Monday, September 14, 2015

Pretender No More: E3 2014

Although I'd felt brief impressions of being a pretender – someone that did not belong, someone that shouldn't be there but had somehow gotten away with a giant con – prior to attending my first production meeting, it wasn't until the introductions and initial briefing were underway that the word "fraud" fully formed in my mind.

Maybe the best way I can describe it...

It could be like the feeling you might have if every day you wished you could visit Paris. Years go by and you think the dream of getting to Paris will never be realized. Then one morning you groggily shake off the remnants of last night's Indian food and lager and realize you're standing on the inexplicably-named Avenue Franklin Delano Roosevelt outside Palais de la Decouverte, a stone's throw from La Seine and the Eiffel Tower. To be fair, it would be a hell of a throw to hit the Eiffel Tower from Palais de La Decouverte but that's really beside the point: You're suddenly in Paris!

phoenix wrightDid you earn that trip? Deserve it? Did you pay your dues? Work all those extras at a job that pays just enough so you could sock away a few dollars from every pay stub to make your dream a reality? Did you hunt for the best deals on a flight? Figure out where to stay so you could stretch each dollar (or franc or Euro or whatever) to it's fullest?

In my brain, all that preparation stuff – those extra hours, that extra work, all that writing over the course of 15 years with The Armchair Empire – zipped out of my head and I was left with the feeling I imagine most murders feel at some point when they're in large crowds. Someone out there, someone close to you, is about to stand up and, with a Phoenix Wright flourish, call attention to the fact that you are, in fact, a killer.

So, what was this production meeting I'd conned myself into? Where had I arrived that I felt like I didn't deserve to be there?

I looked around the room. Andrew Hayward. Eric Neigher. Emanuel Maiberg. Ryan Scott. I recognized more names than faces and all of them had many years of experience writing about video games, creating layouts, running magazines, putting a writing career together from freelancing gigs... and me. Some no-name dude from Canada that barely managed to cross the 49th Parallel to enter the United States for my first fully paid writing gig at an industry event that I'd always wanted to work at rather than push through crowds, play some games, and enjoy the many open bars with my "Media" badge scored through the now-defunct Armchair Empire. It was E3 2014 and the production meeting – at least, that's what I called it in my head – for E3 Show Daily / E3 Insider was underway.

I felt like midget in a room full of Titans.

So I wasn't just feeling like a pretender and a fraud, I felt out of place.

e3 2014
This feeling generally ebbed as the long working hours rolled out but there were a handful of minutes nearly every day that it felt like my skin was coated in flop sweat.

Someone found the body and they suspect me.

As part of the E3 Insider team, it was up to me, Emanuel "Manny" Maiberg, and Leif "Pronounced like safe" Johnson, to keep the content flowing to the official E3 website (with invaluable technical assistance from Tobias Meyer-Grunow and Christopher Lee). Prior to even arriving in Los Angeles, we'd spent weeks writing content, preparing screenshots, and packing meat onto the bones of the website. As the show gained a head of steam and game announcements were made, we had to ensure the website stayed up-to-date, readable, and accurate.

We also had our individual assignments to carry out. One of my tasks, which I happily accepted, was collecting press material (thumb drives, DVD's, business cards with FTP login information, etc.) from the show floor on the first day. I mapped out the route I would run a couple of weeks ahead of time; revising as needed, taking into account shortcuts and bottlenecks. The planning paid off and I was in and out of most booths within minutes and only had to knock over a half-dozen people. Only two things out of the ordinary happened.

ryan scott e3 2014
Ryan Scott. Yes, I described this man as "a Titan."
And for the record, we look nothing alike.
At TellTale's booth I was mistaken for Ryan Scott. When I said I was with "E3 Insider," they just assumed I was Ryan. It's probably the first and last time I will ever be mistaken for Ryan, so I briefly toyed with the idea of knocking something over or yelling offensive epithets then leaving. I was still considering my option when I remembered my very visible and eye-level badge (to everyone in the booth) with my name on it. Not worth the risk of bringing my family dishonour, I nevertheless got a quick thrill from the mistaken identity. And besides, I hadn't acquired the press material yet.

The other jag from my comfort zone during my route was to shake hands and say, "Hi!" to Jeff Green.

While no stranger to Jeff – I'd interviewed him a dozen times through The Armchair Empire and had finagled two GFW Radio Reunion shows for PAX Prime – what made it a departure for me was that he was talking to someone and I butted in, walked slow enough to interject, "Hi Jeff! Have a great show!" while shaking his hand and melting into the crowd as only my 6'4" frame allows. (That is, like Gargamel knee deep in Smurfs. Max Scoville knows what I'm talking about.)

e3 2014 e3 insider
It was probably at that moment that I started to feel like I did actually belong here. Doing this. Writing and getting paid to do it. It wasn't superlative discourse or philosophy (unless you count my Captain Toad: Treasurer Tracker blurb), but I was getting paid for it and it was super interesting to see how the sausage was made.

I listened to Ryan and E3 Show Daily Executive Editor Patti Tobias Renouard thrash out the copy, layouts, and captions for the three issues of the E3 Show Daily. I talked with Ryan and Art Director Caroline King about stuff that went on behind the scenes at Ziff Davis, 1UP, and personality conflicts – stories I'd never heard and a few that were only ever hinted on various 1UP podcasts (and never in the confines of the Ziff magazines).

I'm not going to dish dirt or anything like that or suggest that Ryan or Caroline had some kind of axe to grind with specific people, but it was really cool to ask questions and get answers. I imagine it might be similar to the way initiates to the Freemasons feel when suddenly all these world-dominating secrets are revealed. Maybe I'm thinking about it too much – I've been guilty of worse – but it did feel a little like I was being allowed a peek into the inner workings of gaming journalism because I was gaining acceptance as one of them: People that write and are creative for a living.

e3 2014 e3 insider

I think it was after the second issue of E3 Show Daily was off to the printers that we all went to dinner.

e3 show daily 2014
Amoung Titans, I tell you!
As I wrote above, throughout my time being part of the E3 Insider/E3 Show Daily team, there were definitely these weird peaks and valleys where I'd oscillate from feeling like a fraud to feeling like I was experiencing some kind of lucid dream, where all the sharp edges and details were brilliantly coloured and had layers of texture heaped on them that I'd never noticed before. The dinner was like that. This sudden pop of the world around me... things I'd missed before. The height of the chairs, the thumping music, half-heard conversations, the beginning of beads of sweat on the bartender's forehead, the doppleganger of cosplayer Jessica Nigri just outside my field of vision to my left, this weird of sensation of looking through my eyes and seeing things from an overhead view. Without traveling toward the light or dropping acid, it's probably the closest I'll ever get to an out of body experience.

And no one around had an inkling of this. At least, I doubt they did or maybe they just assumed I was under the spell of American beer. (Yeah, like that would ever happen!)

And at the same time, it felt like I was finally where I belonged and that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. It was an all too rare feeling of clarity. There was a reason for all this -- all of it (the feeling of being undeserving, an outsider), something so deeply part of me I hadn't recognized it before -- but that didn't come until months later. What that was (correction: is), well, that's another blog post entirely.

ryan scott andrew fitch adam fitch, justin haywald
(L to R) Ryan Scott, Adam Fitch (currently of Natsume), Andrew Fitch (currently of EGM),
Justin Haywald (currently of GameSpot).

The night after that I was guest on Ryan's podcast – The Geekbox – and got a chance to gab with Justin Haywald, and Adam and Andrew Fitch about E3 and crossing the border into the good ol' US of A. Afterward, Justin offered to split a cab to my hotel. Otherwise I would have walked the mile to the hotel I was staying at: The Millennium. The place oozes a high level of Hollywood history and the level of detail in some areas of the hotel creates a palpable push against my eyeballs, but traveling through the deserted downtown core on my own probably wouldn't have been healthy for me. (Though to be honest, I'd attended many E3's previously and never had a problem being caught in the crossfire or been accosted by deranged homeless people.)

the millennium los angeles
Ah, the Millennium! When I found out I was lodging there I was excited! In a bygone era (1930's and '40s), this is where I imagined that all action went down. It wouldn't out of place to see a Séamus sitting in the lobby, newspaper obscuring everything but his eyes and unironic fedora, waiting for a contact to walk in... Of course, then I found out that I wouldn't be lodging by myself. I was to share a room with Leif – a complete stranger to me before the show – and almost wound up sharing a bed due to the hotel's room allocation. I'm sure Leif is a wonderful person to share a bed with – I'm making an assumption about this – but fortunately, there was a room across the hall that had a couple of beds so we were spared the wacky shenanigans of Trains, Planes & Automobiles. I think I would  have been Steve Martin in this scenario because Leif has a beard, though I could have easily assumed the John Candy role due to our shared heritage. I digress, but I will say it was cool sharing a room with a complete stranger, getting to know him a little, then parting on good terms. I mean, we aren't best buds, but he didn't point at me when it was all over and tell me to, "Stay the Hell out of Texas!"

the millennium los angeles
As the show closed and the onsite staff drifted away – Manny back to parts unknown (well, San Francisco), Leif to Chicago then Texas to run his family's ranch – I was left with this feeling of immense pressure being lifted off my back. I'd finally grabbed and held onto something that I'd always wanted to do and I finally had to admit to myself that I wasn't a pretender, that I deserved to be present; to walk amoung these Titans. I'd earned that stone's throw shot at the Eiffel Tower and I didn't blow it.

ADDENDUM: Because of the long hours required of E3 Insider, the one game demo that I managed to get myself into during the show was for Skylanders: Trap Team. Having a couple of kids at home who practically go into convulsions when they lay their eyes on some new Skylander character they haven't seen before this was my only "mandatory" stop. I was about 30 seconds late getting into the demo room, which was already dark save for the large screen at the front of the small room. My eyes couldn't adjust to the light change fast enough and I tripped as I stepped through the door, rolled my right ankle, crunched against Andrew Fitch, who I'd met the night before but hopefully it was too dark for him to recognize me, then sprawled neatly across two empty seats.

The developers didn't even pause as they rolled through their spiel/demo as this large man smashed his was across the back of the room and assumed a pose that he hoped looked somewhat dignified and deeply interested. It was worth it though, if only for the reaction I got from my youngest kids when I produced a Skylanders t-shirt and an exclusive Trap.

skylandesr trap team
After crashing a demo, the least one can do is take a picture or two.

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