After two hours of sweating through a preview of Ubisoft games at the historic, cramped and quite beautiful Los Angeles Theater, the crowd poured out onto the street. The dank air of downtown felt oddly refreshing and as I inhaled a lungful of LA smog, a PR guy I know stopped me for an impromptu chat.
“So what did you think?”
“Oh, it was great,” I replied, cordially.
“So, did you see anything you liked?” he probed.
“Um, uh, sure, yeah. I. Err. I’d have to check my notes. I’ll let you know!”
I was scrambling. After sucking down previews of more than a dozen games in 90 minutes, I couldn’t force one title to memory that I liked. I knew there was stuff that looked cool. But in contrast to the purpose of a high-energy press conference, nothing appeared to have stuck. I suddenly felt like the person who sat through the Ubisoft show must not have been me. I’d have to check the notepad in my bag to see what my alter ego thought about the games. I have a theory about this.
We like to think that we have a single personality, the “who we are.” But in practice we are a multitude. We are different around our parents than around our kids. We turn into a different person when we are happy than when we are crushingly sad. We can be one person when we are with other people and one person when we are alone. Sober and drunk. Saturday and Monday. Morning and night.
We are all a messy collection of personalities. And the videogame business knows this. It thrives on it. After all, this is the industry dedicated to letting us live out our “fantasies,” as if somehow a growing percentage of the population secretly dreams of disarming terrorist nukes, shooting people in the face or driving like a psychopath on a crowded highway.
What the videogame business understands, or at least unintentionally exploits, is that inside each of us is a host of ideas, feelings and possibilities. All these digital bits game developers craft give us a chance to exercise those corners of our personalities without ending up expelled, divorced or in jail.
Until we get to E3.
In an effort to sell the idea of every game imaginable, E3 unlocks the collective psyche of culture and smears it over you like Vaseline. It’s the marketing equivalent of being churned up in a rolling beach breaker. And for the entire week of E3 you feel a little bit like you are having a psychotic episode. E3 brings out the Sybil in everyone. Which is to say, let me describe some of the overlapping freakouts of the past 24 hours or so.
If you’ve ever seen a Cirque du Soleil show, then you have had the opportunity to marvel a the beauty and majesty of highly tuned human performers executing seemingly impossible feats of agility and strength, all the while dressed like a Muppet Show Drag Queen-off. Cirque knows how to do weird, and weird they brought to the University of Southern California basketball arena Sunday night to launch Microsoft’s Kinect device—a controller-free camera set up that allows you to control your Xbox just by moving your body.
In order to gain admission to this coveted event, not only did you need to be on the right list and sport a nifty 3D wristband, you also were forced to don a white smock, complete with shoulder pads. No one looks good in a cheap hockey-smock. But at least there was a sort of grim camaraderie of humiliation since everyone was wearing them.
Like most things Cirque does, there’s not much point in trying to describe what you experience, because the words never live up to the real thing. But a highlight of the event was when the smocks all started to light up, with waves of synchronized color washing over the crowd. We’d been set up and effectively pulled into the performance as a prop.
And on the bus ride back to the hotel, all I heard on the bus were game people grumbling about how Kinect wouldn’t work and would fail for Microsoft. I was still wondering how they got the smocks to light up.
MICROSOFT PRESSES ON
It’s not uncommon for a big press conference to fill up, and for the company to offer overflow seating at some other location. This year, for some reason, Microsoft set up their show for a smallish theater west of downtown, leaving hundreds of journalists stranded at another hotel, miles away, to watch the proceedings on TV.
All in all, the bigger room at the brand new Marriott was probably more comfortable than the cramped quarters at the real thing. And everything went fine until the end. When Xbox head Don Mattrick came on stage to wrap up the event by revealing the new smaller, more stylish 360 model, he pulled out his closing move by announcing a ship date of the next day and promising that everyone in the audience would be receiving their free Xbox in the mail by the time they returned from E3.
‘They’ of course being the select audience members at the live event, and Mattrick had just pulled an Oprah.
An audible groan went through the Marriott from attendees who suddenly realized that they we not the right ‘they.’ As the crowd filed out of the conference room, I overheard many attendees on cell phones, exasperatedly sharing their sad tale with colleagues.
No free Xbox for you!
The greed demon is an easy creature to feed.
Electronic Arts has grown over the past few years, from a big meanie that works its employees too hard and produces lackluster games to a calmer, happier corporation who specializes in violence. At least, that’s how it felt during the EA press conference. Company head John Riccitiello radiates a calm kind of humility that seems rare in the game business. And the games his teams showed off were exciting, thrilling and as primal as a punch in the face.
I almost feel guilty for the giddy giggles that bubbled up when 24 monitors descended in a line onto the stage to demonstrate the multiplayer in the new online Medal of Honor game. Set in Afghanistan and “ripped from the headlines,” as if that was a good thing, the carnage was immense and the slaughter heartfelt.
And what could froth the bloodlust to a foamy head? How about a cute blonde woman in charge of some sort of community building team at EA who announces the company’s new loyalty program—the Gun Club. At least no one is hiding behind any rhetoric here. Whether tearing monsters limb from limb in Dead Space 2, beating other humans senseless in MMA or reliving the good parts of Vietnam in the backcountry, EA knows what their core audience wants.
ACTIVISION RULES THEM ALL
And then there was Activision.
With all these thoughts and games and feeling stirring around in your head, the best thing to do on the Monday night before the proper start of the E3 show on Tuesday would be to go to bed. But a ticket to the Activision event seemed worth checking out.
Activision, it turned out, wasn’t holding their event at the Staples Center. It was holding it in the Staples Center. The entire basketball arena that usually hosts the Lakers was transformed into a concert venue that would make U2 weep in envy.
Since no one actually said what was going to happen, the massive crowd simply lingered and gawked and listened to the DJ and watched the lights.
And then Lady Gaga hit the stage. For a single song.
Then more DJs from DJ Hero came out to perform. Deadmouse. Usher. Hip hop and R&B performers that brought roaring cheers from the crowd.
Then an entire orchestra and live choir backed up a band covering Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” in a note-for-note recreation while on the massive projection screens, you watched as characters from Guitar Hero lip synched along. Fifty people or so were put into the service of recreating a rock class live so videogame cartoons could pretend to sing along.
Then Tony Hawk showed up and apologized that their ramp didn’t work. And left the stage.
Then Jane’s Addiction rocked through two of their classic tracks.
Then Chris Cornell belted out Soundgarden’s classic “Black Hole Sun” while the orchestra played along.
Then a gymnast performed an exotic dance inspired by the 40’ stripper pole that descended from the ceiling.
Then, as the gameplay demo from Call of Duty: Black Ops played, the stadium erupted in fireworks, explosions and balls of flame synchronized with the action on the screen.
Then Eminem cam out to perform an urgent number apparently dedicated to Vietnam vets.
And then I went home.
I guess the show was over. Maybe Jesus returned to Earth next. I don’t know. But it didn’t matter. Activision successfully out E3’d everyone. The endless overlapping, each ‘one more thing’ better than the last, and explosions! It was what happens every year. The multimedia culture assault continues until you start to lose track of what is going on around you.
But on the cool walk back to my bed, in the calm of an LA night, I remembered the answer to my Ubisoft PR pal’s questions.
Child of Eden. That game looks awesome.
Paste videogame correspondent David Thomas is on the ground in LA and will file daily dispatches on life at E3—the games, the glory and the gooey guts of the biggest hype machine in the world.