Cool Ghosts and E3: No

I decided against covering E3 this year, which understandably left many people feeling disappointed. I honestly respect that, and wouldn’t want to ignore it - my original ‘Abridged’ videos  are the reason that most of you know I exist. They were deeply silly chunks of snark that hit a nerve back in 2013, and over time then increasingly didn’t.

The deeply cyclical nature of the industry meant the jokes worth making had mostly been spent, and poking fun at presentations had developed into such a widespread thing that some publishers had actively started playing up to it - rolling up with weird moments and pre-baked memes like a dad attempting to infiltrate a party.

Last year I attempted something different - a similar formula with a heavier emphasis on cultural commentary in addition to jokes - but since forming Cool Ghosts towards the end of last year my feelings towards E3 have notably changed. It wasn’t something I intended to talk about, but this week’s events have left me feeling compelled. Culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and yet video game culture seems adamant that it does. While the world around it fractures and changes, events like E3 simply plod on - willingly blinkered.

That a conference this year could showcase a new shooter less than a day after one of the worst recorded acts of firearm terrorism in history?  Without so much as having the broader decency to begin that same presentation with perhaps a mention, perhaps a moment of silence? The industry’s inability to have these conversations - to admit the existence of an outside world - has frequently proved to be troubling in the past. In the world we exist in today, it’s almost sickening.

And maybe this wouldn’t be such a big issue if E3 had anything of value to offer.

E3 in not representative of what games can be. It isn’t even representative of what games currently are - it is merely a simple, unflattering window into the current state of mainstream entertainment culture. “Games are bigger than ever” - we’re proud to exclaim - but this celebration of cultural dominance never comes with any mention of fresh responsibilities.

The lavish presentations of violence are an obvious point to fixate on, but in reality we’re looking at a far broader rainbow of macho bullshit: a laser-targeted beam of marketing aimed to please a specific, lucrative audience. Not only are these presentations unrepresentative of games as a medium, they also frequently fail to represent the specific games being shown.

In the past we’ve seen E3 trailers that wrongly made nuanced games seem crass, but the current trend is to engineer the opposite - leading with thought-provoking concepts and issues to justify the following buffet of violence. The specialist press are provided with an angle; the ugly proposition now justified somewhat, perhaps poignant - worthwhile.

Whether wilful or merely a happy coincidence, it’s a trick that consistently seems to deflect the majority of complicated, wider conversations. Two years later the games arrive on shelves, and almost without fail these promises are forgotten. Triple-A games that are rooted in realism consistently share one key trait: they prominently talk about contentious issues whilst miraculously managing to say absolutely nothing. The suggestion in 2016 that the next wave of big-big hits will have some sort of cultural value simply isn’t a convincing facade at this point. I’m amazed it isn’t the elephant in the room. I’m not even sure it’s a massive dog trying to hide behind a curtain.

And then there’s the impetus to keep up with hype culture. In an era where we’re frankly drowning with brilliant games each and every month, many of us still struggle to fight the desire to consistently keep up with whatever feels NEW. It’s a perpetual loop that the industry often relies on, but I fail to see how this culture serves us. When you spend your whole life fixating on the future, what you've got today will always seem disappointing.

And whilst it constantly fixates on the future, so rarely what we’re shown even feels new - remakes reboots HD-’em-ups, fresh dollops of dollar carefully poured into yet another safe, familiar proposition. Bright, unusual suspects appear, but so frequently disappear before they make it to shop shelves. So much of the current business is nostalgia: a trite puppet-show pulling visible heartstrings.

At best, it’s bullshit that everyone goes along with simply because it consistently does decent numbers. At worst, it’s a gaudy celebration of an industry that largely continues to dominate culture whilst actively refusing to admit it might be part of it. And increasingly, it feels like maintaining this bubble is simply an essential part of the equation.

We’re looking at a culture that collectively that decided that it was OK to start marketing shooters less than a day after a man with an assault rifle killed 50 people. That’s fucked. In the wider context of the tragedy, it only gets worse: We live in an era which seems increasingly plagued by violence carried out by men who've somehow grown up to harbour extremely specific, damaging ideas about what they think it means to be a man. And yet the horrors are ignored, the cycle continues, and E3 continues to peddle a carousel of rubbish macho dreams.

In the cold light of a wider world where so much senseless hate and pain is rooted in how people view masculinity, converting E3 into a cheery slideshow of jokes and snark seems like a response that contributes to the problem - this belief that bombastic trade-show fluff is an inherently important part of the medium. The medium doesn't need it, and the world deserves better.

Posted on June 13, 2016 .