Will E3 Ever Get Its Groove Back?
"I been charred and I been scarred
On my own face
But I never thought I'd see you as I did today."
-- Rilo Kiley, "The Angels Hung Around"
Los Angeles, Day One
Boom, boom, boom, goes the salsa on South Broadway. Hot, hot, hot are the streets. Steps away, there's the woman selling candles and Death Art (skeletons with fangs, her specialty), and a few steps down, tons of cheap Mexican leather goods, mangoes for sale, and parrots squawking "Get me outta the cage." Towering Gus Mastrapa leads us into a dark, ancient video arcade where the oomph among players is unmatchable and the decorations on the walls make me wide-eyed because they're old-ass, like eerie clown Tillies from a West Coast Coney Island. Even in Clifton's Cafeteria, an homage to redwood forests, neon Jesus stuff and faux waterfalls, there was dynamism among the eaters. Created in 1931, it's not just the world's largest cafeteria. You go into this dark, fake redwood tree/chapel, peer through a window to see some unrecognizable diorama, and get a speech about God from a thundering voice.
Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God. Back in the stark, unforgiving daylight was some explosive energy that was going to pop, pop, pop like someone was going to be shot at any minute, or as if some couple would start making out and strip down and just do it in the next second. Gus is telling the Crispy Crew about the fact that John Fante, Charles Bukowski's inspiration, lived only a few blocks away, and life becomes hyperreal. Life has got its icy blue spark, and the synapses are taking it all in. The energy, the energy, the energy! Enough to lift you off your feet, enough to make you forget the utter fallacies people you call friends spew, and you are flying down the street without the power of wings, just life.
Los Angeles, Day Two
And then there was E3, the down-sized, downtrodden, down-market videogame conference. See, after the big show imploded and the carnival atmosphere was stripped from it like skin off a living human, the makers of E3 couldn't get its rhythm and groove back. Its new skin was paper-thin like a kid with epidermolysis bullosa, so it couldn't rock anymore for fear of death. Everything seemed one or two beats off -- all tempered and fearful and mouse quiet at that.
Microsoft's Don Mattrick
Now, don't get me wrong, I didn't want to see J Allard strut around in a hoodie, making like Microsoft is the hippest street kid in the universe. But I didn't want to see Xbox honcho Don Mattrick look all out of place and off rhythm, while at the same time trying hard to be calm and collected, either. Yes, there were important games like Gears of War 2 and Fable II, but it was like watching Elaine from Seinfeld do that jerky, hitchhiking dance. Sweet, fancy Moses! I know the guy's an executive and not a performer. That's the point, though. Maybe they should hire a professional host who has experience in entertainment if they're going to try to entertain. A guy like me can't concentrate on the games when things are off-rhythm. The mind wanders. There's no focus, no there there.
E3 Day Two, Too Damn Early
But it was worse at the House of Mario. We go over to the place they have the Oscars at the unnatural hour of 7:30 a.m. At Nintendo we get wristbands and we sit in our so-called VIP areas, which we have done for years, and some security guy tries to kick me out because I don't have the right band on my wrist. Not just me, but CNET's Dan Ackerman, too. They even try to kick out Game Informer editor Andy McNamara. I mean, the dude's Andy McNamara. And like clones, more security comes and they keep trying to kick us out, even though we won't move. They try words, but they're not masters of words, so why should we listen to them?
Nintendo's Cammie Dunaway
But security keeps returning like hungry black flies around a pond in early summer. So we all stand up and leave in solidarity, embarrassment and annoyance and we get the proper bands and settle into our so-called VIP seats. But the House of Mario had little to show, just Wii Music and Animal Crossing: City Life. Yes, Nintendo had Reggie the President moving all macho around the stage like he was launching the Wii for the first time. And, yes, Cammie Dunaway was affable in her role of a marketing executive who is a Mom to a cute kid who loves games. But she's not an actor, even though she plays one onstage, trying to relate to us by talking about hurting her wrist at snowboarding, something she already talked about at Nintendo's Game Summit a few months ago. Add this to Crispy Gamer's Commandments: Thou shalt not repeat thy anecdotes at E3.
So Nintendo showed some good stuff, but not one blow-us-away thing. And sadness crept upon me. Another critic said Nintendo had somehow contaminated the whole show with a dark, smoky pall of a virus that would pervade the rest of E3. As the show let out, I thought, I brought my swim trunks. I could have been swimming in the ocean off Santa Monica if I knew I wasn't going to get even one snippet of exciting news. I mean, you know they have a new Mario and new Zelda in the works. Where's the dang 15-second trailer or a screenshot or even a logo? Nothin' folks. We got nothin'.
Day Two, 10:45 a.m.
So I'm in a Mustang with analyst Billy Pidgeon, hitching a ride across town to Sony. Billy is driving like the punk rocker he once was and still is in his soul, moving fast and braking faster like the car is an instrument in a Ramones song. Billy is none too pleased about some things, and it's not my place to mention which. But the press conferences are so far apart that that now we're off-rhythm. We get to the Shrine Auditorium in time, but the tempo is off and as I'm thinking this could be the worst E3 ever, I start drinking Corona and eating dessert courtesy of Sony before noon, which is something I never do. Heck, I don't even drink beer. But I need to be relaxed because I feel some sort of apocalypse is upon E3.
DC Universe Online
And sure enough, when Sony president Jack Tretton says he's rehearsed the Sony show for 12 hours the previous day, I knew his beat would be off, too. Tretton's a nice-guy honcho, but he seemed too relaxed or tired even, like he didn't sleep the night before. Some games were terrific, but the introductions were off. Resistance 2 had this large, 300-foot beast, and bombs were being shot into its gaming maw. Then the great comic book creator Jim Lee was introducing DC Universe Online, which might well be an MMO with heft (if they have the Spectre, Phantom Stranger or Swamp Thing, I'm there). But the writing of the speech and the presentation by Jack made me wanna go back to Clifton's Cafeteria and step into the Redwood Tree Chapel to listen to the faux voice of God.
The Phantom Stranger
The speech was not written for the personality that is Jack Tretton: It didn't have his voice. It didn't have power. Something is sucking us away into a purgatory circus of the banal. Oh, woe; oh, injury; oh, death. The horsemen are coming. I can hear their hoofbeats. The end is nigh.
E3 Day 2, Evening
So I'm sitting by the pool with a pal who scores movies. He's regaling me with stories about a producer pal of ours who's had the one of the strangest sex lives imaginable, probably because he seeks out the crazy girls, not the stable girls. I'm drinking Maker's Mark, something I never do, to dull the pain of a lackluster E3. See, the pours at the Figueroa pool bar are like double-shots, and I'm drunk quick, and I'm yearning, even as I'm talking, for a game that's really adult. It doesn't have to be like our pal's weirdo sex life. But it could be like real life and still be compelling, no guns, no flying, no warring, just an intense story executed videogame style. (Sony did show us such a game in a breakout session behind closed doors. It's called Heavy Rain and it's about a mystery that could happen in real life. It was my game of the show, but Sony doesn't want me to talk in detail about it, so I'll shut my yap so as not to break the embargo.)
That evening, I was resigned and sad. I felt there would be no great game surprises, so I was nearly content to sit there in creeped-out awe as I heard about the movie guy who promised the best sex ever to his prostitute-half-his-age girlfriend to get her off the ledge so she wouldn't kill herself. Which is kind of like E3, but that thought's just too dark, even for me.
Guitar Hero: World Tour developers play "Hot for Teacher"
Later, Activision did it right. It hired a comedian named Nelson Diaz to host its press conference, held in some old converted church near the Toy District. Yeah, the guy was over-the-top excited about the games he was about to present. But he almost seemed sincere, and that was enough. Everything Activision did that night shined -- from the in-the-air-up-the-side-of-the-building fighting of Spider-Man: Web of Shadows to the make-your-own-songs option within Guitar Hero: World Tour. At the end of the event, the developers "played" and sang an impassioned version of Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher." These game makers were so geekily passionate, even some of the most jaded critics actually gave them a standing ovation. I felt so good at the post-party, in the half-lit, Nat Hawthorne-like church courtyard, I didn't go to the next event for fear of seeing something lackluster.
E3 Day Four
The halls of the L.A. Convention Center were off-rhythm, too. The show's too tiny now for these gigantic corridors with their soaring ceilings. The games are shown in a small area that recalls the first of the Web convention back in the '90s. There's no glitz, and I'm not talking about booth babes. Remember when Nintendo shot little plush Pok?mon out of a cannon and dozens of conventioneers scampered fast and furious to get a few? Remember the Mario fountains? Remember Sony's giant, futuristic booths designed by architects and interior designers? Remember the two-hour line to hear Will Wright talk about Spore?
Now, all the air's been sucked out of E3. It's a tiny, little gnat of a convention. And forget us journalists who like to bitch and moan. Everyone from the game developers to the publicists are complaining about it, every day, right until the last minute I tread upon those ghostly, soundless carpets. Take me back to South Broadway, take me back to the true grit, the ripe mangoes and the screaming parrots. Take me anywhere there's energy, but don't keep me cooped up here. As the parrot squawked, so do I: "Get me out of the cage!" I mean, people are walking slowly like zombies. The air is gone, folks. There is no oxygen to breathe.
All of this sucks because there's one stat that says the industry now has mo' bigger sales worldwide than movie, music and DVD sales combined. I'm not saying the show has to be a stinking, sweaty circus of unwashed fanboys and leering retailers like it used to be. But it has to be larger, smarter, entertaining. It has to make those involved in videogames proud to show off their wares. Some of the requisite largess is slowly returning, however. On the last night of E3, there was a huge EA/MTV/Harmonix party for Rock Band 2 headlined by The Who, grand old guys who gave the audience more heart and wit than was seen all week at E3.
I expected The Who to play for about 20 to 30 minutes, which is the norm for corporate gigs. But these guys played and played like they still had something to prove. The Townshend windmill was there (a lot) as was Daltrey's acrobatics with the microphone. Sure, some of the lengthy solos seemed old-ass 70s, but freedom to play long was part of the point back then. Not many seemed to mind, either. Even G4TV's Abbie Heppe, the X-Play editorial manager still in her 20s, could be seen wildly singing and rocking as the old guys jammed. Just when you thought they were finished, they came back on stage to play an inspired 20-minute encore (before which Scott Jones, Evan Narcisse and I had to sit and rest our sorry asses for a few seconds after standing for two hours straight).
Day Four, High Noon
After I saw the brilliant but same-ish Resident Evil 5 and after I played marching band game Major Minor and happily wrecked my wrist again, I set off for the plane. In first class sat The Who's Roger Daltrey. I told him, "Thanks so much for the great show. You were pretty much the best thing about the convention." "Thanks, mate. Good show," he said, just as if the art were all in a night's work, nothing special. But it was exceptional. If a rock band headed up by two 64-year-olds with a few days' rehearsal can hold an audience's attention for over two hours, hold them snake-charmed and hypnotized long and hard so that they never sit down, why can't E3, which has a complete year to plan, hold my attention for a few days?