Almost every year, I like to digitally “attend” the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, California, the biggest trade show in the video game industry. Since I started blogging regularly six years ago, I’ve tried to provide readers some written coverage of the show’s numerous press conferences for the benefit of anyone interested in my raw thoughts on the week of product reveals and announcements. This year, I’m pleased to be able to bring my E3 coverage, such as it is, to Eruditorum Press. The following is a part of a series I’m writing on E3 2016, looking at the press conferences and events of three major players in the industry: Bethesda Softworks, Sony Computer Entertainment and Nintendo.
Last year, Bethesda gave its debut press conference at E3. It was a symbolic move indicating that the company, long known for its quality output, ethical business practices and loyal fanbase, had become a major enough player in the industry that it deserved to stand alongside the biggest names in the game like EA, Ubisoft and Microsoft. And though they didn’t actually reveal a ton of new stuff, they revealed enough to keep people talking all throughout the show: Fallout 4 and Fallout Shelter stole the spotlight, while Doom and Dishonored 2 were pleasant surprises. This year was much of the same-Not a whole lot of “new” information per se, but enough (including one bombshell announcement I literally cannot wait to talk about, let alone play) to leave us with a good feeling. Over the past five years Bethesda has established themselves as my absolute favourite non-Nintendo AAA development studio and publishing house (basically meaning the only one I can still even remotely tolerate, though that does undersell them), and they sure didn’t disappoint last night.
First up was Quake Champions. All we got to see was a reveal trailer, but that was enough to get me excited. I’ve always been more of a Quake person than a Doom person (though that’s not to say I’m anything like a master of either) because I prefer to take my first-person shooters as old-fashioned multiplayer arena affairs. Suffice to say I have fond memories of Quake III: Arena, and I’m really happy id Software and Bethesda seem to be trying to bring that scene back by filtering it through e-sports to update it for modern audiences, hopefully without losing what made the original concept great. They pulled off the balance with this year’s new Doom, so I’m confidant they can do it for Quake too. Interviews with the developers after the show seemed to indicate Bethesda/id are taking cues from recent games like Splatoon and Overwatch, where you find a character or class of weapon that fits your preferred playstyle and gain mastery in it, or jump between various classes as you see fit, which I think is a great way to utilize and update Quake’s cast of characters. I just really hope by the time it comes out I’ll have a gaming rig that can actually run it.
The Elder Scrolls Legends was announced at last year’s press conference, and it had a decent-sized showing at this year’s as it’s in Beta now. There was a fair amount of gameplay shown off to get players acquainted with how the collectible strategy card game for mobile and PC plays, as well as a new story trailer that sets the stage a bit. Now I’ve become a hardcore devotee of The Elder Scrolls series and its Tamriel setting, but I have to say I can’t get interested in this. Mostly because it’s primarily a mobile game and I don’t have any of those devices, but also because I’m just kind of not into card battle games. I fell out of the whole collectible card game thing when I was a teenager following a brief flirtation in elementary school, and I have a hard time getting excited for even a digital version of one. Also (TES lorehound alert), I’m just really tired of stories about the Thalmor, the Aldmeri Dominion and battles for the Imperial City in Cyrodiil by this point. It seems like a lot of recent TES games have fallen back on one stock, archetypal plot distilled from The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and filtered through The Lord of the Rings. Surely there’s far more stories the world of Tamriel lends itself to than this?
There’s some new content on the way for Fallout 4! I can’t comment too much here because I am of this writing still yet to actually play Fallout 4, as it cannot possibly run on any gaming machine I have in my house. One update will allow you to build really cool-looking Rube Goldberg machines out of stuff you find lying around in the wasteland. The trailer, choice of music and general concept reminded me a lot of an old Tom and Jerry cartoon where Tom tries to build “The Better Mousetrap” to catch Jerry, which is this ridiculous Rube Goldberg machine he outlines on an enormous drafting board in his attack. It’s one of my favourite Tom and Jerrys, and I think the idea of bringing something like that to Fallout 4 is cute and fitting. Another update will allow you to build your own Fallout Shelter (similar to, but different from, the actual *game* Fallout Shelter), which will have story content and is presumably set before the nuclear apocalypse happens. And the final expansion pack teased for Fallout 4 is set in an amusement park called Nuka-World which was built by the makers of the infamous Nuka Cola before the bombs fell. And speaking of Fallout Shelter, there will be a new update to that game introducing a new story mode and combat system, as well as PC port.
And then we came to the announcement that made my entire night. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: Special Edition. Yes it’s another updated re-release of a five year old title, but TESV isn’t your average game: It was a bona fide cultural phenomenon on a stage that was unprecedented for Bethesda, and it also happens to be one of my very favourite games of all time. It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that TESV was something of a personal paradigm shift for me, causing me to change and re-evaluate my entire worldview and setting me on the path that, ultimately, leads me to talking about Freyja, magick, the secret history of the paleolithic age and the sacred feminine with Jack on a podcast about the RMS Titanic. And that just scratches the surface. There is so much for me to talk about in regards to Skyrim and Skyrim I could do an entire essay on it (at least), but if that should happen it must happen another time. First things first, The Elder Scrolls V: Special Edition.
A re-release of sorts of The Elder Scrolls V was actually rumoured in the week leading up to E3, and I am beyond thrilled it’s an actual product. The initial rumours claimed it would release for the XBOX One and PlayStation 4, would feature updated graphical textures and include all the previously released DLC expansion packs. And while that did in fact all turn out to be true, that’s nowhere near the full story of this remarkable package. Bethesda aren’t just cranking up the detail on the textures and adding in a few new lighting effects, they’re actually rebuilding all the art assets to take advantage of modern technology, which I’m sure will look beautiful.
Another tantalizing aspect of the rumour was that the new TESV, just like Fallout 4, would allow for modding on consoles, and it was implied that it would be a console exclusive. Mods and the modding scene are a huge part of the reason the original TESV is such a special game, and, until now, they had been limited to the PC audience. I can tell you from experience that there are many things about gaming on a PC that make life nightmarish, and mod organizing and installation is one of them. So the idea of enjoying all the benefits of the PC environment’s openness and freedom without some of its (expensive, exclusionary) downsides was incredibly appealing to me. Of course, this would mean I might actually have to buy a non-Nintendo current generation console (it would be the PlayStation 4, for reasons I will discuss when I get to Sony’s press conference), which had me gnashing my teeth a fair amount too. But then Todd Howard announced that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: Special Edition would indeed be coming to the PC, and furthermore, that anyone who purchased TESV and all of its DLC (or the previously released “Legendary” Game of the Year Edition) would be gifted the new game as a free update. And that just about sealed the deal for me. Guess I need a new computer for sure now.
(Unless, I should add, Sony reveals a key bit of information at their press conference. What piece of information? You’ll just have to wait and see! And anyway, I really didn’t want to buy TESV again. Don’t tell anyone, but I *just might* have bought that game four times before already…)
Another rumoured reveal was a sequel to the 2006 first-person shooter Prey, which involved exploring an abandoned extraterrestrial spacecraft utilising astral projection as a game mechanic. The game in question appears to be more of a series reboot, but it does in fact exist. This Prey promises to take cues more from the horror genre, involving a mysterious alien space station and a plot involving a temporal causality loop. I admit I wasn’t too interested in this one until it was revealed during the post-show that the protagonist’s name of “Morgan” was chosen as a gender-neutral name so that players would be comfortable playing as a male or female player character, which the game will support. Even though Bethesda is historically exceptional in representation by offering players complete freedom in crafting the character they want to project onto, like most games with multiple playable genders, only the male was shown in the trailer as the default with no indication another option was available. I’ll pay attention to almost any game with a female player character, so that one piece of information puts the new Prey on my radar.
Seeing as how it’s just been released, the new Doom took up a fair bit of time at Bethesda’s press conference. id Software thanked us for the positive reaction and all the support it’s been getting, and announced a suite of new updates to the game, mostly new additions to the game’s SnapMap construction set to be compatible with all existing and future content created through it. There will also be new multiplayer modes added as free updates, as well as a paid DLC expansion pack entitled Unto the Evil. The biggest news in regards to Doom though was that, all through the week of E3, players can download the game’s entire first level for free as a demo, a move Bethesda explicitly positioned as a nostalgic throwback to the days of PC shareware in the 1990.
Getting back to Tamriel, the massively multiplayer online RPG The Elder Scrolls Online got a charmingly warm reception at the show, which is a complete 180 degrees from the reception it got when it was first announced and released. Although I’ve been interested in the game from the start and have become something of a defender for it, TESO was *not* well liked when it first came out. There were concerns that it was too generic an MMO that was not befitting of The Elder Scrolls name, and when it came out it wasn’t being made by Bethesda Softworks, but Zenimax Online, another development under the Bethesda umbrella of studios, public opinion didn’t get any better. One of the biggest draws to The Elder Scrolls is its oblique, almost Blakean mythology, and there were concerns that those outside BethSoft proper wouldn’t be able to do it justice. The actual game didn’t do much to endear itself to people upon launch, with its oddly structured story progression, limited content and hefty subscription fee that left a lot of questions about whether it was truly worth the investment.
Bethesda seemed to admit much of this, positioning The Elder Scrolls Online at E3 2016 as a kind of comeback story. It opened by reminding us that the “Tamriel Unlimited” edition that came out last year brought some much-needed revisions to the game, such as dropping the subscription fee and opening up the game to players on the XBOX One and PlayStation 4. There was talk of the game’s numerous expansion packs that came out over the past year, such as a substantial one that added the province of Orisinium, and numerous reminders that TESO beat the odds to win multiple “Best MMO of 2015” awards (possibly because it was the only MMO of note released during that period, but whatever). Bethesda then teased the next expansion pack, centred on the pan-Tamriel assassination cult The Dark Brotherhood.
As much as I’ve come to like TESO, I can’t get enthusiastic about this one. I’m with former Bethesda developer Michael Kirkbride (responsible for a chunk of the series’ lore that people still passionately discuss today) who opined that “The Dark Brotherhood is a very boring kind of evil”. The impetus to sneak around in the shadows and murder people for sport without consequence or fear of reprisal does strike me as an extension of the adolescent male mentality that’s been steadily poisoning video games for the past twenty or thirty years. I’ve always been curious about Gamer Culture’s longstanding fascination with thieves and assassins because I’m not sure I fully understand it: Games like Thief: The Dark Project and the Metal Gear Solid series are held up as peerless classics, yet were never part of my personal history with the medium. Shadowy Assassin was considered the “proper” way to play the original Deus Ex, and “Dark Brotherhood Initiate Who Moonlights with the Thieves’ Guild” was far and away the most popular path in the original The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim-In fact, the game almost feels custom-tailored for that path with the way the bow weapon plays and how laughably easy it is to max out the Sneak skill.
What stood out to me about the new content for The Elder Scrolls Online, however, was the forthcoming revision “One Tamriel”. Which, in rare case of marketing speak actually being somewhat accurate, really does look to be a “game changer”. “One Tamriel” promises to break down any and all gates to progression that existed in the original game, meaning a player can take any path and mission in the game more or less from the start. In the original release, you had to side with one specific faction amongst a number of warring rival groups, and, in a particularly acute bit of fantasy racism, you were forced into one based on which ethnic group you made your avatar a member of. That won’t be the case anymore, and the game will also auto-level players and missions to each other, removing a lot of the grind that defines the genre. It’s a really exciting time for the game, and I’d frankly love to jump back into it, it’s just that I can’t run it on my computer anymore. Sure would be nice if I could.
There was a brief announcement of “Bethesda VR”, an expected initiative to capitalize on the newest trend in the video game industry. I’m personally really excited about the prospect of VR, but I won’t be able to participate for a *very* long time I’m sure because right now the technology is just way too prohibitively expensive. The HTC Vive, Valve’s VR setup that Bethesda is partnering with, is retailing for 800 goddamn dollars, and that’s just the “introductory” price. Right now it really does look like a toy for the Silicon Valley elite. So as much as I’d love to play Fallout 4 in full, realistic VR, announced last night at the press conference, that’s simply not going to happen for me. Like I said, I can’t even run the damn game as it is now.
There was another minor bit of awkwardness to be had here: Bethesda sort of clumsily admitted that one of their people was the one who introduced modern VR to the world at E3 in 2012. Said person was id co-founder John Carmack, who, it should be stressed, was doing so entirely unofficially and on his own free time. At E3 2012, Carmack excitedly showed off to anyone who would look the first prototype for what would become the Oculus Rift, and while there was initially some confusion that this might be a Bethesda-sponsored project Carmack was working on with id, it soon became clear he was just a passionate fan of another company’s work. So much so, in fact, that he promptly resigned id, defecting to Oculus. So to see Bethesda openly partner with Valve, Oculus’ chief rival in the VR market, does somewhat tempt one to spin the old gossip wheel. Even though, it has to be admitted, Valve does look to be offering the far better product and service in the end.
Returning for a moment to assassinations, the biggest showcase at Bethesda’s E3 press conference this year by far was most certainly Dishonored 2. A sequel to a critically acclaimed 2012 release from Arkane Studios about a former imperial bodyguard turned vigilante assassin seeking to clear his name and avenge his slain empress wife in a steampunk fantasy world, Dishonored 2 was announced at last year’s show, but this was the first time we got to see anything substantial from it. Namely, two new trailers and an extensive gameplay demo. The new game dispenses with much of the original game’s manpain-influenced story by featuring the daughter of the original game’s main character seeking to take back her throne from usurpers, although you can still play as her father if you want. I’m underselling the game a bit with that description, because, most basic plot points aside, Dishonored 2 does look quite sumptuous and cool. And though the art design certainly looks vivid and colourful, it really is the addition of Emily as the player character that makes this game one to watch out for.
Dishonored 2 seems to be built from the ground up around freedom and personalization, and symbolizes very well why I love Bethesda so much and why they’re the only non-Nintendo AAA publisher I will continue to defend. Starting from your initial choice of whether to play as Emily or her father, the game is designed to work with the player’s natural instincts and predilections instead of forcing a particular narrative or experience on them. Emily and her father both have slightly different moves and abilities, and even within their own movesets there’s room for infinite experimentation and variation. And, in this game about vengeful assassins, you can even play through the entire thing without killing a single person, a challenge I’d certainly be game for. That is, of course, so long as I get to actually play the game someday. Just like every other game shown last night, I highly doubt Dishonored 2 will run on my five year old Core i3, integrated graphics Windows 7 laptop with the dead hard drive and cracked monitor I write for you all on.
Lastly, I wanted to give a special shout-out to Adam Sessler and Morgan Webb, who hosted Bethesda’s pre- and post-shows this year, just as they did last year. For those who don’t know, Adam and Morgan are veteran game journalists and used to host the review show X-Play on the now-defunct TechTV in the mid-2000s. They were an enormous influence on my development as a games journalist and writer, mostly through their cynical, anarchic sense of humour. They were among the last generation of video game writers and journalists who I actually related to: I would listen to them tell their stories of growing up with console video games and see parallels with my own life. But above all else, they never took themselves or video games too seriously, seeing the medium as a part of their lives, not the defining feature of it. Seeing them together again last night I could feel them working hard to recapture some of the magic they used to have back in those days, and if their reunion is going to be an annual tradition for Bethesda’s E3 presence, that’s reason enough for me to mark it on my calendar year after year.
In an industry whose climate has become one of fear, uncertainty, hate and toxicity, Adam Sessler and Morgan Webb at Bethesda’s E3 press conference seems like a sign. A reminder, perhaps, of the way things should have been.