Twenty years ago, the first Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) stuck its flag in the muddy earth, a grasp at wrenching the growing videogame industry away from other seasonal shows that were as likely to feature fax machines as they were facsimiles of other worlds. The biannual Consumer Electronics Shows (CES) shared games with the rest of the digital purveyors, from computers to television screens to pagers. Winter CES 1985 is where Nintendo showed off their Advanced Video System, a slick vision of the future that promised games alongside keyboard functionality and other PC-like peripherals. By October of that year, the name and shell design had changed; the Nintendo Entertainment System’s soft launch in New York City proved videogames were not simply landfill-ready fads but a rich medium, ready to evolve.
A decade later, E3 1995 launched as the industry’s formal showcase. The fact that E3 still exists twenty years on, amidst feverish advancement and an unceasing urge for The Newest Thing, is something of a shock. Let us not look over the wasteland of game-related bones and see what else has perished since ‘95; the list would be too long and devastating (but permit me a quick “R.I.P.” to Acclaim and Turok, Hudson and Bonk, Sega’s Hardware division, and Atari’s Everything division). Through it all, in some form or another, E3 has done what is so difficult to do in the gaming world: Stay alive.
So it’s surprising that so few celebrated the anniversary. But I think I know why. As a showcase for “electronic entertainment,” as it claims to be, E3 is as efficacious as a bomb-sniffing dog without a nose. The Los Angeles convention center is crammed snout-to-tail with kiosks, booths, desks, tables and arenas. Each features a different series of games. Each are being played at the same time. Each is its own screen-confined whirlpool of colors and light; each spits out sounds at decibel levels approaching a Kiss reunion. Put plainly: E3 is a horrible place to go if you want to experience a videogame.
I tried anyway.
I’m staying at a friend’s apartment in Culver City, ten miles from the Los Angeles Convention Center. On the way to the train station into town, I walk by a convenience store named “Bob’s Market.” By all appearances, Bob’s seems like your standard issue shop with hot dogs on rollers and too-small boxed brand products and 64 oz. plastic cups for frozen soda. A sign outside touts an anomaly, a reason to seek out Bob’s amongst the other thousands of stores, because here, according to a chalk-drawn message outside the door, is Bob’s “World Famous Brisket Hoagie.” Bluster is in the wind.
When Microsoft’s press conference begins, thousands packed into USC’s Galen Center, I’m sitting next to a blogger named Nash and the editor for a site called “Topless Robot.” We’re in the balcony looking down at a stage underneath a giant screen. Across the audience, tiny colored lights blink in syncopation; we were handed a necklace upon entering with a small Xbox-branded pendant that will blink or glow throughout the event.
Ninety minutes later, what I remember: The feeling that I wanted the 60-second clip of indie games to slow way down and the 10-minute demos of tentpole blockblusters to be over with already; that the HoloLens is a thing that works, yet I’m suspicious, because the augmented reality demonstration worked too well, and I don’t yet know who it is for besides very rich parents of Minecraft-obsessed children; Fallout 4 looked amazing and then the shooting began.
Later, sitting alone at a restaurant called Grinder and eating eggs, I’ll spot an older gentleman sitting alone, eating eggs, a CES messenger bag at his side, typing on a laptop. I have seen the future. And I’m not sure if I like what I see.
Spurred to engage with my surroundings, I decide to walk to Ubisoft’s show at the Orpheum Theatre instead of taking the free shuttle. I’m late; the sign shows a bright-red hand but I look both ways and run across Olympic Blvd during a green light.
“Excuse me!” I turn and a cop riding a bicycle is tracking me down. He writes me up for “Crossing during a No Crossing symbol.” He hands me a slip to sign, explaining that by signing I do not admit guilt, only that I’ll either show up at the local courthouse to contest or pay online.
“So I can’t not sign, then?” I ask.
He concurs. “That’s just the way it is.” I grab my traffic violation and make it to the Orpheum Theatre a minute before the show starts, where a suited man holding a tray hands me a small cup of blue frozen yogurt, which is a small consolation, but consolation nonetheless.
The Ubisoft conference was a smaller affair than Microsoft’s the way a car wreck between two hatchbacks is smaller than a semi running into an oil tanker: There’s still a lot of noise and some crunching but less damage is done. To be honest, I remember the people more than the games. Aisha Tyler brought the gusto as usual; Matt Parker and Trey Stone led off the introduction to their next game, South Park: The Fractured But Whole, by explaining how stupid their headset mics looked; Jeff Vandenberghe at Ubisoft Montreal, whose For Honor looks like the next-gen sequel to Red Steel 2 that never came, ambled out on stage sturdied by a cane and resembling The Dude after a weekend Viking retreat; Tom Clancy’s The Division is now a vehicle for Angela Basset, who came on stage and spoke very generously of her character’s development when no one in attendance would have besmirched her for laughing off the gig as a well-paid stint between film roles; Tommy François introduced Trackmania Turbo in a floppy hat and pink shirt that read “Easy to Pick Up / Hard to Master,” The Dude having regressed from his Viking Warrior state to his more natural stoner default.
Trials Fusion: Awesome Level Max’s trailer features a cat holding a gun riding a fire-breathing unicorn, all of which brings me little joy. Ms. Tyler comes on stage to ask, if you’re not feeling it after that, “What are you, a robot?” I’ve lost the capacity to feel and it’s only Monday.
On the way to the expo floor I spy a husky sitting in a front yard scratching its neck incessantly. It’s rolling around, gnawing at its skin, scraping at different patches of fur with its hind claws. The poor animal just can’t find the itch. Or worse: It never stops itching.
As I wait to cross Venice Boulevard, a lanky man stands amongst the cars asking for money. He’s holding an open water bottle. I look over and we lock eyes. He holds the bottle up and gestures violently in my direction, the water slooshing out in a high arc toward me and splashing me in the face. I wipe droplets from my glasses. “Hey, why’d you do that?” I say.
“Because I felt like it,” he answers. He stands taller. “You got a gun? Shoot it.”
Behind him, there’s a green sign for the nearby Museum of Tolerance. An arrow on the sign points across the street at a venue with tinted windows called “Skin Gentlemen’s Lounge.” The world often feels too small. But sometimes, the world is too big.
The show floors of E3 thrive on grandiosity. Only the loudest can be heard above the din. The content and structure of many of these games matched this strategy. Once-common requirements such as “levels” or “stages” are now rarely seen in blockbuster-wannabes. For some time videogames have been getting bigger, but with this loosening of the waistband has not come a reciprocal ordering of all this space. Now we roam through “open world” worlds where the end is less a goal-post and more an idea like death: You only reach it when you decide to stop playing.
Horizon: Zero Dawn hints at this modern trend with its very title. That line at the vanishing point of your vision? It looks like a place, but it’s just an illusion. You’ll never reach it. The hope is that developers give players enough cool stuff to see and creatures to engage with (read: destroy) that nobody notices the genre’s misgivings: the artifice of a city with unopenable doors; an alien region with vast open spaces but a curious absence of natural fauna; a design that favors pretty matte paintings or an impressively animated tree over the question of why those trees are there and what we should do with them.
Known properties like Metal Gear Solid 5 and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate have ballooned in girth over the course of their franchises, while Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands takes the series’ tight stealth action and spreads it across multiple continents. Just Cause 3 developers Avalanche Studios touted their game has over 400 square kilometers of real estate to burn, scale or blow up. No Man’s Sky’s on-stage demonstration focused on pointing out how many star systems and galaxies one could fly to (answer: more than a hundred times more than any one player could see in a lifetime). Even Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, the sequel to EA’s daring, inventive first-person skyscraper-runner, boasts a lack of constraints. The developer addressed the crowd with this tagline: “No levels, no loading screens. Just free-roaming.”
But here’s the thing: People love to roam free. I must be in the minority, that old, withering grape on the vibrant vine of game-players who still wants a tightly-designed obstacle course designed to lead me down a very specific path. Constraints breed creativity. Borders show us where we’ve been and where we’ve yet to go.
I speak with Karla Zimonja of Fullbright about their upcoming game Tacoma. It takes place in the void of space, but instead of giving you access to the ship’s controls, you’re stuck inside a space station. All that crushing blackness means nothing without the small corridors of air through which you and five other scientists float. I ask her about a small decision she made that greatly impacted the overall design; she mentions the choice to take the six inhabitants and make them three pairs. Each passenger has a pre-existing relationship with another. Now, there’s more at stake for each. We know each person not only through our single viewpoint but in how they’re reflected by another. Six strangers became three couples. A crowd becomes a community. You boil the bones to get broth. Otherwise, all you have are bones.
Much of E3 is spent watching others play games.
I watch Sherida Halatoe, the developer behind Tiger & Squid, play her game Beyond Eyes in a private room off of Microsoft’s PR booth. Myself and two other journalists sit there asking questions and listening to her explain her inspiration. Two Microsoft representatives sit there watching us watch her. As we leave, we’re handed a small heavy box with over one hundred cards in it, each another ID@Xbox game made by an independent developer. But each card is only a picture and a QR code. I suddenly feel the weight of all that information we take for granted, holding impossibly in our hands. I leave the box behind. When my phone dies that evening, I feel unmoored. I’m roaming free.
Later I watch David Nathanielsz of Vicarious Visions play Skylanders: Superchargers. He looks so tired. He takes one hand off the Wii U GamePad and coughs into his elbow. He speaks about the game in lines less practiced and more etched into the folds of his tongue, now dry and crackling. He takes a sip from a water bottle that becomes a guzzle. This is California, where water is a luxury. I remember the homeless man and curse not his rudeness but his irresponsible waste of natural resources.
While waiting in line to play StarFox Zero I watch the six people in front of me play the same level six times. When I finally get my hands on the game, I feel like I’ve already played this part and wish I could play something else. In the back of Nintendo’s booth, I hear the familiar “Wahoo!” of Mario, only this is Charles Martinet, voice of Mario and Luigi and Wario and others, standing on a stage, yelping his lines into a microphone. Attendees are brought on stage to out-Wahoo the grand Wahoo-er. A sequence of “Wahoo!”’s echo across the back corner of West Hall. Spurred by the least subliminal message ever, I take my place under a lifesize Question Block and let a digital camera take my picture three times, resulting in a three-frame animation of me in a Super Mario game. I haven’t lost all humanity yet. Dignity and objectivity is another story.
That night I walk around a rooftop terrace surrounded by developers and their games. The Media Indie Exchange [MIX] was like a miniature E3 without the millionaires. I cashed in my free drink ticket for a bottle of Anchor Bay Liberty and breathed in the dingy L.A. air. Directly in front of me, the lead singer of AWOLNATION is twenty stories high and plastered to a skyscraper. A bearded fellow puts an Xbox controller in my hand and we play a round of Armed and Gelatinous; I’m an amoeba with weapons stuck in my jellied flesh, firing my osmotic ammunition, and the action is frantic like Geometry Wars with a side of Smash Bros. Then I strap on a Gear VR headset and try Darknet, a cyber-hacking puzzle game, and shoot red beams from my eyeballs out to a vague grid of computer files in the middle-distance. I take the headset off and see mountains off beyond the city limits. I’m beginning to recognize the benefit of going anywhere you want.
I’ve slept the sleep of the dead. The show floor has been open for hours. I need food. The games will be there. Jacks n’ Joe, a breakfast joint on Figueroa near 24th street, closes soon. I make my choice and sit at the counter. Combo 1: two eggs, two sausage links, and two pancakes. The over-medium are the finest example I’ve yet consumed; perfectly taut whites, oozing yolk, with a bit of buttery crisp around the edge. The Tree-Hugger ‘cakes are stuffed with fresh granola and topped with berries. A dollop of brown sugar-infused butter lends a warm sweetness against the tart fruit. Such lethal combinations are not only the province of fighting games.
As I clean up and gird myself for the last day of E3, the two cooks converse. “What do you say?” the short Latino cook says. “What do you mean, what do I say?” a taller Caucasian cook answers.
The exchange wouldn’t pass muster in a Mass Effect dialogue tree but here it makes perfect sense. Humans speak in obtuse vagaries. I have no idea what they said but I know exactly what they mean.
Inside South Hall, I watch four strangers pummel each other in a dozen rounds of Gang Beasts. I then lay my hands on TRIPAD, a physical installation comprising three LED boards conjoined like a baseless pyramid. Designed by Alexander Krasij, the game involves three players each trying to keep a ball in their third of the field by constructing light-up walls; press a button along the side of your area and the LEDs light up in a straight line across all three boards. Another light acting as a ball bounces across each screen. Your goal is to keep the ball in your zone for three seconds to earn a point. The ensuing match is first chaotic, then hypnotic; what begins as confusion soon shifts and the action slows down in your eyes and you learn the visual language necessary to perceive the three-planed field as one. The blend of Simon with soccer reminds me that “electronic entertainment” is broad and rich, and the annual Expo contains but a thin slice.
Banished to the farthest corner of South Hall is the Videogame History Museum. Rows of arcade cabinets, tables with legacy consoles, and glass cases filled with sew-on badges and promotional t-shirts beckon the ornery and nostalgic. Both boxes checked, I’m soon playing Scramble and muttering to myself about the purity of a joystick and two buttons. The museum is sparsely attended, but those who wander here linger long.
Travel from here to the rest of South Hall and the volume crests from 2 to 12. Your shoulders rub those of others. A giant screen showing scenes from Bethesda’s conference plays. The trailer for Doom ends in a close-up eye gouge. The audience roars.
I walk through literal smoke. Guitar Hero Live is up ahead and the fog effects are in heavy use. “The crowd’s going crazy, baby,” someone says. “You better deliver!”
Down a quiet row of retail distributors and novelty controllers is a table featuring a mobile game called Followers. It looks exactly like Clash of Clans. Polish developer Andresz Lach says it’s inspired by Civilization and Diablo. A large poster proclaims it was made with funds from a European Regional Development fund someone titled “Innovative Economy.” I ask his name again and he says it, but here, he says, in America, people just call him Andrew.
At the end of the show I walk around with a guy named Jonathan (but who goes by Jonny) who’s getting married the following Sunday. We went to college together but never knew each other. He works at a company that makes interactive children’s book apps; they’re going under in a few weeks. He’ll be out of a job soon. He’s not looking for contacts at E3, just having a little fun. There’s more important decisions to make: table linens, guest seating charts, flower arrangements. He’s Jewish and she’s Catholic; they finally found a rabbi and a priest to co-preside over the nuptials after every other religious leader told them they were not allowed to share the stage. His favorite game of the week is Star Wars: Battlefront, which seems to me, if I squint my eyes, a perfect analog to that spiritual problem.
The doors close on E3. Against all reason I walk down Vermont Avenue and enter World-8, a used game store that holds weekend tournaments. On this, the 30th anniversary of Super Mario Bros., a final visit to this place, an ode to his final level, seems appropriate. Other show attendees are there, too; you’d think we’d be sated after three or four days of pulsing lights and flashing screens. But there’s an allure to old videogames used by others. E3 is about the future. World-8 is about the past. Only one can also be the present. I buy Barker Bill’s Trick Shooting, an NES light gun game with music composed by Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka, for $5. I look forward to playing it upon my return home.
Since 2003, Jon Irwin has been paid to write about film, techno, ice cream, wine, golf, drag-racing, French children and videogames. His first book, Super Mario Bros. 2, was published last year by Boss Fight Books. Follow along: @WinWinIrwin.