This E3 was the best show in years. Not because of big console announcements or surprise game launches. No, this year was different — and better — because there was hope. Hope for women taking a larger role in the industry. Hope for projects that everyone thought were long dead, and just a glimmer of more interesting themes being explored on both the indie and big-budget space.
One of the most obvious features of this year's show — particularly during the major press events during the first days — was the number of women, both presenting onstage in real life and featured as playable or major characters in the games themselves. Last year, I counted more severed heads than women presenting onstage. But at E3 2015, there were more than a dozen women hosting or presenting their games/tech at one of the major press events.
Even more encouraging was the sheer number of women featured as playable characters, even if the game in question had playable women or men. The Dishonored 2 reveal starred Emily Kaldwin, the newly playable star of the game. Assassin's Creed Syndicate's gameplay trailer featured its woman protagonist over its male playable character. Remember last year, with the whole "women are too hard to animate" schtick? It didn't take long for the exact same series to prove that wrong.
Guerrilla, best known for the Killzone series, revealed a brand new game — Horizon Zero Dawn — at Sony's press event, featuring a young woman in the title role. Sony even expressed cold feet at first with having a young woman in a AAA headlining role, underlining what a change this is.
And of course, we saw several returning favorites — Lara Croft in Rise of the Tomb Raider, which was featured in multiple press events, and Faith from Mirror's Edge Catalyst had significant time in the spotlight.
Perhaps the most exciting moment for women at E3 came during Ubisoft's press event. Just after the Rainbow Six Siege trailer, Angela Bassett (who plays a leading role in the game) and host Aisha Tyler talked shop about performing in video games onstage. Let me be clear — two women of color were onstage at a major gaming press event, talking about games. That's a first, especially on this level, and it was heartening that the reveal about Basset's role was treated with the proper fanfare. It was a quick moment in a much larger show, but it was important.
Of course, none of this means we've achieved gender parity in games. We still have a long way to go, and simply having more women around shouldn't have to be a giant revolution. Writer Rhianna Pratchett made an important point on Twitter.
Female leads should not be seen as 'progressive'. Because we're half the population. And we have wonderful experiences & stories to share.— Rhianna Pratchett (@rhipratchett) June 17, 2015
Importantly, aside from that moment at Ubisoft's presser, there is still very little representation for people of color at E3, excepting Asian and Asian-American presenters, who (naturally) often represent Japanese publishers. There's a long way to go for representation at E3, but, at the very least, there's been a baby step forward.
There's hope now, for games that might be a little weird, a little niche, a little too expensive for their vision. Sony's press event was a master class in giving hope to games and game series long thought dead. The publisher opened with a gameplay trailer for The Last Guardian, a game long thought dead from the mastermind behind the beloved Shadow of the Colossus and Ico. Throughout their show, Shenmue 3, Nier 2 and a full remake of Final Fantasy 7 were shown off. Rare made a massive splash at Microsoft's press event by revealing a megaton Rare Collection — which offers 30 games for $30 and a brand new pirate-themed game in Sea of Thieves.
I also have mixed feelings about the way in which Shenmue 3 was presented. But, as someone who put dozens and dozens of hours into the original game, I was heartened just to hear about the possibility that Yu Suzuki's grand vision for the game could be realized.
The Last Guardian being a real, actual game that might see the light of day is surely one of the top stories of the show. For years, rumors about delays and all-out cancellation plagued the project, but this E3 gave us all a reason to believe again.
In terms of hardware, the Xbox One enjoyed a price drop before the show even began; our team was able to try the consumer version of the Oculus Rift; we played new demos on Project Morpheus; and Microsoft updated its standard Xbox One controller as well as debuting a kind of bonkers $150 controller.
We were also able to try the HoloLens hardware, although the promotional video was a bit misleading. That doesn't take away from the fact that Microsoft is creating some of the best augmented reality on the market, and has a product that's real, self-contained and able to be tried by the press.
This was a good year for hardware news, and virtual and augmented reality is now just a bit closer.
Shorter PR cycle
OK, sure. There were plenty of games with far-off release dates announced or shown at this E3, but increasingly, the games we saw — and really want to play — are set to launch soon.
Fallout 4 will arrive in just a few short months, in October. Hitman is coming on December 8. And there were a bunch of smaller games announced and launched during E3 week, like the Gears of War: Ultimate Edition beta and Fallout Shelter. Instead of hearing about these games for years and months, we got — or we're getting — them within a short interval after hearing about them for the first time.
A little more interesting
Last year, there was a prevailing feeling of sameness. Outside of possibly Nintendo and a few of the more colorful indies, like Never Alone, there was a general feeling of fatigue. Too many dark shooters. Too many me-too racing games. Too many safe bets from big publishers.
This year, we had the aforementioned prevalence of women and genuinely surprising comebacks. The indies shown off at major press events, like Beyond Eyes — a game about a blind girl who "visualizes" the world around her, the classic-animation themed Cuphead and Frictional games' scary spaceship game Soma, brought gameplay diversity and color palettes not always seen in the grimdark worlds popular in AAA games. Encouragingly, some of the variety we tend to associate with smaller games appear to be bleeding into the bigger budget games — at least, from what we saw at the show.
There was a major AAA game starring a teenage girl who hunts robot dinosaurs (Horizon Zero Dawn). A colorful-looking adventure game with a robot dog companion (ReCore). We saw a 3D platformer working in virtual reality, and a brand-new take on the adventure genre using VR, with The Assembly. There's nothing "samey" about a new Mirror's Edge that eschews gun combat entirely.
Overall, and unscientifically, there was a sense of energy and hopefulness that simply didn't exist at last year's show. The game industry has always had ups and downs, and it always will.
But E3 2015 gave us all a reason to hope.