Violent video games are nothing new, and that’s part of the problem with E3 2012. Microsoft, Sony, and big-budget publishers held press conferences that were chock full of enough blood and gore to turn the stomachs of journalists who cover violent video games for a living, suggesting that we may be on the cusp of a significant change in how video games are developed and sold.
Sex and violence will probably always sell, but this year they fell on deaf ears and jaded eyes as most E3 attendees ignored the latest big-budget gaming gorefest in favor of more intriguing games like Hawken, an indie free-to-play mech combat game on the PC. While you can be certain that God of War: Absolution will be far more profitable than that PC game, nobody at E3 is talking about God of War.
Instead, everyone here is swapping stories about playing Johann Sebastian Joust at IndieCade or what it feels like to get the drop on an enemy in Hawken after a perfectly-timed jet boost. “I’m just really bored of shooting people” is a common refrain among both gaming journalists and members of the gaming industry, which may herald a growing trend of gamers suffering serious shooter fatigue.
For evidence of this trend, I encourage you to look back over our coverage of the Microsoft and Sony press conferences that took place on Monday. Microsoft revealed a few new games and some interesting tech, but their morning conference was punctuated by screams and gunshots.
Prominent games like Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, the new Tomb Raider, and the new Gears of War game were revealed on Monday as being bigger and better versions of previous games in their respective franchises. I have played and enjoyed games from each series, yet I was hard-pressed to tell the difference between the games I saw in that press conference and their numerous predecessors. Most of the people I spoke to at the conference had similar experiences. It's more of the same. If a game doesn't resemble others in its franchise, it resembles other popular franchises, like Uncharted.
It would be unfair to place blame for this bloody homogenization of the games industry solely on Sony and Microsoft; fellow editor rightly Jason Cross points out that some of the most bombastic games we saw at the big E3 press conferences were actually third-party titles published by Ubisoft, EA and Activision. In particular, EA showed footage of modern warfare games like Battlefield 3 and Medal of Honor: Warfighter in such quick succession that many E3 attendees were unable to tell which first-person shooter was which.
An action-packed trailer for Dead Space 3 was also shown, casting aside the fearful atmosphere that was a hallmark of previous Dead Space games in favor of a prolonged series of exploding architecture, aliens, and people. Despite the new look, may fans seemed uncertain about the series' new combat-heavy direction.
The trend towards bigger, bloodier, blander games with gratuitous amounts of gore stepped up to the next level at Sony’s press conference Monday evening, where we were treated to new gameplay footage of Far Cry 3, God of War: Ascension, and Last Of Us. While the crowd cheered after watching the Last Of Us protagonist decapitate a helpless thug begging for his life, many journalists and industry professionals deplored the escalating violence of E3 via Twitter and lengthy opinion pieces.
That’s not to say that E3 2012 was a smorgasbord of sex, violence, and virtual dismemberment. We’re only halfway through the show and already we’ve seen plenty of neat games that don’t require players to shoot anyone in the face; SimCity, Pikmin 3, and Need For Speed: Most Wanted all look fantastic, and none of them encourage players to decapitate an anthropomorphic elephant.
Instead, most attendees seem interested in playing games like Watch Dogs, Hawken, and Quantum Conundrum. While those games feature violence, they also feature interesting new worlds to explore and gameplay systems to master. They’re designed to attract attention with innovation rather than iteration, introducing new ideas instead of just taking what works (sex and violence) and cranking it up to ever-more-explicit levels.
This trend continues as E3 marches on, signaling a growing rift between casual gamers (those who purchase perhaps one or two games a year) and hardcore enthusiasts who are getting tired of playing games where the first, best, and only tool you have to solve problems is the barrel of a virtual gun, and the reward for your prowess is an especially grisly display of viscera. Hopefully prescient game developers will arrest this trend, and take a chance publishing games that have more to offer players than the promise of ridiculous violence or unlockable gun accessories.