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Zelda, Batman, and tractors: 7 games that explain the video game industry in 2016

E3, the industry’s biggest gathering, offers a chance to show off upcoming games and hardware.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Look! It’s a new Zelda game!
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The video game industry is much, much larger than you think it is.

Sure, you probably think it’s big. But did you know it’s $23.5 billion big? That’s how much revenue gaming pulled in — in the United States alone — in 2015. That number isn’t so far behind the amount of money earned by every movie released worldwide in the same year, combined ($38 billion).

It’s true that marquee video games — your Call of Dutys and Legends of Zelda and Madden football games — cost a lot more than a movie ticket, usually around $60 a pop, versus around $10 per ticket. But as gaming hooks more and more players and spreads to more and more platforms (like, say, your smartphone), it’s making money in new ways (like, say, when you buy some new gadget for 99 cents while playing a phone game).

And the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, held annually in Los Angeles, is where the video game industry previews its upcoming releases for industry professionals and members of the press. (Since most press conferences are live-streamed, the event is effectively "attended" by gaming fans as well, though the actual conference floor isn’t open to enthusiasts, which sets E3 apart from something like Comic-Con.)

The event itself is a weird, crowded, exhausting shuffle through demo after demo, line after line. Attendees are allowed to play games, but only in carefully controlled environments that are obviously set up to reduce the possibility that they might discover a bug or identify a flaw.

And yet it’s still fun to take in all of this hype, even if it’s primarily marketing muscle.

This year’s event was mostly about new hardware, with virtual reality headsets taking center stage and Microsoft announcing what amounts to a new console, to go along with Nintendo and Sony’s previously announced upgrades. But there were also lots and lots of games on display, games that reflect where the industry has been and point the way toward where it’s going. Here are seven of them.

Note: These are not the best games of E3; I didn’t check out nearly enough titles to compile a definitive list. They’re simply the games that best exemplify certain trends within the gaming industry. For a much deeper dive into E3, check out Vox’s sister site, Polygon.

1) The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

If one game seemed to dominate the bulk of the discussion at E3 — whether for its design choices, its quality, or just Nintendo’s weird insistence that the game’s hero couldn’t be a woman — it was the latest in the long-running Zelda series, which sends the young hero Link into hibernation, then wakes him up in some vaguely apocalyptic future. Naturally, he has to save the world. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was the only game featured in Nintendo’s booth, even though the gaming giant will be releasing other titles this year.

The buzz was driven by Nintendo’s decision to push toward an "open world" system, which means players can effectively decide where they want to go, what they want to do, and how much of the story they want to complete. Breath of the Wild boasts a massive world, 12 times larger than that of the last Zelda game, and you can even finish the game without having seen most of what it has to offer.

This means you can focus on whatever you want — fighting things or solving puzzles or climbing as high as you can and jumping to see how far you can fall before dying. The controls are relatively straightforward and easy to grasp, and the game gently suggests where the player might go next, but won’t interfere too much if he, say, wants to scale a tower and skydive off of it. (Take it from me: It’s fun!)

For a series that has occasionally felt stultified by how its stories break down into "complete the quest, then raid the dungeon, then complete the quest" in linear fashion, this Zelda is a breath of fresh air.

More and more, video games seem to fall into one of two categories: massive, open experiences that let you do whatever you want, or more streamlined experiences that tell tighter stories. Zelda was the expo’s foremost example of the former.

2) Batman: A Telltale Game Series

At the opposite side of the spectrum is Telltale Games’ Batman, the umpteenth attempt to turn the DC Comics character into a video game hero (perhaps most successfully achieved in the Arkham series of games, which are now getting a short virtual reality spinoff).

Telltale’s games are all about limiting the number of choices you have, boiling the story down to some choice moments and then altering what happens based on the decisions you make.

Telltale views this approach as a way to give you freedom to operate within a story the company is telling, though its emphasis on narrative can seem too restrictive to those who want the freedom of the new Zelda or, say, Grand Theft Auto. (I love Telltale’s games for the very reason so many dislike them.)

All of this means that the Telltale Batman game is less about fighting (which is carefully scripted, with the player being directed to push specific buttons at certain junctures, rather than deciding which punches to throw) and more about politics, as Bruce Wayne attempts to influence an upcoming Gotham City election (seriously).

Many people will inevitably dislike the game for its relative paucity of fighting, but I was intrigued by the notion of a superhero story where everything can hinge on whether or not Bruce shakes a character’s hand.

3) Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin

Virtual reality currently falls somewhere between "the next big thing" and "overhyped."

The technology is breathtaking when you first experience it, at least for the first 15 minutes or so, but the number of games that actually make good use of seemingly inserting you into another world is incredibly small at the moment. What’s more, most of the best VR headsets are incredibly expensive, which makes the "wait and see" approach appealing to many consumers.

But Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin, a short "mid-quel" between the cult favorite Psychonauts and its upcoming sequel, seems to use VR well. I didn’t try it out, so I’ll throw to Dave Tach of Vox’s sister publication Polygon:

Don’t get me wrong: It’s awesome to shoot a gun in VR. It's also pretty obvious, which must be why so many games at the dawn of virtual reality turn the controller in your hand into a firearm. But as with any medium, there’s room to experiment, and Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin does exactly that.

Even more telling was Resident Evil 7, a "back to basics" entry for the monster-hunting shooter, but one that caused a number of people to fall ill when checking the game out in its VR form. Clearly, VR is an exciting new technology, but just as clearly, the industry has to figure out how to calibrate its use of the form.

4) Mafia 3

Tentatively, games are embracing the idea of more and more diverse protagonists. This is still most evident in the world of indie game design, but larger titles from mainstream publishers are starting to think about how their stories might be different if they had protagonists who weren’t the typical straight, white guys of games past.

There were several examples of this at E3 2016, but perhaps none so prominent as Mafia 3. Where the last game in the series took place in 1940s New York (a fairly typical setting for a Mafia story), the latest installment is set in 1960s New Orleans, which is decidedly not a typical crime drama setting. As such, its protagonist is a black man, trying to prove himself in the underworld of that period.

And yet Mafia 3 also exemplifies why character diversity in gaming only comes in fits and starts. The game’s chief creative personnel are all white, and while they worked to recruit a diverse team behind the scenes, there’s still plenty of concern that they won’t effectively tell this particular story, no matter how much they might want to. (Check out Polygon’s full preview for more.)

5) Abzû

Some of the best games of recent years might be most accurately described as exploration games (gamers who long for more action in their games often dismissively calls them "walking simulators"). Abzû is such a game, sending players underwater to explore an aquatic world that looks absolutely gorgeous.

There’s a good chance Abzû ends up being peaceful, tranquil, and a little bit boring, but the team behind it includes some of the folks from the hugely acclaimed Journey (which really was a walking simulator — in that it took players through a seemingly endless desert — but still had much to say about human interaction, teamwork, and the nature of community). That suggests the ultimate result will be well worth diving beneath the depths for.

And, hey, if nothing else, it looks to be a beautiful exploration of an underwater realm most of us don’t have the chance to check out very often.

6) God of War 4

Of course, the bulk of mainstream game company attention is spent on sequels to proven hits, like this next installment in the popular PlayStation series in which the player, controlling a brute named Kratos, wrecks their way through monsters drawn from Greek mythology. So far, so good.

But God of War 4 shows how gaming is slowly but surely stumbling toward maturity. It isn’t just game about killing things — it’s a game about being a dad. Writes Polygon’s Philip Kollar, in a piece that also discusses how the God of War team envisions the series as something akin to a TV show:

God of War is a story about a father who has made a million mistakes, who has consistently made the wrong choices in life. Rather than accepting responsibility for those choices, he has lashed out in anger at everyone around him. That would be Kratos, our "hero." This isn't Kratos' first family — he was tricked into killing his wife and daughter earlier in the series — but the developers said they're not revealing the name of Kratos' son or the boy's mother because those bits of information are important to the game's plot.

7) Farming Simulator 17

During quieter moments at E3, I noticed that quite a few games at the event placed the player in the role of a farmer. Some of them (like the latest in the seemingly endless Harvest Moon series) turned agriculture into a chance to engage in some light-hearted role-playing. Others, like Farming Simulator 17, aimed more for "realism," turning the player loose on farm machinery and the like. The apparent boom in farming games would be easy to attribute to the indie sensation Stardew Valley (another farming game), but the timeline wouldn’t exactly match up.

Instead, Farming Simulator 17 and many similar games are simply a reminder that, for as often as gaming is reduced to "shooting things" in the press, there are a great many titles that aim to take players into a wide variety of other experiences, to try out all sorts of alternate lives. And those games are at E3, too, if you know where to look for them. (Okay, Farming Simulator 17’s booth was shaped like a giant barn, so it wasn’t so hard to find.)

Do I anticipate this game becoming a massive sensation? Not really. But the fact that it exists — and is popular enough for a new edition to come out annually — is all the proof you need that gaming is more than its stereotype. Ultimately, it’s about building an alternate Earth, one where you can live out any life you might want, via digital means.