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Lamenting E3 2012 – A Preamble

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July 4th, 2012 at 8:17 pm

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Perhaps because it’s an overcast July 4th here in my corner of usually beautiful and overly hot southern California, but it seems a perfect day to take a step back.

To look at something important to gamers young and old, hardcore and casual. I’m of course talking about E3 (or the Electronic Entertainment Expo for the unfamiliar), and how this year is most likely going to go down in history, at least for myself, as the worst ever.

When you go . . . Downtown!

Arriving in downtown Los Angeles much later than I intended on the blisteringly hot last day of E3, I was excited.

I walked past the frenzied bazaar of tents promoting energy drinks that rests outside the entrance to the convention center. I skipped the bible thumpers shouting from the curb that proclaimed all going into this gaming Gomorrah sinners in need of redemption. I walked past the first of many noises such a congregation always brings, and out of the blazing summer heat.

Once safely tucked into the outer edges of the center’s interior, my pulse began to race. I think it’s my borrowed badge – one from a friend still enough in the industry to get badges – that causes it. It reminds me of how it all began almost a decade ago.

Way back when, my then girlfriend’s dad worked at [REDACTED]. While skilled at his job, he bore no love of gaming and had no interest to participate in the chaos and tumult of what is easily the industry’s biggest and most important spectacle. As I was an interested party in these affairs and my birthday was around the same time (and still is as both are seemingly annual events) I was given his badge to go in his stead.

That first E3, where I broke my big trade show cherry, was a big one. It was 2004, the year Nintendo revealed what would eventually be their portable behemoth DS to confusion and hesitation of the crowd. Where I got to play what would be the final version of Resident Evil 4 to my delight. Where I got to be one of the few who got to play Starcraft: Ghost (on the Gamecube no less) before it became as ethereal as its subtitle.

Starcraft Ghost Boxart Mock up

I wasn’t afraid o’ no Ghost, but Blizzard apparently was.

The sense of illicit activity that comes with heading into E3 on a borrowed badge is palpable. Even now as it was then. Of course it’s silly too.

As long as you have a valid badge, both the name on it roughly corresponds to preconceived gender notions about your sex, you wear business casual attire, and with my tried and true advantage of being a white male wearing a look of exhausted resignation on my face in an industry where that’s describes the average programmer, what are the door guards to do? Especially since badge trading for out of town friends and clients is as much a tradition in the industry as the Expo itself?

Perhaps all this nervous energy was a flashback to that earlier time. When the carnival lights of this media frenzy brought with it the promise of hope for fans such as myself; a sneak peek at the future! Before several years within the industry at [REDACTED] pulled the caul from my eyes and showed me the much more mundane man behind the curtain, and E3 just became a headache machine. An anniversary in a failing marriage.

But perhaps it was more than that, this feeling of excitement. I hadn’t been actively avoiding industry news, but I missed the press conferences this year, and only watched a scant few trailers friends had suggested. I was going into this E3 in the dark; a bit more unguarded, a bit naked.

Well, of expectations I mean.

Generally, the cops of Southern California aren’t too keen on gamers giving a public “Protip” on where they can find their secret warp whistles.

(Photo by Jim Grant for the OB Rag)

So I crossed the threshold into the recycled air that hangs in the cavernous dark of the trade show floor with at least a couple butterflies in my stomach, and proceeded to surf the wave of the crowd onto the shores of publishers and developers.

After hours of wandering into booth after booth, dodging bored models in cosplay varying between almost fetishized and definitely fetishized, chatting up a few old friends still within the industry, and actually managing to play a few games or watch a few devs take us on guided tours in soundproofed antechambers, the butterflies proceed to commit seppuku and die.

The only thought ringing through my mind while I entered the Sony booth for the third time hoping to find something that doesn’t reek of the desperation of their Super Smash Bros. clone is that quote from the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica . . .

All of this has happened before, and will happen again.

Creepy old guy robot

Thanks for living up to your name, Creepy Old Robot Dude!

Yes, E3 turned out to be the same as it ever was. Everywhere you turn, hype men shout to the rafters and run tournaments, contests and giveaways; the clamor and noise-Noise-NOISE continues unabated against a backdrop of neon explosions on high definition screens. Usually there’s something that catches the eye, games whose very existence promote the potential of the medium, but this year “retread” seemed the key word for the majority.

“Realistic” military shooters that skimp on the realism, “wacky” Japanese titles with clinically proscribed levity, unnecessary online multiplayer integration in single player franchises, murder-death-kill after murder-death-kill and always against appropriately simplistic “bad guys” who are simple to hate as long as you aren’t thinking much about it, and even easier to slay en masse.

Even Nintendo, often the exemplar of gaming innovation, didn’t bring much new to the table. HD graphics, a secondary screen in a controller, and a solid digital delivery strategy are all good for the Wii U, but they’re just refinements on old ideas (Current console tech, Dreamcast’s VMU, and Playstation Online/Xbox Live storefronts respectively). They had no new IPs. Heck, they didn’t even have much to show in the way of updated old IPs.

Originality and novelty that sparked the imagination could be found amongst this maze of the mundane, but in amounts as scarce as water on Arrakis and seemingly as elusive as Carmen Sandiego.

Carmen Sandiego at E3 2012

Hmmm, I knew that woman in the red get up looked suspicious. After her! She’s getting away with an industry’s novel premises!

E3 2012 was quickly becoming the definition of banal before my eyes. Maybe it was because there wasn’t a “megaton” announcement, or maybe it was because it was the last day of the event and all of the show goers were spent after a week of parties and pitches. Whatever the reason, I didn’t seem to be alone; talking to others on the floor or while waiting in lines proved that few seemed terribly impressed.

As I was preparing to leave bored and perhaps a bit saddened by this turn of events, something happened in that Sony booth.

While waiting to get my hands on the genuinely intriguing looking Papo & Yo, one of the few games around that at least seems to be trying for, well, not a totally original concept, but at least a lesser used older trend (fanciful puzzle-platforming) set against a lesser used backdrop (the poverty of South America) with a juxtaposition of the two via “magical reality” techniques, a trailer played on Sony’s ginormous screen that draws my attention. Thanks to my ignorance of the media deluge, I beheld it for the first time and with fresh eyes.

Aside from Watchdogs, it’s the trailer people talked about this year. You know the one. The Hitman: Absolution trailer where Agent 47 kills a bunch of leather clad battle nuns using their terrible sensory perception and the marketing team’s poor taste to his advantage.

Hitman Battle nuns

Classy.

It’s completely ridiculous, to be sure. A glorified, overdone, flash of immature sexuality, wanton violence for the sake of it, with perhaps a nasty undertone of sexualizing that very same violence. And from a series that always promotes the opposite – sneaky infiltration where perceptual invisibility is the highest value – to boot.

But it wasn’t shocking.

That’s the real problem. Not the revealing leather or the bloody brutality. No, it’s that the marked jump from violence! to violence AND sex! seemed the only “new idea” introduced at this year’s E3 by several developers, and it isn’t a new idea at all.

Ignorance or Apathy? I don’t know and I don’t care.

Frankly, the Hitman trailer’s idiocy is as boring and disheartening as the lackluster showing of Nintendo’s new console and both Microsoft and Sony’s announcements of stuff that no one particularly seems to care about and aren’t new consoles. As discussed by these three bearded gentlemen, this year’s E3 could easily be called “quiet”.

But then, there’s a difference between “quiet”, and brooding malevolence isn’t there?

While “bored regurgitation” is still my go-to description of what E3 2012 amounted to, there’s something else, something almost sinister that’s hanging in the peripherals of my perception on this show. Something akin to smelling spoiled food in the fridge, but not knowing if it’s the milk, the meat, or the cheese.

It was in this state that I left the proceedings, a splinter of fear and loathing burrowing its way through my skull as I walked back to my car. Famished as I was, I procured a couple of downtown’s famous bacon wrapped hotdogs, but even they couldn’t quite wash the distaste from my mouth.

Manna of the gods

And these comforting flavor bombs are usually what turns any trip to downtown into a fond memory.

Maybe it’s just that for a moment I actually got excited about the possibility that the show can grant a gamer, only to see that hope dashed against the rocky coast of creative stagnation, but I think there’s something more, and that the Hitman: Absolution trailer is part of it.

If taken alone, it would have been a mere trifling example of a presumptive marketing department. Something to whine about and then forget quickly once something promising came along, as Penny Arcade pointed out. But that’s just the thing: it wasn’t alone.

There’s also the Farcry 3 trailers that incite the player to violence and sex like a barbarian preparing his horde to march. There’s also that Tomb Raider trailer that got a bit rapey. There’s also the Assassin’s Creed 3 trailers (including one that hit today) which push a streak of American jingoism as strong as a Michael Bay film written by John Milius.

History is bad

“Refusing to learn history” is a tad ironic considering this series is historical fiction.

Together, this collection of reveals about the upcoming future of gaming made a grim reminder of the medium’s present. Because these trailers represent not only the soon-to-release, but also the current mindset of the industry. It’s a mindset that seems focused on the disturbing and terrible, on bodies hitting the floor and getting stripped to their skin, on aggressive actions and sexuality for the sake of it rather than to make any sort of actual point.

Taken as a whole, the message was an appeal to base instincts and debauchery. Charming titles like Quantum Conundrum, Papo & Yo and the of course those lovable Nintendo stalwarts were there, but not only did most seemed as rote as their bloodier counterparts, but they were drowned by the sheer volume of this focus. A focus that seems the exact opposite of why I used to love this goofy glut of gaming glitz, for it strides headlong into regression.

That’s the gnawing fear at my center whenever I think of this year’s E3. That for as many steps forward as the medium’s taken, it’s beginning to backslide into something I don’t think it should be. Worse, that we as gamers are not only going to let this happen, but that we want it to.

by Chaossity on DeviantArt

Hmm. It appears I have begun to sing the doom song.

Yes, yes, I know. I’m perhaps going too far with my prognostications of gaming being doomed into an infantile corner of the cultural landscape. That much of this has blown over already and isn’t relevant now that a month has about passed.

Besides, this is the part where I’m either supposed to make some sort of argument where I defend the medium or analyze what everything “really means” or at least get into the history of it all. You know, something useful.

But it’s the 4th of July! A day where we Americans celebrate the birth of our nation (as put forth by The Simpsons) “by blowing up a small part of it.” I have things to attend to, and so likely, do you. Even if for our international readership that doesn’t include explosions, public denouncements of those tea-loving Brits, and at least six or seven mandatory viewings of The Patriot, Independence Day, or anything else directed by Roland Emmerich.

Patriot falg ground

I like the part where the main characters are all played by Australians or British actors, how no one seems particularly interested in keeping to facts about the era, or even modern sensibilities of respect as seen by this flag touching the ground. Truly, it is the most American of films . . . directed by a German.

In honor of the blind hope this day brings to every red, white, and blue blooded American, what I’m going to do is initiate a small series to see if I can’t find some opportunity amid so much catastrophe. Besides, this E3 left me feeling very hesitant toward wanting to be a gamer for a lot of complicated reasons that each probably deserve examination. Not only would I rather not give up something I’ve spent the better part of my life being invested in, but perhaps, with such analysis, I can get to the root of the problem or see if there’s even a problem at all.

Perhaps there are even some solutions to be found.

But that’s for tomorrow and the next day and hope. For today, I lament the state of my favorite pastime as much as I celebrate the birth of my nation.

I suppose this year’s E3 was like the end of a relationship for me. That last time you meet with someone where it’s just not working out, but neither of you want to admit it. Where you’re reminded of why you loved as much as why you can’t anymore.

All I can hope is that this “breakup” will help me to grow just a little more mature and wise. Because if I’m correct in my concerns, then the only mature thing to be seen in gaming is going to be the warning on the cover; the only wisdom, a trait in the next RPG.

That seems a waste, doesn’t it?

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