The absence of the E3 expo in Los Angeles for the past two years has left a gigantic vacuum in the video game calendar. Last week, the industry did its best to fill that gaping content maw with three online events – the Summer Game fest, the Xbox and Bethesda showcase and the PC gaming show. They were underwhelming for many seasoned players. Major reveals included a remake of The Last of Us, a remake of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, Street Fighter 6, Final Fantasy XVI and news about the reimagining of the classic role-player System Shock.
Even fresh titles seemed familiar. Sci-fi horror game The Callisto Protocol, from one of the makers of Dead Space, looked like … Dead Space. And it was frustrating that our first extended look at the long-awaited sci-fi adventure Starfield focused not on the wonders of interplanetary exploration but on a long shootout with identikit space pirates. It may seem churlish expecting radical ideas from the mainstream industry, and there was a lot of interesting fare from independent developers on show, but now that we’re entering the mid-phase of the console generation, I was expecting at least a couple of innovations. We did get Japanese gaming auteur Hideo Kojima promising, at the Xbox event, that his next project would make revolutionary use of Microsoft’s cloud gaming infrastructure, but who knows when we’ll see that.
There are obvious reasons for this lack of bleeding-edge thinking. Triple A game development is ruinously expensive – new games often require several studios working in tandem, with hundreds of specialist staff toiling for years on a project. The burn rate on salaries alone is enough to make even Elon Musk’s eyes water. And as in the film industry, we’re seeing a cultural and artistic malaise around the whole concept of “new”.
This fear is tackled brilliantly in a post by game developer Kyle Kukshtel. Games, he argues, no longer have the capacity to explore innovative concepts because they are trapped in an ever-tightening production loop built around the replication and recommodification of what’s been successful in the past. This has always been partially the case with big games, but the gap between products we’re nostalgic about and products that are contemporary has drastically narrowed – hence the excitement for a remake of The Last of Us, a game that’s barely a decade old. Rather than look to the future, video games are now being designed as instant cultural artefacts, because nostalgia has become indivisible from the present.
There were several games I was excited by during the events season: The Alters, a psychological thriller from 11 Bit Studios; the interactive Lynchian adventure As Dusk Falls; the space farming sim Lightyear Frontier. But much of the time, I was watching enemies being shot, loot being collected, weapons being crafted, characters levelling up – the reflexive mechanical structures that feel utterly entrenched.
Kukshtel referenced the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher, whose lecture The Slow Cancellation of the Future posited that we’re trapped in a cultural stasis from which no new significant artistic movements or developments can emerge. “Cultural time has folded back on itself,” Fisher said. Hence, endless regurgitations of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Ghostbusters mythologies; of 1980s action flicks and 1970s rock albums on vinyl.
While watching the big three summer gaming events I kept seeing games and thinking: “Hasn’t this been shown before? Haven’t I played this?” The truth is, I had, many times, in many slight aesthetic variations. For all their stylistic bravado and megaton noise, the one thing all those shooting games may have finally, decisively and conclusively killed is the future.
What to play
Scary games are in at the moment, partly thanks to the current renaissance in horror cinema. Dead By Daylight has been out for a few years but it’s currently just £5.99 on Steam and at that price it’s an absolute steal. Best described as an asymmetric multiplayer online slasher sim, the game has four players working together as civilians trapped in a Lovecraftian nightmare zone, like the Upside Down in Stranger Things, while one player takes control of the supernatural psycho killer stalking them. Escaping means powering up a series of generators to unlock the exit doors, but the killer characters all have special powers and ridiculous stabby weapons to make life challenging. It’s incredibly tense, with a massive capacity for jump scares and I love how most players taking part as the killer get really into the role, mercilessly playing with their prey. The game now includes lots of classic cinematic villains including Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers, which adds to the nostalgic horror fun.
Available on: PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation, Xbox
Estimated play time: ongoing
What to read
There’s been a huge amount of controversy over Diablo Immortal, a new free-to-play mobile version of the popular “dungeon crawler” game, Diablo. Users have made it the lowest-scoring game on Metacritic for its insatiable micro-transaction system. Rebecca Jones of gaming site Rock Paper Shotgun did a deep dive into the economics and found that it could cost up to £46k to completely outfit your character with the best gear. Ouch.
The absence of E3 has led to a lot of debate about how much we need a physical conference in the age of digital gaming and Covid. The Electronic Software Association has announced that the event will return in 2023, but Brendan Sinclair at GamesIndustry.Biz believes it will never be the same again. I’ve been to 10 of them and I remember most of the truly momentous announcements because I was in the room with fans and fellow journalists. That excitement and discovery is impossible to replicate via live-streamed trailers interspersed with product placements for energy drinks. But maybe that’s just me.
What to click
After watching my 18th first-person shooter trailer last week, I asked Twitter for favourite examples of first-person games with no guns. Ellen Rose of the wonderful gaming YouTube channel Outside Xtra recommended ancestral mystery What Remains of Edith Finch, with the simple words, “outstanding game”.
BBC Radio 3 Sound of Gaming presenter Louise Blain went for the real estate sim House Flipper: “It’s so easy to spend hours pottering around enjoying paint stipple detail while attaching radiators to walls,” she wrote.
Elsewhere, the most popular responses were almost all from small studios (take a deep breath): Return of the Obra Dinn, Thirty Flights of Loving, Firewatch, Gone Home, The Stanley Parable, Paradise Killer, Outer Wilds, Proteus, Dear Esther, The Forgotten City, Virginia and Eastshade came up time and time again, and all are worth playing. What every one of these shows is how much formal experimentation is still possible in first-person genre. And as my gran used to say, where there’s formal experimentation, there’s hope.