LOS ANGELES ― If you’d told me last week that one of the big moments of this year’s E3 would involve a lesbian kissing scene, I wouldn’t necessarily have believed you, but here we are. Sony began this year’s E3 briefing, at the LA Center Studios in downtown Los Angeles, with a gameplay trailer for The Last of Us Part 2 which involved, as its framing device, the protagonist Ellie’s romance with another woman. The trailer in question was full of big moments, explosions of violence, and hints at both the narrative and style of play to come, but the whole thing hinged on Ellie and the girl she’s quietly romancing.
It was an unusual show from the start. Sony’s E3 briefings are usually overproduced affairs that involve a lot of corporate language, glad-handing, future technological initiatives like Sony’s line of smart TVs, original TV programming for the PlayStation Network, sales numbers, and/or a few digressions into areas that only Sony’s shareholders can reasonably be expected to care about, but this year, it was all strictly about the games. The night began when we were led into a big tent at the Studios that was made up to look like a church — the same church, in fact, where Ellie’s romance was taking place, during a dance — and told by a Sony representative that they were “mixing things up this year.”
That was the last time we actually heard anything from an MC or any kind of on-stage presence. From there, it was simply one trailer after the other.
The big surprise of the night for me might have been the trailer for Capcom’s remake of the 1998 classic PlayStation game Resident Evil 2. The remake was announced a couple of years ago, right before Capcom went into heavy production on this year’s mega-hit Monster Hunter World, but since then, its team had gone into near-complete radio silence. A few rumors seemed to indicate that RE2 might make an appearance this year, but at Sony’s show, we got a full trailer, a release date (Jan. 29, 2019), and an announcement that pre-orders for it are now open.
This was made all the more impressive by the fact that this was one of the few big E3 reveals this year that didn’t leak, one way or the other; no one was sure RE2 was even at the show until its co-protagonist Leon Kennedy showed up on screen.
The next biggest game of the night might have been Death Stranding, a surreal game from Kojima Productions, the former producers of the best-selling Metal Gear Solid series of tactical espionage games. Kojima Productions’s namesake, Hideo Kojima, is notorious in the video game industry for writing big, thoughtful games that approach certain issues — the hidden costs of war, the leftover psychic damage from the Cold War, militarization, child soldiers — in ways that no one else would even think to do. It was bizarre last year to hear that he’d teamed up with Norman Reedus (“The Walking Dead”) to produce a game, and all the more so because Death Stranding doesn’t even seem to have a readily classifiable genre.
It was only tonight that we got to see the game as anything other than a short sequence of bizarre imagery, and it didn’t really help; as far as I can tell, Death Stranding follows Reedus’s character, Porter, as he leads a lonely life as a messenger and courier across the rocky terrain of a post-apocalyptic Earth, in a world where invisible monsters stalk the world whenever it rains. That’s a guess. I have no idea if that’s actually the plot. This is what trained analysts refer to as the Hideo Kojima effect: you really have no idea what his games are, or what they’re about, until after you’ve beaten them, and even then you may end up arguing about it for years.
Another big debut came from the Bellevue, Wash.-based game developer Sucker Punch. A live musician playing a traditional Japanese flute began a lengthy gameplay trailer for Ghost of Tsushima, a violent, colorful samurai drama set during the Mongol invasion of Japan in the 13th century. As the samurai Jin, players can dispatch enemy soldiers with vicious, bloody strikes and counterstrikes, as well as duel particularly dangerous enemies in a field of burning leaves, all while the Mongols threaten to overrun the continent once again. It shifts easily from visceral combat to traversal and back again, displaying the same sort of layered gameplay that Sucker Punch demonstrated in its previous InFamous series, all while providing some seriously amazing visual effects. This trailer’s worth checking out (above) simply for the kinds of tableaus they put on screen, such as the field of waving wildflowers Jin rides through near the start.
The Last of Us 2 was the early favorite for game of the show, however. The first Last of Us — so to speak — was a quietly desperate narrative of murder and violence after a fungal-based plague had wiped out most of the life on the planet. TLOU2 picks up a few years later with its protagonist Ellie, now a young adult, set against a vicious cult that’s murdering people even as humanity struggles to rebuild.
TLOU was, at its core, a stealth and survival game. You had to keep things calm and deal with enemies quietly, because you usually didn’t have the resources or durability to win a pitched open fight. In TLOU2, the developer Naughty Dog has incorporated some of the stealth gameplay that they added to their last title, Uncharted 4, such as the ability to hide in tall grasses and bushes. Ellie can also engage enemies in melee combat, dodging incoming attacks with quick ducks and weaves, but every incidental hit carries a real sense of impact and a jarring amount of blood. This is a game that is, in a very real way, about the impact of violence, both on those who suffer it and those who inflict it, and Ellie, even when she wins her fights, ends up bloody, wounded, and scarred both physically and mentally.
The night ended with a lengthy trailer (above) for Insomniac’s Spider-Man, a Marvel licensed game that runs on the same engine as the underappreciated Xbox One exclusive Sunset Overdrive. Set in its own universe, it pits an experienced Peter Parker against a who’s-who of classic comic book villains, led by the relative newcomer Mr. Negative, a crime boss who has the power to bring out his victims’ evil sides.
Spider-Man was available behind closed doors at E3 last year, but this year, it’ll be playable on the show floor. It owes a big stylistic debt to the “Arkham series” of Batman games and the fluid, circular style of combat that they popularized. Spider-Man can easily take on entire crowds at once with his speed, webs, and an arsenal of special moves, including the ability to juggle an enemy into the air with a flurry of web projectiles. The highlight of this trailer was a chase scene that pit Spidey against Electro, displaying just how fast the engine lets you move and how it constructs elaborate cinematic sequences more or less on the fly, letting you bounce off walls, dodge obstacles, and web-swing as you go.
Other games shown off this year include Trover Saves the Universe, a PlayStation exclusive cartoony sort of game by “Rick & Morty* creator Justin Roiland; Square Enix’s Kingdom Hearts III, an action/role-playing game that teams up the Final Fantasy creative team with a who’s-who of guest and cameo appearances from Disney’s entire stable of cartoon classics (KH3 in particular features Jack Sparrow, Elsa, Anna, and the Monsters Inc. characters); and Control, a new story-focused action game from the Finnish studio Remedy, creators of Max Payne, Alan Wake, and Quantum Break, featuring a telekinetic heroine exploring an Escherian dreamscape of a world.
The important takeaway point here, particularly when contrasted against Microsoft’s conference, is that many of these games — with the notable exception of Resident Evil 2 — are PlayStation exclusives. They were developed in-house by Sony-affiliated studios and will never appear on any platform besides a PlayStation. In a way, this year’s conference is a victory lap; Sony didn’t mouth off, it didn’t take a bow, it didn’t remind us all that it controls almost the entire international console business. It just showed off its games, which are most of the reason why it’s in the position it enjoys in the first place.