Let’s get to the point: last week I was out in Los Angeles for E3, alongside my Paste Games colleague Holly Green. We played a bunch of upcoming videogames, saw trailers and demos for many more that weren’t playable yet, and got to chat with developers, publicists and writers from all corners of the videogame industry. It was, as usual, a very productive E3, in that we sponged up as much material as possible, and now our job is to filter it in a way that’s actually interesting and beneficial to you, the reader, and not just regurgitate marketing speak and ad copy.
It’s tradition at Paste to only include games we were actually able to play on lists like this. It doesn’t matter how exciting something like Cyberpunk 2077 or The Last of Us Part II or Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice might look—if it wasn’t playable, or if we couldn’t get our hands on it for whatever reason, it’s not eligible for this list. We’re writing from experience, about what we actually did and how it felt to do it, and not from a hopeful vantage point gazing out at promise and potential.
There was no real process involved in this list. Holly and I played some games, wrote a couple of emails to each other, and here we are. There were very likely games at the convention that we will wind up liking more than some of these but didn’t have the time or opportunity to play last week. That kind of stuff happens every year. Don’t worry about it.
So hey: Here’s what we dug the most during our three days in the maw of E3 last week, in alphabetical order (more or less).
My biggest fear about Dreams, the latest creation engine from the Little Big Planet creators at Media Molecule, was that it would be too overwhelming for me to ever accomplish anything in it. This is a game that basically lets you create almost anything you want, from various styles of games, to interactive fiction and visual novels, to purely passive computer animations. I worried I’d be like the dog in Devo’s “Freedom of Choice”—so indecisive that I’d wind up just keeling over before even starting. My short demo at the Sony booth gave me two reasons to relax a bit on this front. First off, the game makes it relatively easy to create things, whether it’s through prefab templates that can be edited as I see fit, a paintbrush-style tool that lets me build a level with a button push and a sweep of a joystick, or the simple way it lets me create game logic and connect it to the proper assets. And secondly, if I do get overwhelmed, or stumped, or just generally feel uninspired, there’ll be dozens upon dozens of user-made content ready to load up. So I’ll still have lots to do in the game even without making anything, and I can probably also pick up some inspiration from the works of others. One of the most interesting things about Dreams for me is its music creating tools, including the in-game multitrack system that lets you meticulously concoct your own original game score. There have been no shortage of games that let you create your own game or world, but Dreams might be the most impressive one yet.—Garrett Martin
Ghost Giant uses virtual reality to drop you into an adorable cartoon diorama full of three-dimensional animals just trying to live their lives. As the ghost of the title, you’ll use the Move controllers to pull levers, poke critters, and generally feel your way around a series of puzzles that may or may not have dramatic consequences for these cute little creatures. If you’ve always dreamed of pestering animated animals that live in a box strapped to your face, Ghost Giant will probably be your favorite game of all time. Made by the same Swedish developers who made the cute singing puzzler Fe earlier this year, Zoink Games, Ghost Giant is the kind of experience that makes virtual reality feel like more than just the overpriced cul de sac of the videogame world.—Garrett Martin
While not a game per se, Healing Spaces is one of the most interesting and thought provoking experience I’ve ever had at E3. Designed by USC student Gabriella Gomes as a thesis project, in collaboration with, among others, the USC Family Caregiver Support Center, Healing Spaces is an audio-visual experience designed for dementia patients and their caregivers. It uses a smart lighting system, a projected image, music, sound effects, and other settings within a simple iOS app to create a calming atmosphere for those who have sensory perception issues. While seated within the demo booth, I looked at a lovely mountain setting, listened to the birds, enjoyed the soft but comforting dim of the nearby Philips Hues smart lights, and gently squeezed the moss and textured sponges on a nearby table. I browsed through the app and marveled at how easily it allowed a caregiver to change the color and intensity of the lighting and choose audio or visual settings based on their patients needs. I also spoke at length with Gomes about her creative vision for the app, and how it might be used in the future for those with other sensory perception issues, like autism. Gomes has already thought about other practical applications, and was very open to hearing some of suggestions from my experiences with dialectical and cognitive behavioral therapies. I deeply look forward to see the ways this will continue to inspire and inform therapeutic uses of technology.—Holly Green
Another outside-the-box game at the IndieCade booth this year was Ideal Meal, a physical, not digital, title that requires a hot heaping bowl full of careful cooperation and some seriously strong forearms. The goal of Ideal Meal is to use giant chopsticks to transport a series of ingredients over to a big bowl and create the perfect bowl of ramen. The catch, though, is that not only are the chopsticks too big to maneuver comfortably, you also have to hold the ingredient in question at the same time as your team members…and perform a random physical task in getting from point A to point B. For example, while transporting the ramen noodles to the bowl, you might have to bunny hop, or crabwalk, or hold the item really high over your head. Obviously, the more players you have, the more complicated this gets.—Holly Green
Lead designer and USC sophomore Kai Nyame Drayton-Yee tells me that the game (which, as the gameplay might suggest, was originally conceived of in a wide open field space) has already generated some interest as a corporate team building exercise. I can see why. It’s a lot of goofy fun, even with only two players, and I can definitely see myself leaving the cool and comforting shade of my geek den to go play it on a sunny day outside with friends.—Holly Green
Ori and the Will of the Wisps
I didn’t play Ori and the Blind Forest, and yet somehow I can sense that this new sequel will not disappoint old fans in the slightest. One of the devs has compared the difference between the two as “Super Mario Bros. to Super Mario Bros. 3” and I think that’s apt. Moon Studios has used this as an opportunity to bring about some major changes that will flesh out the game and give it an additional layer of depth with new combat features.
Structurally, it’s still a Metroid-type game, with certain areas only accessible once you backtrack with new weapons or techniques. Exploration is heavily encouraged both by the secrets scattered throughout the levels but also by the presence of NPCs who will now give you missions to complete. Ori has a new weapon wheel that allows him to pick different attacks or effects to fit different scenarios, and a new grappling ability can be used for chain moves, creating an appeasing sense of fluidity in navigating the challenges of his surroundings. The animation, too, has been improved, especially the physics and lighting, running at 60fps so that each transition is much smoother, which is key to the game’s “ninja platforming” style. Ori can cast spells, collect shards for passive effects and buffers, use new items like the spear and the bow and arrow, and altogether hobble together a well curated skill set that can be used equally against enemies and in puzzles. The goal for Moon Studios was to make the game more accessible by allowing the players to supplement their abilities with new skills that could make up for what they lack in other areas, and in doing so, make several different experiences possible based on differing playstyles. I think it will result in an even richer game for both new and old fans alike.—Holly Green
It’d be easy to make Outer Wilds sound like a mash-up of familiar influences. It’s built around a recurring time loop like Majora’s Mask; you’ll fly from planet to planet in real time in search of ancient secrets, as in No Man’s Sky; you’ll explore a variety of eldritch mysteries baked into this solar system, not unlike a new-fangled Myst. Those ideas are implemented in such a unique and seamless way, though, that the total package feels unlike anything I’ve ever played before. It focuses on a race of gentle spacefarers who build rockets out of wood in order to map the other planets that circle their sun and dig up answers on ancient settlers who left wisdom spread throughout the galaxy. The developers have clearly thought long and hard about the alien universe they’ve created, from the specific nature of its physical laws, to the culture of the creatures who populate it. The result is a game that feels appropriately alien, strengthening our desire to unlock its mysteries and explore its culture.—Garrett Martin
Shadow of the Tomb Raider
I’ve written before that I have issues with modern action adventure games, particularly when it comes to climbing-on-rails experiences. But Shadow of the Tomb Raider seems a bit special. In this latest adventure, Lara Croft is finally coming to terms with her role in the cultural theft endemic to her profession, fighting to wrest control of an ancient dagger from a dangerous man who, admittedly, has more rights to the weapon than she does. The new setting, based on a melding of features of Incan, Mayan and Aztec cultures, is a bit eyebrow raising, but still beautifully rendered, and Croft’s navigation of the space around her is as thrilling as ever. I even appreciate that the cut scenes are immensely exciting and action-packed but don’t steal the thunder of the actual gameplay. A highlight for me, during a satisfying stealth combat sequence, was hitting a solitary guard with an arrow that allowed me to theatrically string him up over a tree and wrap a rope around him before dropping to the ground. I have a feeling I will be very good at Shadow of the Tomb Raider and I can’t wait to prove it.—Holly Green
I would’ve been happy just swinging my way through New York during my short time with Sony’s Spider-Man. The sense of propulsion and gravity captures what I, as a kid, imagined Peter Parker must’ve felt when he blasted across Manhattan like a pendulum in pajamas. It was impossible to ignore the many icons that would blip and fade away on the edges of the screen, though, guiding me towards impromptu bank jobs by Mister Negative’s gang and mob actions from Kingpin’s men that had to be broken up. The combat could probably be more precise—there was a strong button-mashing element to it—but the balletic way Spider-Man sliced across the screen, laying fists, feet and webs into as much soft tissue as he could, was almost entrancing. And a demo-closing boss fight against the Shocker was a legitimate challenge, expecting me to string everything I had learned over the preceding ten minutes into a lightning-fast fight with minimal prompts or reminders.—Garrett Martin
Keita Takahashi reasserts his unwavering commitment to the surreal and adorable with a game about a mustachioed green block and the rock and flowers that are his friends. There are not one but two buttons for holding hands. At one point the block (whose name is “The Mayor”) joins hands with his friends and dance around a sprout which grows into a huge tree which then swallows up the rocks and flowers and turns them into such “fruits” as strawberries, a potato and a chunk of meat. It’s a gloriously nonsensical game that makes perfect sense once you’re able to harmonize with its wavelength.—Garrett Martin
A short hands-on demo of Bioware’s next series gave little impression of the game’s story or characters, which traditionally are the developer’s greatest strengths. It focused on the shooting action, which is the closest Bioware’s ever gotten to making a game that feels like a true shooter. It’s so close that it’s basically imperceptible: Anthem’s gunplay has far more in common with Destiny or Halo than it does the sometimes awkward shoot-outs in a Mass Effect game. The most exciting thing about the demo wasn’t the shooting or the open-ended nature of the world (we passed what was apparently an example of a public event) but the thrilling sense of motion that the game provides. Characters can hover and fly, and streaking through the sky while taking out space bugs had a kinetic charge not found in most shooters. There’s still much we don’t know about Anthem, but it seems like a game that will be exciting to play and move around in.—Garrett Martin
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.