Since gaming culture is a subgenre of nerd culture, gamers would probably like to believe that we’re all sophisticated and mature enough to look past the superficial and focus on what lies underneath. The truth is, however, that image matters just as much when it comes to video games as it does in any other subset of our society. The gaming scene is one big high school, and E3 is the first day of school.
Look no further than E3 2014 for evidence of this. Games should theoretically be judged on their own merit, but since E3 is all about reveals, trailers, interviews and the occasional demo, it’s the presentation of upcoming games that ends up being treated as the measure of their worth. Even before the expo began, many gamers were getting ready to watch the companies’ respective press conferences with a clear idea of which “team” they were supporting, and that fierce, die-hard loyalty probably has more to do with our inherent love of taking sides than with the graphics capabilities of the PS4 and Xbox One.
Ultimately, it was neither Microsoft or Sony who were widely proclaimed to have “won” E3, but Nintendo. Many people had already decided this with minutes of the Nintendo Digital Event starting, since after a day of dry, routine, unsurprising press conferences it was both a shock and a relief to see a presentation open with a Robot Chicken sketch, followed by a bizarre but epic staged battle between Reggie Fils-Aime and Satoru Iwata. That fight left far more of a lasting impression than Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker or a brief glimpse of a new Zelda game ever could.
Get in, loser, we’re going shopping
On the first day of high school it doesn’t matter how good a student you are or how nice a person you are: what matters are first impressions. Last year, Microsoft’s Xbox One was the kid who got saddled with an embarrassing nickname that everyone still refuses to stop using. This year, Nintendo was the kid who swaggered into class ten minutes late and got away with it by charming the teacher. And Ubisoft… well, Ubisoft was the kid who fell over at lunch and faceplanted into a plate of spaghetti.
The subject of diversity (or lack thereof) among video game protagonists has been much-discussed over the past few years and was inevitably going to get blown up again at E3 2014. In light of the growing exasperation with video game heroes being an endless line of indistinguishable white dudes, it probably wasn’t wise for Ubisoft to show up at E3 with a game whose box art is literally a line of four indistinguishable white dudes, but the developer’s real downfall was this unfortunate quote from technical director James Therien, when asked why it wasn’t possible to play as a female Assassin in co-op.
“It was on our feature list until not too long ago, but it’s a question of focus and production. So we wanted to make sure we had the best experience for the character. A female character means that you have to redo a lot of animation, a lot of costumes. It would have doubled the work on those things… And I mean it’s something the team really wanted, but we had to make a decision. It’s unfortunate, but it’s a reality of game development.”
With nine studios working on Assassin’s Creed: Unity and tens of millions of dollars spent on the game, citing a lack of resources as an excuse made the company an immediate target for both jokes and serious criticism. The quote has already been picked apart thoroughly across the spectrum of gaming news sites, and the controversy has spurred a great deal of truly interesting and productive discussions about why female characters so often tend to be an afterthought for game developers. In order for that to happen, however, Ubisoft had to be made a scapegoat.
It’s a shame. Going by the frankly quite poor standard for diversity in the video game industry, Ubisoft stands out as one of the developers that tends to put in more effort than most, and the Assassin’s Creed franchise is quite emblematic of that. The overwhelming majority of its protagonists are male, but those protagonists have hailed from all sorts of backgrounds – from Syria to the Mohawk Valley. Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, the only game in the series so far to feature a female protagonist, is currently the second best-selling game ever released on the PlayStation Vita according to VGChartz, and was later ported to both PC and consoles.
It’s also worth recognizing that Ubisoft’s other major 2014 release, Far Cry 4, will probably be the first video game in the history of the medium to feature an (approximately) Nepalese main character, and a recent interview with narrative director Mark Thompson revealed that the game will in many ways serve as an antidote to what many felt was a deployment of the “white savior” trope in Far Cry 3. It’s a fascinating change of pace for the series that might have taken some of the heat off Ubisoft during the Assassin’s Creed: Unity debacle… had the studio not waited until a full week had passed since E3 to reveal Ajay Ghale’s background and appearance.
Meanwhile, DICE probably owes Ubisoft a few extra drinks at the bar for drawing attention away from the continued lack of playable female characters in Battlefield: Hardline, an omission that seems even more egregious in light of the game’s move from military warfare to a cops ‘n’ robbers set-up. Even the much-criticized Grand Theft Auto V included women in its heist teams, and although Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is sticking with the trusty stubbly-white-guy-in-a-beanie character model for its protagonist, the trailer for the game indicated that the female soldiers from Call of Duty: Ghosts will once again be featured in the multiplayer.
For every sad nerd with a face full of spaghetti there is also a cool kid (it’s a yin-yang thing), and this year it was Insomniac Games that mastered the art of marketing perfectly. The pitch-perfect trailer for Sunset Overdrive shown during Microsoft’s press conference at first presented itself as a dull, grey-brown, cover-based military shooter, before effectively kicking such games in the teeth with an orgy of color and life. Insomniac had clearly been listening to the complaints about traditional shooters, and responded to such complaints with laser precision.
Soon afterwards the studio provided even further evidence of just how closely tapped into the buzzing hive of game culture and criticism it was by releasing a gameplay video that overtly mocked the lack of female Assassins in Assassin’s Creed: Unity. Responding to a fan query about whether or not it will be possible to play as female character, Insomniac showed off a female character model wearing the traditional hooded white robes that the Assassin’s Creed franchise made iconic. The message was clear: “We’re listening to what you want, and we’re giving it to you.”
Not only was Insomniac responding to a vocal demand, the video also worked on another important level: gamers love to watch game companies fight amongst themselves. The occasional dose of ribbing helps to make these enormous, multi-billion dollar entities seem more human, and to align them with the culture of tribalism that keeps PlayStation fans at war with Xbox fans and PC elitists sniffing derisively at both groups. For a significant example of this, look no further than Sony’s “how-to” guide to sharing PS4 games from last year’s E3.
You can’t just ask someone why they’re white
It would be nice if the games of E3 could be judged purely on their own merits, but doing so is difficult when we only ever get to see a fraction of a percentage of the total game. In the case of purely CGI reveals, such as Dead Island 2‘s upbeat, gameplay-free cinematic trailer, we’re left trying to assess the potential merits of a game without ever seeing a single clip of actual game footage.
In an environment like this, where everybody’s hormones are going crazy in excitement at the prospect of the next year or so of gaming, it’s easy to see why first impressions become so important, why a company can be declared “winner” based on the presentation of its games rather than the games themselves, and why the keen edge of mass gamer attention leaves some companies staggering away with wounds in their public image.
The fierce competition and the amplification of consumer complaints and praise that occurs during E3 has the power to affect how companies do business over the next year or so. The wave of backlash that scorched the Xbox One in the wake of both its initial reveal and its second press event at E3 was no doubt instrumental in creating the series of changes and backtracks that occurred in the lead up to its launch and beyond, helping the PlayStation 4 off to a better start on the units sold front.
What the fallout from this year’s E3 will be remains to be seen, and whether that fallout is positive or negative will vary hugely depending on personal opinion. Perhaps Ubisoft’s fifteen minutes at the whipping post will mean that the next major Assassin’s Creed game, or maybe the one after that, might allow players to run in the shoes of one of the Assassin Brotherhood’s sisters. We’ll have to wait and see: the school year has only just begun.
Incidentally, in this rather tortured analogy games journalists are the catty cheerleaders digging up everyone’s secrets and spreading gossip around. We are all super pretty and popular.
Header image credit: Tom Dearsley