Microsoft’s hype train is derailed by the Xbox One X

Prior to E3 much of the hype surrounded Project Scorpio. Would this be Microsoft’s big come back, or another terra-flop? Head of Xbox, Phil Spencer, wasted no time in unveiling the latest addition to the Xbox One family: Xbox One X.

Priced at $499 and releasing on November 7th the Xbox One X was confirmed to be Microsoft’s answer to Sony’s PS4 Pro, and it’s more than a match for its competition. Its specs comprehensively crush Sony’s premium console offering. However, given the hype, it’s hard to ignore the feeling that the Xbox One X announcement detracted from what was otherwise a solid press conference from Microsoft.

Spencer announced that they would be showing over 40 games during their press conference, with 20 Xbox One exclusive games. It’s important to note that this conference continued the E3 trend of playing fast and loose with the definition of ‘exclusive’, many of the titles shown were ‘Console Launch Exclusive’ titles rather than outright exclusives.

After a lengthy presentation of Forza Motorsport 7, which looked phenomenal, we got our first official glimpse of Assassin’s Creed Origins. Metro: Exodus blended a tense trailer with a remix of ‘In the House, In a Heartbeat’ (the song you remember from 28 Days Later) to whet the appetite and the refreshing visual upgrade coming to Minecraft was a pleasant surprise. The announcements were slick; the trailers relentless.

We were treated to a plethora of titles which will do a solid job of padding out the Xbox One catalogue. Titles like The Last Night and The Artful Escape were the most stylish offerings from ID@Xbox Games. Ori and the Blind Forest’s sequel was announced and Full Bright’s Tacoma is heading for an August 2nd release date on PC and Xbox One. Although, nothing quite enriches the Xbox One catalogue like the big reveal of backwards compatibility with original Xbox games. It’s a wonderfully diverse offering. Closing the show with Bioware’s beautiful new IP Anthem was almost perfect. However, it needed to be an Xbox exclusive. Microsoft needed that mic-drop moment to capitalise on the momentum they’ve built over the past year. With so much hype surrounding the Xbox One X, that expectation corroded the impact of Microsoft’s show reel.

There remains a dearth of exclusive Xbox games which will entice gamers into returning to the Xbox ecosystem. There was no Bloodborne, Uncharted, Persona, Last of Us or Horizon equivalent. The titles announced look fun, some of them look innovative, but none of them are enough to entice gamers into investing in the Xbox ecosystem. Most of the games are mid-tier games which ordinarily would have made for a good showing from Xbox, but they needed more. If these titles were padding out the existing catalogue without the promise of the “most powerful games console ever” then this conference would have gone down as one of their best showings in years. No console exclusive announced, be it ‘console launch exclusive’ or ‘outright exclusive’ (please stop bastardising the word guys), was a console selling title.

That is where Microsoft is right now, they will be compared unfavourably to Sony on exclusives and nothing announced at the conference stands up as a console exclusive. Microsoft’s new console crushes its opposition in terms of specs, but it’s exposed without upcoming quality content of the aforementioned Sony exclusives. It’s not about ‘winning’ but rather offering a reason to play on Xbox. Timed exclusives are not enough. As it stands, Crackdown 3 and Super Lucky’s Tale will be the two games launching with the Xbox One X and, given the hype, there needed to be more.

Microsoft put together a good conference, however, they remain hampered by the false start which has plagued them this generation. The hype train they unleashed last year with their Project Scorpio announcement derailed what would have been an effective showcase. None of the exclusive offerings were emphatic enough to showcase the strength of the Xbox One X. Had those games been announced for a stable Xbox ecosystem things would look much more positive.

It’s testament to how bad the initial Xbox One release was that the presence and unveiling of the world’s most powerful games console could be seen to be detrimental, but what Xbox needs right now is games, diverse, unique and exclusive games. Whilst their conference provided a quantity of those, it didn’t manage to provide a quality exclusive title required for Xbox One X’s unveiling.

Are Video Games art?

Video Games have never been so popular. There are a plethora of platforms which make gaming almost impossible to avoid. Nearly 50million PlayStation 4 units have been sold since releasing 3 years ago, Xbox One has impressive sales figures of over 30million and Nintendo have announced their new console-come-handheld device; the Nintendo Switch. This is, of course, without mentioning mobile phones, Virtual Reality or the juggernaut that is PC gaming. While the video game medium evolves, one question continues to plague video game discourse: are video games art?

Perhaps the question was born from a need for video game culture to be validated in the mainstream. However, the line between the popular mainstream and geeky subcultures is eroding. The term ‘Gamer’ is a disappearing. There now exists a generation of people who grew up with video games. There is no such thing as a ‘Movie-goer’ or a ‘Tv-Watcher’, people simply enjoy these hobbies in everyday life and video games have reached that level. Much of the debate surrounding video games’ artistic value originates from people who are alien to the medium. Roger Ebert, the late film critic, denounced video games as an art form back in 2010 and the debate still rears its head in the media intermittently.

What is important, is that the medium of video games is a platform for artistic expression. Video Games no longer linger in the shadow of movies or television. They can fuse an array of arts like composing, acting, performance, storytelling and cinematography, whilst providing a level of interaction unique to gaming. The successful marriage of these components allow creators to realise their vision in myriad ways. Developers have never had the level of artistic freedom open to them which they have now.

Developers at Naughty Dog are some of the best at making the most of that artistic freedom. Their game, The Last of Us, follows lead characters Joel and Ellie’s trip across America in a post-apocalyptic America after a fungal virus has infected the majority of humanity. The game’s emotional narrative is one of the most resonant in gaming history. The game explores the human condition through emotive themes, with excellent acting and a haunting soundtrack. Unique to gaming, however, the gameplay allows the player to interact with the environment to experience more of the narrative if they choose too. One of the more intimate scenes initiated shows Ellie playing football with Sam in a brief moment of respite for two children in an otherwise unforgiving world. Ellie, a girl born into this desolate world where food is scarce, also remarks upon how skinny a model is in a player prompted conversation in front of a rotting advertisement. These moments prompt intellectual discussion and reflection upon both personal and societal values. Gaming’s best examples of art are those which prompt the kind of intellectual discussion which The Last of Us does.

However, it would be wrong to assert that all video games are art. For every thought provoking title like Inside or Journey, which feature no dialogue and are driven by gameplay, there is a My Name is Mayo. In My Name is Mayo the player must click to tap a mayo jar. That’s pretty much it. The beauty of video games being an artistic medium is that someone could construct an argument for the artistic value of My Name is Mayo. Better yet, you could argue that it does not matter if the game holds artistic value or not.

Ultimately, that is what it comes down to. Video games are an artistic medium, the potential exists for a video game to be defined as art. Defining art, though, is something of a fool’s errand and the debate of whether video games are art or not is a tired one. It might be better to ask why critics feel threatened by the idea of defining video games as an art form. Video games can be art, many games are art but those games that are not, does not make them any less valuable.