The first stop was, logically, Hall 5, probably the best hall of the convention and the home for current video game titans Microsoft and Nintendo. Microsoft’s entry into the video game market is a recent development to this writer who remembers the days of debating whether Genesis or Super Nintendo was the superior system, but as I walked around the faux beaches of “Xbox 360 Island,” I liked what I saw. There were the next generation of guitar games, where a player strummed a faux guitar along with music on the screen; the cords of nostalgia tugged at me as I saw an updated version of four-player Bomberman multiplayer. I played the SNES version weekly as a middle-schooler, and still occasionally meet with former roommates to play when both my need for a confidence-booster and my tolerance for getting controllers thrown at me are high. The line was too long, though, and I wasn’t really here to play video games, besides. What most struck me were the Microsoft workers milling around the “island” – a raised platform of Astroturf with some sand, X-Box 360s, and plasma screen TVs thrown on it to make for a comfy gaming center. Unlike the gamers they served and doled out advice to (although I imagine they knew less about some of the products than some of the creatures here today), they were almost all beautiful. None of the girls working the Microsoft island must have been more than twenty-five years old, and they were all dressed in white top, white Capri outfits that did more for their fit bodies than either of the aforementioned sweatshirt looks. They were all either Scandinavian-looking blond beasts, or more olive-colored Spanish-looking girls, and I don’t think it was a coincidence that they outnumber their male counterparts, all handsome, fit German men in their early twenties dressed in male versions of the white-on-white outfit. Elsewhere at Nintendo’s stand, I saw the same fashion philosophy in action: again, a mix of Nordic and Latin girls and Central European guys, although there the girls seemed to have a mandatory pastel-colored scarf as belt to complete the ensemble, while the men all wore baby-blue belts and smart glasses to round it all off. They knew what they were talking about when it came to video games, they liked to show that they played video games, and they were sexy and cool. Life was great!
I moved on to the Nintendo stand, and here the main attraction was the Wii, Nintendo’s answer to Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s Playstation 3. Nintendo has, wisely I think, tried to make the Wii as customizable to the user as possible: I saw a Penelope Cruz look-alike demonstrating to a short, ugly girl dressed up in Gothic gear how to design her avatar for all of her future Wii activities: select your hair length here, your skin tone there, your eyebrows here, your height there, and after some endless customization, you had a cartoon character that looked like you; when you went online, you could meet other people in a Wii forum and start conversations with them based on how their avatars looked, and they with you for the same reasons, but this wasn’t just limited to signing on to the system. As people sampled the Wii’s sports games (boxing and tennis seemed to be the big hits), your Wii character was the one in the boxing match; rather than being forced to take over some blaxploitation character in your pursuit of boxing glory, you could now box your friends – and enemies – using not just the Wii’s three-dimensional controller, but also your own avatar. Personalization, it seemed to me, was making my old SNES friends of Crono, Aeris, and Cloud obsolete. Why not, after all, just insert yourself into a game? If the popularity of online role playing games at Leipzig was any indication, people didn’t care much if their games had any fixed plot: what they wanted was to be immersed into a game world, and the more it was about them, the less it was about any black man with a gatling gun for an arm (Barrett of “Final Fantasy 7”) or a world-traveling gambler with an airship (Setzer of “Final Fantasy 6”) or the gigantic stuffed animal controlled by a robotic cat (Cait Sith of “Final Fantasy 7”) – well, then, all the better. Traditional characters, it seems to me, are out; immersiveness and narcissistic plot are in.
I was getting tired, so I said down at a leather couch (the same white hue as the Penelope Cruz look-alike’s capirs) and picked up a Nintendo DS tethered to the furniture: finally, some time to actually see how video games had changed first hand. I had owned a Game Boy and played “Pokémon: Blue Version” when popular thought dictated that the game was just for children, and so I had some experience with handhelds, but as I tried to operate this monstrosity, I soon understood why my Dad had been so bad every time I challenged him to a race of Mario Kart in the past. More than having two screens (hence its name: Dual Screen) the DS had not just the usual array of Game Boy-style buttons on the front, but several triggers on the back, and yet no matter what I seemed to press, I couldn’t get anything to happen. “Berühren! Berühren!” yelled a stereotype of a professor on the screen. “Touch! Touch!” Well, no shit, but what? Finally, I just tried pressing the screen – it turns out the DS was also a touchscreen – and we started to get somewhere. Trying to use some of the new controllers at the Games Convention made me feel old.
There was good reason why my DS had been the untouched one. As I bumbled with my fingers to get back to the main screen of the game, “English Training,” I began to see that Nintendo was beginning not to limit itself to just entertainment. This was a German game for people looking to improve their English, and it took advantage of all of the DS’ features: as I made my way to “exercises” (Übungen), I noticed the stylus lying on the couch that belonged to the DS. Suddenly the handheld started talking to me.
“Good afternoon,” it said to me in a charming female South British accent. The thing could talk, and with a British accent! Not bad. As a set of prompts and the voice explained to me, I was to get a German sentence on the screen, but hear the English translation, and then I would have to write the sentence on the screen using the stylus. “I don’t like dogs;” “May I smoke?” “That’s cool!” (Das ist ja stark!) The handwriting recognition software wasn’t great, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever need to say those three sentences in that order, but games – if you called it a game – were needed to keep up with the flood of entertainment every year. Even though this was the biggest games convention in the world, video games today have become a largely English-speaking venture. Of course, there were the days of bad translations from the Japanese for the Final Fantasy games, but many of the most popular games at the convention seemed to primarily operate in English; sure, the sexy things back at the Nintendo stand had told you how to work “Wii Bowling,” but the point was that the instructions were in English (or Japanese, if you wanted), and there wasn’t always room for even fairly-widely spoken (and affluent) languages like German or French in these games. This might partly explain the popularity of massive multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs), games like “World of Warcraft” and “Dark Age of Camelot” where clan members get together to go on quests in a medieval world and occasionally raid other races’ bases. I remember looking over a massive “Warcraft III” tournament during a presentation later in the today to see a flood of German chat going over the game’s chat window: “Mal angreifen?” (“So, should we launch the attack?”
Join us next week as our intrepid investigator burns some bridges and knocks some heads.