In many ways, E3 is an annual reminder of the game industry's worst impulses. Giant, sometimes monolithic, and often short-sighted corporations bombard the gaming public with assembly-line products saturated for no good reason with graphic violence and objectified and powerless women. This year was no exception. The big press conferences held over past two days were simultaneously unendurably loud and unendurably dull, a grim dump of guns (guns), germs (zombies), and steel (cars), mostly bereft of new ideas, plopping on impact like so much lazy profit motive.
And yet. Amid the litany of indistinguishable turds shone four potentially great new games, and one essential remake. These five titles, all of which should be released in the next two years, represent the flame of creativity, burning wondrously, if faintly, even at the dark center of the craven and juvenile spectacle in Los Angeles. These five titles are vastly different, but each one says: Take heart.
1. No Man's Sky, a huge game from a tiny company.
Hello Games is a studio of four located in Guildford, a small city in England — a typically modest profile for an indie game company. Yet the electrifying first two trailers the company's made for its new game, No Man's Sky, have engendered hype more befitting of a game built by a team of hundreds. You really just need to watch the one above to understand why.
What we've seen of No Man's Sky seems to smartly synthesize so many of the good ideas and mechanics that indie games have popularized over the past five years, things like procedural generation, a Day-Glo color palette, and permanent death. But it also refurbishes a beloved though out-of-favor genre — the first-person space combat game — and it's this twist that I believe gives the game the chance to be truly unique.
Hello Games has made some big promises about this game that have played like catnip to a gaming public starving for new ideas. Frankly, if this one is a small fraction as compelling as its trailers, it will be one of the best and most compelling games to come along in quite a long time.
2. Grim Fandango, resurrected.
The praises of Grim Fandango have been sung so long and at such a pitch that I have to confess my voice is growing sore. Hoarsely, then: Tim Schaefer's 1998 adventure game about a down-on-his-luck travel agent in the Mexican land of the dead is the pinnacle of the (resurgent) genre. It's a landmark game that set standards in storytelling, humor, art, puzzle design, and music, and in many ways is still unsurpassed. I have a tattoo of Manny Calavera, the game's main character, on my arm.
Now, after years languishing basically out of print (though never out of mind), Grim Fandango will be resurrected and remastered for the PS4 and the Vita. Among other things, this means that a new generation of humans will be exposed to one of the great works of popular narrative art of the past 20 years, and that is cause for a fiesta.
3. Inside, the half decade in the making follow-up to Limbo.
It's hard to believe Limbo, the achingly sad and poetic platformer from the Danish studio Playdead, is four years old. Limbo, along with Braid, was one of the first indie games to be fully embraced by the mainstream of gamers, and to signal the shift toward smaller, cheaper, more experimental, and more personal games.
In the next year, the creators behind that first generation of indie treasures will finally give us their second acts: Jonathan Blow, who made Braid, is readying the first person puzzle game The Witness for a fall release, and yesterday
Microsoft showed off Inside, Playdead's forthcoming second game. Alongside the creaky Xboxian parade of guns and cars, the trailer for Inside was a cool reminder of the power of suggestion. What we saw: expertly minimal art and sound design, a sprightly boy running amid a crowd of bloated shamblers (and isn't that fitting?), a far-off companion. What we imagined: everything, anything.
4. Bloodborne, the next-gen Dark Souls.
Here's what I wrote about Dark Souls 2, the most recent game by the Japanese developer From Software, when it debuted earlier this year:
Ask anyone who has played through and beaten one of the Souls games what it felt like to play another video game in the weeks afterward. They feel minor, silly, unserious — a stupid hobby ... At best, they feel like amuse-bouche.
Months later, I'm even more convinced that Dark Souls 2 is the game of the year to date. So that's what makes it so surprising that there is actually speculation that the game was developed by From Software's B-team, or at least a team missing major names from the original game.
One such name: Hidetaka Miyazaki, who directed the first two Souls games, and returns as the director for Bloodborne, the first next-generation game by From. The trailer Sony showed yesterday was largely a cut scene, but it has all the doomy atmospherics we expect from these accomplished sadists.
Bloodborne is exclusive to PS4, and it comes out next year.
5. And an open-world, 3D Zelda for Wii U.
Nintendo showed very little of the new game in their flagship series. What they did show, though, was enough to set fans of the company's games, and games in general, on fire. In 1997, Ocarina of Time defined what it meant to create a massive and lifelike three-dimensional video game world, but in the nearly two decades since, Nintendo, partially because of hardware limitations, has been content to iterate and polish that formula, which by modern standards sets strict limits on where the player can go and what the player can do.
With this new game, Nintendo is finally giving their best series the modern treatment—a full, and fully-explorable open world in the style of Skyrim, Red Dead Redemption, even Dark Souls. That alone makes it the most ambitious game the House of Mario has built in years.