Paste Goes to E3: Day 3

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Every year they hold E3 in LA.

But they could just as well hold it in any city. Even Omaha. Despite the somewhat opulent use of local facilities to host parties, get-togethers, schmooze-fests and marketing throw-downs, the reality is E3 insulates you in a parka of videogame fluff.

So, even as I walk into the conference this morning, and notice that the North Koreans have, apparently, taken over a parking lot next to the convention center, I don’t have to wonder about this peculiar military strategy of Kim Jong Il. Nah, surely it’s just some marketing stunt and I eagerly scan the DMZ for schwag. Spotting nothing, I press on. There are games indoors to see.

Today I managed to bookend unreal E3 with some real LA—breakfast burrito from a taco truck in the morning and a hot steaming bowl of ramen in Little Tokyo during the evening. Powering up on the real city at the foot of the sprawling imaginary empire is a sure way to get your head together when talking about videogames that matter.

Bookending a day at E3 with some authentic LA is handy way of containing the craziness of the show inside something real and tangible. But it’s also a contrast that helps emphasize the pleasure we take in indulging the fake worlds videogames provide.

And as I dig into a fragrant bowl of noodles, I come to the conclusion that this isn’t a bad metaphor for the show this year. In addition to the annual routine of more games like last year painted up with the latest in teen power-trip fantasies, E3 2010 is clearly about the irony of stripping obvious videogame signifiers from games in order to make better games.

Microsoft’s Kinect and Rock Band 3 provided the two pillars of this approach at the show this year, with Nintendo’s DS3 providing a nice canopy over the concept, strung between both.

Kinect has had a rough ride at the show this year. After investing untold dollars in developing the device, you get the feeling that the company doubled down on marketing to make sure that everyone else thought it was as cool as they did. So, in addition to the Cirque du Soleil spectacular that launched the device on Sunday, we also got bathroom mirrors plastered with vinyl decals reminding us that we were the controller, in addition to the constant drumbeat of Kinect ads scatted across the show floor.

And what is Kinect exactly? The controller-less controller. Get it? Kinect is not what is says it is. Apparently we are so steeped in irony that no one bothered to raise their hand at any point to offer the observation that, outside some Zen master dojo, you can’t have a controller-less controller any more than you can have water that is not wet or talk about the sound of one hand clapping.

Instead of rankling at this idea that threatens philosophical oblivion and pushes us to the edge of madness, gamers responded to Kinect with a big shrug of the shoulders and the rote declaration, “I just don’t think the games are any fun. Except for Dance Central. That game seems pretty fun.”

Kinect, it seems, is the no-fun concept driving one of the most fun games in the show.

Have we gone down the rabbit hole far enough yet? Well, it gets stranger.

Rock Band 3 has an agenda similar to Kinect in mind. If you don’t look that hard, Rock Band 3 is just like previous Rock Band games. Except now you have a wireless keyboard. That in itself is pretty awesome for anyone who's ever dreamed of bringing The Doors, ELO or Elton John to life in their living room. And if that was all Harmonix had in mind, it would still be awesome, but wouldn’t be that big a deal.

Apparently, the Rock Band team realized this too and wanted more. So they added “pro mode.”

Using specially designed peripherals, players can now work on their chops until they can play the songs on the Rock Band 3 disc, note for note. Two new guitar controllers make this possible. A new version of the classic Rock Band plastic guitar controller produced by Mad Catz features one button for each string at each fret over 20 frets for a total of 120 buttons. You (sort of) play it like a real guitar. And no matter how X-treme a 120-button controller sounds, it does (sort of) walk you through the basic finger dexterity you need to plunk along with real rock 'n' roll songs in a near perfect miming of the real thing.

And if that was all Harmonix had in mind, it would still be so extreme as to be notable. Except that’s not all. In a partnership with Fender, that classic guitar maker will produce a model of their Squire Stratocaster with a touch-detecting plastic fretboard. In other words, soon, wannabe guitarists will be able to pick up a consumer-grade version of a classic rock instrument, plug it into a Rock Band 3 rig and learn to play, note for note, the songs on the disc, on a real guitar.

I love rock ’n’ roll indeed.

This explains in part how I was standing on a little stage in a back room, with a real guitar in hand, playing a videogame while being observed by the head of the Berklee College of Music’s guitar program and a dude who not only programs Rock Band stuff, but can actually play the tunes on the disc for real, and nobody was laughing. The surreal has become the new reality.

So in a mirror performance of Kinect, Rock Band 3 is now offering the not-a-controller controller.

What is going on here is an attempt to makes games less overtly game-like in the interest of making better games. This might sound like a stupid direction to take. Until you realize that games have always been about denying what they are. Are you really a black-ops solider fighting for your life in Kabul? Of course not. If you were, it wouldn’t be all that much fun. But watching fake explosions in a game that simulates the feeling of real explosions makes it fun because both things are true. Pretending to kill bad people has to be more fun than doing it in real life, otherwise we have a real problem. But if killing didn’t turn on some happiness center in our brain, then why are all these killing games so popular.

Hmm. The killing-free killer?

Which brings us to the Nintendo 3DS. Nintendo must know that their 3DS magic trick will have little to no effect on gameplay. Why else have a slider on the side of the game that can flatten any 3D title down to 2D? If you think about it, this option proves that the 3D effect is merely a sort of ‘gee-whiz’ Photoshop filter for gamers to apply at their discretion. You can’t make the simulated depth impart any additional useful information to the player. There is literally no more 3D information in the picture than was on the 2D screen. It just looks different.

It’s the 3D effect that is not really all that 3D.

This is a huge issue if you think that Nintendo’s 3D revolution is about creating new game mechanics. It’s not a problem if you realize that, like Kinect and Rock Band 3, the 3DS is about pretending to be something it is not. Namely: Look! 3DS games aren't any richer and more evocative in "new 3D" than they are in “old 3D." But it does make them look as if they are richer and more evocative.

It’s sort of hard to keep all these contradictory notions in your head at the same time. And that’s the point. As long as games are these crazy, disorienting, fun houses of joy, they have to keep evolving and messing with our minds. Maybe once, pixilated demons were enough to scare the pants off the player. Now, reality itself has become the next objective for videogames.

E3 2020 should be a real mind bender.

Paste videogame correspondent David Thomas is on the ground in LA and will file daily dispatches on life at E3—the games, the glory and the gooey guts of the biggest hype machine in the world.