QuakeCon is an annual convention held by the Bethesda family of game development studios in Dallas, Texas. Originally created to showcase a massive tournament for the best competitive Quake players, in recent years it’s evolved into a kind of mini-E3 for Bethesda, where they show off new reveals, demos and trailers to closed-door-invite-only audiences in addition to the tournament that’s the centrepiece of the show.
I’ve traditionally not covered QuakeCon, and that’s for a variety of reasons. Primarily of course there’s the fact that it is largely invite-only, and there’s obviously a fat chance I’d ever be invited anywhere by game industry professionals. Also, I tend to focus my game journalism energies, such as they are, on the big E3 show in June. But times are changing, and now it seems a lot of companies like having their own events scattered throughout the year catering to their specific fanbases as opposed to putting all of their eggs in the E3 basket. QuakeCon has become that event for Bethesda, and since Bethesda has become one of the only two companies in the video game industry I actually care about anymore, this year I decided to pay closer attention to what was going on in Dallas. Indeed, Bethesda made no attempt to hide QuakeCon’s central focus at their E3 press conference this year, repeatedly saying they’d have considerably more details to share about their reveals at that show.
(Incidentally, speaking of that other video game company what I give a damn about, just as I was about to go to press it was reported that Pete Hines told reporters that Bethesda is in touch with Nintendo “all the time”, is “well briefed” on what’s going on with their new console, codenamed NX, and that “our philosophy is that we will put our games out on any format that supports the games as we envisage and make them. If the NX fits that from a technical standpoint, and fits the game that a developer in our stable is making, I don’t see why we would not put it out on NX. But it’s too early to say, ‘we’ll definitely be putting games out or not.’ Like with mobile, we want to have the right fit for the right formats”. So that made me exceedingly happy.)
This year’s QuakeCon took place between August 4 and 7, and while there’s no way I was ever flying to Texas, I kept a close eye on my newsfeed and Bethesda’s own blog this past week to keep track of the show’s progress and watching any trailers or other videos released to the public. As is Bethesda’s way, the emphasis was on quality over quantity, making a handful of announcements and showing a smattering of new footage from their current and upcoming games, but spent a lot of time talking about the core design philosophy and ethos that went into them to give us a good idea of a game’s feel and spirit, which I happen to find incredibly commendable. Especially when Bethesda’s design philosophy is such an admirable one.
First off I should note there was nothing on The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: Special Edition, which is clearly the Bethesda game I’m most hyped for at the moment. The game is due out ’round about Samhain (fittingly), and I’d like to know a bit more about what’s going on under the hood with it…We know there’s going to be a new lighting system, the textures and models have been replaced and modernized and the executable has been changed from a 32-bit application to a 64-bit one to alleviate the original’s aggravating memory allocation problems. But what I’d like to know is whether TESV‘s notoriously broken and crippling Papyrus script system has been overhauled any (and granted I don’t know enough about programming to tell you whether or not that’s even possible) and if the reissue is going to screw with any of the pre-existing mods. I can’t see how it would and obviously I’m getting it anyway (I’d be getting it even if it wasn’t a free update) and while it’s not a big deal I’d just be curious about some of the other technical aspects of this amazing-looking updated re-release.
(We also didn’t hear anything about The Elder Scrolls Online, which was a bit of a surprise to me, and a disappointing one. I was hoping, and expecting, to hear more about the forthcoming One Tamriel update to the popular MMO, which removes class and level restrictions. In particular I was hoping for a release date, considering I thought it was supposed to be coming out around now. But it was a no-show, leaving us with the still-vague “Autumn 2016” to work with. The only news for TES fans was the announcement that The Elder Scrolls Legends CCG is entering open beta as a free-to-play game.)
What we did get was another showcase for Dishonored 2, which is clearly being positioned Bethesda’s tentpole release for this year. And not unjustly so, as the game continues to look absolutely incredible. The Dishonored 2 demo was a behind-closed-doors affair, but according to BethBlog’s recap, the emphasis this time was on Emily Kaldwin’s dad Corvo, the protagonist of the first game. It is sort of interesting to speculate as to why Emily was the focus at E3 while Corvo is in the spotlight at QuakeCon and what that might say about the perceived audiences of these respective shows, but maybe Arkane Studios figured since we already saw Emily we should see some of Corvo this time just to keep things balanced. Most of the new information revealed was about how Corvo’s powers and abilities from the first game have been tweaked and altered for the sequel, but Arkane also showed off another possible faction the protagonists can become involved with. As I never played the original Dishonored (because there was no playable female character and the story was about manpain) most of this information wasn’t terribly interesting to me, but I’m still really impressed by this game’s art direction and open-ended gameplay.
Trends continued with the showcase of the new Prey, which seems stylistically similar to Dishonored 2 in a number of key respects (perhaps understandably so, as they are both Arkane Studios projects). This is the first time gameplay has been shown of the upcoming reimagining, once again the demo was shown behind closed doors and once again the emphasis seems to be on freeform and open-ended gameplay. As protagonist Morgan Yu, players can approach the game from a variety of different angles, from a pure stealth approach to playing is as a pure FPS. You can apparently pick up BioShock-style “neuromods”, which allow you to augment yourself with different alien abilities. Alternatively you could loot various weapons and tools littered around the space station you find yourself trapped aboard and make use of those instead. The station is a contiguous open world, and BethBlog states that different enemies will require different strategies.
The neuromod feature is the most interesting to me, as it allows you to study the enemies and actually learn their signature abilities yourself, which is a really unique approach. I’ve always liked games that put an emphasis on research and observation as an avenue for power-ups and progression instead of item collection, and I was pleasantly surprised that this is a playstyle the new Prey seems to want to facilitate. Some of what was talked up about this title, including the neuromod mechanic as a metaphor for adapting to one’s environment and the general framing device of being an unwitting survivor of unscrupulous experiments involving alien life-forms, actually reminds me of sci-fi tropes I’ve been interested in playing with ever since I revisted Species, so I’m really curious to see the direction Prey goes with this.
All that said, the omnipresent gender problems involving video games remain inescapable and rear their head again here. Prey is the game that might make me stop putting any stock in game trailers whatsoever, because the trailer for this one almost had me writing the entire thing off without a second thought. It’s a dull-as-dishwater narrative about a generic grizzled male survivor character the same as you’ve seen in ten million other games released this decade spouting rote and offensive “there are monsters that must be fought”, “people must be made to pay” grimdark one-liners that are at best hackneyed platitudes and at worst, given today’s political climate, dangerously irresponsible. Fuck’s sake, Morgan even *actually says* “someone has to die”. There is precisely zero mention of any of the game’s genuinely interesting features: You’d never know just from this trailer about the freeform approach (like Dishonored 2, I get the feeling you can play Prey as a pacifist), the cool neuromod mechanic or, most damning of all, the fact Morgan Yu can be a woman too. The fact that a casual fan would have no way of knowing any of this is gravely concerning to me, and speaks very strongly to some real, material problems this industry needs to reconcile itself with.
But of course being QuakeCon, id Software was a marquee draw. There was some news about the new DOOM: Classic Deathmatch mode was shown off for the first time, and the first expansion pack, Unto the Evil, was released as a surprise to fans a day early. But the big draw was of course Quake, and to go along with the tournament, this year we got news about the first new Quake game in a very long time, Quake Champions. id’s Tim Willits showed off the new entry’s gameplay for the first time, focusing on the characters revealed in the E3 trailer, and stressed how Quake Champions will play firmly traditionally in the mould of the classic late-90s and early-2000s arena multiplayer shooters that are part of its pedigree. The game looks awesome, and following the wild success of the new DOOM and with Epic Games’ Unreal Tournament reboot dragging its feet to release, it looks like it will be Bethesda and id that will end up decisively staking their claim to ushering in the 90s first-person shooter revival.
And as far as I’m concerned it’s about time. I won’t go into a big rant about it here, but there is an entire essay I could write on the transformation of the FPS genre starting with Halo: Combat Evolved and solidified with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare over the course of the 2000s that fundamentally changed the soul of the genre away from a playfully tongue-in-cheek multiplayer arena sport into a self-serving, self-absorbed collection of grimdark and reactionary iconography. And I find it hard to argue this hasn’t had a net negative effect on the industry and world society on the whole. I think the success of games like Splatoon and Overwatch prove there’s an audience hungry for this sort of thing: We *need* games like the new DOOM, Quake Champions and the forthcoming Unreal Tournament reboot to remind us what the point of works like these actually originally was and to help, perhaps only in some small way, to dial back the lurch towards pervasive cultural violence we seem to be on the path of.
I wish more game developers recognised the responsibility they have in the way Bethesda does. And even Bethesda could stand to do better sometimes.