As I walked through Times Square last Thursday, towards the Best Buy Theater and the Xbox One launch event, I caught myself noticing strictly codified haircut strata. The police officers stationed nearby all had hats on, covering up what seemed like run-of-the-mill high and tight cop hair. The Best Buy Theater stagehands, milling around in the interest of crowd control while cracking jokes and presumably collecting sweet union overtime pay, all had closely cropped hair or shaved heads. Just a few feet past them were eight or nine Microsoft employees, all of whom wore the flipped-up-in-front short hairstyle that’s been popular among upper-middle-class regular guys for what seems like twenty years.
The haircuts also served as a reliable indicator of stress level; the police, having been assigned to a placid-by-Times-Square-standards event only some of them seemed to fully understand, seemed half-checked-out. (“Is this that zombie shit everyone on the radio was talking about?” I heard one NYPD officer ask another, referring to the horde of Dead Rising-styled zombies that had apparently passed by earlier in the evening.) The stagehands, wearing matching black hooded sweatshirts and seemingly distrustful of the entire affair, were on their home turf, and thus slightly more was required of them. Having realized the crowd wasn’t much of a threat, however, they quickly became content to wonder aloud why anybody would drink an energy drink, even if it was free (there were lots of free energy drinks going around) and shout “Free Xbox over here!” every few minutes at the teeming line a few feet away.
Behind them, the flipped-up-hair/two-day-stubble/gingham shirt guys were, understandably, in no mood to joke around. Nobody in their right mind cares about operating systems anymore. If you told me the Microsoft Surface was a fictional product, one that only exists in comments-section arguments and advertisements, I would believe you. The Xbox One launch is as big a day that modern-day Microsoft will know, and these public-facing marketing honchos had been entrusted not to fuck it up. Walkie talkies hung off their belts, blaring news of armored car locations and game kiosk readiness levels. Lists were checked and double-checked. People were trained on the spot for event-related jobs that nobody involved seemed to fully understand. It struck me that last Thursday night, and probably the two weeks in either direction, might be the most important days of some of these people’s entire careers.
The line itself, broken up by Thursday-night Times Square hubbub into several small lines that looked more like 400-square-foot herds of people, failed to astonish in the way that one of those mile-long shantytown lines to get into a Star Wars movie can astonish. Over the course of the day, the fans towards the front of the line had slowly been covered from head-to-toe in that sour-apple green Xbox color; hoodies, beanies and even parkas bearing the Xbox One logo were in play. Most noticeably, though, were these blinking cylindrical tubes that looked like big rolls of cellophane. I was offered one three times over the course of the night, and almost everyone at the event was waving around at least one of them. They weren’t Xbox-green, and the logo on them was illegible if they were being waved around, but in retrospect providing an idle crowd comprised primarily of 15-30 year-old males with something to dissipate their antsiness is a pretty wise idea.
Maybe fifty people from the front of the line, towards the middle of the first sub-line, I spoke to Jonathan and Nicholas, a couple of guys from Harlem and the Bronx who had been waiting since ten o’clock in the morning. Nine and a half hours into their wait, they initially summarized the experience as “cold,” but quickly stepped back into embracing the wait. “At first I was just going to wait for it, but then something inside of me said ‘I want to be part of this,’” said Jonathan. “It’s an experience,” added Nicholas. Jonathan smiled and gestured towards the line, Times Square, the massive theater and the six-figure Forza supercars giving fans rides around one of the most traffic-dense blocks in the country. The launch event would not start for another hour and change, but Microsoft had already stacked so many disparate, large-scale spectacles on top of each other that Nicholas was right: No word other than “experience” would do it justice. Microsoft, a company who has completely altered the meaning of the word “achievement” for a significant portion of the population, was throwing everything they had against the wall in the name of creating something that needed to be experienced.
Shortly after a fleet of Xbox branded armored cars arrived bearing the launch-night consoles, we were granted access to the foyer of the theater where the launch event was set to take place. I wandered past a replica Best Buy checkout area, was filmed being beaten badly by the computer at the new Killer Instinct game, and talked to a friendly woman whose company was responsible for the zombie makeup. We were both hungry, and she explained that a Microsoft authority figure had told her there would be hors d’oeuvres once the theater itself was opened up. As we waited for snacktime, the Xbox haircut guys sped nervously back and forth; the armored trucks had been a little late, and now the event was running behind schedule. Eventually, the doors to the theater were opened, and we stepped inside.
All of a sudden, I was underneath bright spotlights while trying unsuccessfully to pace myself on a ten-dollar cocktail among breakdancing zombies and shield-clattering Roman soldiers. It was hard to figure out what to do with myself. After the initial rush of stimuli wore off, though, it became clear that there wasn’t much to do at the event except walk in little circles, use the bathroom, talk oneself into or out of purchasing an expensive Times Square drink (an extremely special “thanks” to the total superhero who I watched purchase a twelve-dollar shot of Hennessy), or play one of the seven or eight sandboxed Xbox One launch titles set up at kiosks around the room. As I played through the Dead Rising 3 demo for the second time, my avatar hurling a liquor bottle at the face of a zombified police officer, my exhaustion levels began to feel unmanageable—and mine were the result of simply drinking five beers at band practice on Wednesday night and then working all day. I tried unsuccessfully to imagine how the people who had been in line overnight must have felt. There was a lot of Xbox, and there would be more Xbox for those who had been in line, but there wasn’t much else; considering what the waiting fans had been through it seemed awfully inhospitable. There wasn’t even anywhere to sit down.
The hors d’oeuvres I’d been promised consisted of bite-sized slices of pizza that tasted like foam rubber and tiny cheeseburgers that looked like those gummi cheeseburgers. The DJ, for his part, gave the crowd an admirable amount of credit, playing totally unobjectionable, slightly less-than-obvious rap hits like “Oochie Wally” by Nas and “How Do U Want It” by Tupac. I scanned the crowd for the zombie makeup woman in hopes that she had found an alternate food source, but couldn’t find her.
After a while, a few game developers sat onstage and signed posters for whoever lined up. A man in an Ozzy Osbourne beanie got his photo taken with them. While playing a round of Assassin’s Creed, I did a poor job explaining that I was a fellow journalist and suddenly found myself being interviewed for TV Tokyo about my thoughts on the new Xbox (it’s fine), the Assassin’s Creed franchise (it’s fine), whether I will buy the new Xbox (maybe after the holidays), and how the new Assassin’s Creed game differs from its predecessors (You can sail around in a pirate ship in this one.)
The atmosphere on both sides of the Xbox-green curtain last Thursday seemed to be one of dutiful, satisfied exhaustion. Microsoft did their part both by giving their fans a place to come together and by arranging spectacles that shored up some brand associations: Expensive cars (luxury, precision engineering), zombies (controlled chaos, horror-movie intensity), Roman soldiers (masculinity through militant devotion). The fans did their part by waiting in line, cheering when they felt like it, and convincing themselves, Microsoft and, maybe, the console-buying public that the Xbox One is worth enduring something for. After leaving the launch event, I walked down to 23rd Street, past a small handful of lesser Xbox One events. The people waiting in line had headphones on and smartphones out; they weren’t yelling anything or waving anything around. They were just there for an Xbox, whereas their thousand counterparts in Times Square, the supercars, the zombies, the kiosks, the Japanese television personalities, the phenomenally popular musicians, the police, the awful pizza, and the bag of branded Doritos I eventually found to eat were all there for those manic, identically-dressed Microsoft employees and, by proxy, for Xbox itself.