Games are weird, and so too is the games industry. With its annual weeklong shows across the globe that people lose sleep to watch, the now-iconic 'Harass The Developers' attitude prevalent across social media, and the bleed of Fortnite dances into the World Cup... we’re so used to reality that we rarely think about how bizarre it all is. Sometimes, it is worth taking a step back, and looking at the day-to-day.
An especially strange part of the games industry is the marketing parties, apparently a pale shadow of what they once were. Be it a launch or a DLC announcement, a video game hardly feels like a video game without tales of when the marketing team took far too much ketamine and decide to send journalists to a warzone for a live fire exercise, organised a party with a dead goat bordering on a satanic orgy, a helicopter ride around the grand canyon, or suspending some poor saps 100 feet in the air to drunkenly demo a new release.
Such stunts are, admittedly, one of the few perks of the job, and can act as a great ice breaker for the nervous developers nearby, worried they'll say the wrong thing and create a headline that sinks something they've dedicated years of their life to. Hey, you've got to be seriously dedicated to fly around the world in order to spend time with journalists and influencers.
From another angle, though, perhaps it is quite refreshing for developers. After all, the only thing 'gamers' hate more than game developers is games journalists. There’s a certain camaraderie.
So it was that I found myself at a preview party in Shoreditch. "Might be a laugh," wrote the editor. Oh how little he knew of the Roadtrip & The Workshop, the kind of achingly stylish rock bar where the men's toilets are wallpapered with semi-naked women. The game that deserved such a setting was the soon-to-be-released Steel Rats, which I'd played at an event a few months ago and thought was pretty decent. I arrived 10 minutes early for the free bar, and an interview with the Japanese band playing later that night, The 5. 6. 7. 8s. Think Kill Bill. The game features a remastered version of their track “Hoovering” which is a lovely bit of world-building.
This was not a press-only event, with tickets publicly available and proceeds going to the charity Special Effect. Judging from the high turnout it sold out. Actors hired to dress in the game’s aesthetic welcomed people as they entered the venue, and took pictures with attendees. The fact that I barely registered the man in dirty yellow overalls and a fake multi-coloured beard as he struck poses shows how desensitised you can get to these sort of things.
Others began to arrive shortly after, a mix of journalists and developers and PRs and members of the public. Due to the nature of the job these events often double-up as social gatherings for industry types and, as familiar faces enter the bar, the pleasantries and insults start to flow.
Most are there to have a fun evening, with a bit of work crammed in to justify the time, and the topics of conversation range dramatically. Situate yourself on the blood-red leather thrones, and you’re playing a dangerous game of chicken with nearby smartphone cameras. Discuss the worst games you've ever played, and hope the person you're talking to didn't work on it.
I'm not even kidding. By the entrance, people were fighting their way past some mad bastard who had decided this was the place to loudly defend Silent Hill 4 which has "aged incredibly well" and is “not as bad as we thought it was.” Uh huh. Next to the DJ, talk is all about an eSports event where the a venue’s internet died halfway through a big match. I threw some petrol on this one, saying eSports will never be taken seriously with unstable streams and that it should never be in the Olympics.
Toes officially stepped on, I turned around with a grin, but straight into a more sombre conversation about events in general and security concerns in the U.S. People have genuine fear about working there. The Madden shooting in Jacksonville had happened just over a week ago.
It's a strange old time. The hate people in the industry receive online is on a never-ending rise and, coupled with the questionable security of something like E3, many feel it's only a matter of time until the next tragedy. “Maybe they should just do E3 in a safer country? It’s not like the venue itself is any bloody good.”
Heavy stuff, especially when you're only two pints deep, but the sentiment brought a murmur of assent from all around: good to know you're not the only person thinking it.
As is true at any event, it’s important to make nice with the most important people: the bar staff. These evenings often get very busy, so making nice and leaving a nice tip can substantially cut down on waiting time.
A bit of Dutch courage felt essential for the invitation's oddest promise: there would be a licensed tattoo artist present, set up for the evening and ready to go. The idea was that if the funding goal for charity was met, one of the members of the development team would get a tattoo of something from the game. A nice incentive, except it seemed like a bit of a warning too: get plastered and you may find yourself in that chair, and wake up with some Steel Rats on your forearm. There’s always one person at these things who forgets that, technically, this is work. Fortunately the fear was real: no-one had been branded by the time I left.
There were various preview demos of Steel Rats set up, which people played in-between drinks and bathroom breaks. This build was much more extensive than what I'd previously played, and reinforced that there's some real depth here. Steel Rats requires a thorough understanding of the control system before everything clicks but, once it does, you start to see there's something here. A fast-paced 2.5D action game with a maniacally noirish art style, the whole thing screams cult classic, and you can see why the publisher is going the extra mile to promote it.
After a few more drinks it was time for my interview with the 5. 6. 7. 8s. As I arrived first, I was first to be led downstairs into the basement where the band awaited. As I sat down I was warned that they wished to have as little interjection from their translator as possible, which is about the most terrifying thing a Brit can hear at the start of an interview with a Japanese band. Thankfully their English was about three million times better than my Japanese.
It’s always a good idea to go with a softball opener, put everyone at ease.
“What do you do before a gig to prepare?”
“We stretch, do some vocal exercises and have a beer.”
“Ahh I do the exact same thing.”
“So what was it about Steel Rats that made you decide to work on the game?”
“We recorded some promotion stuff for Steel Rats in Paris, before, but now that it is soon coming out, we are here to perform”
I nod as they answer. I look at the translator. What else is there to say? I mean, let's get down to brass tacks: why is your song in the game? Because someone offered a nice cheque. And there's nothing wrong with that! But it feels weird to dance around it, and pretend there's a deeper connection.
The interview was mercifully short. We did manage to overcome the language barrier via our shared love for drinking on the job, but the greatest insight I got was that Steel Rats’ premise reminded them of Akira. One of them also once owned a moped.
To be honest I had no real business interviewing the 5. 6. 7. 8s. It was a privilege to talk to such accomplished musicians, but as I walked away I found myself laughing at the absurdity.
Back upstairs was the familiar solace of the bar, and a perch to watch other journalists try their luck. Soon after the time for the gig had arrived, and the band was phenomenal. It’s no wonder that, upon hearing their music, Quentin Tarantino instantly fell for them. I'm not sure what it had to do with Steel Rats but I had an amazing time listening to their songs old and new, and the gig more than justified the ticket price.
What do such events have to do with the game in question? What did my interview with the band accomplish? Very little, truth be told. There is a game called Steel Rats coming out. It looks like it might be decent! Job done.
But for anyone in the industry, such events can feel almost like an oasis. In the usual day-to-day grind, a simple phrase such as “Don’t like it, don’t buy it” from a community manager can lead to a witch hunt for their job. It's nice to mingle with others who understand the pressure cooker, and roll their eyes in sympathy at another outrageous tale.
On a more pragmatic note, the opportunity to meet with developers in a more social situation is crucial in creating a relationship of trust. These are the kind of connections that, maybe years down the line, help journalists to expose things like toxic working environments at huge companies, and hopefully contribute to big issues like better working conditions across the industry.
Will the casual conversations I had with the developers help my future coverage of the game? Will the young hopeful I met there gain anything from that business card she received from the team? Will that barman take my advice about a good local hairdresser? Will my colleague ever pay for his own Uber? We'll never know. But it's all possible.