The Potential of Movement

If there was a theme of this year’s E3, it was pure potential. Developers one and all offered us lots of what ifs and hypotheticals, a shining glimpse of what the future could be that they then greedily snatched back, declaring that these mysteries were best saved for the future.

This has worked better for some than others. Sony, for instance, unleashed the awesome raw potential of the Playstation Vita, which, despite its cringeworthy name, was presented as something we can understand with clear examples of its functionality. This was less true for Nintendo, whose presentation of the Wii U left most confused and unable to comprehend quite what the system could offer. While the Wii offered a clear picture of the games that could exist on it, the Wii U left us with confusion as to what its games could look like, besides being in HD.

But even then, nothing could compare to the quickly evaporating potential of Microsoft’s Kinect. In an E3 where it’s pretty easy to make a case that everyone lost, the most damning statement is that no one is claiming Microsoft won.

The Kinect, as a piece of hardware, oozes potential. This was evident when programmers and scientists came out, after launch, with example after example of awesome things the Kinect could offer. It could revolutionize how you interact with your console, it could provide all sorts of novel experiences, and the games. Oh, the games you could do with a machine that tracked your movements close to 1:1. It passed the potential test: I thought up at least a half dozen cool ideas that were only possible with it before the lights dropped on its inaugural E3 years ago.

It would be an understatement to say Microsoft has squandered this promise. This year at E3 Microsoft seemed more eager to find unnecessary ways to work Kinect into other products, like allowing you to provide voice commands in Mass Effect. Nevermind that a headset could do the same thing, of course. Some of their interface ideas are pretty neat, like letting you navigate menus with gestures and tell the Xbox to do everything (only made awkward if you search for the game Kill All Humans. Hopefully the Xbox doesn’t do everything you tell it), but the games.

The games! Not to sound like I’m full of potent nerd rage, but where are they? It’s a bad sign, an apocalyptically bad sign, when the best looking game on your console is a Sesame Street licensed property being created by Double Fine, not traditionally known for their polish. They have made movies about less apocalyptic things. If you’re telling me that you’re given a device that completely follows a player’s movements, multiple player’s movements and the best you can come up with is a laggy Star Wars game set in the cancer-ridden second trilogy, a rail shooter God of War, and Sesame Street something is fundamentally wrong. You are not paying the right people money. There is no reason to be on your second year of a product and still be releasing experiences that seem like tech demos. The fact that all we’re getting is games with potential really shows how much this industry is lacking in imagination.

It’s something we’re seeing a lot of in the games industry nowadays: the proliferation of potential and a dearth of imagination. Five years ago, E3 would offer us delectable treats, games we could scarcely imagine and we couldn’t help being excited about. Games like Mass Effect and Gears of War and Final Fantasy XIII and Bioshock and countless others: these were games you could get behind regardless of what you liked to play. I could get behind Gears of War, even though it wasn’t a style of game I had any interest in. It looked fucking incredible. It looked like a game I had to play, despite the fact that I played nambly pambly JRPGs instead of Quake.

Now look at this year’s E3. Anything you feel like you have to play, something that isn’t an incremental improvement you’re interested in because of its status as a big name sequel? Nothing, unless you count Tomb Raider. You have Borderlands: World War 2 edition, an endless sea of playing it safe sequels, and voice commands in your Mass Effect. We have a surprise superhero hit going kind of open world, another 3-D Mario game that takes absolutely no risks, and sequels absolutely no one wanted. We have nothing. We have a vapid, empty landscape full of games we’ve played before because that’s the only thing that will 100% make money. Besides that, we have the potential of Kinect and Move experiences, none of which seem like anything resembling a killer app.

Well, you have Skyrim. Skyrim’s won E3, case closed, almost by default for having at the very least a spark of newness and imagination. Even then, it’s not like they didn’t promise the exact same things with the previous game in the series, Oblivion, so forgive the skepticism. In terms of the mainstream, you have Skyrim and Bioshock Infinite, which looks decidedly less impressive than the original Bioshock.

At least you still have the games on the periphery of E3, shining brighter than ever. You have Journey, a title which looks brighter and more fascinating than ever. You have Dark Souls which, while both a sequel and an open world expansion to an existing franchise, at least offers a different experience from other games. You have franchises like Kirby that are still trying their best to change things up, to take risks. These aren’t the games company’s care about at all, of course; Kirby, in fact, wasn’t mentioned at a barren Nintendo press conference, almost like they thought that having a reel of games on other consoles was more worthwhile than announcing exclusives to fire up their base.

All told, it’s both a brilliant and sad place we find ourselves in. We have so many games, so many titles, and yet so precious few are imaginative, killer works. Watching E3, you get the impression that the only games anyone cares about are iterative, new games in old franchises, cheap, minimal upgrades that can be made without vision and which will produce millions of dollars without effort. It’s good business, but it’s the saddest state for games to end up in, a world where so many games are plain, repetitive, Madden-esque yearly updates. It’s made even worse when just as many are hopeless motion tech demos, the kind of games we thought we were rid of when the Wii hit puberty.

To call this E3 disappointing would be an understatement. One can only hope that the lack of interesting content is more the result of a year long news cycle instead of an effort to cram everything into one brief week, but I’m not sure that’s the case. Perhaps the recession has finally had its long rumored effect in making the games industry more risk averse, or perhaps the big budgets are just running out of ideas. Either way, it is disappointing.