Gamescom: Day One
The progress bars are inching towards some early morning event horizon and the clock is plowing mercilessly onwards while I blink and switch memory sticks and worry about tomorrow. I am at another videogames expo.
Only this one is Gamescom, in Cologne, and although an oppressive workload and the need to find internet that doesn’t run backwards give it a tang of E3’s bitterness, the fact that Cologne is really very nice and has more soul in a single block of its brutal Gothic cathedral than LA has in all its endless miles of numbing Godless sprawl makes it significantly more bearable.
We arrived yesterday, greeted by a taxi driver who told us enthusiastically that Resident Evil 6 was a “beautiful game” as we passed a giant advertisement pinned to a hotel, which made me think he was either mad or confusing it with Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, which seemed unlikely.
Today the real business started, a day before the show itself opens in the mercilessly vast Koelnmesse, but still packed with conferences, previews and assorted bangdrumming. First was a Hitman Absolution event at an unassuming high street cinema called Residenz, which inside was an unexpectedly huge and glamorous theatre with rows of wide leather seats. Hitman isn’t my favourite game because I’m rubbish at it, and because before finally caving to demand for another one IO Interactive inflicted the lovehandled misery of Kane & Lynch upon the world, a kind of metabolic syndrome in game form. And they did it not once but twice, which proves it wasn’t an accident.
There was a new Hitman mode called Contracts which looks like a slick way to introduce customised mission design to an otherwise linear experience, but from my comfy chair in which I was unable to touch the row in front even when my seat was reclined I couldn’t shake the discomfort at the opening replay of Hitman’s “Hot Shower” trailer, a CG sequence cut to Lana Del Rey’s Video Games in which Agent 47 unalives a series of hapless bodyguards before entering a steamy bathroom where a woman presses a hand to the inside of a glass shower cubicle. What bothers me isn’t the clattering juxtaposition of soothing sound and impactful action (although Assassin’s Creed has already wanked that particular shaft to a raw straw already) but the charged intimacy of the final shot, which eroticises violence in way that I’m sure was deliberate but I’m still allowed not to like. I was also struck during the gameplay demonstration by the fact that Agent 47 looks significantly less sleek these days, one particular glance at his blanched marrow countenance suggesting no longer a razor dressed in a man-suit, Mortality by Armani, more divorcee physics teacher loses his shit, murders child with brick.
Outside the Residenz we stared at a banner hoarding for The Dark Knight Returns and I wondered how Bane would sound in German (like a man who belongs on a horse, I hoped) before a homeless guy asked if we were from Israel and told Dave he liked his glasses. After a moment’s reconsideration he came back to tell us he didn’t like them after all, but by then our thoughts had turned to the EA conference.
Initially it seemed the aim of the conference was to beat me insensible with sound, as the thunderous trailer to Army Of Two: The Devil’s Cartel was launched into the audience at a volume that at one point I felt certain I could chew. This is of course perfectly in-keeping with a series that’s basically about men dressed in pots and pans only taking a break from endless massacre to give each other a fist-bump, but I’m still going to give it a chance if only because it’s now being made by Visceral, who also made Dead Space and can therefore do pretty much whatever they want as far as I’m concerned.
Except make Dead Space 3, of course, which I’m furious about. Or at least I would be if I was the internet – instead I’m just quietly excited. The move towards bigger action and bigger Isaac’s face being on the screen does take the series away from the compressed diamond brilliance of the original, and I will miss the minimalist sci-fi hook that first drew me in. But that’s not a failing of Visceral, more a symptom of an industry and an audience that always demands more and louder with extra bits, and which would never let a series continue with perfectly judged smallness even if that’s what made it great in the first place.
On a less fun note I am pretty furious with EA’s approach to marketing Medal Of Honor: Warfighter. Executive producer Greg Goodrich told the audience today that it was more than just entertainment, and it would put gamers into the boots of real-life operatives. This drive to authenticity as a COD-trumping USP is turning Medal Of Honor into an unsettling celebration of war, conflating the real and the virtual and drawing children – who will regardless of rating be playing this game in the hundreds of thousands – into an unthinking glorification of the military. It’s even more worrying than the similar conflation in the US Navy-sanctioned film Act Of Valor, which used videogame imagery to draw in the Xbox crowd, because at least when you got down to it the film itself was dutifully earnest and dull. Medal Of Honor will have all of the cock-strumming fireworks and none of the clumsy drawbacks of real life. It is a bad idea.
So thank goodness for the Sony conference, which came straight after. There was a fair share of murder and other staples – Assassin’s Creed Liberation, Killzone Mercenary, Call Of Duty Black Ops: Declassified – but there were also new ideas that moved radically away from striking the life out of another human being as the focal point of digital entertainment. Tearaway is the new game from Media Molecule, the studio behind Little Big Planet, and it’s about interacting with a tactile pop-up world of craft and origami. You control a stack of folds called Iota, and your fingers can burst through the game like a paper bag if you push the back of the Vita, which is the best thing I’ve seen in a game since someone pointed out to me that by rapidly selecting and deselecting Donkey Kong on Mario Kart 64, “you can make it look like he’s wanking a great big cock on his head”.
The other standout was Rain, a downloadable game from Japan Studio about a boy in what looks like a lamplit early 20th Century street chasing a disappearing girl and discovering a world that’s invisible except when it rains. You guide the boy’s sodden silhouette, outlined through the downour, as he dodges watery monsters and tracks the girl. It looks sad like chasing an unrecoverable moment of happiness, which is why I’m sure I’m going to love it.