As a so-called “video game journalist,” my work day is perhaps a bit outside the norm. After all, I am essentially paid to play video games, a concept so absurd that I’m often forced to wonder if I’m not trapped in a fever dream, destined to wake up drooling on myself and fervently screaming about the cultural significance of Kid Icarus: Uprising. Thus, I live with the constant fear that someone will finally discover how ludicrous it is to pay me to put together Amazing Spider-Man walkthroughs, every day stumbling out of bed, downing a handful of Xanax, and nervously editing video files. All while waiting for that inevitable “you’re fired” email.
Though I’ve yet to actually be fired, I do receive a “what the fuck am I paying you money for?” email about every two weeks, forced to justify my existence to a man who owns a gigantic media company catering exclusively to this industry of ours, yet has likely never played anything more complicated than the Galaga machine at the back of Big Biff’s Waterin’ Hole (wasting a whole half a dollar before resolving to never touch a joystick again). Not that I consider his ignorance an outright sin, as it’s become very apparent that most of the movers and shakers of this industry would never stoop so low as to actually play a video game. However, it does mean that I’m often forced to explain to this man that no one has given a shit about cheat codes since 1997, so threatening to fire the one guy who regularly produces original video content, while keeping the cheat code database guy on full-time salary, is amusingly backwards.
Anyhow, as we approach convention season my latent job anxiety tends to dissipate. After all, I live within driving distance of the various nerd-centric events California is host to (Anime Expo, Comic-Con, Stan Lee’s Racially Insensitive Comic Expo), and being that my boss hates spending money, him not having to purchase me a plane ticket to get coverage is one of those easily defined returns on investment. So, with a dangerously reckless sense of job security, I found myself boldly venturing forth into the belly of the beast. That wonderful place where the childhood wonder which video games once provided us is slowly stripped away and beaten to death.
The world is ending. Pre-order now.
Day Negative 1
My E3 actually starts a week earlier, at the Spike TV Guy’s Choice Awards, me standing on the red carpet desperately trying to get (largely b-list) celebrities to talk about video games. I’ve worked several red carpet events since arriving in Los Angeles, something I find especially taxing as none of these people have shit to say about video games (though the nature of my outlet demands I steer the conversation toward World of Warcraft), while my complete disinterest in the goings-on of the Hollywood machine means I’m unable to recognize more than 5% of the people walking towards me. Once a very nice photographer from HollywoodJunk.com volunteered to act as my celebrity identifier, pausing between getting shots of Charlize Theron’s cleavage to inform me that the attractive African-American male approaching us was not, as I’d mistakenly assumed, Kanye West. Though I did get the chance to bond with Aldis Hodge (from TNT’s Leverage) over Sega’s Skies of Arcadia. That dude is legit.
My ticket to the event had been provided by one of the slick-haired business-bros I’d befriended at a known gaming PR firm, my loose respect for journalistic ethics (rule 1: don’t takes bribes), meaning that I often take bribes. If you’ve never dealt with PR, know that this man is a common archetype, a former frat brother with a newly-minted MBA, having assumed that a job slinging software was preferable to taking a job at dad’s hedge fund management firm. I actually enjoy these well-meaning slimeballs, all of them cut from the same cloth as my stock trading cousin, the one who enjoys calling me up to brag about his latest business deals and ask about how big the titties are on California’s women. Point is, I’m happy to play the part of the womanizing, beer-drinking lout which appeals to these PR bros, so long as I can continue to convince them to drag their suite of b-list game developers out to the rundown Mexican neighborhood where my office (see: bedroom) resides, the audio of our front-porch interviews drowned out by the bus station across the street.
After wasting copious amounts of tape talking to the unknown hosts of reality shows you’ve never heard of (American Digger, Car Lot Nightmares, Extreme Delicatessen), I ditched my trusty cameraman Tom Clark (as seen on TNT’s “The Closer”) and soon found myself seated at a large circular table, the elaborate candelabra casting dark shadows on the awkward assortment of twenty-something pop culture journalists assigned to this remote island, far from any actual celebrities. Though most of the bloggers at the table were from publications as similarly underwhelming as my own (hi PopCandy.com), one dangerously awkward Melvin let me know that he was from a long-standing gaming publication of arguable renown. I wonder if I would’ve read video game magazines as a kid if I knew the milquetoast albino nerds who were stapling the rag together, this particular writer stuffed into a dress shirt leaking copious amount of perspiration from the armpit area, grinning like a moron at his own stupid jokes while gnawing on a giant turkey leg. At one point the comically gigantic chocolate cake set on our table tipped over, and the Spike TV camera crew ran over for some cute footage of the hazard. Immediately this man began yelling “the cake is a lie” and at that moment I knew I was in hell.
All of this is simply to say that E3 was built for guys like Melvin from Game Rag #1, guys who were once left to rot at the unpopular table in the lunchroom, but have now forged an enclave of similarly weird jerks, working together to build laughable communities which bond over mass-market entertainment being largely dictated by marketing executives. These are people who still think that video games are worth talking about, that a negative review of Kane and Lynch could save the world. People who believe that by virtue of the fact that they’ve played Journey all the way to the end, they have the right to question the opinion of Roger FUCKING Ebert (who was only ever wrong about something once in his life).
Thing is, we’re quickly discovering that even if video games are art, most of them are not good art. Video games are more akin to the Spike TV Guy’s Choice Award for Most “Manticipated” Movie of the Year, a gilded pair of Golden Antlers for Christopher Nolan to accept with teeth clenched tightly together in a mockery of a smile, before returning to his job of directing the worst chase sequences in modern cinema. We are an industry which cribs the best of our content from movies you should’ve watched decades ago, all while gleefully celebrating the medium’s refusal to grow up, many gamers still wondering when Nintendo is going to grow a pair and let a blood-spattered Link behead some Moblins.
If we truly believe in this medium, then our goal is obvious: to prove Roger Ebert wrong. Unfortunately, no one seems to know the right path to take toward this end. Instead we find ourselves stumbling through the darkness, unable to find our footing, grinning marketing execs holding giant torches and claiming to know where the surface lies. Dragging us ever deeper into a horrible cavern of Goldeneye remakes and Farmville clones.
If that dark horrible cave housed a monster, its name would be E3.
The day before E3 started I rode my trusty shit-mobile into downtown: a 1995 Red Honda Civic, also known as the most commonly stolen car in America. Too offset this I keep the chasse covered in a thick film of grime and birdshit, deterring any potential thieves and later causing Canadian super journalist Mathew Kumar to visibly retch as he shoved aside the piles of garbage cluttering my passenger seat in return for a ride home.
I arrived right in time to meet up with the rest of my outlet’s staff members for lunch at the legendary Hooters across from the convention center. Many of them were college students from around the country, who had fronted the money for their own ticket in hopes of enjoying this splendid show. I envied their bright-eyed optimism, all of them too busy eagerly discussing what might be shown at the Ubisoft press conference to even bat an eye at the large-owled waitress dropping off our chicken wings. I remember housing that same unbridled glee as a child, flipping through the glossy pages of Nintendo Power and imagining what three days of video games would be like. These days, the thought of paying to attend E3 is horrifying, and the fact that I can expense $180 worth of beer and chicken wings is a minor solace.
Later that day I would be present for the shot heard round the gaming world, namely the shotgun blast to the head delivered during Sony’s otherwise thrill-less press conference. I don’t know what the silent hope is, either that the trailer hadn’t climaxed with a man’s brains getting blown out as he pleaded for his life, or that the press and media buyers in attendance would’ve responded with polite golf claps rather than raucous cheering. It’s maybe worth noting that Sony’s conference took place at the USC sports arena, the same campus where two months earlier a pair of students were gunned down during a botched robbery. (Their parents would later sue the school for claiming in brochures that the school was located in a hip urban area, without mentioning that “hip urban area” is shorthand for “the goddamned ghetto.”)
Watching this man screaming out as his head (assumedly) exploded into an impressively rendered pile of brain, blood, and skull, I found myself pulling my Nintendo 3DS from a pocket, searching for a save point in Tales of the Abyss 3D. Quietly I pondered if this was really the future of games we’d been searching for, whether the audience was simply reacting to the context sensitive dialogue and impressively scripted A.I., rather than screaming out with glee at the thought of being able to task your teenage companion with stabbing a man in the back before you send him loudly into that good night.
Truthfully, is this the high we’ve been striving for? The ability to play through poorly disguised anti-hero cinema, pumping our fists like hooligans as our on-screen avatars lose their humanity?
Is this our art?
The night before I’d found myself in an elevator, surrounded by similar journalist types, all of us vaguely drunk on Polygon’s dollar. The party had been a decent time, me smooth talking the lady staffing the line to let us slip in, proceeding to snap a fantastic picture with some dude I don’t know. Inside, I even had the chance to quickly apologize to Seth Killian for a particularly humiliating bit I’d shot half a year ago (demanding he put Howard the Duck in Marvel vs. Capcom 3), followed by me stumbling over to the DJ booth just in time to hear him curse everyone else in attendance for not paying attention to the raffle, randomly handing me a voucher for a brand new Snapdragon cell phone.
So we’re in this elevator, because Tim and Brandon has apparently spent the entire previous night watching Power Rangers, and me wearing my Power Rangers t-shirt has convinced the lot of us that it is a good idea to watch more Power Rangers. Our excitement levels are rising as we attempt to mentally prepare ourselves to watch the best episode of Power Rangers ever (Forever Red), when suddenly the elevator lurches, dropping a floor. A panicked Tim Rogers is jamming on the emergency button, trying to convince the bored middle-aged woman staffing the emergency button call center that we are all about to die and that we love our families very much. Again the floor drops out from under us. My body is covered in a cold sweat, realizing this is where I die. Not because I was busy searching for a grand unifying truth, but because some investor on the internet needed to know what a Wonderbook was before deciding whether to liquidate his remaining shares of Sony stock.
Somehow, the elevator arrives at our floor and we all scramble for the door, nervous laughter ringing out in the empty hall. A sense of irony hangs there in the air.
After all, we’d come to E3 to report on a corpse, and almost become corpses ourselves!
(Best moment of E3 2012 is Brandon being so high on Polygon juice that every time someone new popped onscreen during Forever Red he would confidently declare that that person was the original red ranger, even if it was clearly the twenty-something Beast Force ranger we’d seen just seconds earlier. This devolved into us pointing at random things in Aaron Novak’s apartment and declaring them to be the original red ranger, to which Brandon got upset. Try it next time you see him!) (Brandon’s note: If you do you will be very heartily ignored.)
Being a video game journalist, no one gives half of two shits what I look like, as evidenced by the lack of commentary on the patchy beards and fifty pounds of extra weight I’ve been known to lug around to similar events (John Cho of “Harold and Kumar” fame once jokingly approved of my shitty beard, which was a good enough reason to shave it off forever). Tim and Frank like the mustache I occasionally rock, but the few unlucky women willing to submit to sexual intercourse with me say it’s a deal breaker. You’d think once your standards got down to my level, anything would go, but I’m not going to oppose the opinion of my lone sexual partner so long as Fifty Shades of Grey remains in vogue (I practice kinky sex, and you should too!).
I bring this up because at one point during this first day I was scheduled to see Mechwarrior Online, only to realize I’d instead been tricked into setting up an appointment with some Korean mobile phone company, their booth consisting of a single cubicle containing nothing more a tiny laptop and several sweating foreigners. Me and a fellow journalist quickly bailed, but not before I snapped a picture of the chief executive’s hair. It’s exactly what I’ve been wanting to do with my own rapidly depleting locks for years now, a daring comb-over meant exclusively for powerful businessmen, their realm being one where the most distinguished haircut makes the decisions.
This man and his double whammy of trickery is the definition of every E3 vendor. Fake haircut, fake game, and a desperate hope nobody is paying enough attention to call them out on it. For every genuine new idea, there is a crappy Diablo clone for the PS Vita, or a new urban warfare IP hoping to steal Call of Duty’s thunder, or worst of all: a once loved series now dressed up in a coat of disgusting modern gloss. At one point the actual pole dancer adorning Capcom’s Devil May Cry backstage play area tells me photos of her humping the stage aren’t allowed.
That’s the big theme after all: look but don’t touch. Enjoy the show, and don’t dare to ask yourself why.
The big star of E3 is indisputably GREE, the Japanese mobile game developer whose every title embodies that mantra. These games are “numbers going up” simulators, taking the minor hook which addicted legions of teenagers to games like Final Fantasy and stripping out anything that might be considered gameplay. Once this core mechanic has been filed down to its most bare element, all that’s left to do is dress it up in a pretty outfit and send it to the ball. Zombie card game? Sure. Princess adventure sim? Why not? All around their massive booth journalists milled around, a few snarky fools enjoying the free drinks and laughing at the humdrum offerings, the more evolved witnesses rushing around in search of a wireless signal with which to contact their stock-brokers.
It’s social gaming which poses the greatest threat to our industry, not just because awful games are making absurd amounts of money, but because they call into question everything we know about the medium. Farmville threatens to be the game equivalent of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, proving that the game experience can be broken down into base molecules; numbers going up, management of ever-greater potential rewards, barely competent Adobe Illustrator artwork; and not only continue to function as a living breathing entity, but actually supplant the supposed-evolved idols we’d once fervently worshiped. What do we say now that games have been exposed as mockeries of the psychological tendency toward capitalism instilled in us by that first trip to the candy store? What can we truly expect knowing that our god is dead, and that with him goes too all standards of taste and decency?
It’s easy then to simply plead ignorance, to bury ourselves in ignorant bliss and pine for a time before god was dead. Days when my artistic soul-brother Eddy Pula watched me play fifteen minutes of the survival horror clunker Siren, and remarked to me later in the day that he understood what I was talking about it when I said games are art.
I think we’re beginning to realize that as much as we love video games, they might not love us back.
That night I’m at the Halo 4 party, professional games analyst Michael Pachter using his impressive fitted suit as a human battering ram, letting us follow in his commanding wake despite our lack of actual invitations. In the back of my mind the specter of the GREE booth grins at me like a bleached-white skull, and I revel in the pointlessness of it all while downing several “Master Chiefs” and handfuls of terrible hors d’oeuvres. At some point Tim introduces me to CheapyD, and realizing that I am meeting the man responsible for fueling my unerring addiction to purchasing video games (and that I must appear to him like every other random CAG fanboy he encounters), I take the unique tact of screaming at him like a raving lunatic. Within minutes I’m explaining my theory of how thirteen year olds have been conditioned by the quick jump cuts of Spongebob cartoons and the rampant availability of internet pornography to expect a constant stream of endorphin rewards, hence the reason Halo’s slow-paced recharging shield nonsense has quickly been supplanted by Call of Duty’s “kill the fuck out of everybody” multiplayer.
That’s all these multiplayer shooters are anyway, mutual masturbation, and would you rather shoot your load fifteen times a second, or tenderly love a woman while her overshield recharges?
If you answered the latter, know that romantics like you are a dying breed.
Day 2 begins in a panic, me unable to find the schedule I’ve printed out, nor am I bring it up on my iPhone, every journalist in attendance jamming the network by frantically live-tweeting how much of a boner the mile long Call of Duty trailer is giving them.
I’d believed I had an appointment with 505 Games, though the very nice lady at their desk assures me that I am a crazy person, and that they are definitely not showing off whatever downloadable MMA title I’m blabbering about. Eventually I find my schedule in a back pocket, racing toward the 343 Games booth (not to be confused with 505 Games or 345 Games) with tripod and camera in tow, quickly wiping sweat from my brow before bursting in mid-presentation.
I watch the last half of the guided demo, ask maybe three questions (Q: Can you customize your fighter’s tattoos? A: No.), quickly slam my way through the standard pro interview, dazzling all in attendance with my ability to feign pure enthusiasm for a game with which I’ve spent a grand total of ten minutes. Afterward I learn 345 Games is a division of Spike TV, which is a division of Viacom, who owns Comedy Central. I learn this from the Viacom VP in the back of the room who is handing me a business card and promising that we’ll be in touch regarding possible employment opportunities with the final mentioned entity in that corporate chain.
Seeing a possible escape route out of my hellhole of an industry, I promptly devolve into a rambling mess of a man. Realizing this, I bow and take my exit before I scare this VP into ripping his card out of my hands, aware of his lapse of judgment.
I soon find myself with some time to kill before my next appointment, stumbling around the show in search of a distraction. The day prior, an overenthusiastic attendee showed me the sick $200 pair of gaming headphones he’d won from the World of Warplanes booth, assuring me that the path to similar victory was within even a simpleton’s grasp. Still high off the successful interview, I decide to hop in the queue and see if my luck continues. I spend the next hour playing the most insanely boring video game ever concocted by man. I am now convinced that the whole World of Wargaming enterprise is some sort of elaborate Belarus-based pyramid scheme, as I just can’t believe that games so mind-numbingly awful could accrue enough capital to justify a booth the size of a small palace, let rent the real WWII-era warplane that sits out front of the South Hall (last year they had a goddamn tank). The Wargaming.net reps are apparently so eager to please that they were handing out expensive model airplanes to any journalists willing to swing by for an interview. Gamasutra’s Frank Cifaldi is a man with much better journalistic ethics than myself, and knowing he couldn’t keep this bribe in good faith, instead piloted it to a fiery crash the previous night, onlookers cheering as if they’d just seen a man’s head being blown apart.
For some reason, the sheer awfulness of World of Warplanes is enough to give me a migraine, the pounding in my head so intense that I simply can’t pay any attention to the well-meaning kid trying to show off his silly indie platformer. Blinded by the pain I find myself oddly desiring to lash out in anger at him, questions ricocheting throughout my burning skull. Is this the best that indie gaming can accomplish? We’ve complained for so long about how big business is holding original game concepts back, yet this is best we can come up with? 2D platformers dressed up with pretentious art school graphics? Before I can let my errant opinion fly I give the game five minutes of my time and find it not the worst thing I’ve ever played, wondering which misguided game reviewer will be the first to declare it “The New Braid.” I stumble away in anguish, riding the metro train back to my house, and collapsing on my bed. Trying to remember what it is I came here to do.
Trying to remember why I ever thought videogames were so damned important.
It is the last day of the show, and the mere thought of this fills me with hope. I start off the day at the Konami booth, where my appointment is unfortunately lumped in with that of a sneering middle-aged woman who takes special offense to the nice Konami PR lady’s attempt to explain what Transfarring is. I wish I’d asked what outlet she wrote for, as she treated everything she saw with such vitriol that I can only assume she’s the greatest media writer ever.
At some point I am shown Frogger Pinball, a new iOS app which does what it says on the tin. I explain to my guide that I am quite familiar with the game, having yesterday spent a good half an hour trying to best the high score in hopes of winning what the poster describes as a “Konami Prize Package.” The setup is actually pretty novel, Konami having ordered custom pinball cabinets with the playfield replaced by a giant LCD screen, flipper buttons connected via bluetooth to whatever was running the game. I decide to give it a final try while waiting for the aforementioned horrible lady to stop interrogating the developer of the Silent Hill branded Diablo clone, when suddenly I accidentally trigger the multiball, followed shortly by a 4x multiplayer. Achieving the high score I raise my arms in triumph, everyone within shouting distance turning to watch as the awkward fat kid demands to know where his prize is. The Konami reps trade apologetic glances with one another, before unceremoniously leading me towards the desk, retrieving my prize from an unmarked cardboard box.
Contents of the Konami “Prize” Package:
- (1) Copy of Def Jam Rapstar for PlayStation 3 – Estimated Value: $9.99
- (1) Silent Hill Downpour Soundtrack – Estimated Value: Nothing
Following this intense disappointment, I conduct an interview with the best PR rep in all of video games: Pearl Lu, and we happily joke on-camera about Konami fans masturbating with the Otomedius Excellent pillowcase. Finally though, I’m led to the real highlight of the booth, the closed to the public Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance demo area. Inside the white-walled storage closet they’ve assembled, I am instructed that nobody there has the authority to answer anything more than the most basic questions, nor am I allowed to film anything.
I press start.
Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is a game where a robot ninja runs around slicing things in half. If you press the right button after tearing into somebody with your giant glowing samurai sword, you can rip out their still beating cyborg heart and crush it to bits, adding more super juice to your meter. Get enough super juice and you can go into slow motion, letting you chop your opponents into precise bits and pieces at your leisure.
At one point the Konami rep behind me points at the screen, telling me to run across the bridge of missiles being fired at me from the helicopter boss. I do this, my cybernetic ninja avatar gracefully hopping across the incoming waves of ordinance, putting him directly within range of my opponent. I press the slow motion button, and cut a goddamn helicopter in half with a samurai sword.
It feels really fucking good.
This feeling stays with me the rest of the day, even as I deal with more of the nonsensical video game journalism bullshit that happens behind the scenes, profusely apologizing to PR reps regarding negative reviews from four months prior, or letting the booth managers approve the “over the shoulder only” framing for my video footage of their exclusive E3 demo knowing full well I’m just going to crop it down from 1080p to 720p so that nobody has to see my back sweat.
Somehow, all it took was one good game to make all the bad feelings go away, a quick visceral thrill to remind me that I’m covering a fucking trade show, not documenting the emerging standard of a new revolution. These are products which are here to make money, and my attempt to find art within them is a silly and pointless endeavor, as useless as any fanboy forum thread arguing over which Final Fantasy game is the best (it’s still VII you stupid morons). Thing is, as disgusting as it is to watch Call of Duty trailers help sell the apocalypse, every art form has its roots in commercial exploitation. The first Russian film goers didn’t gather for a chance to see raw human emotion, they wanted to watch a train barreling into frame. They packed the goddamn theater full of Cossacks and screamed with wild excitement as a shaky out-of-focus steam engine screamed past in silence, then they yelled angrily until the man with the camera agreed to rewind the film and show it a second, third and forth time.
We are at the forefront of a new thing, there is plenty of time left for us to make the Battleship Potemkin. Until then, we shouldn’t feel too guilty paying a dollar to see the train again.
Because, maybe if we watch the train enough times, we can figure out how to drive it off the tracks. Maybe then we can dethrone Ebert.
I eventually find my colleagues occupying a tiny white couch in the Kalypso booth, laughing riotously as they demo some forgettable four-player romp called Dollar Dash. Excitedly they work to rush handfuls of cash to a nearby helicopter (the year of helicopters continues…), using a variety of pickups to knock their opponents down and swipe the cash they drop. The Kalypso guys are grinning ear to ear, one executive whipping out his iPhone to record video of their un-coerced journalist reactions, insanely pleased to know that they’ve got a winner on their hands. Everyone laughing and joking and drinking sweating cans of Diet Coke as they go, all of us aware of the only real lesson E3 can teach: There’s nothing wrong with a good old fashioned cash grab.
The day after the show I wake up to an email in my inbox, my boss furiously demanding a reason why I didn’t put up any E3 articles during the show. I reply simply that fat kids don’t have the stamina of Kenyan decathletes, and if he can find somebody willing to lug twenty pounds of camera equipment around a convention, shrug off their exhaustion across a dozen interviews, and edit hours of footage that same night, then he should hire that mythical god immediately and set him to work converting rocks to gold.
I get no reply, which means that for another day, I’m still a video game journalist.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.