I'm watching a stage show version of Name That Tune. Contestants have to identify science fiction themes, often based on half a dozen or less of the opening bars. Recognising them's easy, identifying them's harder. We've all heard Vader's music, right, but what's it actually called? One woman reckons she knows. And she will tell us - in three seconds. She scorns her opponent. "The Emperor's March." A wave of congratulation crashes against the stage, propelled by the caffeine-fuelled wind of a thousand supporters pumped up on free BAWLS and pizza handed out beforehand. But apparently we're not done. Her opponent leans across as the microphone bends to his triumphant riposte: "The Imperial March."
This is QuakeCon, and this is not unusual. What is unusual is the next contender. Eyes behind goggle-like sunglasses, hair slicked back, jaw set firm, he announces: "I am Lord Alucard. You don't get to know my name." The audience isn't happy. A guy next to me stands up and starts heckling, but he's drowned out by all the others doing the same. On-stage, our friend grabs the mic. "And guess what - all your girlfriend are belong to me." If it's cringe-making to read, imagine how it was to watch. And then all of a sudden we're laughing again, because the show's presenter has simply walked past him and started talking to the next guy. As Alucard vanishes into the night, the presenter glances over his shoulder. "Geez. We're just trying to have some fun."
And we are. I've been schooled in neutrality by a half-dozen E3 conferences packed to the rafters with the fanboys Nintendo's mysteriously stopped bussing to Los Angeles since USA Today started returning its calls. I've been at LAN parties before. I'm here to report. But even my Brit-abroad detachment is thawing under the heat of a thousand suns. Dallas is quite hot, you know. To begin with I feel like David Attenborough skulking around behind a camera and a dictaphone, observing. By the third day, I'm sitting in a hotel room full of knackered Quake experts, one of whom (mercifully female) is busily showing me her tattoos, as we laugh at Gladiator on the telly. Earlier I set up a petition to lobby for a duck joke that lost out in the NVIDIA stage show comedy contest. I've just come in from talking politics on the veranda with a couple of Texans. And I don't know it yet, but later I'll stalk the halls of the BYOC (Bring Your Own Computer) section, introducing kids from Oklahoma to Bookworm Adventures Deluxe. At this point, I'm hugging the gorilla. And, whisper it, QuakeCon is one of the most socially engaging events I've ever attended.
"I was at the bar and Robert Duffy left his computer bag there," id's Tim Willits - lead designer on Rage, doncha know - tells me the next day. "I didn't know it was Robert's bag and there's a whole group of people next to us and everyone's trying to figure out whose bag this was because they didn't want somebody to take it. You go somewhere else, that gets stolen." As someone soundbitey told the Dallas Morning News on the morning I left, QuakeCon is four days of "peace, love and rockets".
It's not an easy haul either. I figured my combination attack of two-hour bus journey and ten-hour flight would overshadow even the most committed, but apparently I was dreaming. A band of four attendees totalled their van on the way, borrowed a friend's car and eventually arrived after 16 hours of driving. "Before LCDs became the norm, dudes would pile six guys in the car with big CRTs and they would drive from Seattle. We had guys came from Alaska," Willits offers. One of the guys on stage at the NVIDIA kick-off event was Russian (he even did the Cossack dance). Apparently we had an Iraqi in attendance, too. "For some people this is their yearly vacation," says Willits. "They're here with their wife and kids. They get one week out of the year and they come to QuakeCon. It's not like you Europeans with your month off. This is America - we have no vacation - and they come here."
Externally, QuakeCon is viewed as two things: a mountain of announcements from Carmack and co. and, depending on how far you want to go with it, either "a sea of pasty and pale flesh" (Dallas Morning News) or a bunch of devil-worshipping lunatics. (Even attempts to escape the stereotyping fall flat - a plea on the "n00b's guide" to practise proper hygiene is mocked, while the first five paragraphs of this piece originally add up to 666 words entirely by accident. Honestly, it's fated.) Focusing on the first part though, internally it's a lot broader than what Hollenshead and Carmack say on the Friday night. There's tournaments galore, stage shows, BAWLS-chugging, a free Quake Wars beta for attendees to play, a hangar full of free t-shirts and hardware adverts, and the small matter of the BYOC - a 2000-player LAN party where everyone stows their PC.
"People ask me to explain what it's like, the BYOC," says Willits. "I always say - you know when you go to a car show? And all the guys park their cars out front and put their hoods up and wander around? It's exactly the same. The guys with the cool mods, people talk about them. It really is a social event." It's serviced by 10 miles of cable, too. And while the rest of the hotel is icy cold in an attempt to combat the 35-plus centigrade temperatures outside, the BYOC is warmed by the throb of a couple of thousand beefy computers. "I had to get out," says Dave, a twentysomething id fan smoking outside the hotel. "I can do extreme heat, which is this, or extreme cool, which is inside, but after a few hours the BYOC is like being inside someone's pillow when they're asleep - it's too body-warm."