of an impact this quirky company has made on gaming as a whole.
Shortcast 49 – The Sweet Beats: Where Andrew and D. Bethel talk about Fallout 4, also the RELATED EPISODES of this episode contain a comprehensive list of the other times Fallout 4 was discussed on the show.
WEEK IN GEEK: Andrew goes back to his undergraduate roots and dives into programming with the Unity engine via the online programming courses taught through Udemy while D. Bethel updates his nostalgia with the Super NES as he plays around with Analogue’s Super Nt system.
BATTLETECHNICALITIES: When the new Battletech game decided to include gender-neutral pronouns in its character generation, some corners of the internet got very angry, prompting everything from complaints on Reddit to a negative review campaign on Steam. D. Bethel and Andrew talk about this trend against inclusion in gaming and how this loud minority could be quieted.
As mentioned in the episode, watch Waypoint’s Austin Walker and Rob Zacny go in-depth with the character customization in Battletech:
READY TAYLOR ONE: With D. Bethel out for the week so Shakespeare can get paid, Andrew recruits friend-of-the-show, Taylor Katcher, to talk about the recent Steven Spielberg sci-fi film, Ready Player One.
Far Cry 5‘s muddled political message is better for gaming than a perfect one.
Upon its announcement last year, Far Cry 5‘s political promise attracted the liberal gamer base (and disconcerted conservative gamers) as it seemed to be aiming strictly at the American Christian fundamentalism and rural conservatism that have been at the front and center of the country’s political discourse since the last presidential election. With the game’s release and the reviews rolling out, it’s clear that while it is, mechanically, a fun game to play, it doesn’t stick the landing in terms of cultural political commentary.
Instead of taking a hard stance on the current political climate, it tries to straddle the fence, to not take sides and, instead, treat the threat of fundamentalist conservatism as an exaggerated skin draped over the ludic need for opposing forces to attack the player. In this game, the cannon fodder is simply “crazy cult member”, similar to the shift Resident Evil made away from zombies to Othered, uneducated, Spanish, feral, rural villagers in the fourth game (which they doubled-down on in the fifth game by moving out of Spain and into Africa). They may have a different story and context, but they were basically just zombies to shoot down––targets to hit for a “higher score.” Despite oblique references to modern political situations (including a mission built around obtaining a “pee tape”), Far Cry 5 seems to play the politics off as a joke when it pops up at all.
The last few years have really seen an effort to fold political commentary into game narratives and, as it stands now, the results seem to be less than effective albeit provocative. From the nuanced existential dread of the indie darling, Papers, Please, to the hyperbolic but consistent Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, the efforts have been teaching us that developers, at the very least, are ready to tackle such subjects even if their hold on the language, narrative agility, or tools to effectively enact such commentary remains debatable.
This static speaks to the point that how to tell a good story in a game is nebulous at best as gaming is not––unlike books, movies, comics, and tv––a one-sided narrative act. Games are by their very nature interactive and, therefore, the success of the narrative quite literally falls into the hands of the players, be it their attention to the story as they play or the choices they make in-game and how they line up with the intent of the developers. Narrative is still a messy, complex, and delicate aspect of video games.
This results in a lot of “flawed masterpieces”––good games like Far Cry 5 that don’t quite stick the landing. The aforementioned Wolfenstein II offers distinct answers to the political problems it confronts, but can be undermined by its wildly shifting tone from the touchingly serious to cartoonish absurdity. Watchdogs 2 (also from Far Cry‘s developer, Ubisoft) was largely a success but dropped the ball in crucial instances that harmed the efficacy of its thesis. Most publicly, Bioshock Infinite had a huge backlash to its initial critical success as people ruminated on its message after playing the game and found a lot to be troubling. Mafia III, in contrast, seemed to have a strong, clear, and evocative stance on race in the sixties, but the game part kind of faltered. Similarly, Papers, Please had a strong emergent political statement that was powerful for those who played it, but its indie status and, perhaps, esoteric retro aesthetics (as well as limited availability) probably kept it out of the hands of many potential gamers.
Arguably, no game has hit the landing when it comes to political commentary. Something always comes along and taints the potential and lays the game down as a “flawed masterpiece.” If it were to happen, no doubt it would most likely be out of accident than design. Video game narrative is arguably still in a fledgling state, with detractors even stating that story is not wholly useful to the medium (which Andrew and I talked about in Episode 133). So, it’s important to keep in mind that the growth of the medium (of any medium) includes heavy-footed attempts and stumbles.
Narrative is still a messy, complex, and delicate aspect of video games.
As a whole, we are still learning how to tell stories in games. It’s problematic because the technology for game development continues to surge forward as well and the bouncing between the two often feels like a scrimmage rather than a handshake. However, the key word there is “learning.” The way we generally learn is through metacognitive reflection of what we have already done, examining our past missteps in order to make the next attempt better.
And that is where these flawed masterpieces are actually helping the community rather than harming the medium. When Far Cry 5, in this case, so overtly stated that it would be a game with something to say at its announcement, only to walk that back as quickly as possible, the final product’s failure to live up to that promise got the community talking about politics in games, much as games––flawed as they are––like Wolfenstein II, Papers, Please, and Bioshock Infinite did before. This conversation exposes the nuance in the medium and actually helps to establish a baseline of what the community wants, expects, and hopes for in the future. These missteps encourage the audience (gamers, critics, and journalists) to become part of the process instead of simply waiting for the developers to simply say what they want to say (or say what they think we want to hear) and wait with gritted teeth to hear if they got it wrong. While that very scenario was the impetus here, the resulting conversation seems productive rather than agonistic.
That the community is talking about how to tell a political story in a game narrative is generative and progressive for the medium and the culture. Even among gamers themselves, having a game act as the discursive crux around politics, gaming, and narrative shines a light of hope on a community that has done more than its share to darken the skies on those topics. Our culture has evolved us to a point where political discussion mimics sports fandom––picking a team and shouting at the competition. Productive conversation is less about right and wrong and more about looking at the successes and failures of an idea, pointing them out, and making decisions based on them.
More importantly, the community needs to have these conversations with itself more than it needs an effective political statement in a game. If a flawed game gets us to not only intelligently critique and what-if a game but also examine ourselves as a community––to reflect on our goals and diversity––then I would rather have that than The West Wing of video games.
The fallout from Far Cry 5‘s narrative failure will fuel more nuanced and interesting attempts (that will no doubt fail in their own ways) in the future, but the point is that those attempts will be better. What effect does a “perfect” statement have? What benefit comes from the community just sitting back in admiration? What happens to the knowledge we gained from the experience if we treat it as something that has been checked off of a list?
Perfection is boring. Gaming, like politics, always changes as time moves forward. The conversation about the successes, failures, and potential of a game serves as inspiration to be and do better next time be it from Ubisoft, a competitor, or an independent developer––as long as it keeps us talking.
A DIFFERENT WAY TO GAME: Andrew has been playing through Fallout 4 on a survivalist mode, which dramatically changes the way he normally plays Fallout. This got him thinking about ways people have challenged themselves to play games differently––sometimes within the scope of what developers intend and sometimes not.
RECYCLE, REDUCE, REUSE: This week, Andrew and D. discuss revisions that happen to works after they are released. From the canon-bending Star Wars re-releases from the late 1990s to the archival efforts of the Mega Man Legacy Collection, works are “preserved” in some form or another, but attention could (and should) be paid to the reasons for such preservation and re-release: is it in the interest of the creator? Of the owner? Of the audience? While they don’t generate any answers, our hosts certainly probe the topic for its diversity of impetus, goals, and cultural impact. Well, they do decide that pop culture needs some sort of library, but that’s about it.
THE LONG CON-TINUITY: After years of teasing the topic, Andrew and D. finally sit down to talk about continuity. It starts with the continuity issues surrounding Star Wars and Disney’s purge of their Extended Universe, before it descends into talk about its benefits, its setbacks, and why it can be used as a weapon.
The ending to St. Elsewhere (re: the reference to the “snow globe ending” in this episode, referring to the very end of the show, St. Elsewhere, where it was revealed that the show was actually just a fictional universe imagined by an autistic child):