Conventions always feel like a double-edged sword for me, especially when doing coverage. On the bright side, I get to experience many wonderful games before they get a release, as well as talk with the developers behind them. On the downside, they always feel like I’m stumbling around knee-deep within the uncanny valley as a simulation of life. Often the only clues I have that it wasn’t just a fever-dream is the reality of the games I saw. I always walked away pleased about the games I tried but yet exhausted by the time spent going to, around and fro the event. Insomnia 57 was different.
Although before I leap into my thoughts about the general event, I may as well give a run down of what even happened (don’t worry, if you’re just here about games, scroll down until you hit the bold lettering). Originally someone else was going to cover Insomnia 57, an event in Birmingham (in the UK, because of course there’s a Birmingham in the US to get confused with) where people lug their tower units into one room and play LAN games with well over 100 people, but had to bow out. So last minute I was asked if I could cover Insomnia for a day.
A few days later and after 3 ½ hours on a train, I stood around with my hands in my pocket trying to comprehend the queue in front of me. Usually press get to sneak into an event, but I wasn’t seeing such an entrance. That is when someone shuffled up to me with a press pass with as much of a comprehension as me and we began talking. YouTube personality Domanda was there to do some light interviews of other people on YouTube. After half an hour to an hour showing my general unawareness of the website or anything else (sorry Domanda), we finally got let in.
This was when something dawned upon me like a thick fog, two creeping senses of realization: Not only I had picked Saturday (also known as the most crowded of days you can attend a convention) but there wasn’t actually many up-and-coming games to try compared to other conventions. Nintendo was nowhere to be seen and Sony was showing off games you know-and-tolerate. Even in terms of AAA developers there was a flat nothing. On the indie side of things, sadly most games were packed by crowds, and even then we’re talking about a comparatively small selection. Without delay, I’ll get on with talking about what I tried out:
[Developer: Remedy Entertainment]
[Platform: PC and X-Box One]
[Release date: 5th April 2016]
If there was one game that had me curious about the Xbox One, it was this title. I really enjoy Remedy’s previous work on Alan Wake and the Max Payne series. Although between the two I prefer Max Payne by a long stretch, always charmed by the noir series that balanced more grit than an icy road and a smug self-aware sense of humour.
Remedy already breaks personal new ground straight out the gate by making a console game not named after the protagonist. Since then there has been slew after slew of achievements, such as the idea of steering the narrative by taking one of two choices on the table, having a live-action drama play out on the side and time manipulation that isn’t just slowing things to a crawl Matrix-style.
The demo I got to try out at the Microsoft booth featured a quick gunfight with soldiers trying to take my head off, which allowed for some time manipulation. Afterwards there was a cutscene that featured some mumbling about getting a briefcase and time-wizardry that made roughly as much sense as starting Inception half way through. I was then given a choice of what is one to do about civilians who know too much about vague time-wizardy, between shotgun mouthwash for the pack or PR via “tell them what we tell you to or get a lethal injection via 9x19mm Parabellum”.
Despite Quantum Break distinguishing itself by time manipulation, every moment I tried to use it, I was faced with the burning question: “While I can, why would I?” While I could slow down time, zip around the enemy and put an air-hole in the back of their skull, why would I when a simple headshot does the same thing in half the time? This became even more apparent as the AI was downright suicidal as they rushed to my position, refused to flank me and stood in the open to welcome gunshots easier.
The cutscene and choice mechanic didn’t really improve things so far, as it felt like it lacked context and repercussion; although that was down to a convention setting for trying the game. This was made worse by an ear-infection I had (and still have), which rendered all the dialogue into muffled rambling. Without context, the narrative was rather dull with no reason to care about what was going on and referencing events I felt like I should know but don’t, like blagging your way through a conversation and then having a pop quiz about it.
Perhaps the only part that had me raise an eyebrow was when given a choice, they do show vaguely what will probably happen, including the good and bad sides of it. Even here I was let down. I was given the full picture, never hinting that something unpredictable and interesting may occur due to it. It reminded me of Life is Strange, how that game showed the immediate consequences with long-reaching repercussions always out of your grasp until you lock in the choice, but without the playful unpredictability of what could go right/wrong about what you’ve done.
Verdict: I sincerely hope this was just a bad demo. Nothing about the demo indicated Quantum Break was anything more than a generic shooter inspired by everything else around it while lacking an original thought. I expected so much better from Remedy, a developer who has shown time and time again to be able to provide interesting narratives and gameplay. Based on the demo alone, I’d be worried about pre-ordering, but then again demos can misrepresent gameplay. In this case, I really hope I’m wrong on this one.
[Developer: Bitmap Bureau]
[Platform: PC, PS4 and Xbox One]
[Release date: Unknown, although has been Greenlit on Steam]
I haven’t seen a game this obsessed about a particular number since I tucked into 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, although the two games couldn’t be any more different. Set on the 8th of August (the 8th month) 1988, 88 Heroes demands you to conquer 88 rooms in 88 seconds, as Dr H8 is about to destroy the world in 88 minutes. Oh, and each enemy you kill gives you 88 points. Say one thing about Bitmap Bureau (creator of Super House of Dead Ninjas), say they are dedicated to a concept.
It plays out like Broforce except with more of a platform angle to it. Each hero has their own individual characteristics. They have their own attacks (some having none), speed, jump height, hit-box size and more. Even when scratching the surface for about five minutes there was an incredible amount of variation, as some converted enemies, others wouldn’t walk on the floor and one was a tiny worm. I figure it was due to this vast variation that caused the developer I talked to at the booth to sigh when he mentioned there was 88 heroes, wishing it was only 32 due to the work load.
Fortunately the playground you have to play with has been specially tailored to offer different forms of gameplay with different heroes. Rather than procedurally generated, each of the 88 levels are hand-made to be able to be played with different styles of gameplay. As I said earlier, the developers are committed to a concept.
Verdict: I actually had a lot of enjoyment out of 88 Heroes, as there was enough variation to make each level/hero combination feel noticeably different. Maybe you’ll be trying to bait the enemy due to a huge hit-box in a tight corridor, maybe you’ll be timing your melee attacks to hit or maybe you’ll just gun them down from afar? My only problem is the lack of multiplayer, as I could imagine combining two or more heroes could lead to funny situations, although it is an understandable missing part. Everything rests upon what they will charge for it, although it’ll likely make for an interesting title to play with in short bursts.
That sadly was it. One triple-A title and an indie title.
As I walked around the convention, trying to work out what coverage I could do (“maybe I could interview some people who are playing LAN?”, a train of thought crushed by security likely not thrilled with the idea of press infiltrating the LAN area), there was a creeping realisation that crawled up my spine.
To go back to my introduction, conventions often run the horrid risk of dipping into hyper-reality. The forever-smiling, overly-pleasant and incredibly-safe environment feels like a simulation of real life. Fortunately video games are such an intimate and familiar part of my life (in all their unflattering glory) that they usually shake off the awkward atmosphere creeping about.
Except, well, Insomnia 57 was not about games. Instead, it was about Youtube/Twitch stars.
Out of 14 stage presentations occurring on Saturday, 1 was about a game and 4 were “community events” (an introduction, a cosplay, a pub-quiz and a competition). Two or three stalls were dedicated to YouTube teams, stalls that were packed with people clawing to get to the front. While there were games, about the same sized area dedicated to new games were mechanise stalls about games of old, a retro game shop where you could buy any game as long it was over ten years old and a set up of retro titles to play. Y’know, all the classic retro games you could want to play like Super Smash Bros., Halo and DJ Hero. All the classics.
Games took such a back-seat in favour of esports, merchandise and YouTube stars (who, while do a good job, in a large dose feel like a virtual reality of having a real life friend who likes you and is funny with all the charm of an used car salesman or at least an android desperately trying to pass the Turing Test). I felt less trapped in a simulation but rather a simulacra: a simulation of something that never has existed. I was shoulder-deep in the uncanny valley, one that reminded me over and over again of the irrelevancy of games journalism. That while YouTube stars can focus and spend all their time on their craft to the swooning crowds, the idea of a games journalist living off their pay is a depressing in-joke to share amongst themselves as the audience pelts them with tomatoes.
I wish I could say I had that action hero moment where upon realisation I sought to tear it down. That I went out of my way to ruin the illusion so much as to neutralise the believability of what was going on so I could climb out of the uncanny valley. What happened instead was due to a mixture of tiredness, an ear-infection and real life not being a film/game: I sat on the floor in the lobby of the convention centre with my legs spread out and tried to work out what could I even write. What could even be said about a train of thought so neurotic that if it was a film the role of Kailan May would go to a B-Movie version of Michael Cera?
The closest I could think of is something that I believe sums up Insomnia 57 so well as to make for a closing statement, a description I used to tell others of the experience. Insomnia 57, for a games journalist, was like attending your own funeral in which you’re not quite dead. You feel endless panic and worry as your paralysed body can only see everyone in the funeral home stare dead-on into your moistening eyes as they talk about how totally dead you are. Your tearing wide-eyes being the only reaction you can make as you realise what happens next, as the door to your wooden casket closes and the sounds of mud falling onto your resting place begins to occur.