E3 Media Impressions

or Sci-Fi White Guys, Lara’s Troubles, Happy Zombie Momma and One Too Many Ellen Pages

Every year, the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) fills the Los Angeles Convention Center in an explosion of high tech, prop guns, bronzed spokes models, and hyperventilating geeks of all stripes. Like a fortune-teller’s vision directed by Michael Bay, E3 forecasts video game future in as loud a way as possible. Watching coverage, it becomes readily apparent that, as much as I look forward to the event every year, it isn’t big on subtlety. The overwhelming male whiteness of event participants and the games being showcased also makes it pretty evident that the entire production isn’t too big on inclusiveness. Still, there are some bright spots – both big-budget and indie – that keep me hopeful for the soul of gaming. Let’s start with the not-so-good, however.

As has been the case pretty much every year, many of the biggest, most exciting games from the show star either white dudes in armor (Star Wars 1313Gears of War: JudgmentMetal Gear Solid Rising or Halo 4), or white dudes in jackets (Watch DogsDmCHitman: Absolution). I won’t lie, with the exception of Halo (against which I hold a long-standing grudge), I will probably play all of these games as they become available. From Watch Dogs‘ new, hacker-driven take on stealth action, to Gears of War: Judgment‘s innovative narrative structure, to 1313‘s vision of a different side of the Star Wars universe, it’s all very exciting. It’s just not in any way diverse.

Pictured: White Guy in Armor, White Guy in Armor, White Guy in a Jacket, White Guy in a Jacket. Not Pictured: Anyone else.

Another E3 development worthy of an eye roll is the new Tomb Raider “Crossroads” trailer. I’d been looking forward to this game since its announcement at E3 2011. The debut trailer from last year was thrilling, high-octane stuff, showing Lara Croft at the beginning of her career, thrust into disaster and adrift, but still resolute and tough-as-nails:

Developer Crystal Dynamics and publisher Square Enix tantalized gamers with the promise of guiding Lara through her formative experiences: taking a character with plenty of ambition, smarts, and potential, then tempering it all through a visceral struggle for survival. It’s the Hero’s Journey, possibly giving a feminist spin to a problematic gaming character best known for extremely large, polyhedral breasts. The E3 2012 trailer for Tomb Raider, however, takes this possibility and stabs it to death:

Beginning with Lara bound in chains and hanging from the ceiling like a piece of meat, she is then promptly set on fire and stabbed, and it just gets worse from there. Immediately after Lara pulls a chunk of rebar from her side, we see the bound, tortured corpse of one of her three female shipmates. After a moment’s relief with a few scenes of the kind of exploration and survival that we would come to expect, the trailer goes right back to more abuse. Kidnapping, bondage, and even attempted sexual assault, it all veers dangerously into the realm of torture-porn, and leaves me feeling very uncomfortable. On the one hand, I like what I see of the traversal gameplay; on the other hand, it’s obvious that Lara’s gender has a lot to do with the way she’s treated in the trailer.

Obviously, male characters – say, Nathan Drake from the Uncharted series – get beaten up, stabbed, shot at, thrown off cliffs, and blown up. Through it all, though, they are never victimized, but rather neutralized as a threat. Solid Snake, Ezio Auditore, Marcus Fenix: these are characters who do things, rather than have things done to them. Tomb Raider’s developers need to take a good, hard look a the approach that they’re taking.

As a counterpoint to the Tomb Raider trailer, check out the Final Fantasy Agni’s Philosophy real time tech demo, which serves as an example of a vulnerable heroine done right.

Agni’s Philosophy is a showcase for Square Enix’s Luminous Studio, a next-generation of real-time graphical tools in direct opposition to Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 4. Now, neither the Unreal or Luminous demos look like anything we haven’t seen in cut-scenes before, until you realize that both are being rendered in real-time. Beyond that, notice how the trailer treats Agni herself. Like Lara, she is outgunned in a life-threatening, unfamiliar situation; she’s inexperienced, wounded, and needing to survive on her wits. Unlike Lara, however, once the situation goes bad, she takes action, actively defends herself, and ultimately prevails. Sure, it’s just a four-minute tech demo, but it treats Agni as someone who does rather than someone who is done to, and consequently doesn’t feel exploitative.

Unfortunately, I can’t quite put Agni’s Philosophy in the ‘good’ column for a couple of reasons. From a gamer’s perspective, the problem is that it’s not representative of an actual game, but rather an advertisement for software tools used on hardware that doesn’t even exist yet, technically. Moreover, the trailer seemed to show a group of fantasy Europeans performing a (probably forbidden) dark ritual in a temple above what looks like a North African slum until they are attacked by vaguely-Arabic seeming militia with AK-47s, with the presumption that the white folks using black magic are the freakin’ good guys. I don’t know about you, but to me, something seems off about that.

E3 wasn’t all bad, though.

For one, we saw more of Assassin’s Creed. I’d already written at length about Assassin’s Creed III, and discussed both the significance of its protagonist being a man of color and the series’ generally laudable approach to diversity. What we got out of E3 was a better understanding of the game’s mechanics, with in-game demos showing exactly how the big idea of an AC set in the colonial American wilderness would play out. There is also a reveal of the two major urban areas, New York City and Boston, and a demonstration of naval battles – a first for the AC series.

The big ACIII surprise is its PS Vita-exclusive prequel, Liberation, starring yet another protagonist of color: a half-African, half-French assassin fighting off the Spanish in the 1768 New Orleans rebellion. Aveline De Granpré dives from the rooftops in true AC form, dual hidden blades and pistols at the ready. Much like Connor and his tomahawk and bow, Aveline also receives a pair of culturally-specific weapons: the blowgun and the sugarcane machete. While there’s the potential for falling back on cliché and stereotypes (Aveline’s blowgun is as worrying as Connor’s tomahawk), I’ve expressed trust in the team at UbiSoft before, and so remain optimistic.

The fact remains that while the AC lore features a number of female assassins, such as supporting character Lucy Stillman (played by Kristin Bell in AC and ACII), and Ezio’s Chinese protege Shao Jun from AC: Embers, there’s never been one headlining an Assassin’s Creed game. A playable female character had been rumored to be in the works since just after the release of AC: Revelations, and Aveline’s story is purported to dovetail nicely with Connors. What’s more, nothing precludes her from showing up in the main game, which takes place only five or six years after the prequel. If anything, the big disappointment here is that Liberation is a PS Vita exclusive, which, given its small install base, means that a lot of gamers aren’t going to get the chance to run a rooftop mile in her boots. With any luck, maybe we’ll see a PSN/XBL/WiiU Ware port of her adventure some time in the future. Insofar as female protagonists are concerned, though, one of the more curious developments at this years E3 was the strangely inevitable presence of actress Ellen Page.

Late last year, Uncharted, Jack & Daxter, and Crash Bandicoot (remember that?) developer Naughty Dog wowed VGA Awards viewers with a cinematic trailer for their next big IP, The Last of Us.

Set in near-future Chicago after humanity is nearly wiped out by a fungal zombie epidemic, the game is equal parts survival and exploration with an AI partner in the form of 14-year-old Ellie, who keeps the game from being one long escort mission by hitting enemies with bricks and stabbing them in the back.  The thing is, initially, Ellie looked kind of familiar:

Totally not running from zombies/ Totally not Juno

Officially, Ellie wasn’t Ellen Page. Unofficially, though… While there have been digitized actors’ likenesses in games for decades, it’s hard to enforce likeness rights in videogames.  Just ask the NFL’s Jim Brown. When E3 2012 rolled around, Ellie looked a bit different, though.

New Ellie

According to Naughty Dog creative director Neil Druckmann, “after delving further into the game’s narrative over the past few months, we decided to modify Ellie’s model to better reflect [actress] Ashley [Johnson]’s personality, and also resemble a slightly younger teen more fitting to the story.” In fact, Naughty Dog has claimed that part of the reason that Ellie isn’t a helpless escort character is that, during mocap recording, the young actress often went off-script and took a more active role in fighting off enemies. Changing the character to better fit the performer is certainly plausible, though the new Ellie still doesn’t particularly resemble Ms. Johnson (best known as Crissy Sever on Growing Pains, and most recently for her bit part as the Waitress in Avengers).

The new Ellie looks significantly younger, and her trick with the brick shows she’s just as capable as she was in the original trailer. It’s likely the change was made due to a completely unrelated game that actually stars Ellen Page revealed this past week.

Beyond Two Souls is a “psychological action thriller” from Quantic Dream, the French developer responsible for minimally-interactive head-trips Indigo Prophesy and Heavy Rain. The story spans a decade-and-a-half of violence and intrigue, with players taking control of both Jodie (Page), a small-but-ferocious drifter and fugitive, and her ghostly, havoc-wreaking companion “Aiden.” It is still to-be-determined, given Quantic Dream’s record, but they claim that Beyond Two Souls is their attempt to prove they can make an action game.

Even without a ghost blowing things sky-high, gameplay demos at E3 showed Jodie to be quite the hellion: bare-knuckling with cops, jumping off trains, and snarling at a wounded SWAT cop, “Tell them to leave me the fuck alone, because next time, I’ll kill everyone.” Yes, it’s exceedingly odd that, of all people, the Juno and Inception actress would have such a major presence at E3. But it’s pretty great that both games associated with her (whether officially or not) have female characters that are such unrepentant badasses. It’s a pleasant surprise, especially given Lara Croft’s less-than-empowering turn this year.

Also surprising was the reveal that one of the hardest of hardcore games I have ever seen would be coming to Nintendo’s WiiU.  ZombiU is cursed with an extremely generic, silly name but blessed with a killer gameplay hook:

The premise of ZombiU is yet another undead apocalypse. This time the walking dead have descended upon London. One bite, and you become part of the infected.  What’s so surprising about that? And why am I even mentioning it on Geekquality?

It’s hard not to be completely smitten with the infectious enthusiasm and unabashed glee of Gabrielle Shrager, the pixie-do’ed lead writer and senior story designer of ZombiU, as she describes the mechanics of permanent death in the game.  Understand, this is an extremely ballsy move for a videogame, but it’s the first time we’ve seen this very important aspect of zombie fiction in game form. Once a character is bitten, all the players’ hard-won progress is lost. But hey, at least they can get all their items back, if they go back and find the shambling corpse of their prior character, kill it, and take back their loot. High-fives to Shrager.

The industry really does need many more women like her: enthusiastic, talented, and truly, truly hardcore, especially helming triple A games. One can only hope that in time there might be a female lead game designer, producer or director with the kind of name recognition currently enjoyed by men like Miyamoto, Kojima, Molynieux or Spector. Projects like ZombiU get the industry a bit closer to making that a reality.

Wrapping up my thoughts on some of the standout ups-and-downs of E3, as they relate to gender, race and culture, I’d like to also point out two upcoming independent games that caught my eye. Indie games have really come into their own in the last six or seven years, with services like Steam, X-Box Live, PSN and WiiWare allowing developers to gamble on smaller-budget, lower price-point games. Generally speaking, what’s happened is that big-budget disc-based games are where players go for polish and flash, while indie games are where we can go for creativity and passion.

It’s the creativity and passion that draws me to Papo & Yo. Set in a dream version of a Columbian slum, it follows a young boy’s quest to free his best friend, Monster, from a crippling addiction to frogs. As the trailer above shows, when Monster eats frogs, he becomes unpredictable and violent. What the trailer doesn’t show is that the story and world of Papo & Yo is inspired by creator Vander Caballero’s experiences growing up in South America with a father whose drug and alcohol dependency caused him to have “two sides: a loving, friendly side, and a monstrous, evil one.” The escape into a world of imagination, where a child can have an effect upon the problems of an adult is both a means of providing an emotional subtext in a fantastical setting and an illustration of the defense mechanisms that children in difficult situations have to develop.

Another indie game I’m almost ashamed of looking forward to is Guacamelee. Yes, that is a portmanteau of “guacamole” and “melee”. And, yes, that’s kind of the root of both my attraction and my shame. Guacamelee is a Metroid-vania-style brawler with an overarching Mexican día de los muertos/lucha theme. In it, you play Juan Aguacate, a wrestler who has to travel between the worlds of the living and the dead to rescue the President’s daughter. It’s being made by a team in, of all places, Toronto. The heart of the problem here is that while the game looks colorful and fun, and the art-style is definitely reminiscent of actual Day of the Dead artwork, I can’t help but think that having a Mexican-themed game made by a bunch of Canadians borders into cultural appropriation. On the other hand, according to the ever-useful Wikipedia, there actually are Canadians of Mexican descent, and Toronto is home to nearly 100,000 Latin Canadians.

I do like what I’m seeing in terms of art, music and gameplay.  And I have a deep, deep love for 2D exploration/combat games that goes back to Super Metriod. I hope that it ends up being more like Grim Fandango and less like an office cinco de mayo party in terms of cultural sensitivity, because, ultimately, gaming needs more Latino heroes. Really, I’ll take what I can get.

Finally, I’d like to take a moment to point out the one E3 development that actually made me squee with joy. This has little to nothing to do with our mission statement (except maybe for the idea that everyone deserves a fair shot, regardless of who they are).

During E3 2012, Disney revealed their first full trailer for their upcoming retro-gaming-themed CGI family film, Wreck It Ralph. If a bad-guy support group scene featuring Bowser, Dr. Robotnik, M. Bison, Zangief and Kano doesn’t guarantee an opening day ticket sale, surely Jane Lynch as a Starcraft Space Marine must seal the deal. Yes, even despite the annoying kid character.

So, that’s it for me regarding the flood of media that’s come out of this year’s E3. The next year is going to be interesting – but gaming still has a long way to go.

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