Will you tell me a story — please?

There are plenty of games at E3, but nothing promises genuine innovation or a compelling narrative.

Topics: Gaming,

Somewhere around dusk on Saturday, the electric cacophony that is E3 was finally silenced; the massive display booths disassembled; the underdressed, over-rouged booth babes returned to their modeling agencies and game journalists left to decipher which of the 2,400 games shown at the packed conference would change the world as promised. But now, just a few days after the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the dust has begun to clear and a consensus is building: We haven’t seen much that’s truly new, inventive or exciting.

Broadly speaking, the focus for upcoming PC games was aimed not at conceptual innovation, but technical fillips, cross-pollinating genres and relatively safe twists on previously successful titles. With the exception of Peter Molyneux‘s upcoming Black and White — whose development has already been featured at three previous E3s — it’s difficult to name many new games that feature truly unique ambitions.

Geoffrey Keighley, editor in chief of GameSlice, concurs. He was one of several journalists I spoke with who were hard-pressed to name any titles that offer much genuine innovation — a dearth he blames on industry economics. When it comes to marketing games, says Keighley, “it’s just much easier to sell something by saying ‘it’s Diablo with better graphics.’” (Indeed, Blizzard’s Diablo II looks to be essentially a larger, more visually opulent version of the original.)

A couple of years ago, Half Life exploded onto the first-person shooter scene; its deeper storytelling and character interaction making it phenomenally successful — but as I made the rounds at E3, I found few new titles that promise to advance game narratives half as far. Still, several did catch my eye.



No One Lives Forever (developed by Monolith and published by Fox Interactive) looks visually promising: A first-person shooter set in a 1960s, Modesty Blaise-like spy world, in which you get to inhabit the body of an Emma Peel-type superagent. But while the game brings glam ultraviolence and the chance to inhabit the female form while blowing up pixelated enemies, I’m not convinced its retro stylistics will be matched by a clever story line. Meanwhile, Sierra/Troika’s Arcanum, a fantasy role-playing game with a Diablo-like interface, offers similar atmospheric twists to its own genre; it’s set in a world where wizards and dwarfs co-exist with 19th century technology, but doesn’t seem aimed at revolutionizing storytelling in
gameplay. Even Bungie Software’s Halo, perhaps the most visually magnificent game on display, a combination of first-person combat and real-time strategy, set on a staggeringly vivid landscape, didn’t promise much greater narrative depth.

But hope springs eternal and gaming journalists were abuzz about several games at E3 that I wasn’t able to preview amid the general chaos. Microsoft/Relic’s Sigma, a real-time strategy game, gives you a chance to go up against an “Island of Dr. Moreau”-type mad scientist by creating an army of genetically mutated animals, and Freelancer, a massively multiplayer
role-playing game (RPG) in an intergalactic, science fiction universe, has some game
insiders convinced that Microsoft can compete with popular online fantasy-based games like Everquest or Ultima Online and its upcoming sequel. Ion Storm’s Anachronox, a futuristic RPG set in a world resembling the movie “Dark City,” and LucasArts’ Escape from Monkey Island 4, with its return to character-driven storytelling, are also intriguing the gaming crowd.

But if the massive E3 exhibit floors sum up the current state of gaming, I think it’s safe to say today’s developers aren’t pushing the narrative envelope. Lured by the siren song of ever-improving graphics power, terrified by the risks involved with truly unique ideas in gaming, the industry is collectively stumbling along a path well-worn by Hollywood; the unfortunate truth to be taken away from a weekend in gamers’ paradise is that the mindless summer-blockbuster season promises to last all year.

Wagner James Au is a frequent contributor to Salon, and also writes "Notes from a New World," an online journal for Second Life, an upcoming MMOG.

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