Why Keanu won E3 - and the Avengers didn't
Up and let's go.
E3, allegedly all about what's new, is so often about what's old. E3 looks to the future but it's careful to invoke the past. The older you get, the less time you have for games, they say, but the more the time you do have for games is wrapped and coddled in memory.
E3 understands this. Platform holders understand that their target when putting their big press conferences together is not just the other platform holders, but their own performances in previous years. A bad showing can recalibrate you for years to come. A good showing can be insurmountable. I realised, half-way through this E3's run of conferences, that I actually had my own favourite E3 moments. Weird, considering I'm never really sure that I like E3 very much at all. But there was the reveal of Twilight Princess, Miyamoto with his sword and shield. There was Crackdown 2, heralded all of a sudden by a single shimmering ping in a darkened theatre. There was Mizuguchi - this was the very best - with white gloves, back to the audience and conducting Child of Eden, a quick bow to the audience and a wink, I think, because we all knew deep down that this was Rez and Rez had returned to us once again. Actually, I even have a certain fondness for Pac-Man Versus back in the day. It seemed so wild in its cables and awkwardness, an opening-out of an ancient game, a new perspective on a classic we were no longer able to truly see.
I have moments about purely new stuff, of course. But not as many as I expected once I started scanning back. And that phrase: a certain fondness. Nostalgia is powerful stuff, but it works by tweaking emotions that in themselves do not seem powerful. Fondness, wistfulness. What these emotions have, I think, is a human warmth - they are close to the heart. And they linger.
So: Keanu Reeves. Colbert asks him: What do you think happens when we die, Keanu Reeves? Keanu Reeves pauses, looks down (as I remember it anyway) and takes a deep breath. "I know," he says, "that the people who love us will miss us." Keanu! He flipped it. He flipped it around, and in that is wisdom, a fresh perspective - the right perspective! A sort of clarity of kindness and simplicity. (I may have the words slightly wrong to those quotes but it doesn't matter, because I will remember the gist of that exchange forever, right?)
That worked so well because we were ready to hear wisdom from Keanu Reeves in 2019. He is beautiful and he has suffered, and he has been with us our whole lives, it seems. Cyberpunk 2077 worked too. We were ready to hear a release date from Keanu Reeves in 2019 because he did not pretend too hard to know what he was talking about. He was just happy to be part of the ride, and we were happy to have him there because we knew him.
Recognition! I did not realise that I could recognise Keanu from his silhouette, as if he was part of the Overwatch roster - which, one day, he probably will be. But when the door went up, the smoke poured out and there he was - tall, slightly hunched, arms apart, that hairstyle that only he can make work. Did Cyberpunk have a good E3? I didn't think that much of the cut-scene they showed, which was a surprise because I loved last year's trailer. But it didn't matter, because Keanu carried them anyway. Such warmth! Such fondness.
Keanu is the right kind of familiar. And over at Square Enix, Final Fantasy 7 had the right kind of familiarity too, even if the characters never fought like this, never moved like this before. The combat system was new, but the boss was familiar, and the music was familiar and the roster was familiar. It was a warm bubble bath of nostalgia despite the new stuff. And it made the new stuff exciting.
But look: you recognise the characters and you recognise the bosses and the music. And then: Avengers. You recognise...the uniforms? The air of Mild Peril? But who's wearing Captain America's outfit? Whose voice is that coming from Iron Man? The panic starts to rise a little. Who are these people wearing my friends' clothes and borrowing their banter? The final guitar clash was pure horror: what have you done to Paul Rudd?
Gosh, faces are important. It's bad enough when games don't have the right voices - when it's Jim Hanks rather than Tom Hanks, when it's Frank Stallone. But The Avengers didn't have the right faces either. They didn't have the right faces but - crucially, fatally - they had everything else. So there was this familiarity in the costumes and the relationships and then: who are these strangers?
Maybe it will work. Spider-Man worked for Insomniac, but they ditched more, carried across far less and were comfortable in the sense that they were doing their own take. Marvel's Spider-Man, but, really, Insomniac's Spider-Man. Crystal Dynamics are a great team, I think, and I felt for that team last night as they bounced their presentations off the hollow basin of an LA theatre. On paper, they had the mix right: something new, but something old and familiar. But the volumes were wrong. The recipe was wrong. The door rolled up and the smoke poured forth and I did not recognise the silhouettes.