“How was E3?” Douglas asks when I get back in town. We’re on the way to do this week’s podcast. Trevor has picked me up and Douglas doesn’t even offer me shotgun. He just leans forward a little and lets me push his seat up to climb into the back.
I’ve prepped for the ‘How was E3?’ question. It’s like when you go on vacation and come back. Everyone asks how your vacation was, but most of them don’t really want a blow-by-blow account. You have to be ready with a quick overall summary and one or two bite-sized anecdotes. Something like: ‘It was great. We saw dolphins. The weather was awesome, but it rained on us one day.’
“It was great. Santa Monica is really nice. Nintendo had a good presentation, but the Playstation 3 is in trouble. Rock Band is really cool.”
Douglas nods and then starts to tell us about this chick he knows who just got breast implants.
“So what else did you see?” Trevor asks. Bless his heart. Breast implants? Whatever. Halo 3? Now we’re talking. Trevor wants to hear more than just the 25-words-or-less briefing. He wants the full report, and there will even be Q&A.
“Well, I feel like I spent most of my time either waiting for or riding on a shuttle bus. I saw more of Santa Monica than anything else. When E3 was in the Convention Center in Los Angeles, it was this grubby corner of downtown that I could ignore because I was busy seeing games. But this year, Santa Monica got in between all the games.”
“That sucks,” Trevor notes. “Santa Monica sucks.”
“Lots of breast implants in Santa Monica, right?” Douglas asks, perhaps stinging a little from the lack of interest in his tangent.
“I don’t have anything against Santa Monica, although I don’t see how someone can live in such relentlessly pleasant weather. At least Florida has thunderstorms and insufferable humidity.”
“Not as many breast implants, probably. So this girl who got the implants last week, she says they’re still sore, but I can touch them if I want. So I told her–“
“You’ve never really liked E3, though, right?” Trevor asks. When it’s just the two of us, we outnumber Douglas. His boorishness is more effective when he’s holding forth before small groups unable to unite against him.
“Yeah, I’ve never been a big fan. The show was better this year, but I still question the entire premise.”
I explain that gaming is an intensely personal experience. It’s a reverse-Copernican shift in entertainment. A movie or a graphic novel sits immutable and I’m outside of it, helplessly orbiting and no more relevant than the earth is to the sun. But when I play a game, I’m at the center of an experience carefully and solely engineered not just for my eyes and ears, but for me to sink my fingers into, like a bowl of peeled grapes at a haunted house. Games are clay that pushes back a little. They exist for me to ply.
But I can’t get that unless I’ve got the game, at home, at my own desk or on my couch, on my own TV. It’s a crucial, indeed, indispensable part of the experience. So game demos are nothing like an actual game. Demos and E3, which is nothing but demos, demos, demos, are all about showing me the promise of something. At best, it might have some fakey staged interaction.
They’re like movie trailers. Movie trailers don’t exist to present an accurate picture of the movie they’re advertising, which would be impossible. Movies are ninety plus minutes, with a beginning, middle, and end, with a pace and an arc. All movie trailers can do is make me want to see the movie. They’re trying to trick me, and I’ve gone to enough movies that I’m hard to trick.
So it’s a battle. When I see a game demo, the whole time I’m wondering, ‘Is what you’re showing me true? Or is what I expect as a worst-case scenario true?’ And as a writer, I’m tired of having to find the middle ground between those two truths. It’s an exhausting epistemological battle.
I try to explain all this, leaning forward from the back seat, thrusting myself between them, hanging from their seat backs. They listen, slightly bewildered and wondering what the hell I’m talking about.
“Dude, it’s demos of shit blowing up,” Trevor says.
“Do you even know what epistemological means?”
“Yes. Okay, no, but I don’t care. I just wish I could see the single-player Halo 3 stuff they showed you. Did you see the dual plasma swords?”
“Who cares about the dual plasma swords? You know what’s going to be awesome? Bioshock. And you know how I know? Because it wasn’t a demo. The game is pretty much done and I freakin’ sat and played it for three hours one day. Halo 3, Call of Duty 4, Killzone 2, Foozle 6, whatever, they were all just videos that didn’t mean a thing, so they could be awesome, or they could suck. But I wouldn’t know.”
“I care about dual plasma swords. Dual swords would be totally cool. And I don’t see why you’re making such a big deal about it.”
“Because it’s what this business is all about these days. We’re middle men. Those of us who supposedly write about games get used like ventriloquist dummies. If you don’t believe me, go out there and read the E3 coverage, or read any preview of any given game. They’re all the same. And that’s because there’s nothing to say beyond what the publishers have given us to say. What else am I going to write about a five minute demo of Killzone 2?”
“Are you going to say all this shit on the podcast?” Douglas asks, twisting around in his seat. “And what’s Killzone 2?”
“Yeah, are you just going to rant? Or can we actually talk about E3?”
“No, no, I’ve got my notes.” I half-heartedly raise the yellow legal pad off my lap for a moment to prove their existence. Here they are. My notes. Pretty much the same notes as the other 3,000 people who went to E3 and had to write about it.
“So there are dual plasma swords in Halo 3?” Douglas asks. “That’s awesome. How does that work?”
To be continued…
Tom Chick has been writing about videogames for fifteen years. His work appears in Games for Windows Magazine, Yahoo, Gamespy, Sci-Fi, and Variety. He lives in Los Angeles. Shoot Club appears in this space every Thursday.