It is more than a little disingenuous to call Sony an underdog—they’re a huge company with an enormous global business. But the game we play at E3 isn’t about the balance sheet. As people who love video games (when we’re not hating them) we’re here to witness the industry’s pitch for the next 12 months. A good E3 press conference comes off as part vision statement, part three-ring spectacle. Eyes glaze and patience dwindles when these spiels devolve into sales pitches or infomercials. As an audience, we want a little bit of pie in the sky. Preferably, we’d like a taste of said pie. But at the very least, we want something to anticipate—a game or two that shows promise. A nifty new technology to capture our imaginations.
At the tail end of a console generation, these promises are getting harder and harder to deliver on. The truth is that the people who make video games are biding their time. Waiting for the right moment to pull the trigger on the next generation. The right time clearly isn’t this year. So at E3 2012, Sony swept up the remaining crumbs of their PlayStation 3 offerings, squished them together and offered them up as dessert. It tasted okay. Some of the bits were almost delicious.
It helps that the company showed a good number of games. Especially when compared to Microsoft, who bunted this week by trotting out just a few games, mostly from hit shooter franchises, hoping that more of the same would be enough to please their gaming audience.
More of the same is a good bet, business-wise. We may gripe about the glut of shooters and sequels, but people keep playing them and keep, begrudgingly, loving some. That’s not to say that Sony’s slate for the next year or so is full of crazily innovative stuff. Their PlayStation All-Stars: Battle Royale is a riff on Nintendo’s series of Smash Bros. brawlers, and Sony’s version is brimming with a slew of somewhat beloved characters. The game’s roster, which includes Fat Princess and the Killzone antagonist Radec, is a fairly stark reminder that creating iconic pop culture hasn’t been their strong suit. They’ve excelled at giving other people a place to put deliver household names. But when Parappa, their most recognizable (and admittedly delightful) mascot, hasn’t been in a new game in 10 years, it is clear that those fields are mostly fallow.
Their best received showing, judging by audience response, was Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us, which feels like a survival horror game set at the end of the world. The demo saw the game’s protagonist grappling with other survivors, wresting guns from their hands and killing them in increasingly gruesome ways. All this under the eye of his ward, a young girl with a conspicuous resemblance to actress Ellen Page (more on that in a bit). The sequence, a prolonged celebration of death, felt like that bit in Old Boy where the lead works over a bunch of punks with a hammer. The final kiss-off, a shotgun blast to the face, was met with a roar of approval from the crowd. We were connoisseurs of violence, like the masses at a gladiatorial match.
David Cage, the haughty creator of Heavy Rain, made an extended pitch for his latest project, Beyond: Two Souls. He took an unusual tack, focusing on casting. The Frenchman swooned over Ellen Page, whom he cast in his game, rather than merely mimicking her with a lookalike. He rolled a cutscene from Beyond in which Page said next to nothing. Her face, though occupying a nice plot of land in the uncanny valley, delivered a nuanced performance. Cage, though high on his own supply, isn’t above pandering. Page’s character has paranormal powers. Unlike Heavy Rain, which was mostly walking and talking, Beyond looks to be full of action and destruction. There will be long stretches occupied by nothing by story, but the message seems to be that you’ll be rewarded with carnage for sitting through those bits.
Sony showed a questionable love for children with a new last-ditch effort to make something (anything) out of their Move motion-control peripheral and PlayStation Eye camera. The company unveiled a new “book” by J.K. Rowling that comes alive when under the PlayStation 3’s gaze. Of course, this living book didn’t sing and tap dance so much as shamble, reacting lazily to waggles of the Move wand. Sure, kids may want this thing. But like most gimmicky toys, the bloom will be off the rose in minutes, and they’ll be back to begging their parents to let them play Call Of Duty.
Peppered between the big game spiels were blink-and-miss-em dashes of Sony headscratchers. The company harped on a move into the mobile phone space, touted ways that the PlayStation 3 and portable Vita play nice, and bragged about all the multimedia tricks that their box of electronics can perform. That stuff likely fills some nitpicker’s score card. But forces for the development of games as a creative medium had their own checklist—at least, I did. And it didn’t go unnoticed that PlayStation CEO Jack Tretton name-dropped some obscure, independent minded games when slogging his way down the teleprompter. When a long-gestating game like Retro City Rampage gets a mention next to big-budget blockbusters, it became clear that Sony wasn’t just giving lip service to making games of all kinds. Sure, they too have a spot reserved for the Call Of Duty cash cow (on the Vita), but there’s room at Sony’s big-kids table for the weird, odd, and obscure. At E3, even a nod of recognition that there’s life and entertainment outside the first-person shooter can reassure the aesthetes in the crowd.