A Toast to Fandom!: E3 2015

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  • The following is a reprint from Unwinnable Weekly Issue Fifty. If you enjoy what you read, please consider purchasing the issue or subscribing

    ———

    David Wolinsky went to E3 under the Unwinnable banner. Stu Horvath stayed home. They still had plenty to talk about.

    DAVID: Lately I’ve been trying to wrap my head around where we’re at as people who love or try to still love videogames. Now, freshly post-E3, I find it difficult to organize my thoughts and stay cogent – so it is especially important to pounce and capture this mental frequency to demonstrate and reflect back to all of you what it’s like to coexist in person with an industry’s self-congratulating heart for a week’s time in downtown Los Angeles.

    It’s hard to sum up how the show was or “who won,” as we used to say when we were kids, because the show itself is tough to pin down.

    To get out in front of the hype for the hype, many companies had streaming press conferences the week before the show officially started. People sniped with their skepticism and dismissal of Oculus partnering with Microsoft while none of this stuff has even hit the consumer market yet. I flash back to years prior at E3, where writers would live-snark on Twitter during all the press conferences, unable to get over themselves and pause for two seconds to realize they have a front-row seat to what largely amounts to a glorified PowerPoint.

    Especially in recent years, where what is shown during the pressers is 95% of what you will be seeing even if you wait out on the floor for an appointment or a demo. That’s right: Unless you are special enough to get invited to a behind-closed-doors demo, you’re just going to see an additional five percent of new shit (and some of the time, even with a behind-closed-doors appointment that holds true).

    I say none of this to mock E3, but to demonstrate perhaps how the show has been losing its way and how those who cover it may also be as well. E3 isn’t about gamers, it’s about marketing. It’s meant to facilitate meetings between game companies and retail buyers that need to stock their physical spaces with physical products this holiday season.

    UW50-smallA good friend of mine, a Dark Souls disciple of the highest magnitude, waited in line an hour for a presentation on the conclusion to that series’ trilogy before someone at the booth stopped him in his tracks.

    “Sorry, we’re actually about to start a Twitch stream,” they said. “Can you wait another hour?”

    He declined.

    Five years ago, I never would have imagined E3 would turn into a glorified video store where when you finally get to the cashier, the phone rings and they have to take care of that customer first. It’s…weird. And frankly? Rude. Time is at a premium at these shows, and when you’re talking about limited windows of opportunity to see stuff while the show floors are open, two hours is a significant amount of time to sink even on seeing your favorite series getting additional life.

    E3 was fine. I don’t know. I don’t have any scathing dismissal or feelings of alienation. I was marketed to. It was no different than your average ride down the highway.

    Mainly what I am grappling with is this venomous ownership so many gamers feel they have, debating that companies are putting out the “wrong” games the “wrong” way. As it is, I attended E3 in what most would feel is the “wrong” way – I opted instead to just talk to people in line and left the noisy halls to hold still and have conversations with people who have made games for my don’t die project.

    I only played two games all week, but I watched all the big press conferences. I attended just as much as someone who didn’t wedge themselves out of bed that day would, so what’s really the difference at this point? Why elbow your way to see five percent new stuff and risk the dreaded convention cough?

    STU: I attended E3 from my apartment. I watched the press conferences while sipping whiskey. I followed along on Twitter. I feel like the only thing I missed out on was What Remains of Edith Finch, which I didn’t hear much about, but which looks intriguing. I probably would have played that one.

    Other than that, though, I think my E3 experience was about as complete as last year’s except without the expense, the hangovers and the post-travel head cold.

    Let me kill the buzz for you. VR, no matter the flavor, despite the untold amounts of money that tech firms will sink into it, will never penetrate the mass market in any meaningful way (see: 3D). That Microsoft holo-doohickey sure is impressive-looking in a canned demo, but I remember Project Milo. I am cautiously optimistic about the scope of No Man’s Sky, but still worried that its procedurally generated universe is a bit of witchcraft that will prove far less interesting once I have it in my hands. I suspect a similar kind of black magic behind The Last Guardian footage. Oh, and that Shenmue III Kickstarter is a crock of shit. Anything else?

    Don’t get me wrong. I love games. I am looking forward to playing a number of the ones I saw depicted on the big screen inside my little screen (Dishonored 2, Cuphead, Firewatch). Just deliver me from the hype of the hype of the hype. I’ve been picking at this scab for a while (the trouble with rabid fandom, the trouble with the very notion of game previews, the trouble with fan perception of ownership) and I think we’ve entered a kind of feedback loop where it is next to impossible to have anything approaching a reasonable expectation from a game. Outside of E3, game announcements and previews are trumpeted with hyperbolic accolades – at least until the backlash starts. We love and hate things simultaneously, now. It leaves many of us exhausted, if not disappointed, long before the game in question comes out.

    During E3 week, this cycle is sped up to the speed of a strobe light. It is all noise, no signal. How could it be anything else?

    And I am saying that after sitting on my duff all week. I imagine folks at the show felt like Alex at the end of A Clockwork Orange.

    But maybe that is just how it looks on the outside.

    Again, this probably reads as pessimism, as a guy who has done this too long and needs to get a new job. I hear a lot of people lately saying they miss the good old days when people loved games, loved talking about them, loved writing about them. I still love those things, but it is depressing that we have to shout over so much, that differences of opinions either get ignored by the critical consensus or start the equivalent of a fistfight.

    And none of it seems to matter for more that half a minute before the Next Big Thing grabs everyone’s attention. Press reset. Start all over.

    What I am saying is that I am actually optimistic about things. Just maybe, we should all calm down a bit, take marketing with a healthy dose of skepticism, de-escalate.

    I don’t know. Long story short, I am glad I stayed home.

    IMG_0092DAVID: I’m glad I went. I made some new friends. I had some good conversations.

    I think what we often forget in this strobe light world we’re blinded so steadily and readily by is that, well, sometimes you don’t need to have a reaction at all. You just need to bask.

    At previous E3’s, I had noticed other writers were, sure, live-snarking on Twitter, but many others were just mulling and considering after being shown another trailer. Dazed and processing, eventually they joined the applause.

    They weren’t sure what to think, and they had nothing to say.

    Marketing at its full blast will likely just strike at the most kneejerk of glands. Nobody ever shrieks from the mountaintops they are hugely undecided about a product, they’ll just change the channel or encourage others to join them.

    The lights are flickering. They are both on and off – at the same time. Everyone’s a gamer now, but not the same type of gamer as you, not the same type of gamer as me. These distinctions are exhausting, and frankly, boring. They have little to do with just enjoying videogames.

    And yet we all hold still and bask together, unsure whether to reject or accept.

    We don’t have to do either.

    I try to peel further back into that sentiment myself day-to-day, especially at E3, and just remain unsure.

    We might remember how E3 “used to be,” but imagine how our first E3’s measured up for people who have been around as long we have now. When we were cub reporters, we were likely just grateful to be at the show we read about as kids. We wouldn’t even think of judging or doubting the way the show was – the way the show is is the way the show is.

    I think the friction we are running into is exactly that: It’s hard to be in a relationship with something that doesn’t grow with you.

    Of course it’s hard to have an objectively good time.

    But I think of a bigger, more zoomed-out question that I discussed last week over coffee before the show floor opened with a colleague: Is it unfair to ask this much of videogames? Is it possible some people lean on videogames too much?

    You and I remember back when we were simply astonished that after you beat one level, there would be another new one waiting for you. Now, here we sit, reasonable men, already dismissing alternate realities or shaking our heads at game companies trying to fund their projects in “dishonest” ways. Well, that’s you.

    My opinion is that I think most of the big companies made a good effort. (Except, hey, Square-Enix? You might want to hire a fact-checker.)

    They are trying in the tiny ways they can, given how painted into corners they are by these absurd budgets. Was there a good variety of stuff? Not really. Too many sequels? Sure. But, hey, The Last Guardian is finally happening. I haven’t even beaten Ico, but I’ll be stoked to check out Guardian at some point, regardless of the fact that it looks like a PS3 game still. The Final Fantasy VII remake? I missed that game the first time around, and if they’re really doing a total remake, that’ll be neat. The Shenmue III thing that upset so many, yourself included? I’m glad it’s happening, but it’s problematic for more nuanced reasons that pose greater threats to other devs than players. It is the same sort of thing that leads people to gripe that the trees looked way better in Witcher III two years ago in an earlier trailer. It’s the hype of the hype of the hype you’re talking about, and it’s problematic when unchecked.

    Were these the games I wanted to hear about? Not really. It’s odd to see Microsoft do such a quick about-face with backwards compatibility and I can’t get over the fact we saw a controller trailer at E3 but – I don’t know.

    The point is to get us talking. Does it really matter about what? The only real logical way to criticize E3 is in whether it could have promoted products in a better way – not what the products themselves are.

    The intersection of videogames and the Internet is such a strange one. I texted our good mutual friend – and fellow Unwinnable contributor – Gus Mastrapa about E3. When I asked him to describe the show in one word, he said, simply, “circus.”

    I asked Gus, “Why do gamers take such ownership over the medium and seemingly everything that happens in it?” He texted back, “Gamers were the first Internet-connected consumer culture.” They pioneered, perhaps due to the medium’s interactive nature, this feeling of control.

    So what are we really bellyaching about?

    Or as our other good mutual friend – and fellow Unwinnable contributor – Davis Cox told me last week via Gchat, “The best way to make gamers angry is to make them happy.”

    Loving games is a given here, for both of us, so what’s the problem?

    Who can please any of us?

    So I’ll just pose those questions again: Do we lean on videogames too much?

    What are we really asking of videogames here?

    Of E3?

    STU: I feel like I might have more of an outsider perspective on E3 than you, strangely enough. I never read game mags with any kind of consistency as a kid. The Dragon Magazine game review column? Sure. The occasional game mag picked up from the supermarket? Yeah. I had a Nintendo Power subscription, but I was focused on the strategy guides and maps in that particular publication.

    So, when you mention the show we read about when we were kids…nope, not me. I had no preconceived notions about E3 before arriving at my first, in 2010. I had previously been to a handful of New York City Comic-Cons as press for the New York Daily News, so I had some idea of the scope and the vibe of this kind of show. That’s about it.

    I didn’t mythologize it at all. Trade show, built around hype. In fact, I preferred that to the crushing throng of the public at NYCC. That first E3 was a perspective-changer for me: It made me realize that there were cool people out there (some of them are now my friends!) who got to play and talk about videogames for a living.

    Keep in mind, my gig at the NYDN was a living hell then, so maybe I couldn’t see that I was just trading for a different kind of prison, but I went home that year feeling like I visited paradise.

    Crazy, right?

    Like I said, I am optimistic about the games industry. I think we just need to get over some things. Since my first E3, the industry has changed significantly. In some ways, it has gotten boring and predictable. In others, it is undeniably exciting.

    I just question the need to talk about things that will be instead of the myriad of things that are. Let’s be patient. Let’s sleep off the hangover instead of having the hair of the dog.

    DAVID: I’m not sure what more I can add to that.

    The game industry is also very adept at burying things it announces at E3 that it’d prefer to act like it never hyped to begin with. Do you remember the Wonderbook?

    Well, you might. But the average reader probably doesn’t. And it doesn’t matter anyway, because we should frankly celebrate stabs in the dark and trying new things – which I know is why last year you considered Glitch City (a co-working space for aspiring game devs out in Culver City) a bright spot in last year’s E3. It’s across town and exists in the show’s shadows, and you could argue it is just as much about marketing as anything else in the games industry or the rest of the world we live in. If memory serves, I already wrote a bunch of other words for you about how we are all in marketing. Surprise, surprise that I still stand by that just another month or two later.

    That’s not a bad thing, necessarily.

    Gaming is so incredibly broad today. There are so many sensibilities now and so many ways that this show and what it represents, by omission, demonstrates how it does not want to grow. E3 is a colossal platform, but it is still largely tone deaf and bizarre.

    And maybe everything to say about it, by now, has already been said. I find the experience of wading around in other people’s uninformed and very loud opinions exhausting. People speak with such certainty about the medium, about this show, and I don’t know.

    Maybe these are symptoms of the industry finally growing up. It is flawed, it is myopic, it has its runaway success stories and it has its growing crops or marginalized people who will spark revolutions and captivate those who feel similarly cold by what’s being pumped out. Having things to hope and root for is fun, too, right?

    But in a way, I see many others take solace in the fact that the industry is growing increasingly risk-averse: It gives us a chance to pump the brakes and look further back at all the stuff that has been buried and enjoy it at our own pace.

    To your point, why not just talk about the things that are and the things that were? Those are both far greater indicators of where we might go than any press conference parading out buzzwords and product information.

    Like you said, let’s stay patient. We can make and find our own fun.

    And I find it funny that we are zooming further and further away from actually discussing E3 – it’s almost like we are saying the show itself has very little to do with enjoying videogames these days. Is that our point?

    Or in the spirit of asking too many questions, how about we flip it a little more positive: How does E3 relate to loving videogames in 2015? What’s the connective tissue, no matter how strained and sickly?

    STU: I take great pride in not knowing much.

    I think any time I write something, I am essentially thinking out loud, trying to make sense of things. Sure, I make definitive statements – that’s just good writing – but I will happily contradict myself down the line, too. Pondering things isn’t about being right, it’s about…well, pondering.

    So, in the spirit of that, I will try to answer your last questions in as many different, conflicting ways possible

    1. There is no connective tissue at all

    2. Games are still not nearly as mainstream as the games industry pretends they are. We’re still a bunch of weirdos on the fringe, even if that fringe generates a bazillion dollars a year. So E3’s main function is as our one week in the popular spotlight

    3. Nostalgia fuels so many new releases by way of sequels and revivals that E3 functions as a kind of oral history of gaming. As much as it pretends to push the medium forward, it is actually an elaborate root system, connecting us to the past

    4. As the industry has struggled for legitimacy, it has vanquished a good number of boogey men, from Jack Thompson’s anti-violence nonsense to Roger Ebert’s claim that games can’t be art. Without an external opponent, we need E3 to hate, to rail against, to make us better, to help us grow – a kind of sacrificial king.

    I could go on. Each of these things could all certainly be fleshed out into think pieces. They are all valid arguments, all correct to some degree, simultaneously. Perhaps one such viewpoint is valuable to you, right now, for your don’t die interviews. Maybe another will help a developer crack a marketing problem for a game they are working on right now.

    That doesn’t make the others any less valid. That also doesn’t mean that these ideas can’t be discarded as soon as something better comes along.

    That’s the thing about E3. Something better is going to come along, eventually.

    The same way rainy days turn into clear nights.

    ———

    David Wolinsky has opinions about videogames. He’s the creator of don’t die, a videogame-industry confessional forum and the co-producer of The Electric Cybercast II: Online, the world’s only podcast about videogames. Support his Patreon and follow him on Twitter @davidwolinsky.

    Stu Horvath is the editor in chief of Unwinnable. He reads a lot, drinks whiskey and spends his free time calling up demons. Sometimes, he plays with toys and calls it “photography.” Follow him on Twitter @StuHorvath.

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