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E3 2014: A Week in the Woods

June 17, 2014  |  2:30pm
E3 2014: A Week in the Woods

Around ten AM I shove my only possessions in the back of the silver Mazda under the flat yellow air and duck into the back seat. I’m hungover. Tim and Swampy in front murmur greetings; I murmur mine back and the car lurches into the road from Oakland to Los Angeles, tarmac stretching out towards E3 in the head like a dirt flat into a Dodongo’s gaping mouth. I slump surrounded by a PS4 devkit and two Carebears (the Carebears are permanent residents.) Swamp puts a CD named “J-Pop #3” into the CD player. We laugh in glee at the surprise sound of the Glengarry Glen Ross audio hurling itself into our ears.

“Stocks, bonds, objects of art, real estate. What are they? An opportunity. To what? To make money? Perhaps. To lose money? Perhaps. To ‘indulge’ and to ‘learn’ about ourselves? Perhaps. So fucking what? What isn’t? They’re an opportunity. That’s all they are. They’re an event.”

My captors both shout the words at the windscreen as if to shatter it; I clutch the pink Carebear.

The orange dust hills go by; after a while the sea ebbs gently by Santa Barbara as I look through the spattered window at passing palm trees. Sometimes I look at Twitter for news from the E3 press conferences: a new MOBA has been announced. Halo: The Master Chief Collection. There’s a Ratchet and Clank film. Oh, good, I think. This is appealing to my demographic.

At the hotel I chirp in glee and embrace Kotaku’s Keza MacDonald who is letting me lurk in her hotel room for the week. She is relaxed with a glossy look of professionalism, neatness and rest that comes from having two cats and a salary. Her smile is warm even though she has just seen two conferences fly past like cockroaches on a playpark slide. Tim takes pictures of his shapely calves to send to the internet while we lounge in the hotel room and talk about the absurdity of the towels folded to look like fans.

“They keep fucking replacing the shampoo when I haven’t even used it,” Keza complains. “I have taken to hiding it.”

The next morning I hide the shampoo and exit into the LA sun to walk to the Convention Center. I guess this is the largest expo of its kind: On the broad streets leading up to the centre there are little blue flags with “E3” on the streetlights and as soon as I approach something called the “Staples Center” (no stationery) there are huge banners spanning the length of the building advertising big budget games.

But there’s something about the banners: They all feature the rugged faces of white male protagonists looking stern like you have eaten the muffin that they had labelled with clear instructions DO NOT EAT because they were planning on eating it while driving to football practice and now you have eaten it and why did you do that.

“Sorry,” I say, only half by accident. I want them to hear.

I turn the corner and Stephen Totilo, the EIC at Kotaku US is there, looking incredibly upbeat for someone who must have a full schedule of appointments all week. Although I occasionally work for him this is the first time I have met him: It is the way of the internet. I always feel like a samurai without a master, as if I am need of someone to take responsibility for me, so I’m sort of excited to say hello.

As we talk I get a bit self-conscious. He probably thinks I should be louder, I think to myself. Or maybe he thinks I should be funnier. Think of a joke, I panic. Oh god I think, there was that one time I played Twitter roulette on Terry Cavanagh’s phone and “announced” Super Hexagon 2 and it was a joke and—but he stops me mid thought and points across the road at some people, recognisably scruffy, holding their arms in the air by the trees on the street.

“Look!” he says, as we observe our kind like they are chaffinches pecking at beetles on bark. “They are charging their 3DSes on outlets that have been installed on the trees.”

“…”

In the game script of my life, a bubble emerges from my mouth with a JRPG dot dot dot.

I stare. Is this what other people see? Do they see this weird, cute species of human being enacting strange rituals? Or are we just generally embarrassing? I think about people who wear Google Glass and shudder and never think about that comparison ever again.

Stephen points me in the direction of media registration and I go towards the giant concrete beast with angryman-banner wings, flashing red eyes, the screeching megaphone voice.

Something makes me look up at the palm trees, and I remember.

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It is crowded and the bass echoes from the Playstation, Gamespot and Microsoft stands, audible even in the hallway. I feel very tired, suddenly. I think about that sign on the door of Bioshock Infinite: “Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.” The first half of that sentence is Super Mario old, the Collect Girl To Win, but the brash suggestion that it is our responsibility to wipe away the debt? That was new. I mean, we were always collecting coins. It just wasn’t always our responsibility.

I have been trained. My eyes avert from the neon lights courting my glance and I get to registration.

I look at my appointment schedule. “Where is Concourse Hall, Room #8802?” I ask the information desk.

She looks at me. “Uh,” she says. “What did you say the room number was?”

I tell her again. She looks on the floor plan. She can’t find it. She looks up her computer. “Uh, what did you say it was?”

I repeat myself.

“It’s not on the map,” she says after a while. “But it’s probably here?” She points to someplace miles away.

I begin my journey.

It wasn’t there. Two hours later, and I have asked three different people where Concourse Hall, Room #8802 is, all of them with official E3 credentials. None of them have been able to tell me for sure where this place is, and I haven’t found it in the places they told me to look. I go back to the media room to email the PR to ask where exactly the mystery room is. By this time I have missed the appointment, which was only thirty minutes long. The PR says that the room is next to Zynga’s. Z marks the spot.

But I haven’t seen anything labelled Zynga anywhere on the floor, and by now, I know where almost everything is located. I could tell you where to get a chocolate chip cookie or a giant annoying Persona-branded bag that butts into everyone and tries to brush stuff out of my hands. I could tell you where to find Swery 65 if you wanted to make stinky agent jokes. I could tell you where you could get a Smash Brothers t-shirt. I could tell you where Gamespot’s Danny O’Dwyer is hawking Samsungs. But I could not tell you where the hell a room labelled “Zynga” is. And neither, it turns out, could four members of staff. It is at this point that I realise how big E3 is. It is literally so big as to have none of its staff know what the hell is going on almost any of the time. Also it is so big as to have no map that actually indicates room #8802.

Or perhaps this is a challenge, I think to myself. It is a room not marked on any map. I am supposed to be a “journalist”, but I am more like a professional delusionist who writes things down, and this is a test of my mettle.

I see! This is an ARG. I must find it sleuthing. I must assume the mantle of someone who investigates, like motherfucking Simon Parkin of the New Yorker.

But I am tired now and the Nintendo stand is just over there. Yoshi’s Wooly World is there.

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It’s hard to figure out how Yoshi’s Wooly World did not cause the death of every single person who worked on it. It is probably the most lethally cute thing I have ever, ever played. It is so cute I can feel my insides melting and sliding around like ice cream as I jump knitted Yoshi around, spitting balls of wool at things, jumping on top of the other wooly player and eating him and spitting him out onto large wooly flowers. “Why is this so cute?” I say to The Guardian’s Keith Stuart, whose Yoshi I have just spat at a gem. (Keith, a grown man, squeals.)

It is so cute that I get angry. I become disgusted by how cute it is. I become extremely annoyed by Yoshi’s Wooly World. GET OUT OF HERE, Yoshi, I think. GET OUT OF HERE YOU FUCKING CUTE JERK. WHY ARE YOU SO FUN AND A JERK. YOU ARE KILLING ME, YOU JERK. Just so angry. You probably killed all your staff with how cute and fun you are. Your designers died in their hundreds to bring this to E3 you jerk. You cute, adorable jerk. You Nintendo-cleansing jerk. Who did this? Get this game out of here. Get this game OUT OF HERE.

Splatoon, the team-based ink-shooter for Wii U, is also good. You play a little squid girl who, along with her team, has to cover the largest surface area in the arena with a designated color of paint to win. To recharge your paint gun, you swim around in the mess you made. But the Wii U Gamepad steering is weird: You can shoot left and right by using the Gamepad motion controls, which seemed sort of clumsy and disorientating in the ten minutes we had to play a game. I asked and you can turn the motion controls off, but really the Gamepad seems too big and square and weighty for these things. It’s perfect for something like Kirby and the Rainbow Curse, which is also out next year on Wii U, because it requires a stylus to draw bridges for your little pink claymation puff of joy, but… I guess I felt strange about the Wii U ‘s Gamepad when I played Splatoon. It doesn’t seem suited to something that isn’t about intricacy, but about bluster and action. I try to play Bayonetta 2, for example, and I get frustrated at how far away the minus button is from the control sticks—you have to press them to proceed to the next screen after tutorial screens, and it just seems like the least comfortable thing to do.

Anyway, people are yelling at me because I’m spending too much time here. Well done Nintendo I guess. I leave.

I pass by Battlefield: Hardline and Call of Duty stands and I stay well away. Not only is it stressful attempting to glean any pleasure from a shooting game with an odorous bro leaning over your shoulder at a videogame expo, the ostentatiously shoehorned-in narratives are also a reminder of how easy it is to spit out shooters that are mechanically feelgood but have deeply troubling themes. In recent years, to justify the sequels, shooters like Battlefield and Call of Duty have gradually reached further and further into the barrel for a nice sensationalist skin to put over the same game. Battlefield: Hardline, as Aevee Bee so eloquently points out, “is titled like a Fox News segment” and from the E3 trailer “glorified police militarization specifically”, the latter being something that is already happening in our unvirtual dystopia.

Later I find my boss at The Guardian, Keith Stuart, in a bar. He buys me a pint of Shock Top.

“Everything’s so violent,” Keith says, not really as a statement of fact, but as a kind of resignation.

I think about Call of Duty and Battlefield and Watch Dogs and everything based on angryman shootouts. And then I think about Splatoon.

In games, guns are the simplest, and I admit, often most glamorous and instant way to interact with your environment. Making it feel good to shoot things has been iterated on so many times since games began that there is no way to shrug off the power of it. Splatoon recognises the shooting mechanic as something that is pleasurable, but admits that the skin, the ultra-realistic, bloody, murdering part of the shooter is something that might be too tied up in masculinity, and washes it away with little squidgirls and paint and a Saturday morning children’s television attitude. It is in fact possible to decouple the fun of shooting from the suffocating hold of How To Be A Man.

But then we found ways other than guns to be violent in our games. Assassin’s Creed Unity was revealed at E3, the next in the Stabbings Through History series, this time set in a world in which men seemingly asexually reproduce in Revolutionary France. Combined with a little parkour and a robe made out of a tatty tablecloth, knifing people has never been more fun—and I mean that sincerely, unironically. (I am a hedonist at heart.) The fact that these games are fun to play often makes you feel even more odd about your being forced to recognise real-world locations, real historical figures.

Half of the reason this series exists is because we think that stylised human executions are the height of sophisticated entertainment. Cinema even seems to think so. But I am convinced that games have a unique relationship with violence, in that games are based on the neatness, on the instantaneousness of action and reaction. The core of our chemical, bodily reactions are based on fight or flight. Game violence flips the switches. It’s kill or be killed out there, and most games provide a straitjacket in which the only available options are damaging the environment before it damages you. It’s something Freudian. It’s something deep in us. It’s something that makes us monstrous.

“Those games make you feel like Frankenstein’s Monster,” I say to Keith, though he probably can’t hear me attempting to be profound over the game designers shouting at each other. “You might want to reach out and talk to someone but your hand slips and you hurt them. You might want to make friends with someone but they are afraid of you and attack you. You might want to hug someone and all you can do is stab them. You press A by accident and a whole army arrives and all you can do is hide or run.”

I stop talking because it is making me sad.

There are four buttons arranged in a square on the right hand side of a PS4 or Xbox One controller, and all of them serve the Monster. When I put down the controller and the adrenaline fades away, I feel sad about those games. But it doesn’t stop me from picking it back up again. Why?

The rest of the night is whiled away on free cocktails and the Indie Mixer, streets away from the E3 convention center. It is a relief to get away from there. The streets are quieter over this way; the Mixer is at the top of a tall building that overlooks downtown Los Angeles. Here, you can really appreciate the squareness, the rectangularity, the geometry of the city. It glows in angular lines, and I get a coffee from a machine and visit the tables where indies have set up their laptops and screens.

I play Shard, a beautiful little co-op platformer where the environment fragments and whirls around you as you dig. I also play Teddy Diefenbach’s Kyoto Wild, a top-down four player Iaido simulator, where you run around painstakingly timing your sword to slice an opponent in half. It has a fine balance to it in timing, in between dashes, in throwing your sword, in figuring out who is vulnerable. The characters are tiny and have hats on. There are not enough tiny dudes with hats on, really.

At night, we go to an arcade called EightyTwo. Nina Freeman is a prodigy at Tapper, and Teddy Diefenbach gets the high score on Duck Hunt. I get back into my hotel and collapse.

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I think about getting back on the trail for room #8802 the next day, but I am distracted by the Farming Simulator 15 stand. A huge tractor is there. A man dressed as a cow is sitting in the tractor. There is nothing else at the stand apart from a man, whose job is, as far as I can see, to take pictures of people getting in the tractor with the cowman.

Wait one cotton pickin’ moment.

If your game is a real farming simulator, you can’t advertise it with a cow sitting in a tractor. That is not very realistic, unless farmers have been recently undertaking a cow tractor-teaching program that I do not know of, which I expect would have been in Farming News, an e-newspaper I receive fortnightly.

(It was not in Farming News.) (Actually, I do not receive Farming News.) (Farming News does not exist.) (It might, I haven’t checked.)

If what you are saying to me is that in Farming Simulator 15 you will come across a man who is dressed as a cow trying to get into your tractor and make a nuisance, that I can accept. However, this seems like an obstacle preventing me from farming, which is the primary reason I booted up Farming Simulator. To farm.

This is very troubling.

“Can I play the game?” I ask the booth attendant.

“We didn’t bring it,” he says.

“What,” I say.

“We didn’t bring it,” he says, with a note of finality. “Are you a hardcore fan?”

Are you a hardcore fan.

For a moment I think he’s doing that thing that always happens to women at these things, which is that people try to imply you are just pretending to like video games so you can get into E3 and be hit on by gross dudes… or something. These people always have a Dark Souls t-shirt on or a smarmy grin or I assume at least two pitbulls at home. They probably drive humvees or whatever. They do stuff like ask you if you’re someone’s girlfriend (Such a personal question, what if I’m in between boyfriends right now? What if I just got dumped? What if I am asexual and came here purely to remind myself of why?), or they say “but do you really play video games” or “I bet you don’t like shooters” and they do everything under the sun to imply that you have no place here, get out, this is our world, our territory, and you are too close to my boner.

But I don’t think this is what this man was saying to me.

I think he was implying that because I actually wanted to play Farming Simulator 15, that I am somehow unusual. Maybe no one here has asked.

Maybe literally no one here has asked to play the game.

“So you really… There’s no way I can play it?” I ask, flapping my press badge.

“We didn’t bring it,” he says again.

I stare at the woman getting her picture taken in the passenger seat of a tractor with a man dressed as a black and white spotted cow.

They paid for this booth, I think. But they didn’t bring the game. They came here to advertise the idea of Farming Simulator 15.

Probably, I think, the Farming Simulator 15 guys are the only people on the entire floor who actually understand what E3 is.

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I exit to get a taco and go on the Giant Bombcast, and I look up again, and there are the palm trees.

Palm trees have a special videogame resonance to me. There’s a sort of Diddy Kong Racingness about them. There’s a little bit of a jolly OutRun thing to them. But that’s not it.

The walkway towards the 2008 Tokyo Game Show in Makuhari Messe, Chiba was lined with palm trees. I had just broken up with my boyfriend and I was happy and miserable, hapmiserable if you will. It was the first time I went to a conference center where they had shoved every new shiny gaming wonder available under a roof and pumped the music volume up to tinnitus level. I was in Honshu to play videogames and get laid. In retrospect, I don’t think I was satisfied by either, probably both for the same reason.

2008 TGS was housed in a series of halls adjacent to each other and each was draped in black with huge lines of people extending from tentlike structures; everything was in Japanese which back I then could not understand. It was overwhelming and loud and made you feel overstimulated as soon as you walked through the door.

I was not media then. I was not aware that people like Tim or Keza, both of whom were writing about games from Japan at this time, could get paid for writing about games. As a consumer, even when you reached the end of a queue, whatever you were playing—it was Mirror’s Edge then, it was Saint’s Row 2, it was Biohazard 5—you were given ten minutes and you would barely learn how to navigate a virtual space before it was over and you were shooed out like an inconvenient one-night stand. Every game was like being born into a new world, and each time it was a slight disappointment at your inability to do much in this beautiful new world after forty five minutes of waiting and being thirsty and hungry and having small nerds ask you if you are an Amerikajin or, popular that year, Anne Hathaway over and over.

I wonder if Anne Hathaway likes videogames. I wonder if anyone who asked me for autographs kept them, or now shows them to people. “I met Anne Hathaway at TGS!”

In 2008 I was twenty two and had been a reclusive Dota player for most of the previous four years, an employee of a triple A studio for one. I came late to the whole “video game culture” thing, and when I got to its supposed home I was disappointed. It’s largely because the “event”, the videogame expo itself, is marketing you an idea, an idea that we all already had about videogames, and we all already agreed on. It is something we are already acquainted with in the privacy of our home shrines and the few arcades we have preserved. It is why we buy videogames instead of board games.

GLAMOUR

1: a magic spell
2: an exciting and often illusory and romantic attractiveness

It’s the glamour. It’s the flashing lights. It’s the deeply detailed vistas. It’s the worlds painted in front of you as if they are being formed, immediate to your touch. It’s the colors. It’s the impact of a virtual fist on virtual flesh. It’s the stylised everything. It’s the swooping feeling of a Mario jump. It’s the curling feeling of the visuals as they carve your insides. It’s the music and the sensual overload. It’s the constant reinventing of glamour. Though I now cover the often more intricate and left-field worlds of small budget games, I will never be free of the big budget spell, the bright shapes reflecting in the water of my eyes. E3 knows this and uses it. The big games’ PR budgets work an obvious manipulation juxtaposed against indie games’ small miracles. As if we had never been subject to the magic before, they yell at us like we are children. E3 tries to exaggerate the part that made us all originally agree to sell our souls. We are under a spell and we trudge here to see it try to eat itself. We come to see it large on the wall so we can try to know something about ourselves.

But the glamour they know we want is spoiled by too many spells being cast at once; the words get muddled. The main expo floors of E3 are too much. It is like being present when fifty wizards at once cast a hypnotising spell and you end up no one’s slave, dazed, ragdolling down stairs. The spells are weakened without your own personal mainline. I just want a quiet dark room where the magic flows straight to me, but here we are on a noisy floor with hundreds of others, trying to understand Sunset Overdrive’s controls, features, small joys, before the multiplayer round is over and we have to get out, a can of branded energy drink forced into our hands as a parting gift. As you gaze at any screen the bright lights from other stands try to make you peer away, siphoning off your attention like teen delinquents draining a petrol tank.

Games are about bonds. They are private and social at the same time. E3 cannot be either of these things. It is unable to provide anyone with the personal, the private or the social. Try to play something at the Indiecade stand, populated with the most interesting small budget games you’ll see, and the giant booming warehouse seems like the least appropriate place for a personal experience. Try to understand any game in the midst of a buffeting crowd whilst twenty people tell you to hurry up, and you can merely mechanically push buttons. Try to play a multiplayer game with your friends and you can’t hear their voices, or you can’t get a slot to play with them at the same time. There is no holistic experience at E3. You leave having taken a bite out of thirty different sandwiches, most of which are just the same fillings but arranged in a different way. And all the fillings are made out of ghost cheese that disappears as soon as it hits your stomach. E3 is just a bunch of ghost cheese sandwiches you tried to scoff down before anyone else.

And even when you do find that experience that slices through the spellcasting war that goes on overhead, they proudly declare that the game is not finished yet. It’s an early build. Your experience might change. Wait til next year.

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Night in the Woods

The only real magic I saw was in the indie games I already plan to give my fullest attention when they are released, such as Night In The Woods, and in a forty-five minute The Witcher 3 demonstration, a game which I wasn’t even allowed to play.

I guess as someone who writes about games, I am overacquainted with this process like butchers are overacquainted with bacon. It’s called a “preview event”, a PR controlled experience that wants you to go home and say a mess of words that don’t mean anything, you just say what you can about it and even if the words you say are as pointless as “I SAW SUNSET OVERDRIVE IT WAS ‘A BUNCH OF GARBAGE’/’AWESOME’/’LIKE IGGY POP THREW UP’” they advertise the product’s existence and people remember Sunset Overdrive is being talked about. It makes everyone part of the advertising process. I guess earlier in my “career” (hurr) I made a habit of being truthful about how uncomfortable this made me, but it won’t go away, and people whose jobs have nothing to do with writing about videogames, well, they get to go to E3 and experience being pandered to first hand. Which must be flattering in a way. I guess we all want to be flattered. I guess we all want to go to E3 and feel like Kanye in a vat of tits and gold.

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On the last day I trailed some fellow journalists to a section of E3 where I discovered a series of meeting rooms. Here, I spied a door labelled Zynga. Next door was room #8802. No one was there. Part of me was sort of glad. They will probably set up a place where I can play their VR game later near their studios in England, when I am not frazzled, and overwhelmed, and dazed. When I can have a personal connection with it. Where I can pay attention. When I know it’s something finished and not just germinating in the code. I want to play something finished. I want to give it my full attention.

“Stocks, bonds, objects of art, real estate. What are they? An opportunity. To what? To make money? Perhaps. To lose money? Perhaps. To ‘indulge’ and to ‘learn’ about ourselves? Perhaps. So fucking what? What isn’t? They’re an opportunity. That’s all they are. They’re an event.”

Yes. I guess it was an event.

Cara Ellison lives in the UK and writes about games for places like The Guardian, Rock Paper Shotgun and PC Gamer.

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