Every so often, I get to go behind closed doors and preview games early. Well, not before signing a non-disclosure agreement and sometimes giving proof that yes, this scrappy looking kid is in fact writing for [insert name of publication.]
I got my start on paid writing work with previews, but it wasn't until recently that I actually started doing event coverage regularly. There's more to the demo kiosk than a write up might tell you.
My first event was none other than my favourite current gen franchise, Gears of War. I played the games religiously, and followed news on the franchise intently but standing there, just feet away from the people who actually made the game was something else. On top of that being my first time out, being in charge of writing up something so high profile meant that I was beyond terrified.
You might read developer interviews, follow or perhaps even interact with game makers on social networks, but that's different from actually meeting a person. You see the excited glimmer in their eye when they're talking about something interesting, or you feel a gravitational pull when they're talking about something they care about. That is, when they're not being hushed by their PR person juuust as they're getting to the juicy part. Damn.
There's always this sense of restraint that's palpable at events, which is a shame.
The thing that always strikes me about these events is the fact that someone like me exists at all. I'm a middleman, yes? And games are interactive experiences. I can't help but feel like every time you read something someone writes on a game, there's an inherent disservice going on. The words can only approximate the feel of a game and today's technology means that hypothetically someone like me doesn't have to exist (!).
Developers can get the games straight to consumers. That eventually happens — it's usually one of the later segments of a marketing strategy and it's not uncommon for consumers to have demos that journalists play months beforehand.
Of course, there's a reason why someone like me ostensibly exists. We're story tellers. We frame the experience, contextualize it, package it in a way that makes it seem palatable — even if maybe what I'm looking at isn't quite finished or polished. We're bound to see more of the frayed edges of games, the not-quite-there-yet in motion. A game that doesn't entirely work as intended yet, or that sometimes craps out and goes into code-heavy screens that only developers can decipher. Cue nervous laugh, resetting of the game on the dev kit.
We don't experience the crunch time, but we get a smaller taste of something that's slowly being built, grown. Maybe I'll see a game at an early stage and think there isn't anything there to write about yet. Next time I see it, it'll be further along — and that's what you'll hear about.
Not that I'm suggesting that I try to sell you on something that doesn't look good, but my role is primarily a utilitarian one, right? You read a preview to help you decide if you want to buy something. And I write with that in mind, even though I don't have much of an interest in guiding people's purchasing decisions. Crafting an engaging story is the overall aim, but still, the reason you're reading revolves almost entirely around the fact the game is a product and you're a potential consumer.
So we ask developers questions and sometimes they talk. What you end up reading is a small segment of the overall story — sometimes, just a few lines from hours worth of material is what you see because it's the only stuff that's usable in the tale I want to tell. Or the only parts I'm allowed to talk about. Thanks, NDA!
I might not intend to sell you on something that's not worthwhile, but I can't help but fear it anyway. What I see when I play a demo at an event has been specifically chosen to highlight the best aspects of a game...which makes sense, but that game segment might not be representative of the overall game. That Bioshock Infinite demo that everyone raved about at E3? Word on the street is that it's a far cry from the overall state of the game. But you wouldn't know that from the coverage.
Now that's something I can't understand. Giving us something that doesn't properly represent the game hurts everyone involved. Sure, the previews might come out positive but then the actual game releases aaaand it's not at all what everyone thought it would be. Coverage sours but by that point it's too late. The consumer's been dragged into the hype, perhaps even bought into it.
All I can do is write what I see. Maybe that's not enough, and it worries me. But then again, the worry that I'm not doing right by the people I'm supposed to serve — that'd be you — is an ongoing struggle. The second that I walked into the world of press, the second I started attending events things changed. I'm not the average gamer anymore. I never want to get so far from the average consumer's concern that my writing is not of use to you...but I'm not supposed to be you, exactly, either. Reporter! Objectivity! And so on.
The biggest thing about events, though? The thing that makes me pause the most, downright makes me uncomfortable? Well, it's in the name itself. An event.
Every game has dozens if not hundreds of people behind it. Each of those people has a story, and some of those people have stories that will never, ever make it to the bullet points a PR person has to tell every new journalist inquiring about a game.
It's not that the small army that made the game possible is missing, it's that I always get the sense that the human element, period, is missing.
In the last year I've dated some game designers, but mostly I've befriended many. What you've seen on Indie Game: The Movie is the tip of the iceberg. There are so many stories out there. Kotaku updates every half hour, sometimes more, and we still don't nab anywhere near all the stories out there.
Meet Zoe Quinn. She's a close friend working on her first title, It's Not OK, Cupid — a game about trying to find connection where the player navigates a dating site. Maybe you're searching for love. Maybe you're searching for the night. Everyone's looking for something, though.
When Zoe was a child, her mother — who has mental health issues — told her that her heart had a defect and she wouldn't live past her 20s. Zoe believed her, and lived much of her life thinking that she didn't have too much time to spend on this Earth.
So she became a dilettante and began making things — all sorts of things. Arts, crafts. Anything that might live beyond a life taken too soon, anything that might inspire someone to make something themselves, anything that maybe, just maybe would change a life.
And that's how she came to video games, the perfect amalgamation of just about every art you can think of.
I saw her go through a flurry of people on dating sites, both as a blind, hungry attempt to meet someone and a means to conduct research on It's Not OK, Cupid. The type of weird closeness, you might say, that Nicolau Chaud experienced with Polymorphous Perversity — the kind that blurs lines and the creator becomes the subject and the recipient of the work. The kind where you get so involved that you end up thinking to yourself, if I don't finish this game, that's it. I don't want to live.
There's a conversation I recall fondly with Zoe, about our lust for other people's work and how it seemed to us that we were always attracted to people through the work they made — because it allowed us a personal window to a person's soul, perhaps even allowed us to see things they weren't aware of.
But most of all, there was the acknowledgement that our own work was so personal — for her, it's her games, for me it's my writing — that it was like throwing a bottle out at sea. We're hoping someone receives that bottle, opens it, and gets it. And maybe — in this little romantic, idealistic world of ours where things like this can happen — we're hoping someone falls in love with us, too.
I will never hear about something like this at an event. But this past year has made me so hungry for this human element, to find the soul in the binary of games, that it pains me to see it nowhere when I'm at an event.
Bright lights, booming music, fancy food, attractive attendants and PR representatives though? Present. It's worse at bigger events, where the audience is so large, the displays so lavish and the performances so crazy that the spectacle of it all is the only thing I can focus on — not the games, and certainly not the people. Everyone dreams of E3; I dread it.
At the same time, the slew of big blockbuster games developed by developer giants who often seem scared to take risks with their games — who create something that cannot be considered anything more than a "product", not a work of art — I can't help but think that maybe, just maybe, the spectacle captures the empty soul of these games well.
Image: Kevork Djansezian / Getty