We should allow Sony a moment of celebration. In the first phase of this new generation of consoles, the PlayStation 4 has outsold the Xbox One here in North America. And if you’re the kind of person who tracks generalized straw-man opinions about megacorporate consumer items, general good feeling towards the PS4 has increased counter to general badwill towards the Xbox One. Microsoft is still doing damage control on the initial always-on Orwellian phase of their newest device—a phase that gave Sony plenty of easy PR victories.
But those easy victories are over: Xbox One is backward compatible now, and a new Halo looms alongside a new Gears of War. Sony has passed this honeymoon phase launching Bloodborne, which managed to break out of the target demographic of steampunk-masochists and sell pretty well. So at E3 2015, Sony decided to launch an assault on several fronts.
First, there was Sony as Pop Culture Santa Claus. The show led off with an extended look at The Last Guardian, the Chinese Democracy/Arrested Development Season 4/Dead Sea Scrolls/Insert-Holy-Grail-Metaphor-Here of modern videogames. The Last Guardian comes from Fumito Ueda, who made Shadow of the Colossus 10 years ago. He’s been working on his follow-up for a long time; at one point, he was apparently fired by Sony, although retained in a never-quite-defined freelance capacity; there were rumors that Sony grandee Mark Cerny was coming onboard to rescue Last Guardian from oblivion. The game was credited to Ueda, who stood up in the audience to wave at the assembled gamers.
Now, I love Shadow of the Colossus. And I am excited about The Last Guardian. But it was a weird scene: The idea that Sony, the very model of the modern videogame company, somehow needed to prominently feature a very quiet, very unfranchised game without any apparent bloodshed or gunrockets or parkour or grappling hooks or any of the other defining tropes of the modern AAA games. I argued that the Xbox media event earlier on Monday was an elaborate act of corporate-branded nostalgia, and it’s important to recognize that Sony’s central focus on Last Guardian was its own unique variant of that nostalgia.
By way of comparison: The game Sony debuted right after The Last Guardian is the quintessential modern post-genre game. We saw a post-post-apocalyptic landscape: The cities of the world reclaimed by centuries/millennia of jungle growth. A female narrator talking about “the world of the old ones.” That female narrator revealing herself as our lead-character badass, complete with some kind of bow and arrow that manages to successfully take down a giant robotic T. rex. In the span of about five minutes, the game presented itself as an apocalyptic cyber-fantasy where cavewomen have Inventory Displays and use stealth to melee attack cyber-animals; I just used the word “cyber” twice.
This game actually looked pretty good—although the title, Horizon: Zero Dawn, should be trampled by a herd of robo-Rexes—but the dissonance was stark. Or maybe not. At least Horizon and Last Guardian are both recognizable as games. (I guess you’d classify them as “adventure” games, although Last Guardian looks more like a puzzle-platformer and Horizon looks like whatever you call a game where you use arrows to blow up the explosive globes on the spinal cord of cyber-dinosaurs.)
And Sony’s press conference trended oddly abstract as it went along. The company once again gave a prime slot to No Man’s Sky, the open-worlds game which debuted to much fanfare last year. Creator Sean Murray gave great 140-character-or-less quote. “Every point of light is a sun, and every sun is a solar system,” he said, gesturing to a star map with an awful lot of points of light. “Most of these places have never been visited. Many of them never will be.” We saw Murray briefly engage in a space fight, before jumping to a random world and setting his ship down. There was no alien life on that planet, so he fired his gun at a rock outcropping and demonstrated the destructibility of the game’s destructible environments. It looked very cool. “But what do you do?” someone whisper-yelled behind me.
This is the open question about No Man’s Sky, a game which still looks incredible and is still promising infinity. It’s also the question about Dreams, an interactive surrealist-architecture playhouse debuted by Media Molecule. Dreams was only described in the most abstract terms by its creator. At one point, he said “We threw away the usual polygons” in favor of “sketching and collaboration.” At another point, he said: “In 2015, everything is a remix,” which sounds like a pretty thin defense for how unoriginal Jurassic World was. The Dreams demo ended with a montage of “Dreams” created by the software. Those dreams were: A bald man playing on a piano; cute polar bears; flying jet-cycle dudes crashing into robots; cute monster trolls fighting an adorably murderous teddy bear; and the bald man playing on the piano again. It looks awesome and did not look anything like a videogame.
You could argue that the pickings were weirdly slim from there. A Destiny expansion; another look at the new Assassin’s Creed; a bizarre thing called World of Final Fantasy which sort of looks like it does for Final Fantasy what the weird campaign mode in Super Smash Brothers does for Nintendo. This might be something people want; the audience flipped out over the promise of a remake of Final Fantasy VII, which might as well be called Final Fantasy VII Remake.
Not to say that what we saw was bad. Far from it! The new Uncharted looks swell. Sony announced the arrival of Shenmue 3—and if The Last Guardian is Arrested Development Season 4, then Shenmue 3 is Twin Peaks Season 3. (Although Sony technically announced the Kickstarter for the game—and since the game is certain to hit the $2 million goal, it’s probably too late to wonder if Sony had any cash left over from Cavewoman Vs. T. rex to throw some scratch towards Shenmue.) Sony gave a lot of PR real estate to Project Morpheus, which they have to hope isn’t the HD-DVD to Oculus Rift’s Blu-Ray.
And they proudly trumpeted their new special relationship with Activison’s Call of Duty franchise. This pairing will allow PS4 owners to be the first to play the Multiplayer Beta, which must be something that matters to Call of Duty deadheads. Everything Call of Duty represents is opposite whatever The Last Guardian was supposed to represent. But maybe that’s okay. Sony has a unique place in the videogame marketplace just now: It can diversify. So the press conference also gave a few minutes over to something called Firewatch, where a guy in the Wyoming Wilderness gets embroiled in some kind of Gone Home mystery. The man is voiced by Rich Sommer from Mad Men, which means that Sony took a moment during its big annual presentation to give people a sneak peek of the Harry Crane game.
All this, and a game called Mother Russia Bleeds. Some of these things will flop—maybe Dreams, maybe Final Fantasy 7 Championship Edition, maybe CaveCross T. ReXtreme, maybe even (perish the thought!) The Last Guardian. But Sony at E3 2015 presented a compelling argument: We know what you want, whoever you are.