Noah J Nelson on Wednesday, Jun. 19th
The Electronic Entertainment Expo exists in a kind of ahistorical limbo. Suspended between a nostalgic past and an unfathomable future. Like its host city, Los Angeles, just what E3 is depends entirely upon your point of view. The event exists on multiple levels at once: trade show, PR war and fan festival.
This is the first of two parts, in the second I'm going to get into the vision of the future that managed to leak out of E3 but first I feel the need to address the presence of the past. The ghosts that haunted the Los Angeles Convention Center and environs for four days last week.
For a year when two of the video game console manufacturers announced new platforms this was an astonishingly conservative event.
Sony "won" the PR war simply by announcing that their business model–which is under assault by a storm front of market and production forces–will not change this year. This was met with cheers from the thousands of game enthusiasts who made up the live audience. They served as the representatives of the "hardcore gamers" who are angry with Sony's chief rival–Microsoft–for embracing restrictive digital rights management schemes that in their eyes favor publishers over consumers.
Cheers for a business plan, not a new vision of play, but the promise that for the foreseeable future they will be able to bring an unwanted game back to the store for credit towards their next purchase.
There was some excitement around the fact that Sony put a collection of independently produced games front and center, but many of those games are already available on alternative marketplaces like Steam. A platform on which, ironically, it is currently impossible to trade games on.
The notion that "gaming has come of age" floats around in op-ed pieces in the enthusiast and mainstream press. What exactly that means is up to interpretation. The marketplace has certainly gotten older. The average age of gamers is now in the late 30s.
Yet like most mass entertainment, the idea of "mature" revolves around elaborate depictions of violence and a sense of sexuality that seems to age out around 17. It wouldn't be so bad if there wasn't so much of it. The relentless tide of shooters, scantily clad "booth babes" and tone-deaf marketing banter manages to drown out novel creations with amidst a chorus of "me-toos".
For a generation the games industry sought to be seen as the equal of the film industry. When measured against the metrics of 'spolosions and sex the student has surpassed the master.
Then there is the funhouse mirror effect that comes with mixing a trade-show with a fan expo. E3, strictly speaking, isn't an event like ComicCon. It is not open to the public. Yet the people who flock there have dedicated their lives–adult or otherwise–to the video game industry. The long lines to play the sneak previews of this Fall's releases are not filled with dispassionate middle managers but eager sales reps, developers and members of the press who are all looking to reconnect with the sense of wonder that a great game engenders.
When the actual experience of wonder isn't available, then the memory of it is marketed instead.
Noting that E3 is a tide pool of sequels is nothing new. Every entertainment industry winds up in the sequel business–Henry the IV Part 2, anyone?–what Im talking about is the remake.
Not the kind of remake or "reboot" that Hollywood specializes in, but remakes of original games, given facelifts. It is a process more akin to digitizing and colorizing an old film than a full reimagining. Those exists too, but this year everywhere I turned I saw displays for games from the 1990's that were being "remastered".
The saddest part: many of these games are more interesting than the "next generation" fare they were advertised alongside of. The sense of playfulness that radiates from these rereleases–many of which are based on Disney properties:Ducktails, Kingdom Hearts, Castle of Illusion–surpasses the aura of even the latest Nintendo games.
Ah, Nintendo. The name synonymous with video games in the minds of so many. They wisely kept their head down for this year's PR war, eschewing their traditional Tuesday morning press conference for a more informal event on the show floor.
A tour of their booth was a trip on the saddest time machine ever. The new Mario game that looks and plays like the old ones. The new Donkey Kong Country game that looks and plays like the old ones. The new Mario Kart that…
For a company whose biggest concern is getting consumers to shell out the money for a brand new console, Nintendo didn't even seem to be trying. One hundred feet from their booth it was possible to find a machine that would play both old NES and Super Nintendo games, which seemed like a sounder investment than a brand new machine that played spruced up versions of the old games.
The prevalence of the "retro" strain was the oddest note for me at an Expo that is ostensibly about the new. Perhaps it is a function of this being a transition year for the industry. New consoles always represents both a learning curve for developers and a harder sell for the current generation of games.
This obsession with the past represents a complex undercurrent. One part consists of the desire of the first gaming generation to "hand down" their old toys to their progeny. The other has to do with the way in which American adolescence has had an indefinite extension for the last twenty years.
Technology has both enabled and enforced this state of being. Staying open to new ideas–the hallmark of youth–is required in a society that is undergoing constant technological upheaval. The upside is that people should be–theoretically–more open minded.
Yet I cannot escape the sense that we are losing something as a culture–and I'm not talking about just video game culture now–with our delayed maturity. The sexual politics on display at the expo, onstage and off, show just how far we haven't come since the first video game generation was born.
Perhaps it is blind naïveté, but I hold out hope that there is a route through the middle. A way to embrace the "beginner's mind" of youth and play along with the wisdom that is born of age and experience.
Maybe next year.