"Sometimes I'm tempted to just, like, lie," laughs a colleague across a table from me. We're talking about preview coverage: The unusual condition of being slotted in front of a monitor in a noisy expo hall, shoulder to shoulder with fans waiting their turn, a well-used headset shifted off one ear so you can hear an anxious games developer or well-rehearsed producer strain to shout the elevator pitch, the thousandth same instruction of the day, above the din. You get your 15 minutes, and then you have to have something to tell people about it.
"Like, to just make stuff up," he fantasises, shrugging a shoulder. He, of course, isn't the sort who lies, doesn't, wouldn't. None of us would, really. But his statement is a sort of flailing arrow careening off the idea that there is anything to know, to say, about games when we're introduced to them like this. We're having this conversation in the lurid pool of light thrown by a "Dew Refueling Station", a giant bottle-shaped stand glowing neon-green, where a woman uses what looks like gas pumps to dispense Mountain Dew into shot glasses.
We're at the four-day Eurogamer Expo on its first day, and outside is an enormous queue of gaming fans who've bought their tickets and are waiting to check in. It's quite a big affair: Even the tube station across from the expo hall is wallpapered with AAA gaming franchise advertisements in time for today. Assassin's Creed, Watch Dogs, Destiny. From every underground poster a poised, costumed hero looms down at us. Even the turnstiles are branded with intense soldier sorts.
As I step out into the light, Earl's Court, the dungeonlike slab where the conference is hosted, is bannered in blood-red Wolfenstein adverts. Later on I'll learn this is actually the site of some three-dozen bombs during WWII and wonder if the pseudo-Nazi hangings are audacious and aware, or merely a snippet of irony that will escape most people. I wonder what your average commuter thinks. "I wonder if people think this is what video games are," I say to the friend I came with.
"This is what video games are," he replies.
We get neon bracelets, enter a dome of branded stalls and dim light, and we talk to our colleague about previews. What's worse, I say, is when the demo is long, and you have, like, nine million things to see that day, and you end up having to sit for, like, 45 minutes, being anxiously watched-over by PR. You, overstimulated, checking out mentally every 30 seconds or so, forcing yourself to focus out of a sense of obligation. Noisy. Tired. Crowds.
It's really no way to learn a game, to experience it. It's a cudgel, a battering ram in the face. You come away dazed, and there is a particular sort of games writer that can dutifully hand over facts from that kind of experience — genre, style, a deft re-wording of marketing's own elevator pitch. "The controls."
The same sort has just spent the entire week or so prior to the Expo mainlining Grand Theft Auto V, binge-consuming it, and turning out admirably-exhaustive litanies of its features and its drawbacks and putting a number on it. GTA V is a game with high aspirations. Any rational person could play it for years, probably, and never see all of it. What can we really learn from someone who binges GTA V? They are not the average player. At times like this I wonder if they are rational ones, with an odd-tasting commingling of apprehension and awe.
What can we really learn from someone who binges GTA V?
I was only a full-time employee of Kotaku for some four or five months, back in 2008 or 2009. People have such short memories that not even many of my friends remember that. My title might have been "Associate Editor." Can't remember. I went to cover my first E3 with the team. It was a uniquely-intense crucible that I barely had the stamina to endure. To this day, whenever anyone tosses off comments about Kotaku or its staff, I remember those days, and I try to shut them up. Most of you, no matter how smart you think you are — trust me — could not do it.
Neither could I, one might even argue. That E3, former editor-in-chief Brian Crecente asked me to go and have a look at Electronic Arts' new core franchise, Dead Space. There was such a long queue for the game, and everyone was crowded around whomever was playing. I'd already been mistaken for a "marketing girl" twice that week. I can't aim under pressure, either, a cause of much stress for me when I'm being scrutinised, undermined, asked to show my legitimacy card any time I appear in public — even now, after all this time, when I have made my living this way for so long.
Did I want to play? I didn't know yet. I hung back, waiting for the line to thin, apprehensive about all the evisceration, the dark edges limned in sterile metallic tones. I needed a minute to think.
While I stood to the side, by chance I struck up a conversation with the game's lead designer, or producer, or something like that, and we talked about the Westernisation of survival horror, how to create fear in the first-person format, the still-fresh wound of the dying Japanese game industry. I wrote everything down really eagerly, an interview with this Dead Space guy, because I liked his ideas.
Brian asked me where my preview was, and I pointed to the interview I did while gazing, abstractly, at a line of E3 attendees killing lots of things, a backdrop. "But did you play the game?" He asked me in disbelief. And I remember my hot, stinging ears, a thought I had like oops — because no, I didn't. Of course I hadn't, not like that. And I remember the dawning awareness that probably, probably, I was not cut in the right shape for that era of Kotaku.
At the time I felt sort of like an anomaly at consumer events — bored and alienated. I'd be anxious and drunk, too, trying to drown the anxiety and alienation and only heightening it, acting out, getting in fights with anyone who thought I was a marketing girl or that I might want to go to their hotel room or who lectured me, good-naturedly, about how I'd be so much more successful if I were just quieter and more of a nice girl and all of that stuff.
An environment entirely unsuited to experiencing a game, where we are pressured, in a troupe, to experience games.
But now when I go to these things, everyone is uncomfortable. The impracticality, the absurdity of it has occurred to them. There's been a rash of articles lately about the particular weirdness of the preview event, the incongruity of this vaunted wining-and-dining, all the noise and lights, and an environment entirely unsuited to experiencing a game, where we are pressured, in a troupe, to experience games. See Sam Machkovech tripping around Minsk on invitation from Wargaming.net, Brenna Hillier in the shadow of an enormous tank, stricken by Madeira gifted by Electronic Arts, or Cara Ellison fiddling with drawer pulls, generally at a loss for what to make of yet another one of these junkets.
"Who fucking completes GTA V in a week?" says my colleague, as we're all sat in a big group at Eurogamer Expo.
And all the people, the players, the fans, who have spent money to be here, to see games that are going to be out pretty soon. Who will wait for two hours in a line to play Dark Souls 2, even though it's probably going to be reliably as good as, or similar to, Dark Souls, or Demon's Souls. I approach the line to Dark Souls 2 and ask a young man why he's waiting. Because it's his favourite game, he says. When he finishes his turn here, he's simply going to return to the back of the line and wait again. He bought a ticket to the Expo just to do this.
Here's a funny thing — it unsettles me a little — I can't relate to them.
Behind us is an escalator that promises to lead to the "18+," "Adults Only" area. Hey, we're adults, right? Up there is the Assassin's Creed game where you get to pretend to be a pirate, the Titanfall game where you get to pretend to be inside a big robot, and some game advertised by an "Asian-themed" billboard with the "China-dragon"-wreathed tagline "WHO WANTS SOME WANG?"
When he finishes his turn here, he's simply going to return to the back of the line and wait again. He bought a ticket to the Expo just to do this.
I Tweet about this and someone sends me two or three urgent Tweet replies about how it's "ok to be silly." The "Adults Only" portion of the expo smells like hell and I want to leave it immediately.
In Tom Bissell's "letter format" article about GTA V, he excellently summons the awkward poignancy of being the oldest person stealing a smoke out back. Of understanding, deeply and painfully, that you've outgrown This Shit ("you have to wonder what you're actually doing here," he reflects). That's all it is, my friends and I decide. We've just gotten too old. I mean, that has to be it. We spend a lot of time talking about Final Fantasy 6 while directly behind us, Lightning is Returning, twirling around in endless trailer loops. All of us watch her out of the corner of our eye, but none of us play with her.
I pass a banner advertisement for Pokemon X/Y and I am jarred out of whatever mature reverie I am having by the thought of HOLY SHIT I WANT THAT GIANT ELECTRIC DEER THING. I mean, I think. Instinct, maybe.
I play all of three demos at the Eurogamer Expo. I had a nice time, basically. E3, I think, is unequivocally disgusting and this event was not. But afterward I feel like I've been steamrolled by a tank, shelled in some great and fatiguing war the purpose of which I can no longer recall. It's a good thing that this is not all that video games are, I tell myself. Sometimes I'm tempted to just, like, lie.
Photos: Oli Scarf/ Getty Images.
Leigh Alexander is editor-at-large at Gamasutra, columnist at Edge and Vice Creator's Project, and contributes gaming and culture writing to Thought Catalogue and Boing Boing, among others. Her work has appeared in Slate, NYLON, Wired and the AV Club, and she blogs at LeighAlexander.net. You can find more of her work on Kotaku here.