Take the largest video arcade you remember from your childhood. Now quadruple its size, put it in the middle of Shibuya Crossing, dim the lights, and crank the volume to 11. Toss in a bunch of celebrities, charge $300 for a stale slice of pizza and a soda, crank the volume up to 11 one more time, and you've got E3: the Electronic Entertainment Expo.
E3 started during the halcyon '90s, when Pets.com ruled the world. Now every May, gaming giants like Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony, and Sega gather at the Los Angeles Convention Center to present their newest hardware and software releases to a very select audience: about 30 percent entertainment media, 5 percent distributors, and 65 percent people who have managed to scam press passes so they can spend a day playing video games and checking out booth babes (who this year are required to wear nothing more revealing than miniskirts—the trade-show equivalent of burkas).
This year, I fell into the 30 percent of entertainment-media attendees, as my A.V. Club credentials would have attested, if only I'd remembered to pick them up. Luckily for me, I walked into E3 as a guest of my friend David Lawrence, who was broadcasting a radio show from the GameSpy booth just outside the main convention floor. When my hour on his show was over, I looked around the table, picked up the nearest unguarded badge, and joined the 65-percent majority. I couldn't let a little formality like proper credentials keep me out of the convention, because I was on a mission—to rock out with Guitar Hero II.
For the 11 readers who aren't familiar with Guitar Hero… In 2005, Harmonix and RedOctane developed a game that lets domesticated suburbanites like myself pick up a plastic replica Gibson guitar, crank our televisions as loud as our wives will let us, and play along with guitar-heavy songs, from rock classics like "Ziggy Stardust" to heavy-metal monsters like "Bark At The Moon." It's quite possibly the most fun I've ever had playing a video game, and as a child of the '80s who has owned every console since the Atari 2600, that's saying something.
The Guitar Hero craze has hit 33-year-olds like me with the same fervor and intensity of the Pokémon craze hitting our children five years ago. When it was announced that Guitar Hero II would let living-room rockers like us not only play new songs, but play rhythm and bass guitar as well, I began counting the days until it shipped in November. And when I learned that RedOctane would have seven Guitar Hero II songs ready to play at E3 2006, I convinced my editors at The A.V. Club to let me write a report from the show floor. Hah. Suckers.
There were some legitimate stories to track down this year: Sony was showing their PlayStation 3 console (though when they announced it would cost $600, interest rapidly declined), the first round of highly anticipated Xbox 360 games was set to debut, and Nintendo would let anyone who waited in line play with its Wii. (This will be the only off-color Wii-related joke I make. I promise.) Before I could get my rock on, I felt a responsibility to cover at least one of those events, so I looked at a map and headed into the hall to check out the Sony booth.
Shortly after my badge had been scanned ("Welcome to E3, Mr. Fenn."), my cell phone rang. It was my friend and co-writer at the blogging.la site, Sean Bonner.
"Hey, are you at E3 yet?" he asked.
"Yeah, I'm heading toward the Sony booth."
"Dude, you need to come to the Activision booth right now. Tony Hawk is skating a half-pipe about 15 feet in front of me."
I looked at the Sony booth (more of a pavilion, really), then down at my notebook. It isn't the PS3, but it's still news, right?
"I'm on my way."
Ten minutes and several hundred excuse-me's later, I was standing with Sean and our friend Spencer while Tony Hawk—the undisputed king of vert skating—pulled 540 after 540 right in front of us.
An announcer was doing his best to work the crowd into a frenzy: "Do you want to see Tony Hawk pull a 720?!"
The spectators—mostly guys my age who grew up watching Tony Hawk and playing the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater games—woke from their awestruck reverence and cheered.
Hawk dropped into the pipe, shot across, and launched off the opposite lip three times, gaining height with each transfer. Finally, at almost 12 feet above the lip of the pipe, he kicked out, grabbed his board, and began to spin: 180, 360, 540!
Here it comes, the 720! Oh no, he bailed.
"I think you needed to go up-up-down-circle, Tony," the announcer said. We all laughed, because it was true.
Hawk climbed back up onto the half-pipe and announced that he was going to try again. This time, he nailed the 720, and immediately pulled two back-to-back 360s. The crowd exploded, and the demo ended with a plea for us all to walk into the Activision booth and check out his most recent game—we are, theoretically at least, here to find out all about the latest and greatest games. Unfortunately for Activision, moments after the skate demo ended, a squad of dancers in relatively sexy midriff-revealing tops stormed the stage at an adjacent booth, and the ADD-stricken mob quickly turned its attention to them.
"Have you guys seen anything else in this hall that's worth checking out before I go find Guitar Hero II?" I asked.
"How do you feel about zombies?" Sean said.
"The walking dead, or the infected computers taken over by spammers?"
"The walking dead."
"I'm a big fan."
"Then you need to see Dead Rising in the Microsoft booth," Spencer said.
"Yeah, it's pretty much running around a shopping mall wasting zombies," Sean said.
"Let's roll," I said.
We slowly navigated our way through the crowd, past two-story-tall booths featuring the latest MMORPG or FPS, many of them derivatives of World Of Warcraft or Halo, all of them featuring lines 50 to 60 people deep, waiting to get a look inside at the next big thing. After a quick stop at the THQ booth so I could look at Destroy All Humans 2, we wound up in the Microsoft booth (or, again, pavilion). I immediately noticed that, even though Microsoft is trying to be a gaming company and speak the language of the damn kids today, the unmistakable stuffiness of the world's largest software company was everywhere. Though there were countless Xbox 360s, and floor-to-ceiling banners with graphics carefully designed to appeal to the 14-to-24 demographic without alienating the 18-to-34-year-olds, the whole place felt like a guy in his mid-30s trying too hard to fit in with his teenage kids. Sort of like me when I pull chaperone duty at one of my kids' school dances.
I found an empty Dead Rising machine, and spent the next 15 minutes engaged in the sort of splattery mayhem that keeps Jack Thompson awake at night. I can confidently say that, until you've picked up a bench and crushed a zombie with it, or used CDs shuriken-style to cut off zombie heads, you really haven't lived. Of course, this is Microsoft we're talking about, and no Microsoft demo experience would be complete or authentic without lockups and rebooting, which I got to enjoy—twice.
"Okay," I said while the 360 rebooted for the second time, "I really need to get out of here and find Guitar Hero II."
"Where is it?" Sean asked.
"In the other hall, in the Sony booth," I said, heading off in what I was pretty sure was the correct direction. Then I ran across a Namco booth set up to look like a classic arcade, complete with classic Namco and Midway cabinets arranged in a truly tragic "Look, but don't touch" fashion. Namco, it turns out, is porting all its classic games to cell phones, so they enticed Gen-Xers into their booth with the promise of joysticks and relived 1983 afternoons in 7-Eleven or Circle K, only to put tiny cell phones in our hands instead. Ah, the old bait 'n' switch… And I totally fell for it. I cranked through several levels of Super Pac-Man, impressing my friends, and mystifying the 22-year-old demo girl, who wasn't even born when I was mastering the arcade version in fifth grade.
"Okay, now I really have to get to the Sony booth," I said. "I'm sure there's going to be a long line for Guitar Hero II."
"Did you hear that the line to play with the Wii is six hours long?" Spencer asked.
"I'm not surprised. I remember when people waited four hours just to watch the trailer for Doom III," I said. "Who does that?"
"Nerds," Sean said.
We all nodded solemnly. We all waited for Doom III years ago. We have met the nerds, and they are us.
Soon we found a mostly empty walkway, and made our way out of the hall, passing through the Nokia N-Gage booth, which was long on style and short on substance—just like the N-Gage itself. In the convention's main entry hall, we saw a sign advertising a video-game history exhibit in the smaller Kentia area. Kentia is the decidedly low-rent hall at the L.A. Convention Center, and it usually has lots of those games you'll find in kiosks in the mall, or in questionable downtown areas where you can get a Social Security card with your copy of Grand Theeft Autoo and all those still-in-the-theater movies that the local video store never seems to have. But I'm a sucker for classic games, and I thought I might get some material for a future Games Of Our Lives column, so we made another detour.
"Maybe my story is going to be about how I kept trying to get to Guitar Hero II, but never found it because this E3 actually had a lot of cool stuff worth seeing," I said, as we passed a booth selling a full-body sensor suit for fighting games. (Yeah, about 10 years too late, guys.)
Before I could write down this hilarious observation in my notebook, we turned a corner and ran right into the RedOctane booth. Four televisions, eight guitars, and a small crowd stood beneath a mockup that looked remarkably like a concert stage. I could hear Kiss' "Strutter" being played with varying degrees of proficiency as Gen-Xers rocked out in the highly anticipated co-op mode.
"Hey, isn't that Guit—" Spencer asked.
"Muh… guh… huh…" I answered, walking on autopilot to the front of the booth.
"Hi, I'm Wil Wheaton," I said, "and I love your game." Probably not the most professional way to introduce myself, in retrospect. "I'm writing about Guitar Hero II for The A.V. Club."
"We love The A.V. Club!" replied a young man, whom I later learned was Corey Fong, RedOctane's "Band Manager." "Do you want to play a demo?"
"Muh… guh… huh…" I stammered. "Uh, yes. Yes, I would. Very much." In my mind, I wasn't in the Kentia hall; I was backstage at West Hollywood's legendary club Whisky A Go Go, getting ready to take the stage. My lip curled into an involuntary sneer, and my shoulders hunched ever so slightly, in perfect rock-star posture.
"Okay," he said, walking me to the front of a short line. "I'll just give you a press demo."
Wait. He's going to cut me to the front of the line? The imagined cheers of a club filled with nubile groupies faded from my mind with the jarring scratch of a needle across a record.
"I can't cut in front of people who have been waiting," I said. "That's just not cool."
"Are you sure?" he asked. "We cut press to the front all the time."
"Yeah," I said. "I can wait." I took my place in line and waited my turn. Very un-rock-star-like, but, you know, karma and all.
When I hit the front of the line about five hours and 50 minutes quicker than those suckers at the Nintendo booth, I could choose bass or lead on the Guitar Hero II version of Van Halen's version of The Kinks' "You Really Got Me." I picked bass, which I played in high school, but haven't picked up in more than a decade, and set it on "medium." The 23-year-old hipster kid who was positioned to play lead sneered at me from beneath his Von Dutch cap (ironically cocked to one side, of course): "Medium?! Ha." He set his guitar to "hard," and the song began.
In my mind, the fluorescent lights of the Kentia hall faded, and the smell of burning popcorn was replaced with the smell of stale beer and cigarette smoke. My nerdy Konami Code T-shirt was replaced by a sleeveless Union Jack top, and I was cool, man. Also, I had a flat stomach and my hip didn't hurt all the time.
Twenty notes in, the song failed. I looked over at the kid playing lead, and smirked. "How's that 'hard' setting working out for you?"
"My fingers just slipped up." He selected "retry," and I dropped back into my imagined Whisky set. He made it to about the same place, then failed again. This time, he reset his difficulty to "medium," and we took a third shot. We played the entire song together, activating Star Power with ZZ-Top-like guitar flourishes, and seriously rocking out. We drew a very small crowd (someone pointed out, "That guy from Stand By Me is playing over there!") and I played to them, just like I play to the imaginary audience in my living room. During a break in the bass action, I said, "I think I need a bottle of Jack Daniel's to make this more authentic," a reference to Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony that nobody got. But I didn't care; I got my rock on, and it was good.
I was about to put the controller down and give someone else a turn when Corey walked up. "Do you want to give it another try, this time in lead?"
"Really? Is that okay?" I looked back at the line.
"Yeah. I'll play bass and you play lead."
"Dude, that would rule!"
We switched places and began to rock.
Just like hitting up-up-down-circle is the closest I'll ever get to pulling a 720 with Tony Hawk, hitting green-green-redredred-yellow-yellow-green is the closest I'll ever get to successfully playing an Eddie Van Halen guitar lick, and I'm cool with that, especially after experiencing the adrenaline surge that comes with jamming a Guitar Hero II song and scoring five stars with 98 percent of all notes hit. I put down the guitar controller, my heart thrumming in my chest like a Dick Dale solo, and high-fived Corey.
"That was awesome!" I said.
"You seriously rocked," he said.
"Thanks, man. Is it November yet?"
He laughed. "Everyone keeps asking that. No, it's still May."
I picked up my Guitar Hero II T-shirt and flew out of the booth. When I got out, I saw that my friends had departed, and I vaguely recalled Sean telling me he had to leave, and Spencer waving goodbye while I rocked. Desperate for someone to share my excitement with, I pulled out my cell phone and called my house so I could tell my stepsons, who play Guitar Hero with me almost every night, how I'd done. My younger stepson Nolan picked up, and relayed my 98-percent completion and five-star rating to his brother, Ryan, who wanted to know if I was bringing a copy of the game home with me.
"No, we still have to wait until November," I said.
"Okay. Mom wants to talk to you."
A second later, she was on the phone. "So I guess you got to rock out, huh?"
"Yeah, I totally rocked. Oh my God, it was so much fun. I played…"
"Wait. I have to tell you this: The plumber just left, and it's going to cost $2,000 to repair the shower, because they have to cut through the tile."
While I was busy pretending to kick girls' underpants off an imaginary stage, my wife was dealing with repairs that we can't afford on our 58-year-old house. The joy and childlike excitement I'd felt just seconds before was crushed out of me by harsh suburban reality. I sighed. "Okay, I guess we'll all keep sharing the one shower for a while."
Behind me, I heard the first few notes of Rush's "YYZ" boom out of the RedOctane booth, a brief reminder of my 10 minutes in blissful rock-star oblivion. The reality of my adult responsibilities contrasted heavily with my momentary rock fantasy, and I began to feel their weight as I headed toward the exit. On my way out, I saw about two dozen classic arcade cabinets, set on "free play." I smiled to myself, shrugged off the plumber, and recorded a Top 10 score on Tempest (imagining I was in Sunland Discount Variety, between the Mr. Do! and Stargate machines, of course) before bidding farewell to E3 and heading back out to suburbia.
E3 is pretty much all about marketing, but there's a reason people like all the games on display in this orgy of lights and sound. Whether by skating with Tony Hawk, wasting zombies with a fictional photographer named Ken, rocking out to Van Halen, or just slipping back to the uncomplicated days of youth with Tempest or Pac-Man, for a few moments, we can leave the real world and all its responsibilities behind, and just play. I'm cool with that.
Wil Wheaton mows his lawn on Sunday mornings, and rocks out to Guitar Hero every night.