Sony's E3 conference: an artful blend of nostalgia and big business
But where's 2015's line-up?
Spare a thought for Team Vapourware. Their line-up took quite a beating last night.
The pity party is held, of course, in the saloon bar of the Marie Celeste. Amelia Earhart, the CEO, leans her head against the counter and grimaces. "What's left?" she asks the CFO (Bigfoot). "Half-Life 3?" he offers. "Beyond Good & Evil 2?" A pause. "I have high hopes for that Gravity Rush sequel."
All of which is to say that Sony's E3 conference often felt rather crazy. Less a line-up for the future, and more a full-scale ravaging of urban legends.
It began with The Last Guardian, realisation dawning on the crowd as the intro hyperbole shifted from the generic to the more specifically generic. We got a demo - a decent one, too, a soulful scramble across a lofty, collapsing world, moving from stonework to brittle wooden planking via inter-species co-operation and daring last-minute saves. It was beautiful stuff: at heart this is a platforming game in which your AI companion is a dynamic platform, but it never feels that nuts and boltsy. Other teams might nail the sense of trust developing between child and beast as the risks increase, but only this team would focus on the beast's hesitancy, on the fact that its very fearfulness can be frightening.
Along with the texturework, there were two important details: Ueda is still leading the project, and the game is headed for 2016. That's enough for now, but ten minutes in, Sony had raised a worrying question: how do you top that?
The answer came much later, once Adam Boyes had taken to the stage. Here's that lavish Final Fantasy 7 remake you always wanted (even people who've never played one of these games could probably recognise that unmistakable fat pipework in the trailer) and here - it feels insane to be typing this - is Yu Suzuki and Shenmue 3.
Now the only question is: what do you do next year, Sony? How do you follow up a magic trick like this? I am hoping that early on in the 2016 conference, Edward Snowden will bust out of a hollow cake waving Shergar's missing leg in the air. Then Kaz Hirai will announce that he has cracked the Voynich Manuscript.
Like all magic tricks, of course, there is a certain flimsiness to it. Final Fantasy 7 is coming to Sony first, but it will presumably land elsewhere, and Shenmue 3 is a Kickstarter affair, with a relatively tiny budget request that sounds, as ever, like a chummy fiction. Still, it's clearly been in development for quite a bit, and it practically crashed Kickstarter's website.
Sony had its own stuff, of course: in between selling people dreams, it sold people Dreams, the latest treat from Media Molecule. It's hard to pin down a firm sense of what this is, but at the very least it is a package for creating and sharing and collaborating on sculpture and animation: nothing less than an attempt to resurrect the wandering spirit of Tony Hart. We'll learn more at Paris Games Week - presumably because Media Molecule isn't allowed to stage their real reveal in a Penny Farthing store.
Guerrilla's been thinking about art, too: cave-paintings depicting ancient skyscrapers. Herman Hulst, a man who is too nice, I suspect, to complain that he was summoned to the stage by a blast of Euro Beats, was on hand to reveal Horizon: Zero Dawn, a game that builds on its topsy turvy premise of futuristic cavemen with the fact that they hunt dinosaurs made out of old technology. Monster Hunter was the obvious touchstone, but in the frantic ad-libbed scrabble through foliage and over rocks, blending stealth with precision ranged attacks as a hero roped a robotic T-Rex, I may have glimpsed a little of Stranger's Wrath's venerable DNA. Oh, and although the past is the future and the future is the past, you still attack the weak spot for massive damage. Promising - and typically pretty with it.
Elsewhere, Guerrilla's Cambridge arm is making a Morpheus eSport battle game - I don't think Sony gets to decide whether it actually becomes an eSport or not? - and Uncharted wrapped things up with a lavish demo that almost stalled when Nathan Drake did, wobbling on the spot in an endearingly fragile moment that gave the mega budget stuff a human touch, The game looked great, in a very weird sort of way. Uncharted Economics can be difficult to understand. Has Naughty Dog just rendered an entire cityscape filled with clutter and impedimenta purely to provide dressing for a higgledy-piggledy downhill car chase? If not, how intrusive is the funneling as you're pushed between photogenic hotspots?
Beyond that, third parties were present in droves, often with a PlayStation deal in place. Street Fighter 5 is a console exclusive. Destiny: The Taken King will have platform exclusive elements, Assassin's Creed will allow Sony players access to bespoke missions based on Victorian penny dreadfuls. Hitman, potentially an origins story of sorts, hopefully returning to the series' roots as a clockwork playground of murder, will have a console exclusive beta and unique contracts on PS4. Batman's Scarecrow missions, teased in a wonderfully unnerving trailer that really felt like the first four pages of a multi-issue arc, will be exclusive. Deals are deals, and Microsoft will have its own in place. This was less about the details, it felt, and more of a strange exercise in corporate syntax, a way of building the rhythm of domination.
And of course there's No Man's Sky, which seems to be a timed console exclusive although the language is hard to unpick. In an attempt to continue the powers of ten theme that gives this game such a propulsive sense of freshness, Hello Games focused on the map, a gaseous sprawl of stars, orbited by worlds you can visit, that just - keeps - expanding. An entire galaxy viewed through the gorgeous rosy dawn of an Instagram filter. When, Sean Murray, when?
Then Battlefront again, Firewatch, which looks beautiful, creepy and quietly witty, its 1980s Wyoming a lurid blaze of oranges and reds, and Devolver Digital, which is bringing four new games. Vita got a fleeting mention 75 minutes in, at which point Shenmue 3 had cleared the quarter million mark on Kickstarter. By the time Call of Duty popped up, freshly wooed to PlayStation, which will be the first to get all map packs and a multiplayer beta in August, the news didn't actually have as much impact as it might have. Maybe Call of Duty's declining slightly, although this year's entry looks like the best one in a while. More likely, a known known can't compete with that trio of unknowns Sony built its conference around - fan-service that allowed the platform holder to get away with a weak 2015 line-up, and to blather about Spotify, Vue, and Disney Infinity.
All of which only deepens the mystery that is Shawn Layden, the CEO of SCEA, and the conference's peculiarly charismatic ringleader. When he first graced the E3 stage back in the Tretton years - I believe he made the mistake of invoking Vib Ribbon and then not immediately announcing a sequel, although that may have been another executive - he was something of an up-market footsoldier for the grand old godfather of Sony - compact and impeccable, like a Bugsy Malone heavy. This year, with the hint of a grey beard and a casual, yet still pristine suit, he seems to be the kind of man who summers in the Hamptons and uses the word risible in everyday conversations. He is Gatsby, and this is his fabulous party.
That might explain the slight tinge of danger to be felt as he helped drag so much back from the world of vapourware. Not danger for Sony, perhaps, whose elegant and rather clever framing carried the day, but for gaming's enduring sense of mystery, potentially robbed of tiny pieces of glittering folklore, its count of enchanted objects diminished by three.