At some point in the recent past the press conference became the primary form of public assembly. The bacchanalia of the rock concert and the hedonic violence of sport were gradually supplanted by the revelation of new things to buy. Consumer goods have become the storehouse of shared dreams, and the semi-regular occasions when we’re given access to new ones inspire mass attention that few other events match. E3, the videogame industry’s annual press junket, is a pseudo-religious experience for those who organize their cultural consumption around play and the digital achievement mirages that trade under its banner.
Anticipating the miracle of revelation has been the lifeblood of videogame culture for years, and this need to be overwhelmed by a flood of miraculous first-encounters has spread across consumer culture in everything from television spoiler anxiety to evangelical Apple-watching. We live in serialized times, our lives fixed-in place and our surrender to the political and economic superstructures around us guaranteed in advance. Enduring the waits between announcements of things we’ll next be allowed to buy has become the one remaining act of emotional communion we have.
There has been a perceptible sense of retreat and timidity in all of the press conferences at this year’s E3. Microsoft’s presentation was an echo-chamber of already-knowns and revelations of the arcane and mostly unwanted. The show’s crescendo was Crackdown 3, introduced by David Jones, the man whose last game was the commercial disaster APB: All Points Bulletin. The original Crackdown was a more forgivable disaster, a sprawling but shallow game released at a time when players who’d just spent $400 and $500 on a new machine were ready to rationalize anything that gave them a use for it, and Crackdown crossed that minimum threshold. Its 2009 sequel was an unqualified failure, in large part because the game it was based on had mostly been a mirage.
If Crackdown 3 was intended as a showstopper, it did so by making it clear Microsoft didn’t have much of a show to stop in the first place. There was a new Call of Duty, filled with drones and future war gear that has been present in the last two versions of the game, there was a demo of Fable Legends, a second-tier spin-off of a fantasy series that that ended in the poorest way with Fable 3. There was a collection of four old Halo games to rebuy, an abandonment of software supporting the recently abandoned Kinect, a new version of an obscure card battle game called Phantom Dust, and a very pretty version of a very stale kind of Assassin’s Creed game set in revolutionary France.
To supplement these underwhelming revelations were short sequences in which game developers sat in the darkened office parks where games are made, describing their personal favorites. The office cubicle has become the dramatic backdrop for all press conferences, and privileged views into the bleak landscape of modern offices was a sentimental currency replacing the backstage debauchery of the rockstar with obsessive discipline of the coders, artists, and project managers.
EA began their press conference with a loving montage of DICE’s Swedish offices, subtly appointed with Star Wars paraphernalia to remind viewers the company is working on a game set in George Lucas’s fantasy universe. Criterion created its own short love letter to the office space with a video describing how the company had taken down all the walls between individual offices to ensure a communal working spirit. BioWare’s teaser video for a new Mass Effect game mythologized people seated at desks in the dark, dragging buttons across the screen or typing code in with mute focus. Artistry has become immobility, creative laborers focused on tiny portals of symbology through which videogames are assembled with millimetric mouse movements and spreadsheet divination.
Sony’s press conference was delivered, in an actual rock show setup at the LA Memorial Sports Arena with glowing blue lights and amphitheater seating. Sony’s fan-cheered incantation of sequels and ports (Batman Arkham Knight, The Last of Us, Grand Theft Auto V, Mortal Kombat X, Uncharted 4, Little Big Planet 3) betrayed a creative paralysis at the industry’s highest level, with companies afraid to invest in anything other than the most well-established names while entering a generation of unprecedented production cost.
Like Microsoft, Sony’s announcements were a prolonged string of anticlimaxes, opening with a disconcerting braggadocio about having convinced Bungie to auction off their design plans for Destiny, ensuring anyone playing the game on Xbox One will have access to less content then PlayStation 4, with an exclusive multiplayer map, a special Mars mission, early access to the game, and special weapons. These sorts of announcements breed consumer loyalty in a perverse way, giving the sense that the company is sacrifice money in the same way the consumer must, ensuring experiences that are technically possible on any device will be made to seem special through the magic of money and the exclusionary structures it brings, while impoverishing those who’ve chosen to buy a differently branded thing.
In the same way that the hedonic reverie of the rock show made the stultification of suburban work-a-day life seem tolerable, E3 press conferences, like videogames themselves, are constructed to make the intolerable in our present seem nonexistent. There are no politics, no contention, no fear that the thousands of people sitting in the audience will do anything other than patiently wait as they’re told things by men in businesswear. Prerequisite to any shopping decision is belief that one’s purchasing choice will be meaningful. One buys videogames, consoles, and tech devices not for the thing itself, but out of allegiance to the values symbolized by them.
That these relieving moments of amusement require expensive buy-ins, have been created through vast networks of exploitive labor, and are destined to disappoint does little to dull the superstition that fills these rooms with the purest faith that the future will be better than the present, tomorrow’s game, or console, or iPhone will change everything you know about the world. It only falls to you to wait for that future to be made, and then go to the store and buy it when it’s finally ready. We have become consumerist nodes in someone else’s future, the insurrectionary hedonism of our past traded for enthusiastic applause for men in suits who speak like machines, promising you can buy your way out of the present if only you choose to bring the right thing to the cash register.