Some E3 Optimism

Danger Zone played Sahlin off the stage as a man in a zombie costume danced around on stage. But for a moment at least, I was more optimistic about E3 than ever.

Deep into E3 and my ears are still buzzing with the sound of explosions. There’s an itch in my throat that is the telltale sign of a convention pox, and earlier in the day, I overheard an exhibitor say loudly, “I hate E3.” Understandably, at a consumer event that feels like the oppressive churning of an impossibly hungry machine, the games industry can feel like a strange mix of unbridled excitement (I’m looking at you The Last Guardian) and deep cynicism. It’s with this mixed message in mind that I want to make a concerted effort to celebrate some of the non-gaming moments that I find hopeful from the show.

Almost more shocking than the reveal of Shenmue 3 was the appearance of a surprisingly diverse group of protagonists featured in some of the most exciting games of this coming year. It seems some developers are finally learning that female protagonists do not doom a game from selling big.

The heroine of Recorp.

Of course Faith returns in the much anticipated Mirror’s Edge 2, as does Lara Croft in Rise of the Tomb Raider. They are joined by the heroines of Recorp and Horizon Zero, both brand new franchises (robot infused franchises at that). Meanwhile, Gigantic, a MOBA-like third-person action game, features a strong woman of color that looks entirely badass, as well as an old woman and a young girl. None of these games hypersexualize these characters, yet all explore entirely different aesthetics. These are not hastily created token characters made to check a box. Rather, they seem built from the ground up out of a genuine enthusiasm to include diverse and interesting protagonists in games.

It may be subtle, but I also appreciated Bethesda’s inclusion of interracial couples during their press conference. Yes, the Fallout 4 characters are customizable, and therefore an interracial couple would be possible. However, they also included a mixed-race couple in the Fallout Shelter mobile game reveal. Interracial couples are very rare in media generally, and while Bioware has let us roleplay as diverse characters for some time, it seems all too rare to see such diversity on an E3 stage.

It’s for this reason some folks were celebrating the moment during the Ubisoft press conference when Aisha Tyler and Angela Bassett were on stage promoting Rainbow 6 Siege. Perhaps for the first time ever, two women of color were alone on stage at E3 and not dancing. Also, just a reminder, but this is the academy award nominated Angela Bassett. She’s a great actress and I, for one, rejoice every time we see developers recognize the craft of acting and voice acting.

Xbox’s Elite Controller.

Another important announcement for those interested in accessible gaming culture, Microsoft revealed their Xbox One Elite controller. Priced at a hefty $150, the controller allows players to heavily customize their controller. For twitch gameplay, players can change the sensitivity of the triggers. They can also remap all of the buttons to their liking or swap out the steel joysticks if they want a different feel. The controller even includes four new paddle buttons (also customizable) on the back of the controller.

While on stage the controller seemed to target hardcore PC gamers, it’s also a laudable advancement for gamers with disabilities. Button mapping alone is such a valuable feature for players with limited hand movement, the entirely customizable layout looks like it could accommodate players with a diverse set of needs. With some of the buttons removable, there is also hope that the Elite controller could accommodate DIY or third-party components for those with specific requirements.

These small advancements towards diversity and accessibility at E3 were surprising to me, especially coming from the pre-show press conferences. Yet my favorite moment of the show came during EA’s press conference when Martin Sahlin of Coldwood Interactive took the stage. From a small independent studio based in Umeå, Sweden, Sahlin delivered a heartfelt description of Unravel, an adorable platformer featuring a yarn doll using its thread to traverse the game. Sahlin, on stage, pulled out an actual doll from his pocket, all the while his hands shook with nervousness. He spoke of wanting to tell stories that were about life and about the connections we make with others and how we look back on the past.

The star of Unravel.

At a show that can at times feel dead and uninspired, Sahlin seems authentic. He was a perfect reminder that so many people in this industry care passionately about the games they create. Behind all the lights and PR speak are countless designers eager to tell stories that make people not just engaged, but happy and inspired. It was a breath of fresh air.

Moments later Danger Zone played Sahlin off the stage as a man in a zombie costume danced around on stage. But for a moment at least, I was more optimistic about E3 than ever.