“He’s in a very different, challenging place. He’s questioning everything. He’s questioning his past, his purpose, what he’s fighting for, why he’s fighting.” Bonnie Ross, general manager of 343 Industries, was speaking in deadly serious tones about the inner turmoil of Master Chief during a Halo 5: Guardians segment at the Xbox E3 press conference on Monday. The hero of Microsoft’s flagship shooter was once defined as an unknowable superman in a suit of impenetrable green armor, too busy killing thousands of aliens to have feelings. But perhaps his taciturn attitude doesn’t market-test well anymore, as Master Chief has been granted emotional depth—or at the least the kind of emotion you get when your longtime artificial-intelligence companion dies, and you suddenly need motivation to go back to the front lines of yet another alien war.
The funny thing about Ross’ statement is that it could double as a psychological analysis of the Chief’s corporate bosses at Microsoft prior to this week’s E3. Now, that’s speculation. As with the giant visor-wearing mascot, it’s difficult to know exactly what’s going on behind Microsoft’s public-relations mask. I’d like to imagine that the folks from Redmond huddled together at some corporate retreat agonizing over sales data showing the Xbox One lagging behind the PlayStation 4 in overall sales—a reversal of fortune from the last wave of consoles. Perhaps then they reviewed the negative coverage in the press regarding some of their curious Xbox One business decisions. After some weeping and deep soul-searching, the execs ultimately decided to pull an about-face on their marketing strategy before taking up arms again at the front lines of the new console wars.
The first clear sign that something had fundamentally changed was last month when Microsoft announced they planned to sell an additional Xbox One bundle sans Kinect for $400—startling news considering the company once swooned about the troubled motion-sensor accessory as the Future Of Gaming and stopped just short of forcing players to purchase it at gunpoint.
Then, following a long string of public appearances in which video games seemed like an afterthought amid a tangle of multimedia ventures, Microsoft used their annual summer soapbox at E3 this year as a sort of recommitment ceremony in their long marriage with the video game.
The company’s representatives never explicitly apologized for the past, but when Phil Spencer, head of the Xbox division, strolled to the brightly lit stage and proclaimed, “Today we are dedicated our entire briefing to games,” the subtext screamed: “Sorry if we cheated on you with television apps and music subscriptions and stupid motion controls. We really love video games! Seriously, we do! Watch!”
And so the usual brand of awkward celebrity cameos and marketing patter about hyper-connectedness and “whole living room experiences” that defined the past few Microsoft presentations were jettisoned. In their stead were short video clips of game developers and a couple cast members from Saturday Night Live and Silicon Valley, casually shooting the shit about why video games are awesome. But those were just the appetizers whetting the palate for the red meat of a long list of Xbox One game trailers. Not just any old video games, mind you, but games designed to satiate the so-called “core gamer”—the invented demographic of young men who apparently hate mentions of other forms of entertainment that are not video games and demand that their virtual depictions of military men, dragons, and scantily clad women move at 60 frames per second.
The presentation began with a demo of Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare, a first-person shooter that apparently intends to differentiate itself as the most science-fictional shooter ever, with jet-pack assisted double-jumps, smart grenades, and scary robo-tanks. Also, a severed arm rendered in the kind of glorious fidelity only available on Xbox One!
Perhaps not surprisingly considering the overall tone of the presentation, the biggest portion of the show was devoted to Halo. Microsoft acted like it was giving Halo a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars. (“Halo is the reason Xbox is still here today,” Spencer said with great reverence.) In case you haven’t had enough of Master Chief and pals, Microsoft is serving up a collection of the four previous Master Chief-starring Halo games, a live action television series produced by Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg, and the inevitable fifth sequel.
Independent games got a short but notable portion of the show to highlight the ID@XBOX program, a self-publishing platform for small developers. As for Kinect, it was barely mentioned except to note that a new Dance Central game was on the way. In an E3 briefing a few years ago, Microsoft reps set time aside to show the motion sensor’s power for a Harry Potter game, but this year they treated the Kinect like it was Voldemort. They were afraid to utter its name in case it would magically appear and inspire thousands of “Kinect sux!” threads on message boards.
Microsoft’s entire show was designed to inspire the kind of pep-rally response that Sony got last year, but the audience’s response was tepid, probably because the rah-rah spirit felt contrived—like a dad buying a fedora and getting into hip-hop to be cool and understand his teen son. The company even handed attendees a glowing, Xbox-branded wristband that flickered different colors in sync with moments of certain trailers.
The problem was that when the bracelets weren’t complementing a trailer, they blinked red, making them a wearable tribute to the Red Ring Of Death—the icon of a hardware malfunction that tainted the early years of the Xbox 360. Not exactly the way you get people to fall back in love.