Tuesday, June 14, 2016, 12:00 PM
I’m standing in line with the throngs of games press congregating outside of the Los Angeles Convention Center’s South Hall. The first day of E3 doesn’t start until noon, which is good, because after last night’s barrage of press conferences and industry afterparties, everyone is either hungover or drunk. Dozens of smartphones hover in the air, capturing the crowd as they herd towards the stairs.
A giant inflatable bag of Doritos overlooks us to the right.
The lines have been there for hours but I slip in through the side, unnoticed. A man behind me begins to shout. “WHO HERE IS EXCITED FOR E3? SAY YEAH!!” The response is tepid. Everyone is poised, ready to spring the minute the doors open. It’s the running of the interns, but with more lanyards and GoPros. E3 has begun.
Only twenty minutes into the show and the floor seems sparse. I take advantage of the extra room in the aisles to get unobstructed shots of the booths. The Mafia III display, a moody and meticulous recreation of a New Orleans style bar, begs special attention.
With the diminished foot traffic in South Hall, I’m able to circle it in less than a half hour and get clear photos of all the booths. At conventions I typically reserve a few hours each day to get all the pictures I need but this year it won’t be necessary. I’m relieved, but concerned.
Time for the Square Enix booth. Today I’m tasked with checking out the episodic Hitman game and speaking with IO Interactive’s online director, Torben Ellert. As I enter the common area outside their cubicle meeting rooms, as is the style of many booths on the floor, I’m flooded with nostalgia. My mind wanders back to a 2012 Holly Green on her first real interview assignment. I wasn’t told I was interviewing the creative director on the Tomb Raider reboot. I hadn’t eaten in days and the panic suddenly combined with calorie deprivation threatened to send me straight to the floor. I remember nervously grabbing a Coke hoping that the sugar would bring me to my senses. Instead I spent the entire session sweating, stumbling over words, and shaking.
Fast forward four years and a more poised, prepared and experienced Holly Green is staring at an identical bowl of iced soda cans. I shake off the deja vu and enter a small conference room to begin the interview. Torben and I discuss episodic game releases and how that has affected the course of Hitman’s development. In the course of the conversation he passionately describes the ways they’ve been able to adapt Hitman thanks to the tools built for the current game, and how they allow for timed community challenges and increasingly difficult challenges within them. I record the conversation for later, then head over to the Deus Ex demo stations to test out Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and Deus Ex GO.
As I watch Mankind Divided’s opening cut-scene, I brace myself for the humiliation to come. Of the many negatives to professional games reporting, this is one of the most difficult parts of the job. Adapting to new controls and user interfaces is hard; most gamers in their lifetime will do it dozens if not hundreds of times. But having to do it several times a day, on the spot, and under severe time constraints is a challenge. Add to that the fact that at E3 you’re often being watched by a crowd, including people who made the game, and it’s a recipe for public embarrassment. See, for example, the ten minutes I spend chucking boxes into a ventilation chute during the Deus Ex: Mankind Divided demo.
Despite the rough start during the first mission objective, I pull myself together and begin to get the hang it. Somehow I even fake my way through the hacking system. Combat proves more of a challenge, and I die unable to remember the “throw grenade” button.
As a first impression the demo is a decent one, but a small taste is not enough to decide how I feel about the game. I will require more.
Deus Ex GO, meanwhile, is surprisingly good. As with its predecessor Hitman GO, this mobile game is a smart use of the series’ core themes, delivering a game that is appropriate for touchscreen sensibilities without robbing the source material of its identity. It’s puzzle-driven, and the player moves along a segmented path to dodge enemies in the correct number of moves. It’s hard, but entertainingly so. I am impressed, even as I rage-quit level three and head out early for my next appointment.
Having made the rounds at South Hall, I decide to head over to the IndieCade booth early, as it’s one of my favorite spaces during games conventions. The staff is always warm and friendly and the devs give off a super positive energy. Plus there’s usually at least one nice couch to take a nap on and I have a good thirty minutes to burn.
3: 00 PM
I sit down to play Overland as the game’s development team looks on. Instantly I’m enchanted. The simple indie game combines a little of everything I love: a post-apocalyptic scenario, an emphasis on survival and strategy, turn based gameplay, and a warm but appealingly unique art style that reminds me a bit of Kentucky Route Zero. As I play, coder Adam Saltsman and I chat about the emerging survival game genre currently facilitated by the indie gaming scene, promising to follow-up on the topic after the show.
Minutes later, the demo ends when my entire party dies of injuries. I shake hands with Heather Penn, Overland’s art director, and Rebekah Saltsman, its writer and designer, disappointed that I played so poorly in front of the game’s creators, and head out to take some more photos.
I head towards the parking lot to find an isolated place to smoke. On the way I pass Hideo Kojima who is walking with a companion.
I pause briefly to wonder if he is wearing his American flag boxer shorts, then move on.
I sit on a nearby concrete ledge as a man approaches the west parking lot. Before he even reaches the awning, he is already unzipping. A few seconds later I hear the dreadful sound of liquid hitting the pavement.
He’s peeing in the corner. Behind me. On an abandoned shopping cart.
This dude straight up just peed in parking lot next to me pic.twitter.com/1mCJqc0ZNS— Holly Green (@winnersusedrugs) June 14, 2016He leaves as quickly and mysteriously as he came.
I pass by CliffyB outside the private Lawbreakers demo area. “Still got those alpha codes?” Of course! He chirps brightly, perhaps not remembering that I am Holly Green, his “third favorite person on Twitter”. Maybe I slipped to 5th. My Guy Fieri jokes have been weak lately. “Thank you dear,” I reply, because I am eighty seven years old.
I wait for an Uber in the taxi cab zone outside of Hotel Figueroa. Scaffolding and drop clothes now completely obscure the building. Of all the missing faces at E3 2016, the Fig's absence is felt the most. After a long day on the show floor it was the perfect place to run into all the friends you couldn't make time for, relaxing over drinks and making deals with God every time you passed the pool. The show is a lot lonelier without it.
Wednesday, June 15, 2016,10:30 AM
The day begins with an appointment I'm not sure about: Air Hogs. Any E3 meeting that takes place in the Concourse Hall I've always regarded with suspicion. Not because they are any less legitimate, but because I'm just pretty sure they're deliberately trying to get me lost. Or at the very least, late.
But this time however, I am neither—my slot isn't scheduled until the next day. In fact, I sabotaged their one break for the day. Only 24 hours in and I'm already breakin' schedules.
Nonetheless the team graciously sits me down for a demo of their product. Despite my initial skepticism, I'm immediately charmed. Spin Masters, I'm told, have been making RC toys for 20 years, but Air Hogs is the first to be integrated into a videogame. The gear consists of a small circular drone unit, which sits on a landing mat and is controlled through a phantom directional pad on the screen of an iOS or Android device. The game features multiple levels with varying objectives, each mostly relying upon precise control of the device. I put out a few building fires, saved some civilians, ran the drone straight into a couch. Several minutes later, I left the session excited about the future of RC. Keep an eye on these guys.
A stroll by the LEGO Worlds corner of the WB booth commands my attention. I spend several minutes shamelessly throwing elbows to get a few shots.
At this point aimless and easily distracted, I wander over to the Bethesda booth. It consists mostly of rehashed displays from the past few shows and there are no playable games, but it's fun to walk through nonetheless.
Time for my appointment with Oculus Rift. Or rather, Samsung Gear, a VR headset combined with Samsung devices. It is my first time wearing one. As with many fashion forward folks on the show floor, I'm excited, but concerned about ruining my hair.
I've been wary of the hype surrounding VR, pegging it as the work of bored techies who are blissfully unaware of the inherent class issues that VR technology ignores and possibly exacerbates. But despite this cynical outlook, I decide to give the session a fair shot. At this point it's so firmly a “thing” that I can't afford to deliberately ignore it, and the potential practical applications of the technology are too appealing.
The biggest issue within virtual reality seems to be the player's physical progression in the game's atmosphere: obviously even the above average consumer lacks the floor space to play a game that requires them to walk forward in perpetuity. I'm very interested in how developers plan to deal with that issue, as it will be one of the key factors in the staying power of this current wave of VR.
Luckily the games I test offer some insight. First up is Drop Dead, a zombie shooter with a brief but adequate demo. Here the player's physical progression is facilitated by an on the rails system, similar to House of the Dead. The use of the device's directional pad, located on the right temple, is responsive without being laborious. I play two rounds, enjoying the tension and stress as a swarm of zombies surround me, resisting the urge to bat at my knees.
The next game, CastleStorm, is a bit disappointing. As a port of an existing game, there's already an audience who is familiar with its gameplay and mechanics. Sadly, I am not among them. The game is a siege tower defense but despite my familiarity with the genre, I have little idea of what I am doing. The resolution is irredeemably blurry and the white line demarcating the arc of descent of my projectiles blends seamlessly with those in the animated background, adding confusion to the chaos. Eventually I get a headache and stop early, feeling a twinge of guilt that I couldn't make it work.
I head outside for a smoke break when suddenly a literal funeral procession starts to roll through the walkway lining LA Live. It's for Mafia III. 2K Games poured a lot of money into promoting it for E3 and apparently someone thought a coffin and mourners and live music would be a good fit.
Beautiful. Mafia III advertising. But still beautiful pic.twitter.com/3X40D90pvg— Holly Green (@winnersusedrugs) June 15, 2016In the past such displays were commonplace but since the recession several years ago, they’re almost a relic now. I’m surprised they didn’t re-think it, given the Orlando shooting. I watch the procession for a few moments, then stub out my cigarette and head back inside.
I arrive, breathless, at the IndieCade booth. “I’m here for a three o clock with Night in the Woods? Holly Green, Paste Magazine.” Nope, that meeting is actually over at the Sony booth in West Hall. With three minutes to sprint across the convention center, I’m seven minutes late to my appointment.
I head directly for the Sony demo stations and hunt down Night in the Woods. After all the hype in indie circles about this game, it feels weird that I’m only now just getting to it. It feels like I’ve been “meaning to get to it” for years, and it’s not even out yet.
As with Overland, it only takes a few seconds for the game to completely charm me. Story-driven with puzzle elements, Night in the Woods reminds me of an interactive children’s picture book, with a sense of humor that comes off as sharp but breezy, mature yet not quite adult. The warm autumn tones of the game’s art style are enchanting, and while much of the gameplay is dialogue driven, it’s often broken up by brief forays into mini-games that both offer a small challenge and make a good narrative fit.
I rock the shoplifting mini-game, because of course, then head out for a brief lunch break at a West Hall mini-bar.
One thing a lot of people don’t realize about E3 is that it’s not even so much for the press or exhibitors as it is the buyers. The meeting rooms above the concourse, where retailers huddle in dramatically lit rooms deciding which games to carry for the upcoming year, is where all the real business happens. Tucked away in the carpeted luxury of private lobbies, they seem to be in a world separate from the rest of us E3 plebeians.
Which may explain why at 4:40 PM on a Wednesday one of them, a young white woman with intense red lips and spotless designer skinny jeans, descends from the concourse elevator wearing no socks or shoes. I stare in horror as she pads along the tiled floor, then exit West Hall in shock.
Fatigue combined with anticipation is a terrible beast. And yet, as I sit down to watch a private Horizon Zero Dawn demo, it’s very hard to complain. It’s one of the most promising new IPs I’ve seen in my career, and also my most anticipated, and this is the first chance to learn anything of substance. The room is quiet as writer John Gonzalez talks about the game, and after a short Q&A session, we silently filter out to play the demo.
I’ve said before that an open world game is only as strong as its environments, and in that arena, Horizon Zero Dawn excels. The tracking system is also more polished and sophisticated than that of other games that feature hunting like Far Cry, and crafting, while at this point a cliché and ubiquitous feature in videogames, is a strong thematic component that makes sense in the game’s greater context. The character progression is RPG based, and dialogue, which is formatted through a multi-option tree, will have several paths. While the demo features several objectives meant to display the range of gameplay, I don’t complete many of them. I mostly just want to ride my tamed mount and enjoy the vibrant natural lighting and breathtaking mountain backdrop.
I leave the session even more confident in the game’s future success. On the way out, I stop by the floor display, where a human actor in a Watcher costume is entertaining the crowd, and snap a few pics.
Thursday, June 16, 2016, 10:00 AM
Dawn of the final day, and I’m booked solid. In the half hour between the floor opening and my first appointment, I have a slim window to pound a beer and eat a slice of pizza. I pause first to take some photos in the lobby of South Hall, pausing briefly to wonder where the giant Doritos bag went. Maybe somebody popped it. One can only hope.
At the Club Room, the servers are beginning to recognize me and call me by name. A gal I haven’t seen before is behind the counter at the start of her shift. With no one else at the bar she begins to practice lines from a weathered script stapled at the corners, pausing to show off her Oprah impression.
She nails it. “A thousand dollars! If I get this right, the gig pays a thousand dollars.” I assure her that she has it just right. She thanks me, then laughs at the vulgarity of the sketch. “Isn’t it just so weird to hear Oprah Winfrey say a swear?” “When you get to the word motherfucker”, I offer, “draw it out like you’re announcing a guest. MotherFUUUUUUU-CKKKERRRRRR!” She gives it a try, dropping her voice to Winfrey’s signature huskiness. Nails it again. I’m still laughing about it as I head to my Sony appointment.
As I sit in the Sony lobby waiting to play The Last Guardian, I realize that of the two console giants at E3, Sony by far has been the most open and receptive to giving me access to their games. The Horizon Zero Dawn appointment I sat in on had only female writers from top publications, IGN, Mashable, and Gamespot. Coincidence? Or deliberate? Whatever the case, I’m grateful. Female PR reps keep this show running, and without their solidarity, organization, and help, I’d have had some pretty bad E3s over the years. Sony is winning the console war and moments like these, with their careful and thoughtful planning, reflect why.
As I make the rounds I spot the devs from Here They Lie, who I met the previous Monday night while bumming a light at the Sony party. With a wait time for The Last Guardian (even in the private demos) this is my chance to follow through and test out the game. Marking my place in line for The Last Guardian with my purse, I venture over and give it a shot.
It’s a masterpiece. Here the player’s movement is facilitated by the Dualshock controller in combination with the headset, the field of view affected by the player’s movements but also aided with the right analog stick once the player’s neck reaches the apex of its physical range. Its pivot proves key in navigating non-linear virtual spaces.
The pace is perfect for the creeping and caution one expects in a horror game and it greatly adds to the atmospheric tension. In addition the team seem to be masters of unsettling imagery; combined with the full visual range of virtual reality, the game can make you feel as though you’re hallucinating. And while the “scribbled diary left behind” trope is an increasingly lazy one within videogame storytelling, the few notes I found scattered around the tunnels indicate the team is also immensely adept at writing horror prose without delving into the hokey or unoriginal. As a well-seasoned and thorough horror game fan, I am impressed and intrigued.
Ten minutes later I jump into The Last Guardian, an event that weirdly evokes a sense of reverence despite my lack of interest. With a full seven years of teases and disappointments aimed at a notably enthusiastic fanbase, I’m aware of how significant this moment is. The demo comprises the 45 minute introduction of the game, and in its opening moments I experience the fragility of wooing and taming the wounded Trico. The game is charming—enough to merit the uncertainty and delays? I’m not sure. The controls are adequate but uninspired. The graphics are lacking and their colors are faded and dull. If I’d already fallen in love with the game years ago, would I be more impressed now? Hard to say. The draw of The Last Guardian will probably lie mostly in the enchantment of Trico and the heartwarming relationship between him and the player character. It’s a fine and enjoyable game so far, I just don’t know that the draw of an oversized companion pet is enough appeal for me.
I’ve been to at least three different Deep Silver appointments over the years, and as far as I know, they’re always in the same spot in the 400 block of meeting rooms up in the hallway connecting West and South Hall. This year I’m here not for Saints Row or Dead Island 2, but rather, a Saints Row spin off called Agents of Mayhem.
As a fan of Saints Row, I’m relieved to see the game announced, in that there seemed to be almost nowhere the series could go following Saints Row 4—how, exactly, does one follow up on the whole “destroyed the Matrix and now rule the universe” thing? But apparently the writing staff are already way ahead of us. Agents of Mayhem takes place within the Saints Row universe, but as a “rebirth” following the events of the Saints Row 4 DLC Gat Out Of Hell.
I spend a half hour with Agents of Mayhem, and as a seasoned player of Saints Row 4, have no issue picking up the gameplay. The roster consists of twelve heroes, and at the start of a game players choose between three, who are then rotated during gameplay based on their character strengths. The combat retains the nimble duck-and-dodge of the Saints Row series, a feature I wish I could import into every shooter game.
I’m staring at a Thanksgiving buffet at the Warner Bros. booth, dazed from fatigue and calorie deprivation and wondering if I’m allowed to eat the food. Do it! urges the absurd Greek chorus of my Twitter followers. That’s what it’s there for!
But I skip it. I’m too self-conscious to eat. The lobby is posh, white and techno-chic. I feel out of place and I’m so tired I’m pretty sure I’d drop food on the floor. There are theaters dispersed throughout the space and apparently I’m scheduled for Just Cause 3 DLC. The hands-off approach to the theater demos is off-putting. I’m briefly tempted to head into the Batman VR demo beginning in a few minutes, realizing it’s a better use of my time. Paralyzed by indecision and the fear of getting bawled out by someone with a clipboard, I leave, resolving to get more photos of the show floor before my next appointment.
I’m back in the concourse hall to check in on a few indie titles. OlliOlli and OlliOlli2, of the sidescrolling skateboard trick series, are coming to PlayStation 4 under the title OlliOlli Epic Combo Edition. I’m a big fan of the digital games thanks to the fluid, fast paced controls and the soundtrack, among the best in the business. I only play briefly, just long enough for the room to get a sense of how much I suck at the game, then get a rundown of the details before moving on to Prison Architect on PlayStation 4. OlliOlli Epic Combo Edition will come as a boxed, physical game with a copy of the soundtrack for OlliOlli2, three “making of” documentaries, and a full color booklet, and will release next month exclusively for PlayStation 4.
As for Prison Architect, this unique indie title is making a huge jump to console, and as such, the team has completely rebuilt its signature building tools from the ground-up to accommodate the switch from mouse to controller. It will also bring to the game pre-sets and other simplified tools to help the console crowd adapt easily to its interface. Clearly Sony is serious about their dedication to a diverse slate of games, and the addition of Prison Architect only strengthens their bid at winning the console war. I leave my session even more confident in Sony’s superior game library.
It’s almost the end of the show, and I’m headed for the 2K booth. Civilization 6 is the thing for me to see.
I’m a new-ish fan to the series, having only played Civilization 5 and Beyond Earth, albeit for hundreds of hours each. I still feel like a fraud when it comes to speaking with any authority on the games, but nonetheless, I have my preferences. The graphics on this new installation in the strategy series are a tad cartoonish, more along the lines of Civilization Revolution. It’s not to my taste. But the new district feature, which dictates where your structures can be built based on type, is a smart addition. Buildings will also now take up their own tile instead of being housed in the city where they’re built, adding a new layer to the strategic planning of towns and districts. The game will be harder as a result of these changes, but they make sense to me. I look forward to its release.
The Mafia III presentation is engaging, but almost all of it is cut scene footage. What gameplay is shown makes me want to play the game,, but I spend much of my time in the darkened theater wondering about the social critiques the game will face after release. With a black male protagonist, a black female crime lord supporting character, and of course, a host of exploitative, angry white men rounding out the cast, I can see it going several ways. On premise the game is allowed indulgence in just about every seedy theme in fiction but context is everything.
I end the session resolved to withhold judgment until I can play the game.
As I exit the Mafia III theater, the show floor is officially closing. There’s a band playing in the booth and as people begin to filter out, they bring down the house with a cover of “Uptown Funk.” I prop myself up on a fake pillar nearby and watch as the crowd begins to cut loose, moving to the music in a “I’m forcing myself to have fun” sort of way.
As an end to E3, it’s not bad. With various publishers pulling out and interest in the show waning, the future seems uncertain. The garish displays and outlandish promotional spending seem to be fading, and who knows how much longer before the entire trade show is gone. We might as well have one last dance.
Holly Green is a reporter, editor, and semiprofessional photographer living in Seattle, WA. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gameranx, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.