In around a decade of writing about video games professionally, I have never been to E3. I sometimes feel embarrassed about that, but there's a good reason for it: I absolutely refuse to believe that E3 is real. The concept is too ghastly to exist. An "expo", you say, where members of the press, public and development community are permitted to mingle? Freely? Pfff, come off it. You can't fool me with your countdown pages and offers of overseas employment. What kind of maniac would ever dream up such an experience? And how stupid would you have to be to put yourself through it?
I jest, but only a little. E3 has always struck me as the sort of raucous mass-hallucination that is paradoxically most substantial when it's contemplated from a great distance - the distance from the Los Angeles Convention Centre to Future Publishing's old London office, for example, where it was my curse to report on E3 as Official Xbox Magazine's online editor for no less than four years. Which years? 2011 to 2014. So, in other words, from right before the Xbox One happened, when Microsoft was knocking us sideways with exclusives like Ascend: New Gods, till shortly afterwards. To put that in terms a Fallout 4 player would understand, this is kind of like being sent to cover a knitware gala in the town of Sanctuary, Massachusetts around, oh, the third week of October 2077.
In the course of those years I have come to wrestle with certain great truths about the human condition, truths I will now impart to you in hopes of turning everybody off E3 entirely and onto Gamescom, where they have tastier finger food. Onwards!
No plan survives contact with the enemy
There are, in my experience, two types of E3. There's the ideal E3, the holy grail of organisation and coherence, which I always envisage as a sort of really well-mannered X-Wing bombing run, with pilots peeling off to efficiently disintegrate each announcement as it surfaces, then soaring back to the formation as it barrels along serenely with myself at the centre, occasionally looking up from my Darjeeling to utter things like "don't bother writing this part up, you chumps - the assets are already on Gamespress". This is the E3 that exists nowhere save meeting rooms, where young editors speak brightly of article templates and SEO strategies while older editors think wistfully of careers in sewage reclamation.
And then there's E3 as it typically pans out, which is like a New Game+ version of The Return of the Jedi in which not only are the Death Star's shields still up, but half your pilots are on the wrong side of Endor and the rest are excitable youths who treat headlines as a sort of journalistic Ion Cannon, designed to confuse and paralyse while they make a daring getaway into the body copy. It's hard to summarise the experience without the use of electrodes, but let me try: all is dubstep and saliva. There's a blazing light at the end of the tunnel and it's - oh no. It's David Jaffe again, and he is driving a van. Why is David Jaffe driving a van? What is "girlwood"? Why is a man from EA talking us through footage of somebody's ribcage collapsing? And why hasn't anybody put any of that on the liveblog yet?
The mind has become a highlights reel of vultures in jeans and blazers mechanically pivoting left, right, then back to centre, wafting gigantic clouds of nonsense at you across a valley of skulls, lit red by CGI trailers and horror. The website CMS - once so pliable, so accommodating - has become a ponderous, glitching Sphinx that will answer only to the in-house web developer, last sighted making a break for the English Channel. Somewhere, somebody is screaming. Is it you? Is it me?
This is the E3 that can't be navigated, only survived - the E3 that, at its most severe, locks up every one of your synapses as you tumble backwards into the chasm of your own inadequacy. Fortunately, I have assembled a strategy to deal with such periods of total meltdown. It consists of firing a Nerf gun across the office until every last article has a link to our hub page, damn it. As long as the hub page has been updated, all will be well. One clings to such certainties in the hours around midnight, when Ubisoft announces another Just Dance game.
Everybody needs a Phil Spencer. Or a Titanfall.
There is no word in the English language, no phrase in literature or science sufficient to describe the magnificent, stupefying, godlike inoffensiveness of Head of Xbox Phil Spencer. Back in 2013, when every other Microsoft bigwig was busy putting one foot in his mouth while shooting himself in the other, here was a guy who could get through entire sentences without either writing off vast stretches of the fanbase as "backward" or making an absolute pig's ear of the console's preowned games policy. Spencer's star has fallen a bit since, I think - closing Lionhead was quite the kick in the teeth, though the blame can't be laid entirely at his door - but let us not dwell on such things. Let us think of the happy times, when people came out of interviews feeling slightly less enraged about the Xbox One than when they went in.
And of course, there was Titanfall. However dreadful things got, however much abuse the internet directed at the Xbox One's technical specifications, however much flak we'd cop over such tentative blog titles as "Hey, at least Kinect 2.0 isn't slathered in anthrax", there was always Titanfall. "Have you seen Titanfall?" I'd breezily enquire of new forum user Xb03uckxFU, before deleting his sweary, 15 paragraph screed on the anti-consumer politics of any game not running at 1080p. "Have you seen Titanfall?" I'd have enquired of God Himself, had the Almighty ever summoned me to account for my sins in the middle of a liveblog. Respawn's mecha-shooter may not have propelled the Xbox One into first place, but it certainly saved my sanity.
Everybody loves a console war
We might say we don't, just like your great-grandpappy used to tell you he doesn't miss the draft, and then you look into his misty eyes and glimpse, for an instant, the appalling beauty of burning cities and flashing sabers. We might pretend we're above such adolescent quarrels, that we're far too sophisticated to be swept up in the clash of marketing machinery, but human beings are nothing if not tribal. Video game players perhaps more than most - how many video games, after all, set out to foster a spirit of mutual understanding?
So to hell with such feeble protestations. I live for the crunch of bone and sinew, the carnival of slaughter that is one vast international corporation selling more of its luxury commodities than another. I still recall the accursed triumph of staggering back to my desk at 3.30am, just to make sure the internet damn well knew that The Elder Scrolls Online wasn't, as Sony had slyly insinuated during its presser, a PS4 exclusive. I still recall the joy when Microsoft announced backwards compatibility for Xbox One at E3 2014 and finally, finally landed a clean punch on an opponent that had spent the preceding 12 months jumping up and down on its lawn, pulling faces.
Most of all, though, I remember the delight of sharing this struggle with the closest things I will ever have to children, my dear beloved OXM forum users. Once the online equivalent of Southend-on-Sea, the forum was transformed across E3 2013 into a battalion of hard-eyed partisans, waging a rearguard action deep in enemy territory. Old grudges and rivalries were put aside in the crusade to persuade the wider cosmos that there were probably worse scenarios than owning an Xbox console. I'd open 100+ comment threads at five in the morning to discover mods and trolls battling shoulder to shoulder in the quagmire, copy-pasting each other's rebuttals like firefighters passing along buckets of water. Ladies, gentlemen - my profoundest respects. The world will never understand what we sacrificed, that the One might prosper. May the Power of the Cloud be with you, always.