I played 30 video games on Wednesday at E3, including at events that were held before and after the show floor was open. These were my favorites, in order of preference.
1. What Remains of Edith Finch. Giant Sparrow’s The Unfinished Swan was both a first-rate children’s fable and one of the better games of 2012. The second game in the studio’s three-game contract with Sony looks to be much darker. In the roughly 30-minute demonstration that I played, Edith explores the house that she grew up in. Books are piled everywhere, and many of the doors are bolted shut with planks. She finds a diary of a young girl, Molly, dated 1940. The player is then transported into a dreamy sequence from Molly’s first-person perspective that begins as a nightmare, and perhaps a living one: She is hungry enough to eat months-old food from a gerbil’s cage. Her windows are chained shut. An extended fantasy sequence begins, as Molly imagines herself a cat chasing a bird among the tree branches outside the house, then an owl hunting rabbits in the night, a shark preying upon seals beneath the ocean, and finally a tentacled monster swallowing humans on a boat. More, please.
2. Edge of Nowhere. Of the three quick demos I played on an Oculus Rift, this third-person Antarctic adventure was my favorite. Mechanically, it was a simple platformer, with a man running and jumping along icy corridors and descending into darkened caves. But in VR, those simple jumps feel like leaps across bottomless chasms, and the mere act of running forward—as you crane your neck upward to see the underside of a massive beast—can make your pace quicken and your skin ripple, as if your body is facing a literal threat.
3. Back to Dinosaur Island 2. This VR prototype for Crytek’s Robinson: The Journey has you scaling a cliff using a series of ascending ropes. The triggers on your gamepad control the clenching of each of your hands, left and right. You place your hands in space by looking at a spot—like one of the ropes—and leaning a little toward it. The rope lines allow you to control your movement in the virtual world while still affording your eyes the freedom to roam at the pteranodons gliding around you. When a few small rocks began falling toward me, I flinched.
4. Oculus Touch. The zip lines in Robinson: The Journey seem to be made with an input like Oculus Touch in mind, although Crytek hasn’t been able to get its hands on these motion controllers yet. Palmer Luckey showed me how to use them inside a virtual developer environment that Oculus calls the “toy box.” Luckey stood in another room, but while wearing a Rift, I could see the outlines of a blue-silhouetted head and hands that moved as he talked and grabbed things. Your middle finger grasps items as you would when clenching a fist, while your thumb and index finger remain free to press buttons, move a joystick, or pull a trigger as you would on a gamepad. We played with slingshots, fired laser guns, and shot off Roman candles in zero gravity, among other diversions. The touch interface is impressive, but the most remarkable aspect was the unmistakable feeling that Luckey and I were playing together in the same physical space. People laughed when Facebook said VR was going to be a social experience. They may stop laughing soon.
5. Ubisoft’s virtual-reality demos. Ubisoft’s Fun House division built three short prototypes to help the company figure out how to make full games in VR. My favorite was a capture-the-flag game for four players that casts each person as an eagle flying above—and sometimes through—the streets of Paris. The eagle’s flight is controlled by your gaze, with sharper turns enabled by a slight tilt of the head to the left or right.
6. Project X-Ray for Microsoft’s HoloLens. The field of view in the HoloLens is surprisingly narrow, limited to a small rectangle in front of your eyes. But I stopped noticing in this prototype, as I used an Xbox gamepad to shoot lasers at drones that came crawling out of (and along) the four meeting-room walls around me. I felt silly at first as I ducked and moved to avoid incoming fire, but soon I was dropping to a knee to avoid a laser and then firing upward to destroy the attacking drone. If I were 12, I would be clamoring to have this in my basement—even if the fun would probably wear off after a week or two.
7. Time Machine. Vander Caballero and Minority Media are best known for Papo & Yo, an allegorical memoir about Caballero’s alcoholic father. This time-traveling VR adventure is part educational dinosaur discovery engine, part Assassin’s Creed-ish ghost-in-the-machine mystery. I spent 40 minutes inside the game, descending to the Jurassic ocean depths to scan a pliosaur and its prey.
I also played the Warzone multiplayer mode from Halo 5: Guardians; Star Fox Zero; Yoshi’s Woolly World; Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash; a little The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes; Street Fighter V; Soma; Volume; Assassin’s Creed Syndicate; The Division; HoloLens Minecraft; Persona 4: Dancing All Night; Lucky’s Tale and VR Sports Challenge for the Oculus Rift; Rigs: Mechanized Combat League for Project Morpheus; Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture; Eitr; Narcosis; Bazaar for Gear VR; Chasm; Runbow; and Blues and Bullets.
(On Tuesday I played Fortnite, Star Wars Battlefront, Need for Speed, Mighty No. 9, and a little of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 and Sword Coast Legends, but not enough to deliver a judgment, in addition to the six games that made that day’s list. The competition Wednesday was probably fiercer, but hey, my list is also one game longer.)
The games that didn’t make my list are not necessarily bad. Some of them failed to surpass the bar of “If you like that sort of thing, you will like this sort of thing.” Others were intriguing but didn’t show enough in a demo to merit a recommendation. Some deserved more time that I didn’t have. In one instance, I’ve become jaded by familiarity. Lucky’s Tale made my Best of E3 list for 2014. Others might actually be bad.
On E3’s last day, I’ll be playing games from Activision, Warner Bros., Sony’s Project Morpheus, and more.