Adolescent Fare

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Someday soon, some bright spark will make a video game version of E3, the annual games conference in Los Angeles. You will play a journalist running from booth to booth, trying to avoid being deafened by hundreds of booming sound systems. Replenish your energy meter with $10 hamburgers! Try not to stare at the scantily-clad Booth Babes! Find parking! The ultimate aim will be to play a game for more than five minutes without a company media rep telling you how great it is. If their presence overloads your hype meter, it's game over.

I've been playing this game for four years now, and I haven't won yet. There's a creeping sense of doom every time May comes around and I realize I'll have to go play it again. Which may sound strange: this is, after all, a conference about fun. Surely spending three days looking at games beats any day job? But as attendees know, E3 is more like a cult rally than a high-tech sandbox. It's a little like Jonestown, only the Kool-Aid comes in iced cans at every booth and the only corpses are the ones piling up on the TV screens.

The sugar water you are asked to swallow is this: that the games industry, now a $10 billion business, bigger than Hollywood, will never grow up. No matter how mainstream the potential audience gets, they will always want to play wizards, shoot zombies, skateboard, wrestle. Female characters are fine, but they must wear bikinis and have figures unlike any woman who isn't nine inches tall and made out of plastic. Games are good if they have the loudest bangs, the coolest aliens and the most gore. Not everyone in the industry has their head buried in the sandbox like this. The best-selling game of all time is The Sims, which took as its subject matter the most mundane aspects of life—wallpapering the kitchen, picking up the newspaper, going to the bathroom. But there is a strong element of conformity at E3 towards traditional adolescent fare, and towards incorporating the most realistic-looking software around. (This year's most overused word was "physics," as in "that first-person shooter has great physics" — meaning people and things bounce around and get shot much as they would in the real world). So while the general look of games improves every year, most of them look the same, and original content is hard to find. It's like being at a soda convention, trying to get excited about the new packaging that Coke and Pepsi and hundreds of imitators have all started using.

There were a handful of games designers showing their wares this year who have enough creativity, empathy and sensitivity to break out of the mould. I'm thinking of people like Will Wright, creator of the Sims (and now the Sims 2) and Peter Molyneux (Populous, Black and White, The Movies). (See reviews.) There were also a couple of games which hewed to tradition, but stood out by being by far the most breathtakingly, painstakingly real: Doom III and Half Life 2. And the normally turgid genre of movie tie-ins is showing a lot of promise. Instead of following the plot of the movie, Enter the Matrix wraps its own plot around it. Quidditch World Cup takes an aspect of the Harry Potter movies and turns it into an entire tournament. The latest James Bond outing, Everything or Nothing, isn't even based on a movie but still made use of award-winning screenwriters and actors (Pierce Brosnan and Shannon Elizabeth were cyberscanned into the game).

Overall, I am more optimistic after this E3 than any of the previous three. I think it's going to be a relatively good year for games. Closer ties with Hollywood — though it may not be the best role model for mass entertainment — are at least opening designers' eyes to the possibilities of different styles and genres. But there is still a critical lack of imagination in this business, and a desperate need for designers who aren't white male thirtysomethings. Most importantly, the games industry needs to get a sense of self-awareness about its ridiculous, adolescent pomposity. Then my idea about a game called E3 wouldn't be such a bad one after all.