E3 might just seem like a procession of underdressed men talking on comically large stages in front of walls of explosions, but sometimes it’s important to actually listen to what those men are saying. (Or at least important for people who care about videogames—nobody’s curing cancer out here.) Various companies held press conferences yesterday, the day before E3 officially starts, including Microsoft and Sony and third-parties like EA and Ubisoft. They deployed the same buzzwords heard every year at these things, and verbally high-fived everybody who likes videogames because those are the people whose purchases wind up paying for these comically large stages and explosion walls, but they also plugged some legitimately interesting videogames and announced a few true surprises.
Between the sci-fi machine gunning blurts of a new Halo and Gears of War, Microsoft let a handful of “indie” developers amble on stage to briefly mention their wares. So there stood Chad and Jared Moldenhauer, the brothers behind the beautiful game Cuphead, which looks like a 1930s cartoon twisted into a Mega Man tribute. Steve Gaynor of Fullbright appeared to briefly plug Tacoma, their abandoned space station follow-up to Gone Home. It might have been a token slot, a momentary blip to counter the notion that Sony is somehow a better fit for independent developers working on artier games, but at least it gave game fans looking for something beyond the next Master Chief adventure a few moments to feel catered towards.
Microsoft also devoted a lot of time to their upcoming Hololens 3D smart glasses. During the press conference a Minecraft designer popped on the glasses and seemingly saw his game world appear as three-dimensional structures on a table in front of him. You should always be skeptical of any kind of tech demo at these things—remember how the original Kinect was revealed—and there’s no reason to think Hololens will actually work as well as or in the way that it appeared to yesterday. If it does, though, maybe one day you’ll be able to replace that cumbersome chess set with far more expensive technology.
Microsoft also announced backwards compatibility for the Xbox One, meaning you’ll be able to play Xbox 360 games on it. At least some Xbox 360 games. The initial list is limited, but more games will be added in time. The Xbox One won’t play the games direct off your old 360 disc—when you put the disc into the new console it’ll download a digital version of the game. The Xbox Live Arcade games you played on your 360 will also gradually become available for your Xbox One. Despite the limitations, this both a surprising and welcome move by Microsoft. This will be available for all Xbox One owners at some point in the future.
The big news out of Sony’s press conference involved digging into the past. And I’m not talking about sequels or exhuming old franchises, but finally releasing more information on games that have long been rumored but never announced, or announced but seemingly cancelled. They confirmed that The Last Guardian, the almost mythical third game from Team Ico, still exists, and should be out for the Playstation 4 a mere six or seven years after it was first announced for the Playstation 3. The long rumored Final Fantasy VII remake was also announced at Sony’s press conference, along with a Kickstarter for Shenmue III, the final installment of a cult series that debuted on the Dreamcast in 1999 and has lain dormant for over a decade.
The most enticing game at Sony’s press conference had no ties to the past, though, unless you factor in its late 80s setting. In Firewatch, the first game from the supergroup of independent designers known as Campo Santo, you explore a national forest as a fire lookout trying to solve a mystery. The art is gorgeous and the trailers hint at a relationship between your character and his supervisor that’s more natural and nuanced than what’s often seen in videogames.
Sony also revealed more about No Man’s Sky, the space exploration game whose deafening buzz has not decreased a bit since it was first announced. You might’ve read a massive feature on the game in The New Yorker last month. No Man’s Sky promises almost limitless exploration, with an entire universe made up of thousands of galaxies with their own solar systems and planets, all of which can be visited. Sean Murray, the game’s head designer, ambled onto Sony’s E3 stage and showed off a few of the game’s facets, from outer space dogfighting to seamlessly entering a planet’s atmosphere to explore. No Man’s Sky’s chief calling card might not be the promise of an open-ended universe, but the lush color scheme that eschews the game industry’s single-minded devotion to dull greens and greys and earth tones. The planets don’t really look like the type of places you normally see in space-based videogames. We still aren’t entirely sure if there’s an overarching narrative to the game, or if it’s simply a sandbox, but Murray sheepishly mentioned that more details will be forthcoming soon.
That’s part of the fundamental problem with the nature of the E3 press conference: it’s good for promoting games to the audiences that watch online or on Spike TV, but it’s basically useless when it comes to actually letting that audience (or the audience of journalists in the building) know how the games play. It is a highly controlled environment dedicated solely to selling you games, and the industry defines that word “you” as one very specific demographic. The added emphasis on games like Firewatch and developers like Fullbright shows how the audience for less tightly genre-defined games has grown, at least, and perhaps one day that corner of the industry will take up as much time and space at an E3 press conference as the next overly serious action shooter.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. Follow him on Twitter.