It's been a couple weeks since E3, and we've had some time to breathe, to reflect, to ponder what the hell is going on in that Death Stranding trailer (opens in new tab) (it's a metaphor for Kojima's broken relationship with Konami? Maybe? Then what's up with naked Ree- you know what, we'll be here all day so let's move on). As I look back on the the games I'm most excited about coming out of the show, a pattern starts to emerge.
The Legend of Zelda (opens in new tab). Resident Evil (opens in new tab). God of War (opens in new tab). No, it's not 2005 - these are the three games which easily made the biggest splash at E3 this year. One could say that, well, of course they are; time is a flat circle, and big publishers and developers, in looking to mitigate risk, will put out an endless fountain of sequels to appease rabid fanbases who can't seem to get enough.
But that's a real pessimistic way of looking at each of these games' individual showings this year, especially considering that each series has basically been tarnished in some way by their previous entries. Despite garnering accolades at release, opinion on Skyward Sword has cooled significantly, as its gimmicky controls and inability to just shut up for five minutes effectively killed whatever charm it had going for it. Resident Evil 6 was loathed from the off; a brazen, 500-person attempt to try to appeal to every type of player and ultimately impressing no-one. God of War: Ascension was dead-on-arrival, with all but the most faithful fans giving it a hard pass.
Zelda and Resident Evil are decades old, and the God of War series is about to turn 11, but each one has found themselves in a similar position: they all have something to prove. So for the first time since their inception, each one feels brand new, unlike anything out there, finding ways to experiment and surprise within the confines of their own histories in ways they've never done before. That's a weird, exciting place to be.
Take Sony's press conference, a company whose E3 press showings have become synonymous with bombshell surprises. A symphonic overture opened the event, lead by composer Bear McCreary, and for the next several moments the concert hall was filled with hauntingly familiar music. Then the gameplay reveal: a behind-the back camera, deliberate and considered combat, a grizzled, angry yet reserved Kratos (complete with a new voice actor who sounds awfully close to the original). Like the tune which preceded it, this demo was clearly in the key of God of War, but it was different and interesting in a way in which the original games, the PSP spin-offs, and the ill-conceived prequel simply aren't. For the first time, God of War's tone is going for something more that just using its 'Mature' rating for over-the-top decapitations and gratuitous blow up doll sex scenes. For the first time, it's finding ways to express its themes without immediately defaulting to full-tilt rage.
Then there's Resident Evil 7, which revealed itself first as a mysterious, first-person horror game. You're in a spooky house, there are no zombies, the atmosphere feels more like P.T. than the schlocky Bayhem direction the series had been spiraling toward - and then, when the protagonist picks up an item on the table, the image you see on screen has that same low-resolution bitmap look all of Resident Evil's items have had since the original PlayStation game. It's a concept that seems alien to Resident Evil, until you learn that that brief demo in the abandoned house is closer to the original pitch for the series (opens in new tab) than the entirety of Resident Evil 6.
And of course, there's The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It retains the light-hearted, adventurous feeling of Zelda while throwing away three decades of built up baggage, and it's a feeling that's palpable within the first few seconds of footage. Gone is the ridiculously front-loaded deluge of lore and hand-holding - within minutes, you're off on a grand journey in a world where you can follow its guided objectives or ignore all of it and explore to your heart's content. After playing Zelda for years, you realize you've learned a specific vocabulary: overworld, dungeon, collect the MacGuffins, get the slingshot, bow and arrows, hookshot, and so on. Breath of the Wild’s E3 demo felt like learning a new language - there's are a few familiar verbs to latch onto when trying to make your way in this new world, but they'll just as often trip you up if you try to lean on them too much. For a series as bound by tradition as Zelda, that's an incredibly rare feeling.
These sequels feel as exciting - potentially more exciting - than any new game announced this year because they're a perfect storm of what people want out of video games: innovation and familiarity. Many claim they want new experiences, but outside of a handful of titles, the best-selling games in a given year are usually sequels - according to the NPD (opens in new tab), the 10 best selling games of 2015 include two Call of Duty games, Fallout 4, a reboot of Star Wars: Battlefront, Grand Theft Auto 5 (which originally came out in 2013), sports games, and Minecraft. It's why sequels get made in the first place; people know what to expect, and when most people only buy one or two $60 games a year, they want it to be like the game they like, but just different enough that it doesn't feel exactly like the game they bought last year.
While adhering to franchise norms may be the safe thing to do to guarantee sales, it certainly doesn't excite people, especially outside of already established fan-bases (just ask anyone yelling on the Internet about Call of Duty (opens in new tab)). And as any series sticks around for too long, new entries can feel more like working down a pre-made checklist of expectations, and as each game begins to look further inward, it's very hard to preserve that spark of ingenuity. A game's beloved history and lore becomes a noose, preventing it from trying new things, from inventing and growing, and over time, it stagnates. It's how you get the gulf between Skyrim and Skyward Sword - two games which came out within weeks of each other. Both offer enormous worlds to explore, but Skyward Sword feels sparse and lifeless compared to Skyrim's sprawling ecology of quests, creatures, and citizens. The Legend of Zelda spent so much time entranced by its own navel that it completely forgot that it had spawned an entire genre of imitators, like Okami, Beyond Good & Evil, even Spelunky and Skyrim, which have taken the lessons Zelda taught and built on them in ways that surpass their inspiration.
What we saw at E3 is increasingly complacent series finally taking stock of themselves, boiling down what makes them unique, why people keep coming back to them time and again, and how they can go about capturing what many feel has been missing. Zelda wants to bring back that sense of wonder and discovery absent since the first NES game; for Resident Evil, it's about figuring out how to reclaim its throne as the king of survival horror; and God of War wants to tell a more intimate, emotional story with an iconic character. So they looked to their own iconography, their themes, their colors, music, characters, and atmosphere, and found ways to make something that feels entirely new while still maintaining a familiar identity.
It's an empowering yet difficult position to be in, to have fans ready for a completely new experience in a series they love along with the backing of a major publisher willing to let its developers experiment. At E3 2016, we saw decades-old franchises look outward for inspiration and find ways to shake things up in sequels we'd normally take for granted. Many of us get excited when we catch a first glimpse of a new Zelda, Resident Evil, or God of War game; for the first time in a long time, that excitement feels properly earned.