It took a delayed podcast, a four hour drive, and awaking at an unearthly hour, but I made it to this year’s QuakeCon! It was my first time attending, and perhaps my former absence had something to do with my aversion to competitive online games (particularly shooters) and never having played any of id’s lineup beyond the Commander Keen series; however, with my brother heading down there to offer the internet some of his insightful coverage, I figured I may as well come along and see what I could glean both for my own benefit and that of Disembodied Voices. (Plus, he required a cameraman, and through intensive training I’ve gained the skills required to hold an iPhone and tap the record button; still figuring out how to hold it properly, though.) You are now presented with a choice. You can either read ahead through the variety of anecdotes and commentary I’ll provide or skip the rambling and find the wonderful video we put together documenting our journey; it’s like a really low-rent choose-your-own-adventure! If you chose option #1, then allow me to share with you some of what I came upon during my quest to QuakeCon…
Living in Houston like I do, my trip to QuakeCon is decidedly shorter than for many of the attendees, I’m sure, but nevertheless three to four hours in the car is an appreciable span of time. I spent the majority of the trip listening to the freshly-downloaded soundtrack of Bastion. Hearing the rustic, western beats while rolling through Texas’ drought-ravaged farmlands was delightfully thematic and served as an excellent pastime. Throw in a milkshake from Jack-in-the-Box and healthy amounts of Kard Kombat (a thoroughly worthy iPhone game), and the drive was not a chore but quite a pleasant experience.
Given my cramped and poorly ventilated experience at GDC Online, I was hardly expecting much from QuakeCon’s choice of settings. Color me surprised (pleasantly so) when I pushed through the shiny revolving door and entered the Hilton Anatole, a place rife with soft carpets, classy decorations, and plenty of room to spare. The hotel looked to have a Japanese theme about it, which made it a refreshing change of scenery in addition to being visually pleasing. While the temptation to wade through the perfectly-kept koiless koi pond or combat the stone samurai was great, I managed to make it through the day without causing irreparable harm to my surroundings, and of that I am proud. Despite the convention being spread rather erratically throughout the expansive grounds, each location seemed perfectly tailored to its hosted event, quickly making you forget that the given room had a vast library of other purposes. I don’t know if it was QuakeCon’s usual pick for locations, but if it’s going to be a returning factor next year I’ll head down again just to get another look at that pond.
The Elder Scrolls
The first thing I did after speeding through registration was weave my way into the main stage to get a seat for Skyrim’s public unveiling. (Unfortunately, this was met with something less than success, so I made do with standing at the very back.) As Todd Howard took the floor, 360 controller in hand (making the obligatory apology for forsaking the PC version) my excitement level began to climb rapidly. This only continued as menus were navigated and a save was loaded, hooking me within seconds upon revealing the barren, snow-covered landscapes and majestic mountains. Impressive as it was, bear in mind little of what was shown was new, as I had seen much of the same demo shown via E3 coverage. Given that this was hardly fresh material, I won’t be writing up a preview of what I saw, rather I shall relay a few scattered thoughts regarding the demonstration.
To begin with a summary, I came away from the presentation both encouraged and excited. Even when shown via a guided demo, the scale and detail of Skyrim’s world are made clear. Every part of that world is infused with a strong theme and vision, making it feel like a successor to Morrowind’s rustic, alien world of Vvardenfell rather than Oblivion’s unfortunately bland Cyrodill. What struck me throughout the tour was that this clear and immersive direction went beyond the composition of the world and into the mechanics underlying it all. As Todd Howard introduced a group of bonus-granting standing stones atop a chilly mountain peak, which replaced the constellation system from previous entries, I began to see how systems once relegated to character sheets were being gracefully woven into the vast tapestry that is an Elder Scrolls game. While Oblivion spent its time stripping away the more arcane mechanics present in Morrowind, Skyrim looks to be reintroducing complexity, though not by returning to the text-heavy mechanics of a bygone era, but rather in ways that contribute to immersion. It’s, to use the word once more, this definitive vision, which was sorely lacking in Oblivion, that looks to be underlying every one of Skyrim’s strengths, and seeing the mastermind behind it all demonstrate this live drove home my belief that Bethesda has really got it this time. When the dragon was vanquished and the brief journey came to a close, I believe the roaring crowd was of the same mind: November can’t come soon enough.
The Show Floor
With thoughts of Skyrim’s barren, snow-beaten mountains on my mind I decided to contrast things wildly by heading off to QuakeCon’s show floor. I stumbled my way through the bass-pounded room in something of a bored daze, passing by a gregarious truck for raffle, a bevy of gamestations featuring solely, of course, competitive shooters, and some sort of energy-drink swigging contest… thing. I made a hasty exit, wondering why I was even attending the thing as thoughts of Skyrim were left drifting away in the sea of dull frenzy.
With Stephen still off demoing Rage in the all-too-exclusive press room (he said I wouldn’t be allowed in; I was his cameraman!), things took a dramatic turn for the better as I entered the panel concerning id’s 20 year history. Four of id’s top performers took the stage and shared their experience, the culmination of which was nothing but interesting and insightful. High points came when hearing of their comical censorship issues with Nintendo or letters warning them against referencing the supernatural, but what stood out from all the rest was getting to hear John Carmack for as long as I did. His is a name I’ve heard bandied about gaming circles many a time, but being only a casual observer of id at best, I’d never learned much about him. That made hearing his wide ranging pontifications all the more interesting, as they spanned a delightfully wide range over the course of the panel. The man is obviously still one of the great minds of the industry, and being introduced to him in such an entertaining and engaging method was quite the treat. Much to my amazement, the panel was such a pleasant surprise that it garnered my “best of show” award; I’m sure it’s most honored.
First with Skyrim and then later with Prey 2 (another game demoed that shall, unfortunately, not be receiving its own section), an attention-grabbing element was the audience participation. As Todd Howard was introduced and Skyrim unveiled the gathered attendees seemed ordinary enough, cheering with enthusiasm for a long-awaited showing. Nothing seemed mentally unstable about the good-natured bunch; nothing particularly troubling, either. That is until a wolf passed by. A cry rent the air, calling for blood. “Kill it!” This was met by another, then another; soon there was something resembling a cohesive chant demanding the wolf’s imminent demise. Todd Howard’s delayed reaction came too late; he doubled back to search for the marked creature, but found nothing but frozen wastelands, devoid of life. The disappointment was palpable, but things returned to a normal, civilized state as the demo continued. The beast had been awoken, however, and when a city was approached, things became ugly. Shouts to burn the place and massacre the townsfolk arose; the violent uproar eventually culminated into Todd Howard flatly stating: “I’m not going to kill the civilians.” Nevertheless, chants for blood and death were commonly repeated throughout the duo of demos, and any act of even remote violence or destruction was met with wild cheers. The killing of a helpless alien here, the slaying of a dragon there; each spray of blood was met with an equal or greater wave of applause or bevy of hooting. I believe it felt akin to what it would’ve been like to attend a gladiatorial arena, witnessing a riotous crowd whipped up into a frenzy by their bloodlust and screaming for a sacrifice to satisfy their wild demands. Fortunately, this event lacked the critical component of *actual* violence occurring, but the similarities were hard to ignore nevertheless. Was it annoying? It became so, yes. Humorous? Sometimes, quite. Disturbing? Yes, I must admit it was this as well. I’m perfectly aware none of this bloodshed was real, of course, (do not take me for a whacko, despite the evidence) but despite this, I do wonder… is it really healthy to cultivate such violent tednencies? The amount of fervor the crowd managed to display was… a bit unnerving. I’m sure it’s all in good fun though… right?
It seems QuakeCon wasn’t the only event taking up space at the Hilton Anatole that weekend. Some traveling troop (is that the correct term these days?) of ballerina-esque dancers was putting on a show of some sort, and the culture clash that ensued was both confounding and comical. Within a few paces you could pass both a man sporting a Black Mesa labcoat debating the importance of SSDs for disc speed and a group of six-year-olds dressed in colorful garb and practicing for what looked to be a gymnastics routine. It added that extra dose of oddball flavor that every good convention needs; unless it’s taking place in Japan, in which it needs triple the dosage, if not more.
My journey brought me from dragon-sieged plains to headace-inducing show floors (actually, there was just one of those…), and I had a plethora of thoroughly enjoyable experiences (including a fantastic breakfast the following morning). All of these must culminate to something, however, yet the moral of this winding tale is still an enigma; I believe it has something to do with the ethical conundrum of rocket ships, competitive shooters, koi ponds and bloodthirsty loons, but I’ll be darned if I know how.