Quick: Guess which one of these is the real LeBron James, and which is a state-of-the-art rendering as seen on the upcoming video game systems:
I don't know, either. But that was just one of the amazing new games shown at the annual E3 show this week, and while I loved much of what I saw (seriously), it left me a bit confused. See, I play games for the same reason you do: because killing is the only thing that makes the headaches go away. But the more I see, the more I think game companies don't understand us at all.
Every demonstration of the supposedly awesome new features of these upcoming games and systems made me feel like the first time I saw a New Yorker fold up a piece of pizza and eat it like a taco. There was that moment of self-doubt, like maybe I was the one who had been doing it wrong, before I snapped out of it and said, "No! You're the one who's crazy."
Because game companies seem to think ...
5You Don't Actually Like to Play Your Games
I am a lazy asshole, but I am apparently a goddamned human dynamo by video game standards, simply by virtue of the fact that I'm still willing to move my thumbs, rather than sit back and watch the game play for me. Two of the games I was most eager to see -- Remedy's time-freezing game Quantum Break and the zombie genocide festival Dead Rising 3 -- both showed off utterly baffling "Don't worry, we'll play the game for you!" features.
For Quantum Break, I'll just quote what the presenter said during the unveiling:
"We set out to revolutionize entertainment, combining an explosive action game with a dramatic TV show, and blurring the lines between the mediums. The choices you make in the game create your personalized version of the TV show. And watching the show gives you insight that impacts the way you play the game."
I'm sorry, but that sounds like a pitch for a goddamned Sega CD game from 1994. And I don't think he's just describing it badly -- what they have shown of the game is in fact partly just live actors doing a low-budget TV show (one that you paid $60 for) ...
... and then when the cool stuff happens, it jarringly switches to video game graphics:
What the hell? Am I missing something here?
And then there was Dead Rising 3. If you're not familiar with the last game, the appeal is that it has none of the grit or angst that comes with zombie fiction these days -- it's you with (literally) thousands of zombies crowding around, and you slaughter them by the hundreds with makeshift weapons, such as the classic Two Chainsaws Duct Taped to a Freaking Boat Paddle.
But when they unveiled Dead Rising 3 at the Xbox One event, they showed the main character coming up on a zombie horde that, according to the presenter, is too big for him to handle ...
...and then they demonstrated how the player can solve that problem by pulling out his smartphone or Windows tablet in real life ...
... and, with a few taps using the SmartGlass app, call in an air strike that will simply blow up the zombies for him:
Just to be clear, for those of you who never played the first one -- I've killed larger zombie hordes than that with a bowie knife taped to a broom, while on my way to kill a much bigger horde. The entire point of this experience is the visceral, cathartic thrill of wiping these monsters out, by hand, one swing at a time, or by building an ingenious trap with some combination of propane tanks, nails, and dildos. Not by tapping the "kill zombies" icon on my iPad (which I don't have out when gaming anyway, but more on that in a moment).
Meanwhile, the all-new third-person hack-and-slash game Ryse: Son of Rome (also for the Xbox One) looked like another great hope for the "I just want to murder people" crowd, but even in the gameplay demo they showed on stage, it begins with a completely scripted "explosion knocks your character down" event that the player has no control over:
Then, when you finally get to murder some mofos, every few times you swing your sword, the game freezes to give you a button prompt:
And if you successfully push the button the game told you to push, you are rewarded with one final scripted event that your character stands back and ineffectually watches:
"It really is my job to just stay out of their way."
So to recap, it's "Push X to Win" followed by "Now Put Down Your Controller and Watch While Coolness Happens." If you're about to tell me that it's just a demo and the final game might look nothing like that, well, that's my point -- why would they try to impress us by making the game look less interactive than it actually is?
To cap the whole thing off, when they showed off the seemingly straightforward racing game Forza Motorsport 5, they boasted how they give you a "drivatar" and said, "While you're at work or at school, your drivatar races against the world. And when you log in again, you earn credits for your drivatar's work."
Well, shit, what does it need us for?
4You Don't Care What the Games Actually Are
Sony's event showed off a game called The Order: 1886, a beautiful steampunk game that seems to be about shooting monsters with complicated guns. In typical fashion, they teased it with a trailer in which a bunch of old-timey dudes ride along in a horse-drawn carriage ...
... then jump out and start shooting at some shadowy threat with elaborate weapons that explode into dazzling arrays of sparks and fireballs.
Looks great, very cool atmosphere, setting, etc. And we have no goddamned idea what the product being sold is. What genre is this? Is it an FPS? An RPG? A third-person shooter? What is the thing that I will get to do if I buy that game?
They also showed Mad Max, with a trailer that literally told us nothing other than "It has Mad Max in it," which we actually knew from the title.
Here's what we do know: You won't get to do what those guys were doing in the trailer. That was a cutscene. If what you see there occurs in the game, then you'll be watching it, not playing it. And we definitely have no idea whether the actual gameplay will look like that, other than the fact that the final games never do (the trailer begins with the meaningless claim that the trailer was rendered "in-engine," which means nothing more than "This game's cutscenes might look like this").
In other words, the problem isn't that they're just keeping it vague -- it's that it's standard practice in the video game industry to sell upcoming titles with outright fucking lies. The wonderfully vibrant Sunset Overdrive for the Xbox One might look like this (in terms of graphics and overall feel), but the actual experience of playing it almost certainly won't:
If you're not familiar with how this works, at these early stages, game companies will put together an animation that sort of looks like what maybe the game will possibly be -- then they will lie and claim you're seeing the actual game. Sony got caught doing this with Killzone 2, and the makers of Halo 2 admitted years later that their debut trailer was not only fake, but utterly impossible on the hardware. The trailer for Metal Gear Solid 2 lied about who the main character was. And nobody cares -- it is a completely accepted level of bullshit that wouldn't be tolerated in any other industry outside of the herbal penis enlargement sector.
And that makes it hard to get excited about the new stuff like Final Fantasy XV ...
... when you have no idea what you're even looking at. Keep in mind, these videos often are not even running on the console at all, but on a more powerful computer. During the Xbox conference, they showed off how great Battlefield 4 looks on their system ...
... and then sharp-eyed fans noticed PC button prompts on the screen:
Note: The Xbox One, like life, does not have a backspace key.
In other words, every possible concept of truth in advertising goes right out the window -- they can literally show you a different, far superior product. This isn't like Ford playfully claiming that the new Mustang can ramp over a bear; it's like Ford advertising the Focus by showing you a Mustang.
At E3, they will then take these animated trailers and have the presenter stand up there with a non-working controller and pretend he's playing them so the audience thinks it's a near-final product (or in the case of Kinect games, have him nervously watch the screen and try to mimic the movements of the characters after they happen).
And all of this is what we're supposed to base our next-gen purchase decision on.