ENDGAME: E3 AND THE AFTERMATH
E3 — the single biggest annual interactive entertainment-industry Chinese fire-drill — has once again flash-flooded, and just as suddenly receded from, the Los Angeles Convention Center and environs leaving in its wake a citywide, tidal-pullback, flotsam-scatter of attendee badges, hastily-printed business cards, logo-poxed swag, abandoned electronic press-kit discs, cheap flash-drives, used foam earplugs, lost iPhones and the occasional lingering splotch of post-party hurl. It seems like a strange thing to think — to hear yourself saying aloud — every summer like clockwork, just after the conclusion of the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo: “I don’t want to see another fucking video game again for the rest of my natural life.”
It’s temporary, gag-reflex hooey, of course — a sort of talking-cure, physiological self-defense mechanism with overtones of neural attenuation. It usually tapers off sharply within about week. At that point, the attendees of the annual videogame spectacle — including game developers, producers, publishers, PR flacks, editors/writers/film crews, and considerable swarms of the recently, breathtakingly unemployed all go back to making, promoting, planning, talking about — and in some cases — actually playing video games again. (Or they’re already planning for the annual Tokyo Game Show — the second most significant suchlike event, which usually falls sometime in September or October).
For the uninitiated, by the way, ‘spectacle’ is precisely the correct word to use. The Electronic Entertainment Expo is a big, booming exclamation point of an industry event, filled with every anybody-who’s-anybody corporate entity in interactive entertainment. All said companies are trying like hell to out-crazy each other on a sprawling trade-show battleground that looks, sounds and feels like an enthusiastic transporter-accident involving a rock concert, the X-Games, somebody’s hallucinogen-fueled dream of a video arcade, an import-auto show, halftime at the Super Bowl, Friday night at Shibuya Crossing… and all of it topped off by at least two professional sports leagues’-worth of oversexed cheerleaders.
What has come to be known as E3 started out as just the most colorful, high-energy facet of the substantially broader (and on the whole, astoundingly duller) Consumer Electronics Show. But it soon became a bolt-necked monster in its own right, lurching up from the laboratory slab in a lightning-storm, and stomping out into its own world… and requiring its own dedicated carnival of souls.
Prior to last week’s show, two E3s in a row — one of which was uprooted and relocated to various points about Santa Monica, just for a laid-back, decidedly diffused change of pace, tone and locale — saw a radical downshift in the patented E3 brand of ‘spectacle. That approach clearly didn’t sit well with the gamesphere’s hive-mind so last week’s Expo saw that sense of spectacle return.
This year’s show floor was once again packed with a mad, booming gridlock of elaborate game-publisher booths — some slick and functional product showcases. Sony’s cobalt-glow banks of Playstation 3s and flatscreens looked cool, tech and stately… but one got the sense of that whole half of the booth being but a single Two Minutes’ Hate away from a rousing chorus of “Oceania, ‘Tis For Thee”). And then there were some less-efficient but themed set pieces, Warner Bros Interactive presented a blast-twisted, playground-zero, child’s swing set to promote F.E.A.R. 2. An ominously-spare, padded hospital table in a wire-fenced Arkham Asylum demo area also come to mind. Ubisoft demanded a share of attention with the ever-popular here’s-a-hot-booth-girl-in-front-of-a huge-bipedal-‘mech-for-you design.
One minute, you could stand in mute awe before Square Enix’s mind-numbingly beautiful wall of video for Order of War (that part of the floor was probably no louder than the rest — but by God, it seemed like there was a slack-jawed silence in the audience facing that mighty display). And in the next minute, your eyes might be torn in two entirely separate directions by a scary Mr.-Thousand-Yard-Stare standing psychosis-still in powered armor at the Southpeak Games booth. Next, you might find yourself staring at the red-that-does-not-occur-in-nature wigs of the Nyko booth-babes. The (re-)improved E3 show floor is like an assault heralded by a flash-bang, just getting from one exhibit to the next — a meta-chaos of intermingled attraction and distraction that would give a Disney Imagineer an apoplectic fit. And this goes on for three days. More, actually, if you count the round of equally bombastic, look-at-me press conferences that kicks off well before any but the exhibitors set foot on the show floor.
As a planetary race striving for better (or at least, less-lame) things, we can hope that shows like E3 will hang up the slightly cheesy notion of having some official ‘theme’ for each successive show — something trite and upbeat to be printed on souvenir buttons, badges or ball- caps. You know the sort of thing: “Let’s Play Together” or “Personal Horizons, or “Playing Is In Our DNA” or “The 21st Century In Our Hairy Right Palm.” If you had your personal bozo-filters set on maximum deflection this year and could be bothered to strain the signal from the noise surrounding the various “Big Players” (Electronic Arts, Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony, etc.) and their respective forthcoming lineups, you were in for at least one pleasant, background-radiation surprise: The real, unstated ‘theme’ this year seemed to be: “Stop talking boring, petty, PowerPoint, market-share, quarterly-earnings, Console-Wars shit about each other. Instead focus your corporate chakras on turning out some visionary, eye-opening experiences.” Something tells me this theme wouldn’t fly on a baseball cap.
a citywide flotsam-scatter of attendee badges, hastily-printed business cards, logo-poxed swag, cheap flash-drives, used foam earplugs, lost iPhones and the occasional lingering splotch of post-party hurl.
But lo, the current gene-batch of game-makers seem to be onto something big this year. This is good news, particularly when you’re buzzing the world’s premier interactive-entertainment show from a vector that’s focused on the ways we can expand ourselves, our visions, our very world. No writer — least of all Yours Truly — seriously wants to try to cram everything he experienced in three days of E3 into one article, but there are highlights amid the chaos and weariness and overload. And after your first full day of walking around from one E3 highlight to the next, you’re definitely on the way to staggering…and the show floor itself starts to feel like about 30,000 square parsecs of flashy, kinetic sidewalk.
And my God—it’s full of stars:
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to E3 Highlights… in no particular order:
SONY blew some minds in ways big and small, expected and unexpected, starting right from their press conference: The PSP Go is a slick, sexy, slimmed-down, slide-shell take on Sony’s current handheld gaming system. To some eyes, it might also look like the beginning of the end at least for physical gaming product-on-disc (download-only game software; no slot for UMD discs, reduced bulk, and greater battery life overall).
The aptly (if simply) named Massive Action Game — MAG for short — is an online action game slated to support 256 simultaneous players… yikes!
The DIY Award goes to Mod Nation Racers, a wannabe game-designer’s playground that lets users quickly, intuitively create their own racetrack environs complete with landscaping, weather, physics, special rules, environmental lighting. And what video-game race endeavor would be truly complete without an arsenal of car-to-car weapons? Drive defensively, yer ass.
Among the new Playstation Network games is the old-school throwback Gravity Crash. It looks like the classic Gravitar mashed up with Lunar Lander and a hint of Chopper Command (Let The 80s re-Roll!).
What can I say about Uncharted 2: Among Thieves? Well, if the original Uncharted didn’t leave you wanting more, there’s something wrong with you.
The Last Guardian, a high-fantasy tale of a boy and his feathered dragon-thing, seems to follow in the hallowed, immersive footsteps of experiences (one hesitates to call them mere ‘games’) of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. This one also looks like it might make the more sensitive gamers out there get all soggy-eyed… after which they can get all god-manly and violent with God of War 3.
UBISOFT clobbered attendees on the head with the gorgeous, lush Assassin’s Creed 2 (Renaissance Italy this time… co-starring Leonardo da Vinci, Niccolo Machiavelli and Lorenzo de’ Medici). And then they gut-punched them with James Cameron’s lengthy on-stage appearance. Cameron talked about his upcoming film/game opus Avatar. “Let’s face it — games derived from movies, historically… well… some of them have kind of sucked.” He then went on to describe his long-dormant film project as being “like dreaming with your eyes wide open” …and about how it took twice as long to film as Titanic so it had better be some kinda somethin’-somethin’. Both game and movie have been developing in parallel, so both have complete independent stories while sharing assets from both the film and the gamemakers. It’s being touted as the first major stereoscopic game title, and focuses on the moral theme of seeing through another’s eyes, wherein the “good guy/bad guy” choice is up to the player. Anything to break, or at least rattle, the shackles of conventional perception and storytelling in interactive entertainment is a step in the right direction… and Avatar is looking more like a good running jump.
Bethesda Softworks spent its E3 lurking in a remote corner of the show floor, doing the dirty gaming-jobs that somebody has to do. WET is their Grindhouse-inspired action game, a sort of ‘balletic shooter’ starring a smoking-hot assassin-chick named Rubi. Their use of a slight scratchy grain-filter tips the Grindhouse hat… and where other games are cheap and stingy with the bullet-time, Rubi spends the majority of the game flipping with lethal grace through the air in artful slow-mo, cutting things up with swords when/if she hasn’t already filled them with bullets (one pistol per independent target, John Woo-style). Also, there’s a car-to-car jumping segment on a San Francisco freeway that must be seen to be appreciated.
Meanwhile, the military consultant for the forthcoming Rogue Warrior is Dick Marcinko himself. This is the real deal — the guy who invented the real-world Seal Team Six, giving Bethesda just enough insight to make the hypothetical military/political game scenarios realistic enough to be plausible, without compromising national security.. (I’m not exaggerating. This is one of those rare, no-kidding cases of somebody who could, in fact, tell you things about some actual classified, price-of-freedom, extreme-prejudice military ops of the past two decades. But then — take the clichéd joke seriously — he might really have to kill you).
On top of all that, Bethesda knows how to throw an old-school E3 drunken bash, too (mechanical bull and all). They took over the Saddle Ranch Chop House in West Hollywood, which is where the first serious round of E3 hangovers likely commenced. Dick Marcinko, also in attendance, was a good sport about trying at least one of Chris Hudak’s God-Awful Drinks (The Enhanced Surfer On Acid, or ‘S+’—nothing ‘transhumanist’ about that sucker). In return, Mr. Marcinko’s presence pretty much guaranteed that nobody but nobody got in Hudak’s way — in any way, shape or form — for the duration of the evening.
Other parties? THE FIRST RULE OF ‘THE EP’ is don’t talk about The EP. So much for the rules: Call it not-so-secret, off-the-beaten path gathering of E3 luminati, a chance for some games-industry Names to gather in a comparatively laid-back party atmosphere—all the elbow-rubbing, all-purpose carousing, minus the deafening, thudding house-music, hype and symptomatic gate-crashing of the typical E3 bash (just to be on the safe side, they were rocking an NSA-level controlled guest list…and a dedicated transport shuttle to an undisclosed-location party located in another city altogether!). This year’s guest-list core-sample included Epic Games president Mike Capp, rock-star game creator Scott Foe (he brought us the acclaimed Reset Generation), industry legend Michael “Daxter” John, Sony Computer Entertainment’s one and only, one-man party Carter Lipscomb, and Xbox co-creator Kevin Bachus.
Back to sober reality, Microsoft apparently having not already contributed enough to the eventual rise of Skynet, introduced Project Natal: Based on an add on peripheral for the Xbox 360, Natal lets users interact with their game console through gestures, spoken commands, and other elements…. basically, anything except a standard videogame controller. Control system slated for release in 2010. Skynet to go online shortly thereafter, Judgment Day to follow.
a bolt-necked monster, lurching up from the laboratory slab in a lightning-storm, stomping out into its own world and requiring its own dedicated carnival of souls.
Nintendo, surprisingly, gets the h+ ‘More Human Than Human’ award this time around — not for any radical-sexy tech per se, but simply in terms of intent (there’s a reason that Nintendo Wii looks so friendly, clean and utopian, it seems). Wii Motion Plus is an expansion peripheral for the ‘Wiimote’ that allows the controller unit to track complex motion much more accurately (via an angular rate sensor supplementing the sensor bar and accelerometer functions of the Wii Remote). In plain english, we’re looking at some considerably more fine-tuned, responsive games — and yes, we’re talking swords, golf clubs and bows & arrows. The unit will be available separately, and also in bundles with Motion Plus compatible games, particularly the forthcoming Wii Sports Resort.
Meanwhile, the Wii ‘Vitality Sensor’ is a fingertip pulse oximeter, intended to sense the user’s pulse and other body-generated signals, providing said users information about their body’s “inner world.” The orientation here seems to be toward games that can aid relaxation. Satoru Iwata did not announce any particular games or applications for the device when he announced the Vitality Sensor during the Nintendo media briefing. If anything, the ambient audience pulse rate went up rather a lot as Nintendo demonstrated Super Mario Bros. for the Wii — at first glimpse, yet another side-scrolling, old-school romp through sewer pipes, magical blocks and the usual suspects… except that four players can now tackle that classic Mario Bros. challenge simultaneously, frantically helping each other out… or not, depending on the gaming-style and general disposition of the players. And Super Mario Galaxy 2 is exactly what it sounds like — a joyous, buoyant, candy-colored dream of immersive planetoid-hopping, expanded with an even greater range of worlds, obstacles and challenges. In a world of increasingly-grim videogames (and don’t get me wrong, we gamers love the skin-crawling stuff, too—Wii owners will soon get a version of Konami’s Silent Hill that’s unlike those available for any other console), Miyamoto Shigeru’s positive, unerring, relentlessly-charming vision of what games should be always feels like it’s time for dessert. Even if the rest of the universe seems hell-bent on giving you lima beans.