June 20, 2010

E3 reflections

Since the mid-1990s gigantic summer concert festivals have slowly died off, most notably the HFStival on the east coast and the touring Lollapalooza. As rock music evaporated during the 1990s, something else was needed to fill the void in teenage identity-markers. To thrive in safe and boring times after crime started falling in 1992, the next big thing could not be some successor of rock music but something that would speak to shut-ins -- video games.

Starting in 1995, the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) has provided an annual showcase of what the industry is up to. Attendance at the three-day festival this year was just over 45,000 -- as many as would fill up RFK stadium for the HFStival way back when -- and that's nothing compared to 2005 when anticipation for the current systems was intense, peaking at some 70,000 attendees. Aside from those who attended in person, over 17,000 comments can be found at a popular video game website's live feed from E3.

I've heard about this silly thing for years but finally decided to see what all the hubbub was about this year and watched the press conferences and some trailers over the internet. Pretty boring stuff -- they give demonstrations or play videos showing what new systems or games are coming down the pike, and that's about it. Imagine movie fans gathering in Hollywood for three days to watch a bunch of trailers and teasers of in-the-works movies, all while treating studio executives as though they were gods. Normal people try to miss the previews at movies and skip right over the "coming soon to DVD" junk at home. At least at rock concerts, you heard the polished final work, not a mish-mash of ideas they've been working on and may or may not be out by the end of the year or next.

It's simply astounding how central video games are to young people's and even middle-aged people's identities today. They cheer for their favorite system like others would for a sports team, and rivalries are as intense among fans as they used to be between fans of the Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones. Wii owners are mostly normal people and treat their system as a toy or diversion, but those who own an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 are often psychotic.

Last week at a used video game store, I had trouble browsing through their Super Nintendo games because some lunatic kept shouting at the top of his lungs about how like so incredibly awesomer the 360 is compared to that god-awful piece of shit the PS3. I was about to turn and tell him, "Reality check -- no one gives a shit," but instead he'd started a debate among four or five people out of fewer than ten total in the store.

They weren't just discussing how fun the games were to play -- in fact, they hardly talked about that at all. Rather, they were arguing about a company's role in the industry as a whole, the way that music fans did not just argue about which songs they liked but who had a better stage presence live, who respected their fans more, who was more likely to take rock music in a new direction, etc. Only these teenage and 20-something guys were talking about toy-makers.

And not very fascinating toys either. The first thing you notice is that there is almost no color -- mostly grays and browns -- and all in fairly uniform shading, making it hard to tell what's what, like which object you're controlling. And forget about brightness or contrast to make it look lively and distinguish figure from background. Here is Sonic the Hedgehog 2 from 1992, and here is Rage (considered to be the best game shown this year) to be released in 2011. Use of CGI in video games is even more laughable than in movies, so that most of the characters in video games look like soulless wax sculptures. When video game characters were drawn like cartoons, they weren't aiming to look realistically human in the first place, and therefore achieved their visual goal well.

And as "cinematic" as video games try to be, they'll always fail because anyone with any writing talent is going to work in TV, movies, or print, not video games. That's another advantage of the older style of video games, where they didn't even bother with a story -- after all, who cares? It's just a game that you want to have fun with.

Browsing through E3's list of upcoming games, I was also shocked by the fact that virtually the only genre of games being made today is the first-person shooter, where you run around shooting people from a first-person point-of-view. Again the attempt to compete with realistic-looking movies leads video games to fail. Most of the landscapes and the layout of the terrain are incredibly similar from one game to the next, as they're all trying to capture real life on planet Earth. Games like Sonic the Hedgehog or New Super Mario Bros. Wii, where you jump around and attack or avoid enemies, do not aim for this degree of realism, which frees up the level design and backgrounds to be anything the designer can imagine. That's why any two games from this genre don't feel nearly identical; just compare Super Mario 2 vs. Super Mario 3.

Speaking of Nintendo, I alluded to it before, but video game dorks hate Nintendo for having brought video games to mainstream audiences (especially to girls). For high school and college boys, this has replaced the former practice of whining about some hit band introducing the masses to punk, goth, or whatever genre you jealously guarded, lest one source of your identity no longer set you apart from everyone else.

Related to this are the dorks' complaints about "casual" vs. "hardcore" gamers (no matter how many times I hear "gamer," it still sounds stupid). The former are those who play video games now and then but aren't obsessed with them and therefore, unlike the latter, are not truly committed to the cause of Constantly Leveling Up. Music fans will recognize this as the once preferred pastime of "point out the poser." As I watched the E3 press conferences, though, I discovered that this has percolated up to the executives' and game designers' worldview as well, as they pledge to make games for the casual and hardcore gamer alike. Before safe and boring times set in, game designers only thought of their audience as normal people who wanted some diversion, not as a mainstream audience and a self-appointed elite audience.

And just as before with music snobs who want some unrecognized genre elevated to serious art in the public's mind, the hardcore gamers are in reality desperate for approval from the mainstream culture. They want the mainstream to allow video games into the tent of legitimate entertainment along with TV, movies, and music. So far, most normal people do not appear persuaded -- they see video games as a glorified kid's toy, as fun as they may be. This lack of seriousness given to their identity-marker bursts the hardcore gamers' egos. They must realize that the culture has not replaced one great form of entertainment with another, but that we used to have a great one while today young people mostly have no fun.


  1. ...no matter how many times I hear "gamer," it still sounds stupid...

    Maybe the term "game guy" would work better?

  2. "video game dorks hate Nintendo for having brought video games to mainstream audiences (especially to girls)"

    this may be true for some, but the real problem is the wii games have a large element of luck rather than skill associated with their competitive games. the controls are imprecise, but worse, many of the rules and mechanisms in the games simply don't reward any kind of skill.

    when playing some of the party games, you can win ALL of the competitive elements and yet lose the game to someone who won NONE of them. what, then, is the point of even trying in games like that?


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