Mirth and Melancholy: The Age of Conan Launch Party

Jordan Deam | 19 May 2008 21:25
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After scaling a short flight of stairs, we found our queue - mostly everyday Norwegians and a handful of journalists - flanked on both sides by a crew of scantily clad, pike-bearing medievalists. With an almost theatrical flourish, the scene revealed itself to us: fire breathers, jousters, pigs roasting on spits. Norse warriors throwing bones, mugging for the cameras and coming to blows. Two buffets and as many open bars. I had seen enough; still smarting from a $27 sandwich the night before that nonetheless left me hungry, I made a bee-line for the caterers and didn't look back. Soot-stained barbarians stood aghast at my lack of decorum.

Minutes later, Conan himself ascended to his throne overlooking the grounds, announced by a squire eager to rally the revelers behind the game that had, in some capacity, brought us all here. It was no use; comparatively few among us were dedicated MMO gamers, and the only roaring response from the crowd came after the subtle encouragement that we all drink as much as our stomachs could handle. For the rest of the night Conan sat, legs crossed nonchalantly, gazing with stony indifference at the crowd below him.

Then came the fireworks. Modest at first, they quickly crescendoed into a spectacle that made the Independence Days of my youth seem as exciting as a trip to the orthodontist. A rowdy Swede standing next to me - claiming to be from a "rival" developer - burst with unrestrained enthusiasm in sync with the illuminated sky above us. "Now that's real power!" he bellowed, barely audible above the crackling din of a truly explosive finale.

From there, we were led into an underground bunker-turned "Stygian dungeon," replete with caged belly dancers, yet another open bar, and the musical stylings of Turbonegro, a Norwegian "deathpunk" outfit that proved to be the main draw for many in attendance. Playing crowd-pleasers like "I Got Erection" and "City of Satan," their unholy, tongue-in-cheek marriage of punk and hard rock seemed to bore into the concrete walls like a sonic jackhammer. It was the kind of music that made you want to hug someone and punch them in the mouth at the same time.

After Turbonegro closed their set, a stream of tour busses steadily transported their cargo back into the heart of the city. A few revelers retired to their hotel for the night; most continued to celebrate at the watering holes along Karl Johan's Gate, between the Royal Palace and the city's main transportation hub. I felt the mirth that only an unending supply of liquid courage and a roomful of strangers can provide, and the melancholy of leaving the city almost as soon as I found it.

Walking through the winding streets of Oslo at 6 A.M. (already broad daylight at this time of year), soaking up the muted colors of the cityscape before my early departure, I asked the same question that bygone E3 partygoers must have asked: Why? Intercontinental flights don't come cheap; nor does tending bar for 500 thirsty Norsemen (and women). What could possibly justify this kind of extravagant expense?

I had only to think back to "Akerbrygge" to find an answer. No matter how big the crits, or how much virtual blood indelicately spatters onto the inside of your monitor, numbers and health bars only amount to a crude approximation of the kind of aggression that Conan embodies. The most precisely rendered finishing-move doesn't communicate half the barbarism of watching a makeshift buckler splinter under a barrage of axeblows. Getting virtually drunk, while amusing, doesn't typically lead to the exhilaration that a night out in meatspace can.

I'm convinced that the architects of that evening's celebration were aware of the limitations of their source material. Robert E. Howard was certainly aware of his. As I arrived at Oslo's Central Station with heavy eyes and sore feet, contemplating the distances I'd traveled to get a glimpse into a world that doesn't exist, I was reminded of a line from Howard's The Hour of the Dragon: "He grunted with satisfaction. The feel of the hilt cheered him and gave him a glow of confidence. Whatever webs of conspiracy were drawn about him, whatever trickery and treachery ensnared him, this knife was real."

Jordan Deam has undergone more than a dozen MRI brain scans in the name of science. The results, while promising, were inconclusive.

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