My friend Steve’s face has already taken on an expression of grim expectation (and a lack of sleep) when we line up for security screening at the Seattle Airport. He has mentioned this will be his sixth E3 and that it is one of the most tiring and frustrating experiences of each year. “But no, you’ll have fun,” he tacks on to a statement about how terrible the experience can be. “People always have fun at their first E3.”
I hope he is right. The previous week was one of anxious striving as I struggled to balance both a new job and a sprint to finish a game for Venus Patrol’s Space Cowboy Game Jam. It’s Saturday morning and I haven’t slept for 24 hours. My game has been “submitted” despite the deadline being Sunday since I have no way of finishing the game on the road. To be honest, abandonment is more accurate. It’s a half-done thing that I can’t help but feel frustrated about as I take my seat on the plane. My hope is that E3 will inspire me in some crucial way, replacing the disappointment with a kind of hope.
Sunday, the day before the day before the event begins, I find myself walking through Hollywood Forever Cemetery, one of the oldest in Los Angeles, staring at peacocks. They strut around the grounds with the familiar ease of an animal at rest in its home and they regularly call out to one another, a high-pitched peal that drowns out the cars. The thought this is just like a videogame flashes across my mind and I immediately wince. This is a real place, Matt, a real thing that is happening. At some point in recent history human beings decided to transplant several peacocks to a graveyard for no other reason except that they wished to. Their existence serves no aesthetic or gameplay purpose. They do not exist for you.
Monday is a day of press events. The term “event” is important to those who have spent months planning out the precise moments of these stadium-sized commercials. The first one is Microsoft. It is being held in the basketball stadium of the USC Trojans. Because I’ve been granted the title of “Press” I find myself being ushered to a seat with a perfect view of the stage, while most others are sent up to the nosebleeds.
The room is bathed entirely in green lights because it is a Microsoft event. I can only deduce this is the case because Microsoft thinks that using any other color would be “off-brand.” I see in my head a man in a charcoal suit saying those very words in an office in Redmond, Washington. The fact that I know what the phrase means, and not what the titular Bartleby truly stands for in Melville’s classic “Bartleby the Scrivener,” makes me a little embarrassed. A woman with perfectly styled hair arrives late and demands that she be given a seat in our section. Her volume and instance increases until someone climbs out of his chair and over it to the open seat directly behind the one he previously occupied. She smiles broadly, sits in the just-vacated chair and immediately starts taking selfies. When the official press event starts she cannot get the Wi-Fi working so no live-blogging, her original intention, occurs.
I don’t remember much else from the event except that I was hypnotized by the teleprompter. It’s clearly visible from my position, about the size of a 70-inch television, and every line of every presenter is whisking across it, including color-coded commands for the presenter. Pause for topic change. Look directly into the camera. I point this out to the woman. She says, “That is so ridiculous. It’s so scripted. Why is it so scripted?”
Later that night I am whisked by charter bus to the parking lot of a larger stadium that I never got the name of. I am handed a free plate of food and a beer and told to wait until the Sony press event starts. While I am gawking at the sheer number of business-casual blazers, I spy two people I’ve actually been hoping to meet. Scott Benson and Alec Holowka are two of the developers behind Night in the Woods, a game that both delights and crushes me in its beauty and simplicity. I walk over and hope that I can say something intelligent. I quickly realize, however, that they are as overwhelmed as I am, if not more. Sony had announced just a few days earlier that Night in the Woods will be published on PS4 and they have been working literally night and day to get something ready to show during E3. “I literally have no idea what is going on,” is the first thing Scott really says to me and I think it is the truest sentence I’ve ever heard.
After the Sony press event we find our way to the Figueroa Hotel. “All roads lead to the Fig,” is a phrase my friends Steve and David have intoned several times over the weekend, and I intone it with them out of habit. The Figueroa serves as the primary hub for journalists and media, biz dev types and PR people. I try my best to not look hopelessly lost as I apologize my way through tight clusters of old friends catching up. I told myself before the entire week began that I wouldn’t get drunk so as to keep my mind clear, so I gingerly sip my $15 cocktail and take stock of the situation. It is clear that this is a place of pretenses. All around me I hear discussion of titles acquired, accomplishments and grand plans for the future. It feels like an extension of the entire marketing apparatus and I am actively in opposition from minute one. Besides, how can I spin the fact that I am a hack writer with a half-finished game jam game to my name?
“So, who do you write for?” a charcoal blazer asks me. I tell him I’ve written for Unwinnable but that I’m really a game designer.
“I just needed to find a way in the door and I think I can use my position to help showcase other indies.”
“Uh huh.” I notice he is already scanning the room.
“Well hey, I have to go meet my boss, but it’s great to meet you, Matt. Here is my card.” The charcoal blazer wanders off towards the pool and I never see him again.
“I am going to stick around for a bit before my meeting,” David says to me as Steve and I are sitting with him in the cafeteria of the L.A. Convention Center’s West Hall. “I want to see your face when you first walk onto the show floor.”
We line up just as the crowd begins to move. Jostling for space in a crowd of many hundreds we make our way to a threshold that has been covered in black lights. My press pass is crosschecked against my ID – apparently a new security procedure. When I step onto the floor I can feel David and Steve watching me for some kind of reaction. In front of me stand innumerable booths and screens and machines all clamoring for my attention. I am overwhelmed, but not in a way that is surprising to me. I feel is a sense of impending exhaustion. “I think we should meet up for drinks at six,” is all I can manage to say in response. “OK,” I hear David say, and when I turn they’ve already wandered off.
Walking the show floor is a surreal experience in the sense that it feels so incredibly honest while being composed entirely of trickery and manipulation. At the very center of our identity as humans is a sense that we’re always in competition with one another. For most of our evolutionary history resources have been scarce, so we developed complex systems for acquiring those resources, often at the expense of others. With the advent of 21st-century technology we have reached a point where really, if we wanted to, we could probably do away with scarcity, but we don’t. We don’t because the sense that something that has always been always should be is written into our DNA. Our economic system reflects this on a nearly ideological level and it has permeated our cultural substructure to the point of being inextricable. E3 is such a potent example of this. Finely tuned marketing machines built with the engineering knowledge of decades of economic and sociological theory roar in a tumult around me. They are ostensibly acting in service of creative works, but I feel such a pressure to consume that I realize they don’t care if I consume their work. Not as long as I buy it.
I spend the next six hours dutifully trying to fill my role as press despite being, essentially, a fraud. I am not at E3 because I aspired to be some kind of truth-telling journalist. In reality, I don’t even like reading most videogame news; the sheer quantity of it overwhelms me immediately whenever I load a site like Kotaku or Giant Bomb into my RSS reader. I got my badge because a friend vouched for me at a known site that ostensibly would result in me writing a piece or two about the show.
I was embarrassed by this seeming miscarriage of meritocratic justice and vowed to use what privilege I had to be a megaphone for the most forgotten games at E3. Muscling past the sprawling displays for the triple-A studios I found my way to the Indiecade booth. On display were some of the most unique games I have ever witnessed. They ranged from a game about investigating disappearances by using the Oculus Rift to a mobile title where you sing beautiful unbroken tones in harmony with the game’s score to activate your powers. I tried my best to arrange interviews, something Steve had suggested I do. I felt stuck between worlds – eager to justify my place inside this system, but also jealous of a certain kind of experience. I wanted to be here as a designer, not an observer, and being able to talk to such a breadth of different developers only accentuated that desire.
I’m speaking to half of We Are Müesli, a developer couple from Italy, about their first game, CAVE! CAVE! DEUS VIDET. It is a visual novel about a young man who finds himself encountering Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych “The Temptation of St. Anthony”. The style is a mixture of Art Deco and Minimalism that provides a parallelism to Bosch’s own work.
“We spent months trying to figure out a style that really worked,” Mateo, one of the developers, tells me. “Bosch was ahead of his time – he was a modernist in his own way – so we felt a connection there. Claudia and I are also artists first, not game designers, so we sort of feel like outsiders here.”
Our conversation flows from games to Italian politics to the ethics of meat consumption when humans are both a part of and above the ecology of our world. Somehow all of this is part of their game, and it makes me so much more excited than any of the bombastic trailers I’ve already been exposed to in a day and a half.
During a presentation of the new Smash Bros., ostensibly my only real assigned work for the week, a man wearing a Mario hat challenges director Masahiro Sakurai to a game of Brawl in the hopes that he can help balance the game if he wins. “My first question to you is, have you ever programmed a game?” The fan sheepishly admits defeat and sits down.
I spend most of the time still thinking about Claudia and Mateo’s game. In so many ways it feels like videogames actively create an environment that is hostile to the work they are creating. All the questions fielded at the Smash Bros. event are either about how much more stuff the game will contain or how will what is there be left unchanged in this next iteration. The games I experienced at Indiecade were so tiny, raw and mutative that it seemed anathema to what these Smash fans desired. E3 seems to be mostly about inducing this feeling.
It is the end of the first day and my nerve ends are raw from stimulation. I have been told repeatedly that the real meat of E3 is the parties after the event, and so I make my way over to an indie-centric one hosted by the small publisher Midnight City. Despite being full of people it is a quiet oasis compared to the show floor. We’re on the open deck of a towering L.A. building, with two giant braziers filled with propane-powered flame anchoring the edges of the party. I make my way around the room, uncomfortably at first, hoping to find a way to edge into one of the many conversations. E3 is an event often comprised of old friends catching up. I get my ass kicked by Tim Rogers on his new game Video Ball and we talk briefly about its comparison to Smash Bros. I blink and he is off again, speaking fluent Japanese to a group of developers. I quietly drink my rosé wine from a plastic cup and wonder why I gave up learning Japanese.
Just then a man taps me on the shoulder. It is Chris Person from Kotaku – someone who up until this very moment has existed as an abstraction on the Internet. I was intimidated. I mentioned the Phantom Dust announcement from Microsoft’s press conference and he is off like a shot, moving from Xbox launch titles to Japanese composers. I realize there is a huge gap in my videogame knowledge and I fumble around for an appropriately intelligent remark. He seems pleased, or drunk, or both, and we continue talking for a great long while. We find our way into a larger circle of developers and I finally find my footing. Chris and I move onto cultural heritage and mythos in New England, a topic I am somehow more prepared to tackle. I even meet some old friends from PAX; Joshua and Jessica McGrath, both developers on Cube and Star. There is this shift in the timbre of the evening. I am beginning to feel a sense of community among these people who I would have otherwise felt were all too famous to be approached in other settings. I am beginning to hope that this moment won’t end for a great long while despite the fact that I am already yawning when a man approaches the mic and tells us that we have to go home. I stumble off to a ramen shop and try to remember that feeling of being welcomed.
The next day I wake up late and spend far too long trying on outfits. The potent combination of marketing inundation and glossy partygoers has me feeling uncomfortable about my flesh. The show floor seems to be split between people in T-shirts and people in business casual, with nothing in between. Classist anxieties have wormed their way into my skull and I feel a need to not come across as a slavering fanboy. I try on a checkered button-up and vest combination I packed for any potential nice dinners out. No matter how I try and straighten or tuck or fold the fabric I still look like a bright orange potato. When I arrive again at Indiecade I notice that I am severely overdressed. Somehow, these people actually make a T-shirt and jeans seem incredibly stylish.
I spent too much time preening and now I’ve missed the two interviews I scheduled. I decide to spend what time I have before my evening press obligations with Nintendo to play some of the more esoteric games. I meet a guy showing off a game where you place limbs on a tree and they grow in real-time over the next 24 hours. You must care for the tree in order to affect the surrounding environment. We talk briefly about the implications for blending this digital environment with the physical one. I ask him where he went to school and he tells me that he is still in high school. I stammer. “Wow. When I was your age all I did was play videogames.” I wince at the cliché and excuse myself. It’s all I can do to keep from tearing up.
That night I find my way back to the Fig to charge up my phone and happen upon a Microsoft indie party. I quickly grab a free drink and try to find a free outlet. A blue blazer approaches me.
“So who are you with?” This time I think better of being honest. “I’m actually working on a game about telling tall tales of your life as an outlaw.”
“Oh man, that sounds really neat. What platform are you publishing on?”
“Well, we’re still looking for contracts.”
We banter back and forth for a few minutes and he reveals he is a PR manager for a small firm that handles indie developers. He hands me the card with what seems to be a hopeful expectation of future dealings. The hook is in me fully now. I know what it feels like to play the part. It feels good.
I spend the rest of the evening playing with my pitch. Different turns of phrase, different ways of revealing the mechanics of the game. I try on slightly different stories about how the game came to be, where it is in development, how I plan to publish it. I hum along happily with all the other peacocks, doing my best to put on a fine display. None of them are outright lies. Nor are they the truth; I feel equal measures of excitement and self-loathing.
The final day of the show I spend what seems to be a huge chunk of my time on a couch in the Indiecade booth playing Asher Vollmer’s, the developer of Threes, new game. I’m tired, exceedingly worn out and uncomfortable. The feelings of belonging from Midnight City’s party have totally vanished and I am wondering why the hell I ever thought I was ready for a place like this. I lack either the direct design talent or the chameleon-like affability to sell myself as a member of this community. I get a text about a party being thrown by Glitch City, an L.A. indie game collective. This will probably be the last hurrah of the whole week and if nothing else it will probably be a good place to finally get drunk.
Glitch City L.A. is the name of a storefront in Culver City. Cheap tables, chairs, and couches rim the walls of what is essentially a shotgun shack. Grey and yellow fabric has been stapled to the wall in a check pattern, adding a whimsy to the place and obscuring what I imagine are some seriously ugly drop tiles. The event is a series of five or ten minute talks on videogames followed by an after party that consists entirely of Trader Joe’s snacks and delicious cheap wine.
The topics of the talks are nothing like anything else I’ve heard all week, ranging from analysis of land management in Rhodesia to the Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. Somehow these all relate back to videogames in a way that seems perfectly obvious in hindsight. There is no marketing speak, no stilted manner that indicates a too-practiced monologue. Lisa Brown, a developer at Insomniac Studios, admits through stick figures that she has no idea how she designs levels – she styles them as a kind of mythical design dragon that lives in her head – and the prospect of people realizing she may be a fraud is terrifying. The presentations end with Hyper Light Drifter’s Teddy Diefenbach singing a rendition of R. Kelly’s rap opera “Trapped in the Comments.” The crowd cheers for each the presenters in turn. The weight of the week is beginning to lift.
What follows is a series of encounters with people who had before only existed in my Twitter timeline. Simon Parkin and I spend a deliciously long amount of time discussing the process of writing a compelling feature, and how good journalism is akin to storytelling. It feels comfortable, like two peers sharing what they’ve learned. I’ve almost forget I’ve never written work of the same caliber. For some reason, he doesn’t seem to mind. He introduces me to Cara Ellison, a writer who on a nearly daily basis inspires me to work harder and take bigger risks with my craft. I try to express my genuine thanks for her honesty in her work. and she smiles politely.
“Oh, thanks,” she says, and returns to her phone. I learn later via Twitter that she was embarrassed by my praise, something I relate to. I think the process of writing is so difficult even for those with skill like Cara that we lose perspective on our accomplishment. It can be hard to see it for what it is.
The night flows on with a dreamy ease aided by several bottles of moscato, and I find myself encountering more and more people. Each one is supremely welcoming. At first I try out pitch, practiced to what I think is a fairly solid ten seconds. They don’t respond the way I expect. Instead they ask me how I am feeling; they inquire as to whether I’m inspired; they ask if I am taking care of myself. These are the questions friends ask. I feel less alone.
Friday I don’t remember. I think I ate Mexican food.
Saturday I wake up slightly hungover around 10 a.m. to a tweet from the Glitch City folks asking if we want to meet for lunch. I jump at the chance, although I am a bit surprised that I was invited. It is as close to a power brunch as one can get in the indie community. I arrive early, and am inexplicably nervous. Eventually everyone arrives and there is nothing to worry about.
At some point we all head back to Glitch City, see a movie, and spend the rest of the day sitting around and talking. The discussion ranges all over, from the importance of self-care to the inherent narrative embedded in the concept of controlling a video game directly. Each of these topics share in common one central concept: making videogames is hard. Not merely from a technical or intellectual standpoint, but an emotional one. How do we attempt to create works that are ostensibly products while still acting in a way that moves society to a place that is more just? How is that not an inherently problematic position that creates exclusion on class lines? Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail, who I have talked to a lot over the past two days, points out that if you charge too little for your work many people will perceive it as being of inferior quality. Rami seems to have a secret ability to be completely in tune with the way the entire economic system of the industry operates without being totally corrupted by its effects. There is not even a hint of charcoal blazer about him.
I am convinced by the discussion that somehow making videogames is an artistic and subversive act, as well as a conservative economic decision. Somehow, one can be both resisting and embracing the structures of capital at the same time, engaging in competition while also being firmly of the belief that the entire idea of us being in competition is a farce.
Through the conversation there is an honesty that makes me feel understood, accepted. All these people know how hard it is, all these people know the system is screwed up, and all of them are trying anyway as best they can.
In the lead-up to E3 I was told to prepare for an overwhelming and alienating experience, a continual infusion of hyper-polished advertising intended to appeal to categories of humans and no one in particular, masses of people discussing the frustrating dishonesty of the entire affair while perpetuating their own myths. This is the surface of it, the crust that descends down for miles. If it is all you experience, you can find yourself totally detached from real connection, a buffer of buzzwords and products between you and any other consciousness. I cannot even imagine the psychic pain veteran press must feel, having a schedule entirely packed with meetings and demos, unable to stop and dissent from even the briefest moment. It can reduce you to a mere mouthpiece for corporate strategies and orchestrated marketing campaigns. It can strip you of your humanity. Being able to actively reject this part of E3 put me in an extremely privileged position, one that I don’t feel I truly earned or made good on.
It is easy to lose sight of the people when surrounded by products, but at the core of it is people. For most, the games, the products, are simply a method of connection. The message they want to send is clear: you and I are here, together, this is a real thing that is happening, and we exist for each other.
Follow Matt Duhamel on Twitter @dualhammers.