I made the annual trip up to Earl's Court for the third year running to get a concentrated dose of video games, along with thousands of other people.
On my budget transportation method of choice, outside the Colston Hall at 7:30am, ready to leave I found an empty seat around a table with two other guys who are soon joined by a third. Through a sparse amount of small talk I find out they're headed to the same event, travelling from Cardiff and Bristol. One of them has never been to London, he's heard of a place called Harrods, and remarks how all cities look the same as we pull through the morning traffic. I sit there reading about the horrific abuse the 'gamergate' 'scandal' acted as a catalyst for, while one of them makes a casually distasteful comment about two women with blonde hair driving a mini on the road below us, but I'm too much of coward to call out his bullshit in front of his two friends with an hour of the journey left to go. They don't know I'm wearing this t-shirt underneath my jumper.
Outside the exhibition centre I can see the massive advertising covering its flat face, it takes on a new meaning in a post gamer gate gaming community.
Inside I find Tristan and Nigel, Dan is running the Bertram Fiddle stall upstairs. Its really good to see them all, we lunch together later and catch up.
Nigel directs me to a stylish looking game heavily influenced by Thirty Flights of Loving's jump cut narrative structure. Scenes will flip between later or earlier moments with the same character in a way that seems interesting without completely disorienting the player. Its lovingly crafted first person animations give it more of a connection to the world than its cube obsessed precursor. This game wins The Pixel Crush Award for Best Evolution of an Underused Narrative Technique.
Off the recommendation of the Crate and Crowbar podcast me and Tristan queue briefly to play Gang Beasts. Its a local same-screen multiplayer game with physics based mechanics. Different coloured blobby characters run around wearing various hats, usually confined to a small elevated arena- including a ferris wheel, window cleaning platforms, some kind of wrestling ring on the side of a sky scraper with an unpleasant looking grinder in the centre. You can jump, you can grab, nothing controls with precision which leads to a gloriously drunken looking slapstick wrestling free-for-all. Like possessed flour stuffed balloons on a stag do. You can cling to most parts of the environment and other characters which can create amusing tug of wars where one player will be trying to manhandle another off a ledge but they're being dragged in another direction by a third player who is also desperately clutching a railing. This game wins The Pixel Crush Award for Best Slapstick Simulator.
Me and Tristan queue for too long while Nigel sensibly opts to spend his time more wisely. It is a confusing and completely sub optimal way to experience a game with the ambitions that Shadow of Mordor has. You're sat down for 2 minutes while you try and absorb what the buttons do, luckily its borrowed so heavily from other action games that much of it is familiar. The world feels empty. The 'nemesis system' that provides interesting emergent stories to frame every combat encounter is not simple enough to demonstrate in this short window of time. A booth attendant tells me I have 3 minutes left, I start sprinting through the empty world just to try and reach a destination on the map. Now my time is up, Tristan leaves too despite having a couple of minutes left to play. This is a horrible way to experience a game. The only thing you can assess in that time is the most derivative and unremarkable part of the game, surely this can only hurt people's perception of your game? I leave to queue some more, feeling confused and frustrated. This game wins This Pixel Crush Award for Most Poorly Structured Game Demo. Which is shame because I know these interesting systems actually work, its getting a great critical reception.
We queue for a talk about Alien: Isolation, a game that looked promising, and then sounded, like it might deliver, and now appears to be shaping up to be a little bit extraordinary. The 3 terabytes of archived data they managed to wangle from Fox has unearthed original audio recordings that were used as ambient sound in the film's marvellous score, a score that Isolation seems have honoured in the right ways- tying the stems of the mix to the player's stealthiness, and ramping up the intensity of the music based on how aware the alien is of your presence. They also uncovered set photos, character continuity shots and tons of other stuff to base new material on. Its pretty exciting given the aesthetic and design of the alien universe is so exceptional, especially going back to it now with a grainy late 70's veneer over the top. This game wins The Pixel Crush Award for Most Hypiest Hyperbolic Hip Hop Hype Hypocrit.
We tube out of Earl's Court, everyone is done with queues and darkness for the day. Nigel and his walking stick get booted off the stairs by a shop attendant at the Forbidden Planet comic shop on Shaftesbury Avenue, serves him right for trying to rest his sore legs. "My little toe is just one big blister" he points out the next day, not unreasonably. Alan meets us outside and we cross the road to a diner, his local. They serve a fantastic "hard shake" a kind of alcoholic milk shake, I make the most of not driving for once. It is good times.
Tristan kindly grants me use of a mattress for the night and we proceed to not get enough sleep for the next day, talking music and catching up.
We queue to get in, I messed up which press passes I thought we had so we both have to queue. Then we check out which queues look tolerable. Occulus Rift, Evolve, and Alien all look unbearably long. I briefly play a space roguelike.
I've been following Tom Francis' new project with interest because Gunpoint was something I quite enjoyed, and I like the way he talks about games. So I sat down to play it briefly, even though it was brief the game was more fun than I expected based on what I'd seen of it. The click to move stuff worked nicely, quelling my fear of Hotline Miami levels of required skill. There's a "soft fail" system where if you're captured aboard a ship you are ejected from the airlock into space, the game is not over, you just need to try and remotely steer your shuttle to your unconscious body before you bleed out in space, then you're free to continue playing after you've patched yourself up. Its like the buddy system of Far Cry 2 but simpler and more self reliant, it just serves the same purpose of not breaking the flow of a game that is trying to give some proper weight to the consequences of your actions. This game wins The Pixel Crush Award for Safest Bet for Actually Being Good When It Comes Out.
Tristan walked me through the basics of Dungeon Keeper, which is being effectively remade as War for the Overworld and then we head to the Division talk.
There are many shiny shaders and expensive looking graphical effects. The developer giving the talk uses the word immersion so many times I stop hearing it any more, and it becomes a collection of sounds. He says they're approaching immersion for every aspect of the game, except he never mentions the games mechanics. So no mechanical immersion, you know, the actual interactive part. That's slightly harsh because there do seem be some nice details in the animations and the way the UI is completely embedded in the world. Maps that radiate out across the ground from your character's feet, flashbacks presented as digital glowing point clouds that illustrate a moment in time as you move through the environment. But where's my simulational (probably not a word) immersion? Also why in expensive games is shooting the default mechanic, no one ever questions this. And you know I'm only annoyed about it because the rest of the game looks gorgeous, this just accentuates what a shame it is that we'll just be shooting each other in it. Also the tools for creating the buildings in the engine they use is absolutely fucking nuts, also also- why does it need to be a Tom Clancy game? Its irrelevant. This game wins The Pixel Crush Award for Most Ubisoft Game- Gluttenous and Rote Design With an Interesting Idea Buried Underneath An Enormous Budget.
We all meet up with Loz and go for lunch, a burger has almost become a yearly tradition. Then we go separate ways, Nigel for a powernap, Loz back to the expo, and me and Tristan unwind in Kingston's vegetable market before I catch a train to the coach station. Amid the confusion of the megabus end of the coach station not only does my coach leave without me but I don't even notice it arrive. The I'm called 'Sir' in an increasingly patronising manner, I just want to go home and shower. I'm overly grateful to the lady who sells me a ticket to get out of there on the 20:30 coach.
Listening to an Idle Thumbs podcast on the coach home featuring Anita Sarkesian as a guest I wonder why there isn't a gaming expo more like this, is there one already in the UK? I don't want to queue for an hour to play 10 minutes of Orc Stabber 2014, I want to meet creators and hear them talk about their creations, I want to hear critics critique them. I want them to talk about their creations in a way that is specific to themselves, and there is some of that at EGX and it is the best part. It is however largely outweighed by the rest of it. I can't pretend to enjoy the excited chatter of people leaving a talk, buzzing from the prospect of more homogeneity, and then willing to queue for it.