It’s relatively easy to write about story-driven games like BioShock or Metal Gear. When games are framed by a single narrative, critics get a straightforward starting point for their analysis. It’s harder to tease out the meaning in a curated collection of mini-games like Mario Party. The same dynamic can take hold when reporting on E3, a sprawling trade show that sometimes serves as a literal Mario party. The event is experienced as short bursts of disconnected awe, inspiration, or frustration in between long stretches of tedium. It’s part of our job to craft tidy narratives about what we just saw and explain the one or two things that the convention means each year, but sometimes this process is like the parable of the blind men describing an elephant after touching different parts of it. So with this year’s E3 already fading away, I wanted to empty my reporter’s notebook and share the bits of show ephemera that may not tell a larger story but caught my eye nonetheless.
Here’s an important tidbit I missed from a lifetime of reading high fantasy novels: Unicorns are not good dancers. That was my takeaway from a performance of Ylvis’ The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?) by a pink unicorn and what appeared to be college cheerleaders at the Ubisoft booth. The game publisher traditionally stages a dance show in the middle of its E3 kingdom to hype whatever Just Dance sequel is on the way. It’s usually a spirited affair, but this time it was strangely inert, as if the dancers were staging a silent protest for having to perform such a stupid song in front of expressionless conventioneers (who were waiting in long lines to see a 15-minute demo of the new Rainbow Six game). As the saying goes, never get a unicorn to do a fox’s job.
Sure, they have questionable tastes in entertainment and a ridiculous, polyamorous president, but America has been unfair to France over the years. They’ve served as a perfunctory punchline to countless jokes about their supposed ineffectualness, especially compared with our dick-swinging bravado. We tend to conveniently forget that without France’s support, the United States might still be a British colony. That’s why I was excited to see a well-coiffed cosplay version of Marie Antoinette strolling the E3 floor to promote the new Assassin’s Creed game set during the French Revolution. It would have been cool if the queen of France were secretly the new assassin hero, but if Ubisoft insists on more dudes, I hope the developers make him more French than a shaved poodle. I want him to look like Gérard Depardieu and sword-fight the Templars between bites of a baguette while stroking his manicured mustache. It could be a big first step in dampening our long-held Francophobia.
With hundreds of games vying for the minuscule attention span of E3 attendees, sometimes a studio has to reach deep into its bag of tricks—or, as is often the case, its bag of branded swag. Bypassing the usual mix of free T-shirts, buttons, and pins, the makers of the Gauntlet reboot cannily elevated their giveaway game by offering turkey legs. Not the plastic or foam kind to toss into your junk pile, but a real barbarian’s feast to stuff into your mouth and fend off the mortal coils of hunger. The only problem: What if the wizard who needs food badly is a vegan?
E3’s caste system separates attendees by color-coded badges. Each category allows a specific level of access to the show. Those with Expo passes are the equivalent of serfs—“commoners” who pay $795 for access to the show floor but still must wait in long lines that can last hours just to get a short sneak preview of a game.
What’s most interesting to me is where celebrities and professional athletes fall in the E3 social strata. To me the hierarchy appears to be slightly flatter at the convention than almost every other situation in these A-listers’ public lives. A lot of them are treated with the same priority as major-outlet journalists and top retail executives, but it still depends on who you are and how much pull you have. I’ve been bumped from an appointment with a developer at the last minute because George Lopez showed up, which was disappointing because if I was going to be inconvenienced by a star, I’d at least hope for someone funnier.
This year, I was initially frustrated with a 45-minute wait in the “VIP” line at the Activision booth for a quick look at Destiny, but I felt better when I noticed Matt Jones, the actor who played Badger in Breaking Bad, having to endure the same wait. There was no red-carpet treatment—just a couple dozen of us herded into a small room of PlayStations, where we played a couple of multiplayer matches and then were told to leave. I was also charmed to see Houston Rockets’ star James Harden taking goofy selfies in front of a poster of Destiny—presumably to post it on his Instagram like the rest of us and prove how cool he was for being at E3 and getting to play a video game a little bit early.
After sitting through hundreds if not thousands of reveals and trailers in my years at E3, sometimes I feel inured to the delighted surprise that game companies try to inspire during their bombastic press briefings. That’s what made the No Man’s Sky segment of Sony’s press conference such a breath of fresh air. As the trailer begins, the camera swoops across a beautiful, brightly hued prehistoric planet, passing dinosaurs as spaceships zoom overhead. The perspective jumps into the cockpit of a ship, and as the soundtrack pulses and a crescendo builds, we zip out of the atmosphere to an asteroid field in the dark reaches of outer space. My sense of pure awe deepened as the trailer unfolded, telling us that this game’s universe was infinite and that no two planets would be alike. I still only have a tenuous grasp on what an “infinite procedurally generated universe” means, and I’m not sure if No Man’s Sky will live up to its promise. But what a trailer.
Just moments into my demo of The Evil Within, my time spent tiptoeing through a creaky old mansion was interrupted. First, I faced hordes of zombie-like creatures marred by various wooden planks and metal implements protruding from their bodies. Then I was chased by a hooded specter who I couldn’t kill. I finally reached a quiet room, only to find an environment puzzle asking me to strategically penetrate a human brain with an electric drill as blood squirted out. In other words, this is not a subtle horror game. Likewise, Bethesda’s promotion of The Evil Within at E3 was hilariously over-the-top. Just outside of the video room sat an exposed brain with loops of barbed wire wrapped around it, which I assumed was borrowed from the set of an old Tool music video.
But what if we were somehow still not convinced that this was a scary game? Bethesda answered any remaining doubters with a trailer devoted to hidden-camera footage of normal folk (“These are not actors,” a disclaimer noted) playing the game in an enclosed room. Their reactions ranged from open-mouthed disgust to outright screams of terror. They may not have been actors, but everybody Bethesda chose for this video apparently had the fear tolerance of Shaggy from Scooby-Doo.
I didn’t know where to begin after picking up a PlayStation 4 controller to take on a demo of Mortal Kombat X, but one of the game’s designers was on hand to show off new features and talk about why he thinks D’Vorah—a female warrior who can summon larvae and swarms of flesh-eating bugs to battle on her behalf—is the best new addition to the game. I gleefully button-mashed with a Blizzard developer in the PS4 version of Diablo III: Reaper Of Souls, attempting to get a 300-kill streak while she talked about the Diablo III expansion’s new Crusader class.
Reporters and critics are often insulated from the people that make the games we write about. Game companies hire public relations teams to act as a mediator between the press and creative people, lest a designer or artist unpracticed in the art of interviews make a verbal gaffe or accidentally reveal something that was supposed to be a carefully planned leak in the future. But that barrier is relaxed a little at E3, and some of my favorite moments involve sitting down with developers and actually playing the game with them.