There are a number of reasons why Sony’s PlayStation showcase at this year’s E3 was a little odd – and to be fair to the electronics giant, it did warn us. A few weeks ago, Sony issued word that it would be taking a new approach, avoiding major first-party announcements and focusing on four games that had already broken cover at least a year previously: Spider-Man, The Last of Us Part 2, Death Stranding and Ghosts of Tsushima. (Days Gone, star of the show two years ago, seems to have been thrown under a bus – and it’s probably for the best.)
This was a surprisingly blunt bit of expectation management, and the truth behind it is quite simple. Sony’s marketing enthusiasm has long outpaced its actual first-party game development, and having announced too much too soon over the course of the last five years, it needed to take a year on the benches to let the studios catch up. There are simply no unannounced PS4 exclusives left in the tank. (Or if there are, Sony has in its wisdom decided it is too early, or E3 is not the right venue for any of them.)
Nor was it necessarily a problem. Armed with the knowledge that we would not be surprised, we could relax and enjoy extensive demos of four strikingly beautiful-looking games. Well, three. It’s good that Spider-Man is only a few months from release, because this antic, joyful superhero game from Insomniac begs to be played and didn’t really need another overly busy and garish demo, stuffed with characters and complicated peril, to sell us on it. It was an odd choice for the closer given the majesty on display elsewhere.
If Sony wanted to demonstrate the relatively pedestrian scope of Microsoft’s first-party development, this was a good way to go about it. Famous brands, shiny cars and chunky power armour are one thing, but Sony – in the person of elegantly coiffed worldwide studios boss Shawn Layden, the world’s most dandified video game executive – enjoys playing patron to the arts and at least appearing to give its favoured creators big budgets to take creative risks. It also, to its enormous credit, likes original properties and not overdoing it on sequels, so we got the gorgeous Kurosawa stylings of Sucker Punch’s Ghosts of Tsushima and the genuinely unsettling, unmoored ramblings of Death Stranding by Hideo Kojima – the latter being a money bonfire of outrageous ambition and unclear purpose that will inevitably take more than half a decade to make. No-one else funds vanity projects on this scale or so purely for the sheer drama of it, rather than for any commercial imperative, and I will always be ready to salute Sony for that.
Unfortunately, however, this impulse towards grandiosity, hard-coded in PlayStation’s DNA, is inseparable from a tendency towards hubris. We’ve seen it before, with the Emotion Engine and PlayStation Home and the infamous faked Killzone 2 trailer, and it’s not surprising that, with PS4’s lead in this hardware generation now beyond challenge, it is showing again. The way Sony chose to demo The Last of Us Part 2 at the start of yesterday’s showcase – in a theatrically themed venue that was separate from the main auditorium – was a trivial and cosmetic example of this, but that didn’t stop it from being a terrible idea which sorely inconvenienced attendees and killed the flow of the live broadcast.
Not for Sony the plain-speaking, almost utilitarian approach which had served Microsoft so well the previous evening: the simple statement of intent and the mathematical generosity of games, games and more games. No, it wanted art, solemnity, the grand gesture – it wanted, in Layden’s words, to take us on a journey. And it didn’t want any boring specificity about what, exactly, we were seeing to get in the way.
Death Stranding, Ghosts of Tsushima and The Last of Us Part 2 looked stunning, but their appearances weren’t accompanied by even the vaguest of release dates. Nor, oddly, was any mention made of what hardware they were running on – and why, if your games look this good, wouldn’t you say that they were running on PS4 Pro? In fact, it appears that they were: Kojima confirmed that Death Stranding was captured on PS4 Pro and screenshots for Naughty Dog’s game are labelled as such. But Sony’s enigmatic, not to say evasive approach in the almost wordless briefing fed into a strong and justifiable suspicion that we were watching PS5 games, or at least cross-generation releases – despite the fact that, or perhaps because, PS5 doesn’t officially exist yet. Speculation flourished on the internet. Perhaps this was all part of the intended hype, but playing on the confusion of your customers doesn’t seem like a sound long-term strategy.
You could say the same of Halo Infinity, of course, except its showing was labelled as an “engine demonstration” and accompanied by Spencer’s confirmation that a new Xbox (more than one, even) was in development. This is where the two companies part ways and where, I think, Sony is doing a disservice to PlayStation gamers by not being open with them about what is coming. We are wowed, but then we have questions, perhaps some false hopes, and are not sure where we stand. It’s the classic complacency of the market leader, taking its audience for granted. Better to show some humility and be honest. Sony is being prideful, and I guess it has earned that, but let’s hope it’s not the pride before the fall.