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Victory Lap: E3 from the eyes of a first timer
The following article is a travelogue based on my trip to E3 2017. It is an account of what I saw and experienced during my time at the show. My objective was to write an article about being at the show, as opposed to the games I saw there.-----Travels, Day 0-----
I’ve always enjoyed flying. That probably makes me crazy.
There’s just something about flying that makes a trip feel like you are going to a truly different place. It’s entirely mental, to be sure, but the progression from airport to airplane to airport helps separate origin from destination. Crazy or not, I find myself at Cleveland Hopkins Airport with a 6 hour itinerary for Los Angeles to attend E3. I’ve been reading about the show ever since I was in middle school, and for the first time ever it’s within my means to actually attend. So as I sit at an airport bar, playing The Legend of Zelda whilst enjoying a beer and a cinnamon bun, I can only imagine that I’m grinning like an idiot.
E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo for the uninitiated, is one of the most important video game industry conferences of the year. While it doesn’t boast the world’s highest attendance numbers, it’s the undisputed main event when it comes to announcements of new games, projects, and hardware. It draws in publishers, developers, merchandisers, service providers, and let’s not forget, journalists from both mainstream and gaming media outlets. Technically, E3 has always been an industry only event, but it’s an openly known secret that anyone who really wanted to get in could with enough money and effort. This year is different though. For the first time, 15,000 public passes have been made available for anyone to purchase. I recall that I got my notification that the passes were available for sale while sitting through the end credits of Doctor Strange. I didn’t even make it back to the theater lobby before I had made my purchase.
4 months later, here I stand, listening to the Ubisoft press conference while waiting to board a 737 to Denver. Side Note: No Yevs… no one has ever once asked what would happen if the Mushroom Kingdom were invaded by Rabbids. Given that Mario + Rabbids looks amazing though, that probably reflects more on us than you. Unfortunately, I am unable to finish the conference before takeoff. I make a mental note to finish it once I land in Colorado.
The flight itself is largely unremarkable. The middle passenger in our row is a no show, to the delight of my neighbor by the window. During the flight she asks me what that device I’m playing with is, which leads me to demonstrating my Nintendo Switch to her. After a quick round of Two Player Tetris, she decides that her kids would love one. Reggie Fils-Aime would be so proud.
My flight touches down in Denver, and I hastily make my way through the terminal. The much larger, and far busier travel hub makes Cleveland Hopkins look quaint and sleepy by comparison, but not so much that I have trouble getting to my next gate. I arrive with plenty of time to spare, and finish watching the Ubisoft conference. Turns out I only missed one announcement. Beyond Good and Evil 2. I hold back tears of joy. I don’t hold back giddy chatter. Half an hour later, our plane has boarded and we’re on our way to LA.
The flight from Denver to LA is much shorter, but along the way I demo the Switch to yet another curious traveler, this time with Street Fighter II. At this rate I’m going to have to start billing Nintendo. As the plane starts making its final approach, I end up chatting with my new single-serving friend. Turns out he works in video game marketing, and he might to go E3 on an industry pass. The conversation turns to eSports and VR before we part ways at the baggage claim. Funny though, it only now dawns on me that I never did ask his name.
I did however get the name of my Lyft driver. I’m omitting it here, but I will say that he was a blast. Being from Ohio, I’ve long dreamed of taking out any form of Orange Road Barrier, so when my driver runs over a portable pylon, drags it half a mile under his car, then uses a curb to deposit it just off the driveway of a loading dock, I make a mental note to give him a larger tip. Not too crazy though, I need to spend my money wisely.
To be honest, finances were a major concern for me attending E3. LA is not a cheap city to stay in, and my initial booking plans only revealed it to be even worse so for the event. To offset this, I decided to stay in a hostel. Hostels, contrary to what you may have seen in your favorite horrosnuff films, are low cost lodgings where you shack up with other people. The upside to this is that they generally run for a fraction of what a regular hotel room costs, 90% less in my case. The trade off though is that privacy is nearly non-existent, and the only thing you are really guaranteed is a bed and hopefully interesting conversation. The result is that you never know who you might end up meeting; so when we pull up at the main building of the hostel and I hear what’s clearly a pool party, I’m not entirely stunned. No, that won’t happen for another 2 minutes.
Because as I walk through the archway and into the pool area proper, I ask the first person I see where I go to check in. Unfortunately, I can’t understand their accent, so I ask someone else. Then I see their t-shirt…
I look around again. I see white plastic cups labeled “Devolver Beer Cup, 20 fl. oz.”, more Devolver t-shirts, and then it dawns on me. I’ve seen this patio before. No, not from when I made my reservations 4 months ago. Yesterday. On Devolver Digital’s twitter.
I just walked into their pool party.
I generally like to think that I am pretty adaptable to unexpected circumstances, but the combination of 7 hours of travel, my mental clock being at roughly 1am, and the fact that I genuinely like Devolver for their renegade indie style… My brain sort of locked up for a good minute. Just a day ago I watched their faux press conference in which they straight up pulled a Scanners on the host, and here I am trying and failing to not gawk.
Once I manage to reboot back into a semi-functional state, one of the Devolver guys directs me to a small side house that’s apparently the office, and we spend a few minutes talking. Turns out, Devolver has rented out the entire main building, and I’ve been moved to a secondary property a few blocks away. We briefly discuss E3;
Cool Devolver Guy: “What do you do in the industry?” Absolutely Not Cool Me: “Uh… I play video games… and I’ve wanted to go to E3 since I read about it in Nintendo Power in the 90’s...”
The man returns to the party, and tells me that I’m free to hang out if I want so long as I’m cool. I sit by the pool for a few minutes, but as we’ve established, I’m not nearly cool enough, so I leave. I regret not getting a picture of one of the beer cups to prove that I’m not crazy.
A few minutes later, I’ve landed at my bunk a few blocks away. Turns out, about half of the people in the house are also here for E3, so we talk briefly before I pass out.
It’s been a good day.
-----Day 1, “I made it, b******!”-----
I didn’t sleep great. After about 4 hours drifting in and out of consciousness, the dawn of the first day has arrived. Thankfully I have a wonderful blend of childhood dreams, adrenaline, and stubborn tenacity coursing through my veins to keep me functional. Also in my favor is the fact that my brain has not adjusted to Pacific Time yet. My body thinks that it’s 8:30 AM and I need to be awake already, damnit! Forget the fact that literally everyone else in the building is dead asleep, you got shit to do! A quick, stealthy shower and clothing change later, and I’m on my way to the LA Convention Center. On the way, I manage to snap the best photograph I’ve ever taken.
http://imgur.com/eToek6h If only I took this photo with a good camera...
To my surprise, the venue’s entrances are actually open when I arrive at 6:30 AM, local time. There is still a small amount of clean up work being done though, so make a note not to bother anyone. Stepping into the center of the south atrium, I can see a series of Final Fantasy banners hanging from the rafters, and behind them hangs a giant E3 logo. Unable to resist, I pull out my phone and post a selfie with the caption “I made it, bitches!”
http://imgur.com/0mQPreR Maximum Nerd Achieved My friends are amused.
I spend the next hour or so wandering entrances, taking photos and video while it’s still mostly empty. It’s strange actually walking the grounds, as I’ve seen them countless times before in photos and news articles. Some people might think that’s silly, but you have to understand that I’ve never had the chance to attend this show before. It might not be that big of a deal to someone local, or to someone whose job means covering E3 each year. At the same time though, to me this is like going to Disney World for the first time. I know full well that the event is a full force marketing blitz, but it doesn’t stop me from feeling like a kid in a candy store.
As 7:30 rolls around, I head back outside to get in line for badge pickup, that being the main reason I’m here almost 6 hours before show open. By chance, I end up talking to one man who used to work with the Video Game History Foundation (I think I’m getting that name right…), and another who works on soundtrack licensing for the 2K basketball franchise. We pass the time discussing fighting games and whether Randy Pitchford is in danger of being the next Peter Molyneux until we are able to get our badges. We part ways shortly thereafter, but not before he tells me to hit him up if I need any games. I’m not certain, but I may have just made my first industry contact. Also, he might think I’m a real journalist and not some random dork. That’s fine by me, too.
T-Minus 4 hours. The grounds are starting to fill up, and the entry lines for the show are already leading out the door. Despite this, I decide to find a seat off to the side and catch up on my notes as I record the people milling about the room. Up at the front, the crowd erupts into a cheer, presumably for a live stream or some such. Would have been nice to get a shot of it, but alas, with only one cheap camera sacrifices must be made. Not that it would have mattered anyway, as I would later find out that my camera would lose many of the videos I would try to record. In other words, I’m not mad about missing the shot, because my camera would have forgotten it anyway.
With my notes caught up, I join the line outside and dig in for the long wait. http://imgur.com/NdJjnrz
No big deal though, I’m from Ohio. I’ve been forged in the fires of some of the best amusement parks in the world; This is nothing. Vendors walk the line to provide brief amusement and occasionally gummy fruit snacks. A small while later, a local news crew starts interviewing random people in the crowd, including the kid next to me who happens to be from Texas. The anchorwoman is equal parts amused and mystified that this many people would travel so far for video games, but she’s nice about it, so it’s no big deal. Also during the wait, Nintendo holds their Direct livestream. I’m not the only one watching either, as at least 30 other people in line started cheering with the announcements of Metroid Prime 4 and Pokemon for Switch. There’s already a sense that Nintendo just “won E3”, though to be fair they are playing from a strong hand, what with the Switch being a runaway success. It’s also not like there was much competition this year anyway, except for Ubisoft.
2 hours in, and the line begins moving forward. The crowd whoops and cheers at the delusional idea that they are actually opening E3 2 hours early. In reality, the convention center is just concerned that people are going to have heat strokes in the street, and is trying to get as many people into the shade and air conditioning as possible. I don’t know if anyone was actually in any danger, but the gesture is appreciated. The line will continue to compress in further a few more times before the show opens, each time making the atrium louder and louder. Thankfully, my headphones are decent at noise isolation, so it’s not unbearable.
Something else I periodically notice is really, really expensive camera gear. About every ten minutes I see someone with a high end DSLR running up to something in the atrium to either take a picture of a display or get to a spot where they can photograph the crowd. These people aren’t even media all the time either. E3 Badges have color coded sleeves, and at least half of the people I see with these $1000 cameras have yellow “Expo Passes”, code for non-professional attendees, aka the unwashed plebeian masses…
I have to assume then that Youtube is going to be a minefield of personal videos from E3 being posted by normal people who want to try and make a name for themselves off the event…
Also like myself.
What, I know what I’m doing. Only difference is I brought this archaic tool called “pen and paper”, and my camera is barely Fisher-Price by comparison, what with it being terrible at still images, color balance, focus, and remembering to save my damn files… I’m getting off track.
It must be fascinating watching all this from a professional viewpoint. I know that the professionals are watching, too, because I can see them setting up on a balcony overlooking the atrium. I try to get a video recording of them video recording us. I even wave, but they do not wave back. I have to imagine that it must be like being on the final platform of a roller coaster, looking back at the beginning of the line. Although to be fair, most of the people in the atrium won’t end up in that glass hallway, including myself. It takes hard work, dedication, and as far as I can tell a healthy dose of luck to do this professionally. I’d be thrilled to be able to cover gaming professionally, and I’m willing to put in the work given the chance, but I’m also not going to just expect it to happen because I want it to.
As the fruit snack and Amazon vendors make another pass up and down the line, a few things dawn on me. Most obviously, I think I might be the one of the only people here who is entirely solo. I’m not meeting up with anyone, I’m here entirely on my own. It’s not a big deal honestly; for reasons of money, work, or other obligations, I didn’t have anyone who could travel with me. My dad said that he would have come had I asked, but there’s a catch. In truth, I know he would have come with me had I asked. I probably could have stayed at an actual hotel, even. At the same time though, I’m also fairly certain he would be bored to tears here. E3 might be referred to as “Gamer Christmas”, but unless you are really invested in gaming as a culture or a career it’s not that exciting. At best, I’m going to wait for an hour or two to play an unfinished video game for 5 to 10 minutes, then shuffle off to do it again and again for two days. Not exactly compelling stuff when you consider that I am the only computer nerd in a family of gearheads.
The other thing I’m noticing is that I’m also the only person who is writing… well anything. In fact, I’m pretty confident in saying that I might be the only person with a pen and paper out of the few hundred some guests in the atrium. I probably look strange furiously scribbling into my white notebook binder, but I’m OK with that. There’s only so much that a camera can capture about a moment, and even then only if it’s pointed in the right direction.
I’m snapped out of my contemplation by another roar coming from the front of the crowd, responding… something. Honestly, I can’t tell because the atrium has become an utter cacophony, and it’s getting louder. You’re lucky to be able to understand the person right next to you, let alone anyone more than 10 feet away. That’s becoming less an issue though as the crowd is being packed in even tighter. My watch claims that there are just 30 minutes to go. From my position I can now see that the doors to the show floor are open, but I can’t really see anything other than red light across a backdrop. The front of the group starts yelling again. Turns out that the fruit snack vendors are doing a last minute product toss. I’m more interested in the man who’s using the captive audience to advertise his local console repair business. I’m unable to get one of his cards before he wanders away, but I respect him.
15 minutes to go. Up on the press balcony someone in a white suit appears to be interviewing someone in a blue polo. Hell if I know who. I don’t have much time to contemplate it anyway, as the dam finally gives way and the show floor is opened early. The sea of bodies gradually makes its way toward and up the escalators. The guards, in a desperate attempt to prevent a stampede, shout orders at the waves of gamers. Meanwhile, a man in a Crash Bandicoot mascot suit does his part by yelling puns into a megaphone and doing the Crash Dance. Truly he is the unsung hero of E3.
Within a few minutes, I manage to make it up to the escalator and step onto the show floor. My first hour on the floor is an overwhelming blur, and I’m not even trying to play anything yet. I’m just walking the show floors trying to record as much as I can with my malfunctioning camera. One of the things that immediately strikes me is that this place reminds me of an amusement park, only with the attractions packed way too close together for no reason. Most of the booths are making no decent attempt to manage the crowds either, and it’s already starting to become a problem. Ubisoft, for example, is basically a Just Dance mosh pit flanked by small areas for Mario + Rabbids and Assassin’s Creed. Bethesda and Capcom are doing a little better by having more room, clearly marked lines, and by not having their presentation stages in the middle of game demonstration areas. Meanwhile, Square Enix and ArcSys are wrapping people around the outside walls of their booths, taking up a small amount of main pathway space, but it’s not too bad.
However, in the North Hall, it’s another story entirely. Nintendo is doing the equivalent of running around screaming while on fire. It’s really hard to understate the chaos of Nintendo’s area on day one. What starts as a curious wander through the swing and jazz themed space quickly turns into a 15 minute ordeal just trying to escape its walls. It’s pretty much just jam packed with people all desperately trying to see if the new Mario is good. If there are actual lines for any of the 50 some Mario Odyssey setups, I can’t see them. Honestly, I’ve seen more organization while watching children run away screaming on the last day of school.
Sony, on the other hand, has a completely different strategy, ditching lines almost entirely. Instead you have to make an appointment on the Playstation Experience app, then return at your designated time much like how an amusement park “Fast Pass” system works. This inevitably leads to several people waiting in short lines that do not exist, only to be turned away because they didn’t know about the app. Not the worst idea in theory, but it could have been communicated better. All of today’s appointments are gone anyway, so I’ll have to go without Spider-Man, I suppose.
My first actual attempt to play something is over at the Sega booth, because I absolutely NEED to know if Sonic Mania is the Sonic game I’ve wanted since the Genesis died. Fortunately, what with Sega being the industry underdogs anymore, the wait isn’t that bad. I bide my time watching a developer spotlight video about the design of Bayonetta and playing more Tetris on my Switch, before striking up a conversation with a few other people. The discussion revolves around just how well Sega has been handling itself in recent years, and which Persona game is best (5, 4, 3. Fight me.) when the couple I’m talking with hand me their business card. Turns out they run an independent video game store in Anaheim called Video Game Geeks. They also happen to be acquainted with Aaron Webber, the man behind the brilliant Sonic the Hedgehog twitter account. Nice people, you should check out their store if you get a chance.
After about 40 minutes, I finally get my hands on the game. Within seconds, I can tell that Sonic Mania exactly what I’ve been waiting for. It looks beautiful, sounds awesome, and every minute I spend in the one level that I get to play feels perfect. It’s over in about 5 minutes, but just like a good roller coaster, it was worth the wait. Unfortunately though, standing around for the past 6 hours with a 15 pound bag of gear is starting to take a toll on my batteries and my back, prompting me to find a power station to rest and catch up on my notes.
One of the things that I find striking is how friendly all the other attendees are. For example, while sitting here recharging my equipment, I had a random conversation with another guest about why Quake is awesome. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows of course, but I’ve yet to run into anyone who is an outright jerk. In a way, it’s a breath of fresh air to me. 2016 saw the end of a 7 year stint in video game retail, and while I have no real desire to go back, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t miss the daily conversations with other gamers. In a way, my experience so far almost feels a bit dissonant from the stories and complaints I’ve heard about past E3s. It’s no secret that many journalists and industry folk dislike E3. In the days following the event, several articles will be written about how E3 was different this year and how industry insiders almost or did hold the new guests with disdain. But having actually been here, interacting at the booths and with the other guests, I didn’t experience much hostility myself. To be fair, there was one incident… But we’ll get into that later.
In a way though, I get it. E3 has always straddled a strange line between cultural touchstone and business strategy. The show’s origins are actually rooted in gaming not being taken seriously. Before E3, video games often got lumped into a dark corner of a larger tech convention, at least in the US. One of the worst stories I’ve heard described a show where they were given a small area at the back of the hall… next to the porn. The situation was hardly ideal, to say the least. However, the mid 90’s saw the formation of the ESA and the ESRB Rating system, themselves a response to US lawmakers demands for game developers to self-regulate their content before the government did it for them. Shortly thereafter, the ESA started putting on E3, and the rest is history.
Thanks to the combination of investors, journalists, and other industry insiders who would attend, E3 became the best place to reveal and discuss new projects, especially hardware, and people noticed. Over time, despite the business focus of the show, E3 became something that gamers celebrated, albeit mostly from afar. E3 was where your favorite game got a new sequel announced, or where the next big console was revealed. Where everyone’s new greatest game of all time was first unleashed into the world. But to the people who are actually there? Sure, I’m certain that there is some fun to be had, but ultimately, they are all at work. Who wouldn’t be annoyed by a bunch of tourists wandering around while they are trying to do their jobs? Maybe that’s the problem, though. Maybe standing on both sides of the business/consumer fence keeps E3 from fully serving either camp, and if that’s the case, maybe E3 is as doomed as the naysayers say. Maybe it’s not that simple, and what problems E3 may or may not face are beyond where the ordinary person can see, let alone begin to solve. Personally, I don’t think that E3 is in any real danger, not yet at least. I actually think that once the vendors learn how to handle a larger crowd that features non-professionals, E3 could become stronger than ever, but who knows?
Overthinking aside, my devices are charged, meaning it’s time to wander again. I promised several friends footage of Dragon Ball Fighter Z and Marvel VS Capcom Infinite, and as such I make a bee line… anywhere but there. Instead I end up back at the ground floor of the south atrium to try out the Crash Bandicoot remake. While I’m in line, I meet yet more friendly people, challenging them to rounds of Street Fighter while we wait. One pair even happen to be the top streamers on Microsoft’s Mixer platform, which is neat I guess. I’d never heard of Mixer prior to this E3, let alone watched any streams on it, so I can’t say I know who they are. They were super nice though, so maybe it’s something to look at later, I suppose. The Crash remake is good, too. Not much to say about it really. It feels pretty much exactly like what the first three Crash games should feel like, just prettier. Honestly though, I’m finding myself thinking more about the people I’ve been interacting with than the games I’ve been playing. It’s not a complaint about the games, because I’m certainly not bored. Rather, it’s the other way around; The people I’ve been meeting today are just as fascinating as the new games that I’m watching. That’s cool, really.
Stepping away from the Crash booth, I check my watch. 4:45. With just enough time for maybe one more line, I decide to head to the Quake Champions Team Deathmatch setup. I’m actually familiar with Quake Champions, having played the beta for the last two months, so outside of a few maps and a champion there’s not much new here for me. I’m not here for the game though, rather the people. Back home, I don’t have many people to play Quake with, let alone have a LAN battle like here. Looks like I’m getting lucky, too, as once I step into line the attendant closes it behind me. I end up talking with my future teammates about the game’s mechanics, and just before our match I even get to talk to a developer about how they are balancing the game. As for the match itself… My D key keeps sticking, but our team still wins and I get 4th on server. Both teams get neat Quake hats, and I make two new Steam friends as we are shuffled out the doors.
At the end of the day, I am absolutely exhausted. Back at the hostel I take one last pass at my notes and hang out with the other guests. I had a total blast today, and I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings.
-----Day 2, Threats and Thoughts-----
A Threat. Today brought a Warning and a Threat.
Like the previous day, I was up with the sun, sneaking about the hostel trying to get ready for the day without waking up anyone. I don’t have to pick up my badge today, but the earlier opening time coupled with the lines I saw yesterday once again has me out the door as the sun rises over LA. I’m not the only one either. Once I’ve fueled myself with vending machine coffee and granola bars, I join a crowd of about 200 people to once again wait for 3 hours.
About 30 minutes later though, with another 300 people in the atrium, a tall black suited security guard wearing a g-man earpiece wades into the crowd and begins yelling for everyone’s attention. It’s hard to clearly make out what he’s saying specifically, but we all get his message. Anyone caught filming or photographing in the building will have their memory cards confiscated, their badge revoked, and will be banned from E3. We are also told to get out our ID’s and keep them available all day, as the guards will be carding everyone in the line, and we could be carded at any time during the show. The group collectively groans, but we do as we’re told. Ten minutes later, the same guard comes back out. He’s making some sort of clarification regarding areas that can be filmed or photographed, but it’s nearly impossible to make out what he actually says other than “I had bad information before”. It takes us a while to corroborate what we all heard, but apparently cameras are OK in the atriums, while on the show floors “it depends”. Word is certain vendors had been openly complaining to security about people with cameras. Meanwhile, some idiots from GameStop are selling their 3 day “Expo Pass” and “Expo Pro” badges on eBay for upwards of 500 dollars. Another separate rumor has also started floating around regarding heightened security for Hideo Kojima, but it’s hearsay at best.
Security doesn’t attempt to clarify the poorly worded warnings any further, so the threat of, “We will throw you out at any time because we feel like it.”, cools more than a few enthusiastic attitudes. It’s hardly dour; No one is openly upset or mad at it. We all just sort of go, “Well shit, I guess this is a thing today.” Thankfully, the next two hours quickly pass, and soon the sea of bodies is flowing up the escalators yet again. The guards yell at people to face forward and put away their cameras. No one listens, but by now security seems to have realized that trying to enforce the no camera policy is laughable at best.
Before I continue, I have to mention that I actually brought up the camera ban threat to a few of the vendors, asking if it would be OK to take any photographs with my phone. Universally, every one of them expressed confusion at the idea of it, and said that it wasn’t a problem. One person even asked point blank “Why the hell would you complain about cameras here? It’s publicity!”, before offering to take the picture for me. It’s likely not a question I’m ever going to get a real answer to either, because no sane company would confess to being the driving force behind an open threat aimed at some of their most enthusiastic fans. It’s also worth noting that I did not see anyone get stopped by security for any reason, anywhere. No carding, no camera bans, nothing. Who knows what ever came of it.
Regardless of the poor conception of the policy, I’m on the floor now, and I have a promise to make good on. First order of business is to get to the ArcSys area and try out Dragon Ball Fighter Z, then hit up the Capcom booth for MvC: Infinite. I get about 4 minutes on each, then report my findings back to the group; Both are good, but I think Dragon Ball is better if only because while both play well, Dragon Ball’s presentation is 1000 times better.
With my mission complete, I decide to shift gears and check out the smaller booths in the main hall. Some booths feature peripherals that range from fascinating, such as a motion capture compression vest that uses special embedded circuits, to terrible, such as a mouse that is easily the least comfortable object ever designed.
http://imgur.com/vdwK0OG Not Pictured: The Identity Disc I wish existed
One indie booth featured a VR demo for a cinematic rail shooter that was fairly cool. Another person showcased what I can only describe as a bad attempt at a surrealist music video, also in VR. Keeping up the theme, I swing past the Bethesda booth again to look in on Doom VR. 90 minute wait… moving on.
Although I skipped it yesterday, one of the other titles that I had put into my “must play” list was Super Mario Odyssey, which meant going to the North Hall again. Looking for a shortcut, I ended up on the relatively hidden food truck lot, where I meet a pair of cameramen. Curious, I ask if they had been approached about the camera ban, which led to talking about how and why they were at E3. Turns out, the main cinematographer lives not much more than 20 minutes away from my house. We exchange numbers and share examples of our work before splitting up. He likes what I’ve done so far, which helps to boost my ego a little bit.
Back on task, I wade my way across the North Hall to get to the Nintendo booth. Nintendo seem to have learned from yesterday’s chaos, establishing amusement park style queues that stretch back into what appears to be an unlit loading zone behind their area. The change earns them a few jeers from people about long lines, but in truth they are now moving people through the demo area at an impressive rate without anyone being trampled. It only took me a little under an hour to get through the line. At the demo area I meet a Nintendo rep who is exhausted from explaining the same gameplay for hours on end. To his relief, I had payed attention to his explanations to the person before me. By chance, I heard him mention that only one person had managed to make it to Bowser all E3, but wasn’t able to beat him in time.
Well then… I got all 120 stars back in the day… Challenge Accepted.
I knew the demo was on a 10 minute timer, and just from watching it I could tell that the game mechanics were mostly similar to Super Mario 64, so I dove into it with the goal of getting to the end as fast as possible. I’m pretty sure that the rep would have hugged me if he could just for the change in pace. He started cheering me on, offering me quick tips on where to go for speed. I did fairly well too. I made one major mistake that cost me a small amount, but I still made it to the final area. There are two fights here, a minion and Bowser himself. Just as the zone loads in, the demo times out. The rep was crushed, but he still congratulated me for making it that far, giving me a voucher for a googly eyed Mario visor. It’s awesome. The game is really good too, if you were wondering.
Sadly though my day is coming to an end, and with it my time at E3. True, the event runs for 3 days, but I have travel plans for tomorrow, meaning this is my last hour here. I swing back through the Square Enix area and snag some souvenirs, then wander to the eSports Arena, where Twitch streamer Rapha of Team Liquid is destroying his teammates in Quake Champions. Enroute, I peek into the Doom VR area one last time, where I see Victor Lucas behind a glass pane, plinking away on his phone.
Victor Lucas is kind of a big deal to me. Along with Adam Sessler, he’s one of the first people I ever really understood to be a video game journalist. He used to host a show with Tommy Tallarico called Judgment Day, and I watched it religiously as a kid. I’ve also been watching his revival of Electric Playground on Youtube as well, so the combination of current presence and nostalgia… I’ll admit, I zoned out thinking about it. Unfortunately, Victor also happened to look up right as I was being a complete dork. The only response I could muster was to wave back sheepishly. Sorry man, I didn’t mean to be a weirdo.
Because of the security guards warnings, my actual camera stayed in my bag all day. However, I decide that I need one more sequence as I leave, and record myself as I walk out of the venue, bringing my E3 experience to an end. Sadly, my camera loses the footage, along with almost everything else I had recorded the past two days. Thank god for my notebook, that’s all I can say.
In the days following, I would read articles that discussed people’s complaints about the show. Long lines, crowded areas, high entry costs. I even saw a few complaints from the media itself about the addition of the public passes, mostly just about the added congestion though. To be fair, E3 as an event was entirely not prepared for the added influx of enthusiasts. Both main halls were poorly laid out, making the mistake of cramming all the larger attractions into the central areas of the floors. This ended up choking out the space, forcing lines to cross and overflow into walking paths. Perhaps a better option would have been to take a note out of theme park design, and spread out these main areas along the outer edges of each floor, with the smaller and shorter booths spaced out in the center. A few vendors, like Nintendo, managed to figure it out, implementing and organizing lines more effectively. Others though just had no clue what they were doing, which only made problems worse.
Even with the difficulties though, I can’t say I’m disappointed. The people that I met, the experience of finally getting to go to E3. To me, it was incredible. After spending the last year away from video game retail, getting to immerse myself in this culture again was like a breath of fresh air. Sure, you can complain that E3 is one big marketing firework, because in many ways it’s supposed to be. But to be in a hall with thousands of other people who love gaming as much as you do… You don’t get that through the press conferences or the live streams. If the entirety of your exposure to E3 was through work or through the internet, then I wonder how complete a picture you actually got. Similarly, one of the things that I found kind of strange was the fact that several of media outlets set up booths on the floor behind plexiglass and fabric walls. While I would sincerely hope that no one reported on the whole event from the sterile side of a plexiglass cubicle, but I wouldn’t be shocked either. There are tons of things to see at E3, and yes, it absolutely takes a professional team with a plan and the right equipment to even attempt to tackle it all. I entirely understand the need for them to set up bases of operation for E3, though I do question the wisdom of doing so with actual showroom floor space. It’s just another part of the operation that I don’t understand quite yet, though I want to in the future.
It’s not all perfect, to be totally fair. Even with the various methods I used to save money, E3 was still fairly expensive for me to attend. And even if I didn’t particularly mind the lines, I was still unable to see much of what I wanted to. I had spent hours planning out how I wanted to tackle the conference, but like any plan, it didn’t survive first contact with the enemy. All the same, the fact that I was finally able to go to E3, and the experience I had there will be something I’ll cherish, if only for the people that I got to meet.
I’ll conclude this article by talking about one of the people that I met at the hostel. He’s an independent filmmaker, and when he saw me writing the night of day one, he asked if I was some kind of journalist.
“I’d like to be”, I replied.
His response caught me off guard. He seemed almost insulted, pointedly asking me what I was waiting for. He beseeched me to seize the moment. That if I truly want to be a gaming journalist, I need to throw everything I have at it. In a way, he’s right. Anyone who simply waits for their dreams to be handed to them accomplishes nothing. All the same, real life has a way of interfering with your ambitions, and dropping everything to chase them is irresponsible at best. While I have no desire to go back to retail, I do miss the industry. I don’t know if I’ll ever make it back, or if I’ll even find a way to do so. But regardless of whether my trip is the end of the line, or the beginning of a new journey, I consider all the time I did get to spend in the industry, however insignificant it may have been, to be a privilege.
When I first started writing this article, I kept it in a file titled “Victory Lap”. I did so because for me, finally making it to E3 after all this time felt like winning… somehow. Looking at it now from the other side, it’s a somewhat naive sentiment. There is a grain of wisdom in it though. Because after you finish your victory lap, you have to prepare for the next race.
Go pursue something. Even if you fail, you’ll at least have a story to tell. http://imgur.com/Vf0JyHu
EDIT: Trying to clean up the formatting to make it easier to read.
I am Setsuna | Review Thread
- Release Date: 07.19.2016
- Developer: Tokyo RPG Factory | Official Website
- Publisher: Square Enix
- Genre: JRPG
- Price: $39.99
- Platforms: PC | PS4
- Media: E3 2016 Trailer | PS4 Gameplay | 15 Minutes of Gameplay
- Aggregates: OpenCritic (79) | GameRankings (79.47%) | Metacritic (78)
Taking a character driven story that will keep players coming back for hours and combining it with a classic gameplay style works exceptionally well, making I Am Setsuna one game that not just ’90s RPG fans will love, but even general fans of the genre should really enjoy.
It’s a balancing act that I’d have no problem doing again, however, because in the grand scheme of things, I am Setsuna is a story worth experiencing. It’s so tight and well told that every other aspect of the game becomes secondary, even if it’s not intended. I can’t think of another game that manages to evoke the themes it presents to players so well. In every way imaginable, from the plot, to the scenery, to the music, and even to the combat system, I am Setsuna wants players to question their mortality, the time they have left, and the decisions they can make in that time.
I Am Setsuna makes it clear that someone is listening to all of those grumbly veteran gamers who miss the adventures that made them fans for life. They long for a story to care about, and that's what this game provides.
I actually quite like the adherence to nostalgia, as Square is only giving fans with they want after years of complaints that projects like Final Fantasy XIII strayed too far. But by the same token of goodwill, it plays it a little too safe in regards to its at times predictable story, and doesn't really do anything new that moves the genre forward in any way. Still, if old school is what you want, you'll get it.
What really impressed me about I Am Setsuna is the way that the various systems layered on top of one another to reinforce and complement the intense, powerful themes that sit at the core of the game. This game, which is about sorrow, provides us with a mournful look at humanity and yet also gives us hope that there is good in people, even in the darkest of times. The game itself is a nostalgic hymn for so much of what we’ve lost in the JRPG genre as it pushes ever closer to visceral action.
I Am Setsuna is a game from a different era in the best kind of way. For better or for worse, it borrows many of its mechanics from some of gaming’s classics. While its graphics are outdated and its story gives only the illusion of choice, the rest of the game is good enough to make up for it: the characters are likable, the story is engaging, and the gameplay is fun. RPG fans will find a lot to enjoy here, especially those who love games like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger.
There are no great side-quests to follow. The world map is barren. There is no equivalent to Chocobo breeding. This is a game that conjures the spirit of the golden age rather than its bulk. What's here, however, is enough: an enchanting story, supported by simple, lost pleasures. It's the way in which your characters leave deep furrows as they run through the drift. It's the sound of rested snow thumping to the ground as you nudge past a tree. It's the old sea, watched from a cliff. It's how Tokyo RPG Factory has managed to rekindle the wonder and innocence of a once great genre.
I Am Setsuna has lots of nods to Chrono Trigger, from its general combat framework to specific references to skills like X-Strike and Luminaire. However, it doesn’t capture why most players connected to that seminal title. Even though the combat is entertaining, I Am Setsuna’s characters are dull, the environments are repetitive, and the story is predictable. I would like to see more games inspired by the golden era of 16-bit RPGs, but you can’t recapture the spirit of innovation and experimentation that pervaded those titles through mimicry alone.
I Am Setsuna aims to invoke the spirit of classic 16-Bit JRPGs like Chrono Trigger, but its obtuse combat and monotonous pacing keep it from reaching those lofty heights.
I Am Setsuna might not be the most innovative or technologically demanding game released this year – or even in the past five – but it is one of the most complete, and it offers an experience that near-perfectly blends incredible visuals, a music score that rivals some of Nobuo Uematsu’s best, and superb, polished gameplay into one of the best JRPGs released in years. I Am Setsuna is a must-have for already enfranchised fans of the genre, and a wonderful introduction to JRPGs for the uninitiated.
I Am Setsuna is an unapologetic homage to beloved Japanese RPGs that plays well but takes few risks. Tokyo RPG Factory has accomplished their implied mission statement: to make Japanese RPGs the way many of us remember them back in the day. As a result, I Am Setsuna walks in the footsteps of giants, and is thus dwarfed by the memories of games that inspired it. There are times when its familiar music and faces feel comforting, like returning to your hometown after a decade away, so as someone who grew up playing Japanese RPGs, I enjoyed my time with I Am Setsuna. It's like any trip down memory lane: it was nice to look back and remember the good times.
The game doesn’t shove menus and spells down your throat, foregoing complications. Ultimately, it is up to you to decide whether you want to explore the game’s intricacies, although this is not required to see the end credits roll. The game’s simplicity is evident as weapons are bought rather than crafted, and techs are acquired by selling items and selecting techs from a Magic Consortium member. This means that the game is very lenient on the amount of money that you can get, as you don’t need to spend so much on skills and abilities. Rather, the game wants you to buy better weapons, trinkets, and potions. This does make I Am Setsuna much easier than many of the classic JRPGs, which is one of its few downsides. On the flipside, a bit of sleuthing is needed to further Setsuna’s journey, adding a bit of complexity to a mostly basic gameplay system.
Setsuna is a good game and that’s really the problem, it’s just good. The games intention of being a love letter the to JRPG’s of yesteryear have kept the game void of any originality and spark. The game is stuck in the shadow of those games, playing it far too safe to rear a head of its own.
There are no photo realistic characters or settings, just chibi models and hand drawn art. There are no big money CGI cutscenes, just in-engine character models and text boxes. There are no imaginary dream bishounen fighting god whales, just a simple story about sacrifices and monsters. There is no expensive proprietary game engine that became outdated before it even finished development, they used Unity. The end result was a heartfelt throwback to what made JRPGs great. I'd say that's mission accomplished for Tokyo RPG Factory and I Am Setsuna.
The thing about I Am Setsuna is that it feels like an antique in a time where everything else is shiny and new. Yes, other games do it in a much flashier style with realistic looking characters, intricate battle systems and epilepsy-inducing spell effects, but I Am Setsuna doesn’t need any of that. Like an antique, you can feel the history behind it and sometimes, that’s all you really need.
I Am Setsuna seems like the perfect game for those missing the Golden Age of Japanese RPGs, but unfortunately it has been painted with a shallow brush. The story moves at an uncontrolled pace, never truly developing any of the characters or their motives, and fails to establish the emotional connection the developers were aiming for. The combat, while brings back memories of the good ol’ days from classic RPGs, becomes dull at a rather quick rate thanks to the one-note encounter setup and unvaried dungeon layouts. From the presentation side of things, the soundtrack has a well-executed selection of piano melodies, but the visuals become overly monotonous. Who would have thought a game with a snowy setting such as this would look so dull? There’s some good to be discovered in I Am Setsuna, but it’s overshadowed by its sheer unoriginality and repetitiveness.
A lovely little low-key JRPG that feels like the work of a small, passionate indie developer that just wants to pay homage to the classics it looks up to. 'I Am Setsuna' isn't a revolutionary game or a rebirth of the genre, as the marketing seems to imply. What 'I Am Setsuna' ultimately ends up being is a remarkably well-made, charming game that's endlessly endearing and entirely devoid of cynicism. While some small gripes certainly sting a little, this is a terrific debut for Tokyo RPG Factory, and I absolutely can't wait to see what they make next. For anyone who misses the SNES era, it's a great throwback, but in its own right, it's a fantastic game that absolutely shouldn't be ignored.
If Tokyo RPG Factory’s goal was to create a sad, stirring adventure that evokes memories of the past without feeling too antiquated, they nailed it, with big assists from Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy X, and even a little Xenogears at the very end. If this is the type of story we’ll continue to get from the Tokyo RPG Factory, then hey, maybe RPG assembly lines aren’t so bad.
I Am Setsuna is bold in the way it explores its themes, and it immediately moved me with its soft art style and beautiful piano score. I also really enjoyed the battle system's Momentum, Flux, and Singularity elements...Unfortunately, a few major problems kept the game from remaining enjoyable as the experience went on.
The blizzard-stricken landscape is cold to the bone, but the integrity and faithfulness of the human condition remains warm in I Am Setsuna. The world is against Endir and Setsuna on their way to the Last Lands, monsters big and small seeking to thwart them along the way with complicated tactics not seen since the PlayStation 1 era. The soundtrack sets the nostalgic tone properly and the dialogue delivers each character as they find themselves through their journey to the Last Lands. Much like the treacherous trials of real life pilgrimages, the challenges on the way to completing I Am Setsuna will allow only those most dedicated to reach the end. Prepare for frustration, and prepare to remember the ups and downs of what made those timeless classics so timeless.
I Am Setsuna capably fulfills its role as an echo of past Japanese adventures, but in doing so, it seems unwilling to take risks and forge its own legacy. Its story is predictable and its battle system struggles to define itself, but its traditional charm and fantastic atmosphere do more than enough to ensure that this an inviting and thoroughly pleasant journey. It may not measure up to the genre's best, but Tokyo RPG Factory's first outing is a warm and well crafted reminder that the classic formula still works.
While much of its charm comes from its attention to traditional design minus the frustrating elements, those with the patience to explore the opposite spectrum of big budget, hollow excursions may find satisfaction in this wonderfully mature experiment in the modern era.
Those golden-era JRPGs are beloved because they were packed with memorable locations, characters, and combat. I Am Setsuna unfortunately falls short on all three counts, and instead delivers an average and forgettable adventure, albeit one with wonderful music.
I Am Setsuna starts out on a strong footing: offering what seems to be the perfect game for every JRPG fan with too little time on their hands. However, something is lost along the way, too much is trimmed and outside of the excellent combat system, the plot and characters simply fail to maintain my attention, some struggle to remain likeable because of their incredibly annoying dialogue. I enjoyed my time with the game, but there were certainly more than a few times it pushed its luck. If you love JRPGs, this is certainly worth checking out, but it doesn’t do anything we haven’t seen before.
I Am Setsuna is a wonderful debut title from a company filled with seasoned RPG veterans, even if some of the presentation doesn’t quite hold up in 2016. In a world with a wide array of role-playing games aimed to capture that zeitgeist of gaming in the mid-90’s, it’s marvelous to see some of the original innovators of the genre come together to try and recapture that feel. As a role-playing experience that prides itself on offering the successor to Chrono Trigger’s combat, I Am Setsuna feels as though it’s left other aspects out in the cold.