Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

100 Minutes With . . . Sony at E3 2012

Say what you want about giant enemy crabs, since the launch of the PS3 Sony’s E3 appearances have had an air of quality about them.

Of course they have to justify selling hardware several magnitudes more expensive than that of their rivals. When the PS3’s price-point was announced--not to jeering but eery silence--some bright spark with a Little Professor calculated that for the price of one of Sony’s wonder-consoles a gamer could own both Wii and Xbox 360 and still have bus fare to the nearest CEX. With the Wii a household name and 360s in every eight-year-old’s bedroom Sony have the most to prove at events like these--especially given the lack of interest in their latest heldheld, the PSVita. E3 2012 was their chance to shine.

And shone the PSVita did, in a spectacular galaxy of negative starlight. There was a black hole in Sony’s conference where the Vita should have been--something keenly noticed by all those who’ve bought one since launch. While Nintendo announced a second press event to showcase their handheld, Sony swept theirs under the rug, offering nothing more than a desultory look at a couple ‘system exclusive’ side-stories for Black Ops 2 and Assassin’s Creed 3 and--for the umpteenth time--Sony urging us to use their handhelds as peripherals for ‘proper’ consoles. If there was ever a raft of Vita games to look forward to, it had been sunk beneath the prow of its older, bigger brother.

Sony certainly got off to a good start, with a montage that seemed to promise more games than they actually showed. Swaggering Jack Tretton--Sony’s mafiosi don to Nintendo’s enforcer Reggie--even talked about ‘the gaming industry’ rather than ‘the future of digital multimedia entertainment’, a promising sign if ever there was one..

Sadly, Sony future included taking Super Smash Brothers and replacing the characters with a grab-bag of fighters from, well, any developers Sony deigned to throw money at. In 1998 we’d have had Solid Snake, Crash Bandicoot and Ape Escape on the roster. In 2012 we have a Big Daddy from Bioshock, prompting the response: “Yeah, I suppose that did come out on PS3.” Without recognisable licenses of its own--or any original ideas, apparently--the shameless rip-off that is Sony All-Stars: Battle Royale was further impeded by an on-stage demonstration so confusing even the commentator seemed lost.

Between this and a limp finale showcasing QTE kills in God of War: Ascension--looking so similar to previous iterations I defy you to tell the difference--Sony dropped a Butterbeer-scented bombshell: they were making a new Harry Potter book.

J.K. Rowling’s Book of Spells was the game they used to illustrate Wonderbook, an augmented reality device that works in sync with Sony Eye and Move (remember those?) controllers. The demonstration split online commentators, with non-readers proclaiming books ‘Borin’ innit’ while other saw its potential. While the presentation was hardly compelling and Sony have a history of AR failures under their belt, this kind of technology could revolutionise classrooms and home learning. If I worked for Leapfrog, I’d be paying very close attention to Wonderbook.

If any one of the three console manufacturers could be said to have ‘won’ E3, it would be Sony. Outside the interminable Wonderbook presentation they unveiled a future where games are still important. Quantic Dream’s Beyond might have looked like a movie, but if you stripped away the cutscenes and Uncanny Valley simulacrum of Ellen Page there’d probably be gameplay in there somewhere. Likewise, the lucid brutality of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us might have been the mildest example of E3 2012’s preponderance for ultra violence (the God of War demo concluded with Kratos literally stabbing an elephant’s brain out) but by jingo, it was a video game.

It’s sad knowing all it takes to triumph at E3 is to show off some games, but it’s even sadder knowing this is something Microsoft and Nintendo are reticent to do. With the Vita a sucking wound both in Sony’s pockets and in its presentation, if Sony truly won E3, they only did so by default.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

100 Minutes With . . . Nintendo at E3 2012

When a sixty-something Japanese man finds tiny flower people living in an audience member’s nose, you know you’ve either stumbled across the sequel to 2 Girls 1 Cup or you’re watching Nintendo at E3.

The company’s known for its oddball maneuvers, placing bewildered sales VP Cammie Dunaway in front of an audience she clearly believed to be of creche age, opening one year’s conference with Wii Music--about which, the less said, the better--not to mention the whole Wii affair, an audacious move toward a previously untapped audience which not only gave the ailing firm a hyperinjection of monetised adrenalin, but also upset the entire industry. Look at Microsoft and Sony, still playing catch-up with hardware ‘inspired’ by the Wii-mote. Without Nintendo, would we live in a world of Wonderbooks and Kinect Nike Fitness? If anyone’s to blame, it’s them.

Unlike those of their competitors, Nintendo’s press events are filled with colourful characters, the likes not seen elsewhere at E3 since J. Allard decided to act his age instead of his shoe size. Shigeru Miyamoto, Lou Ferrigno-a-like Reggie Fils-Ame and the company’s messianic president Satoru Iwata all put in appearances this year, with burden of presenting falling on Reggie--because, let’s face it, not many of us are fluent in broken English. Reggie is a gentle giant, the kind of host who looks on the verge of breaking guest speakers’ legs while simultaneously clowning about. At one point he drawled “My body is ready” referening an online meme making fun of one of his previous appearances at E3. It’s the kind of thing you wouldn’t expect to hear elsewhere, just as no other company would open with the Pikmin skit at the top of Nintendo’s conference. While other companies declare themselves ‘hip’, ‘hot’ and ‘cool’, Nintendo are content to be ‘fun’.

Which is exactly why we like them.

So when Miyamoto left the stage and things started going downhill it felt rather mean to put the boot in. Their slogan ‘More smiles’ was quickly downgraded to ‘the occasional frown’; by the end of the conference we’d reached ‘unending scorn’, a phrase sadly befitting much of E3 thus far. It wasn’t that they didn’t show some interesting titles--with new Pikmin, new Scribblenauts and new New Super Mario Brothers it’d be churlish to suggest otherwise--but what should have been the highlight of the show--the unveiling of the Wii U--wasn’t anything to get excited about. Like its predecessor, the Wii U was full of squandered potential--how else would you describe using the touch-screen pad as a jumped-up pause menu? Questions about the system’s specs and functionality lingered like E3 B.O. If some titles need the touch screen to control them, how can you play games though the Wii U pad instead of on your TV? Making matters worse, many of the admittedly impressive number of games shown running used the pad for exactly the kind of gimmickry gamers tired of shortly after the Wii’s release. When the conference ended with NintendoLand, a minigame bundle in the form of a digital theme park, it felt we’d reached a kind of E3 impasse where none of the big three knew what the hell to do next. The games industry’s in a holding pattern, caught between generations. It’s unwilling to commit in any particular direction for fear someone might get the jump on them, as Nintendo--and more recently, Apple--once did.

And it’s depressing that this is the case, particularly when Nintendo not only have new hardware on the horizon, but are demonstrating it in L.A. as I type. Seeing Pikmin 3 and Reggie’s opening spiel celebrating games while covering in a throw away remark the kind of media streaming Microsoft made such a big song and dance about gave me hope. Seeing the same tired Wii Fit minigames pedalled again for a new generation made me depressed. While it must be nice for anyone who didn’t tuck their balance board away beneath their living room dresser, for those of us with no intention of wearing a calorie-counting pedometer on our belts, it’s sad to see the same old lifestyle nonsense trotted out year after year.

With its newly broadened audience, sometimes it feels like the game industry’s fighting a war on multiple fronts, and growing weaker the longer the struggle goes on. Meanwhile, people who enjoy innovation in gaming are neglected up in some small corner of Europe, feeling rather sorry for themselves. When something like Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs comes along we pounce upon it with vigour. Alone among all the games thus far previewed at E3, Watch Dogs seems like it comes from the future. It’s at the exact opposite end of the gaming spectrum from NintendoLand, which--unfair as it is to judge such an obvious work in progress--already feels like a relic.

Like Sony, Nintendo decided not to spend more than a couple of minutes on their handheld console. Unlike the Vita, the 3DS will have its own hour-long press event tomorrow night. Let’s hope it fairs a little better than the Wii U.

100 Minutes With . . . Microsoft at E3 2012

The problem with E3 is that it isn’t for us.

This is something something you’ll hear when spending any time in the company of games journalists, for whom E3 is a shiny pinwheel fuelling magazines, websites and blogs. But if isn’t for gamers or games writers that leaves the question of who all this razzle-dazzle is for. Are investors really wowed by child-actors cavorting with digital lion cubs? It’s a mystery.

Microsoft opened this year’s E3 with typical pomp and circumstance. They presentered attendees and those streaming over the Internet with a Bendick’s Mingles of an assortment box, by which I mean if you don’t enjoy mint-flavoured chocolates, you’re rather out of luck.

For mint, read BLOCKBUSTER ACTION, and for chocolate, read SPORTS. Microsoft unveiled a lineup which can be summed up as “All your favourite video game buddies in exciting new adventures!” New Halo, new Gears of War, new Call of Duty, new EA Sports, each appearance as predictable as the morning sun. It’s the gaming industry equivalent of visiting a film festival and being shown trailers for Transformers 4. We know they’re in development, we know they’re going to be loud, exciting and pretty to look at. Devs really don’t have to spend ten minutes demoing their favourite Black Ops 2 level for us to get the impression that yes, Black Ops 2 is coming to Xbox--nor should celebrities be wheeled on for endorsements that mean as much to the average gamer as Jessica Simpson’s weightloss plan.

But then, E3 isn’t for us. When conference highlights (don’t laugh) hit mainstream news programmes a few seconds from each of a handful of action-packed games convinces anyone watching that E3 is an exciting place. They won’t hear the jokes that fall flat, the empty pauses when the audience is given time for speakers’ statements to sink in, the broken English from Japanese producers evidently wishing trans-continental air travel had never been invented, or all the other typically E3 moments that have us cringing so hard our spincters pucker inside out. With the smoke and disco lights cluttering the stage they might as well be watching a pop concert. Ooh, look, there’s Usher!

Microsoft’s press conference was unashamedly commercial, not just in relation to its own products but to films, pop singles--even cars. It illustrated Xbox’s new cross-media capabilities using movie trailers, commercial websites and a desperate call-out to TV show of the moment Game of Thrones, the mention of which received a more vociferous response than most of the game footage they showed.

Speaking of applause, one of the biggest cheers of the afternoon went to the announcement of Internet Explorer, now available on Xbox. If they’d announced Chrome’s arrival it presumably would have been met with the kind of adulation saved for the second coming of Christ.

Today’s unlikely saviours were Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who preceded a brief plug of Obsidian’s South Park game with a sarcastic take on Microsoft’s convoluted and unnecessary SmartGlass connectivity. This is the Xbox’s answer to Nintendo’s Wii-U, a way of syncing tablets and smartphones with your Xbox so you can watch movies, play games and browse the Internet no matter where you are. As a luddite, this sounds rather dystopian. The Internet once connected people around the globe but now, like the central spider in an ever-widening web of technology it connects them to their myriad i- and e-devices. “Can you imagine life without your smartphone or tablet?” the host simpered at the start of the reveal. I can: it’s the life I’m currently leading.

Away from games, the conference was unfocussed--pointless, even. TV channels appearing on the Xbox dash isn’t likely to change the way people watch sports--remember Microsoft making a big deal about getting together to watch movies on Netflix, the virtual cinema, party chat and all the other widgits that have since fallen to disuse? Likewise, Microsoft’s own music service is too little, too late. With the entire Internet at people’s disposal, having a tiny section of Microsoft-licensed music cordoned off for Live Gold accounts is a waste of time, especially when in the same breath they’re marketing to people wielding iPads and smartphones. It’s like selling novelty cans seaside of fresh air.

Anyone playing E3 bingo would have scored big with unwieldy Kinect demos (Wreckateer), Kinect fitness titles (Nike), sportsmen playing games in their fields (Joe Montana) and dubious voice recognition (Kinect, of course). Sadly, anyone looking for original games would been out of luck; three new IPs were announced with trailers that gave away nothing about how they play, amounting to little more than names on list.

It’s easy to snark, snipe and fume at events like this for not doing justice to gaming as a hobby. Like spoiled chldren we always expect more, with no amount of blockbuster sequels--big games, popular games, maybe even good games--staving off hunger for the indefinable new. If asked, I’d find it difficult to articulate the kind of game I’d like to see at E3. Something intelligent and immersive, perhaps. Something with soul.

On the other hand, I can articulate what I don’t want to see all too well. As far as that list is concerned, Microsoft managed to tick every box.

Microsoft’s was only the first press event at this year’s expo, with many more still to come over the next two days. It remains to be seen whether Sony, Nintendo or Electronic Arts will claw back some semblence of gaming as I know and love it. But based on this opening salvo, there’s one thing I am sure of:

E3 isn’t for me.