The fun dichotomy
Flashes of light

Thank you sir, may I have another?


It's E3 time and my blogger and journo pals are livetweeting, liveblogging, and MST3K'ing their ways through today's slate of press conferences by Microsoft, EA, and (as I write this) Ubisoft. G4TV is broadcasting commercial-free, world premiere trailers are popping up everywhere, Paul and Ringo are making cameos. E3 is back with a vengeance. For gamers, it's Christmas in June.

Why, then, am I disappointed?

So far, this year's E3, especially the Microsoft event, feels like a retrenchment. A high-octane concession to the limitations of the medium. Heather Chaplin's recent GDC rant directed at developers rings in my ears. "You aren’t men. You are stunted adolescents."

Chaplin's remarks went too far because she demeaned her listeners and failed to acknowledge notable exceptions. But having watched nearly all the trailers for this year's E3-announced high-profile games, I think the gist of her argument is sound. It's pretty much one male power fantasy game after another (featuring, by the way, powerful white guys presented on stage by loquacious white guys to an audience of mostly white guys.) Awe-inspiring technology aside, it's hard to see where the progress is.

Please don't misunderstand me. E3 piques my interest in games, big time. I'm excited to play Splinter Cell: Conviction and Brutal Legend, just as I'm thrilled to be playing inFAMOUS at the moment. My beef isn't with shooters or violent games, and I'm not wringing my hands about the future of our kids.

What I'm concerned about, and this year's E3 only confirms it, is that we've apparently decided the only way to tell a story in a video game is to send a male hero (lately he's a dark conflicted hero) off to wreak retribution or deliver some kind of unholy justice with a requisite set of thrilling gun/sword/combat mechanics in tow.

Here's an incomplete roundup of titles (30 of them) announced or shown at E3, all of which adhere in their own ways to the formula:

Modern Warfare 2, Shadow Complex, Crackdown 2, Left 4 Dead 2, Splinter Cell: Conviction, Halo 3 ODST, Halo: Reach, Alan Wake, Metal Gear Solid: Rising, APB, Untitled MMA game, Wolfenstein, Batman: Arkham Asylum Play As The Joker
Just Cause 2, Crysis 2, Alpha Protocol, Mafia 2, The Sabateur, Dead Space Extraction, Bayonetta (Ah! A woman!), Ghost Recon 4, I Am Alive, Assassin's Creed 2, Red Steel 2, Brutal Legend, Avatar, Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, No More Heroes 2

If you're a fan of storytelling in games, this year's E3 offers lots more of what you've already seen....but bigger and louder with more acrobatics, free-falls, and lens flares. We often talk about games exploring new narrative/gameplay territory and developing a language distinct from the cinema. But so far, this year's E3 suggests we're going nowhere near those objectives.

In fact, insofar as storytelling is concerned, it appears the industry has chosen to dig in, focusing on even more explosive shooters and solidifying its ties with filmmaking. Ubisoft, in particular, intends to permanently blur the lines between games and films, and they've got James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, and Peter Jackson on board to help them do it.

It's not my nature to be cynical, but the overwhelming preponderance of histrionic combat-oriented games, nearly all delivered in spectacular cinematic style, sends a clear message to gamers everwhere. 'We're bringing you bigger, edgier, and more visually arresting versions of the games we brought you last year, and the year before that. Sure, we've got casual games too, and a new slate of appalling games for girls; but we know you know where the action is.' To which gamers are apparently eager to reply "Thank you sir, may I have another?"