The Year of the Turtle

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Dear Videogame Industry:
Don’t look at me. It’s not my problem. I wasn’t the one who spewed out product all year and bragged about how great the future would be. It wasn’t me who promised immersion and delight and mind blowing experiences that would put whatever Brad and Angelina do in a hotel room to shame. And it’s sure not my job to try and pull it all together now – make some sense out of the chaos, say what it means and make it fit into a shiny tale of how games will walk the earth like gods among men.

What? It’s not your fault, either? You were too busy dealing with production budgets blowing through the roof and work weeks that make speed freak Gulf War fighter jet pilots gulp with sympathy? You had to keep your eye on the bouncing ball, as your fans bleated about innovation and then flocked to the latest sequels? They complained about licenses and exclusivity and then knocked each other over to buy Madden?

And, I’ll admit, those politicians certainly haven’t helped. They want to ban games they’ve never played and waste time passing laws that judges laugh out of legal existence, even while the newspapers try to capture the story by suggesting to the world your little development team is really peddling some sort of interactive smut. Sure, you’ve had a hell of a year. But what am I supposed to do about it?

I mean, it’s not like I can just say, “Videogames in 2005 were like a year of school lunches – lots of variety, some surprises and way too many corn dogs.” Sure, the Xbox 360 launched. But it’s not like Will Wright shipped Spore.

But I guess that’s why you’re asking me to bring it all together.

Alright already. If you’ll stop crying, I’ll do it. But this is the last time. Next year, you better get your act together. Next year, you guys make the year make sense, yourselves. This is the last time.

The Year of Living Extraneously
According to the Chinese calendar, we are finishing up the year of the rooster and heading into the year of the dog. This may mean something to someone, somewhere, although what that might be certainly escapes me. Still, I like the idea enough to suggest that for games, 2005 was the year of the vole, or maybe the box turtle.

Now, I am of the opinion that we should take Chinese things seriously because a) They have 10,000 year-old culture; and b) I’m pretty sure they made all of my clothes and most of the parts in my computer. To me, this translates into some form of cultural wisdom I’d like to tap into. Also, there’s this other thing I’ve noticed: They have their own calendar and their own New Year. This is something I think the videogame industry should seriously consider, because as far as I can tell, we only pretend to follow the old January 1st to December 31st routine in the first place.

Sort of like Jewish families setting up Christmas trees just because everyone else does, gaming journalists trot out end of the year roundups and best-of’s and sagely nodding retrospectives while they know good and well that gaming’s New Year’s happens in May. The Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles is what marks the birth/death cycle of the gaming year, and its New Year’s bash is always the Sony Party.

Like those booze-soaked New Year’s most people celebrate at their local Quality Inn, the gaming world celebrates the new gaming year by loading up on drinks and making big promises about the upcoming year. Game people just do it in some parking lot in L.A., while a midget band dressed like KISS rocks out a few tunes.

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Looking back to E3 2005, I really should have known the year would turn out like it did. This was the year that an industrial/tribal pyro act skirted fire codes and filled the convention center with the smell of gasoline promoting a game that still hasn’t launched; where zombie women drew more attention than booth babes; the Gizmondo defied the odds by building some buzz; and Nintendo irked everyone by pushing the Game Boy Micro and shrugging at suggestions that they really ought to talk about the Revolution. This was the year that Rockstar put their games in tour busses; put the tour busses in the convention center behind chain link fences and then apparently didn’t let anyone actually see the games. This is same E3 that, after feeling like I was punched in the face by the overload of Sony’s PlayStation 3 presentation, I turned to the head of the International Game Developers Association anti-censorship group and told him maybe the industry had gone a little too far with the violence thing.

This was also the year I met Steven Spielberg. And by “met,” I mean I stood next to him and tried to eavesdrop on what he was saying.

So, like a box turtle, this year was alive, but just sort of sat there. It wasn’t noble like a horse; it wasn’t fleet like a panther. It wasn’t even peculiar and fascinating like a jellyfish. As best that I can tell, 2005 will go down as the year that just sort of crawled along on the ground.

Steve and Me
One of the more peculiar E3 rituals involves “behind closed doors” meetings. At first glance, this seems like a great idea. Give select press limited access to products that are kept away from the prying eyes of the general public. Of course, letting, say, the New York Times into a darkened room filled with comfortable couches tucked away from the noise and chaos of the E3 show floor and presenting your game in soothing high definition video really doesn’t qualify as keeping things under wraps. It’s more like PR streaking. But the press likes “closed doors” because that is generally code for “free bottle of water.” And trust me, haggard game journalists will do just about anything at E3 for a cold drink or a Powerbar in the middle of the day. And that whiff of exclusivity a door can give a meeting is the closest thing most of us will ever get to real celebrity.

It was during one of these closed-door meetings that I met, or more accurately, ran into, one of biggest celebrities I will probably ever encounter in my life. I was touring EA’s booth, running behind Chris Morris of CNNMoney when our PR guide asked if we wanted to see the company’s upcoming Godfather game. “Of course,” we replied, eager to see if videogame-dom could do to a classic piece of cinema what the movies so willingly do when defacing our beloved game franchises. The trouble was, in this particular demo room, there was a group of people standing in a clutch, in front of the Godfather game, blithely blocking everyone. As we shouldered though the rude throng, Morris proved that, while he’s probably a better journalist that I am in a 100 different ways, being observant was the most important one.

“It’s Spielberg,” he whispered as we pushed through the gauntlet of bodies to reach to the demo.

Turning around, I gawked like a hayseed in the city. “Golly gee! It was Mr. Steven E.T. Spielberg, right there!”

Double taking and checking again, I was sure it was Spielberg because, besides the fact that he looked like Spielberg (he was wearing one of those Navy ball caps that all directors of a certain era seem to favor), he was surrounded by a phalanx of EA suits. And anyone who is not a pretty girl in a short skirt surrounded by people wearing suits is, by definition, important.

Now, just because I can’t recognize a celebrity when I run into one doesn’t mean that my basic reporter’s curiosity suffers the same lameness. So, while pretending to listen to the Godfather spiel, I tried to hear what Mr. Hollywood was saying. Sadly, even though I was close enough to pick the wax out of his ears, I couldn’t hear a word. I could only watch the smiling, adoring faces of the EA crowd soaking up whatever marvelous things he was offering. In the end, I have no idea if the Godfather game will be any good because I wasn’t paying attention; one of the EA executives was waving his hands while exclaiming, “Steven, why don’t you make a game for us?”

Of course, months later, EA announced that Spielberg would be working on games. And who is surprised?

Upon reflection, the whole scene was ironic enough to make it into a Saturday Night Live sketch. How else does one describe two reporters who muscle past the biggest name in Hollywood for a chance to see a demo of a game made about an Academy Award-winning piece of cinematic history?

I Walk the Line
People like to talk about the “console wars” as if the videogame industry was some sort of giant strategic simulation produced by Avalon-Hill. You can almost envision the game box, with Mario decked out like Rommel, peering over an embankment with a pair of field goggles. Sony would have the black pieces, Microsoft the green and Nintendo the red. The game would play out on map of the world, and domination would be determined by a roll of the dice.

In reality, the Nintendo booth at E3 sits next to Sony’s. Microsoft holds court in an entirely different hall in the convention center. If there is a front in this war, it’s a carpeted aisle filled with milling fans. This year, it was also filled huge lines.

People like to imagine the mythical length of Disneyland lines in the summer. But these E3 lines were longer. These were the kind of lines you see on the news when Wal-Mart gives out free hams; when American Idol auditions come to town; when you promise fans a glimpse of the next generation of games and hardware.

This year, I noticed a line of what must have been four or five hundred people queued up on the side of the Nintendo booth. I asked a fellow in a black Zelda t-shirt what he was waiting to do. “Zelda trailer,” he offered flatly. He was there to sit through a few minutes of videogame footage and a taste of game play. His fellow-line waiters shared a glazed look and plastic bags filled with the promotional flotsam and jetsam you accumulate during a visit to E3 – T-shirts, magazines, posters and the occasional thing with a blinking LED. The line looked like a cross between political refugees at a boarder crossing and Rolling Stones fans camping out for tickets.

My curiosity, or maybe just morbid fascination, led me to the back of the line. A cherry group of fans anchored the tail of the line – so far from the Nintendo compound, you couldn’t even see it.

“How long will it take you to get to the front?” I asked I guy who, I swear, was also wearing a Zelda shirt.

“Oh, about three and a half hours,” he chirped.

“Just to see a three minute clip of a new game?”

“Well, that’s what we came here to see. So, we’re not going to leave until we’ve seen it.”

The fans around them murmured in agreement. And I wandered off wondering if the game business deserved fans that loyal. I considered, for a moment, whether the industry was a little too dependent on a core group of people that absolutely, and fundamentally, believe games matter; that games were more than frivolous bits and plastic boxes.

Across the trenches from the battle-hardened Nintendo troops, a few scant feet of carpet away, the weary Sony warriors crouched in their own line.

I asked. Four hours to see a few minutes of PlayStation 3 promo footage.

And the lines inched forward like a parade of turtles.

The X Factor
I know you’d like me to say 2005 is the year of the Xbox 360. But I’m not going to do that. Because I think Nintendo WiFi at McDonalds is, frankly, bigger news than Microsoft’s new console, as far as Q4 ’05 business news is concerned.

But I wouldn’t bet against Microsoft. In the strategic buildup of PR armaments, you have to look at who stockpiles what to get a sense of how things will go, as the war wears on. And Microsoft is definitely putting supplies in the bunker. In fact, they’ve spent a fair amount on the bunker, itself.

I suppose, when you consider Redmond dropped somewhere around $4 billion on the original Xbox, it’s not that surprising that when asked, the MS PR people told me that they’d spent about $4 million on the new 360-themed E3 booth.

“But we’ll use it for the next four or five years,” said my source.

Exactly. If Microsoft gets out of the game businesses, it won’t be until they’ve lost another $4 billion. And like Richard Pryor discovered in the classic ’80s comedy, Brewster’s Millions, it takes a long time and a lot of effort to spend a towering pile of cash.

This leaves me with a wait-and-see attitude about the 360. And other than a handful of game fans who would swear they bleed Xbox radioactive green if you cut them, most everyone else feels the same way I do. We need more than Kameo and Project Gotham Racing to change the game world. And so far, the world the 360 envisions is exactly like the current one, with a little TiVo and an expensive HDTV thrown in.

Nintendo, on the other hand, may be going through the biggest corporate freak out of all time; a core value questioning that will make New Coke seem like a smart move. Or, maybe they are the only sane console maker left in the game business. For now, it all comes down to whether or not you think hooking up wireless games for free in a McDonalds is the greatest thing since McGriddles, or whether this more along the lines of a tofu Big Mac.

Me, I see Nintendo in its experimental college phase. They’re trying new things, testing the waters and seeing what feels good. Whether this fling with Mickey D’s will last or end up as a funny story told over wine coolers to friends years later, we’ll see. But for now, Nintendo seems to have a little bit of libido in an industry that has become almost puritan in its preservation of the status quo.

Hot Topic
The funniest thing that happened all year? Hot Coffee, of course. Oh, I’m sure Take 2’s comptroller was weeping bitter tears onto the ledger books when Rockstar had to recall all those Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas discs that contained unlock-able acts of mild nastiness.

And I know there’s nothing like oral sex to get would-be game censors all whipped up into a sexually repressed frenzy. I should probably be a little concerned about all this. But I just think it’s funny, because it is funny.

It’s mainly funny that anyone cares. It’s funny that two crude, low poly characters pushing the limits of a game engine’s collision detection system passes for sexual congress. Besides, if you want kids to not have sex, you should show them this game. When they are done throbbing on a few buttons, they will wonder what the fuss was all about. These impressionable youth, if they have anything in them that can still hold an imprint, will be left with the very strong feeling that grown ups are screwing with them again.

“That’s it? That’s what you didn’t want me to see? You don’t want me doing that? THAT was boring.”

I’m telling you. If you don’t want kids to have sex, let them see sex. Give them a tape of hard core Danish bestiality and lock them in a room. When they are done, they’ll just want to take a shower to clean off the icky feeling. Or let them play Hot Coffee. They might still have sex. But you can be very, very sure it’s not because of this game.

The Shell Game
So here we are, with E3 2006 a few months down the road, idling away the remaining days of the year of the box turtle. And it’s probably worth noting at this point that turtles have been around since the time of the dinosaurs, in one form or another. It gives me some comfort to think games can keep creeping along the muddy banks of popular culture, dunking into their collective shells when trouble comes by.

Then again, outside the magical world of Mario, turtles haven’t done much. Evolution doesn’t seem to be their strong suit. They haven’t changed much in a zillion years. They don’t wear pants and haven’t invented the George Foreman grill. That is, they just sort of stopped developing in any dramatic way. These days, most people don’t even eat them. Or keep them as pets. We just sort of ignore turtles.

And that, more than anything else, is the warning of the year of the box turtle.

Last year, the Game Developer’s Choice Award for best game, the award given by developers for developers, was handed out to Half-Life 2 over Katamari Damacy. I groaned. I don’t make games and really didn’t care how technically excellent HL2 was. It just seemed like a bigger, slower turtle to me. It was just a fatter, more massive, more monumental and just-as-doomed brontosaurus. Katamari‘s pink-nosed, furry mammal peered out from its hiding place as the giant lumbered on stage to collect a prize for being very much the same as other games. Then, it turned its furry, little tail and headed back into the safety of its burrow and wondered when the big, stupid lizards would just drop dead.

And that’s it. As the year of the box turtle waddles out from under our feet, let’s hope next year’s gaming mascot holds a little more promise. For next year, maybe we’ll get a lion, a silver backed gorilla, a falcon or a pit viper. Meanwhile, I’ll just keep hoping for the year of the Sexy Cybernetic Extraterrestrial.

David Thomas is the founder of the International Game Journalists Association. He also provides commentary and criticism at

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