At E3 2017, the absolute highlight of the show had to have been Devolver Digital’s surprise debut at the conference. We came in with no idea at all what to expect from a company that has had a consistently dismissive attitude towards the mainstream games marketing showcase that descends on LA once per year. What we got started as a parody of the conference’s that we had been watching for the past few days that descended into a Too Many Cooks style odyssey into madness. It was a vicious skewering of the industry from its most famous enfant terrible.
Which is why it was something of a cause for concern to see them scheduled once again this year. There is an adage in comedy that you should never tell the same joke twice. No matter how good the joke is, it will never have the same punch as the first time you heard it.
Now, I’m not going to say I didn’t enjoy the show. Nina Struthers once again proved to be delightfully entertaining, owning the stage with a comedic prowess that is like a gasp of oxygen to a dying man amongst the painfully forced presentations available at E3. Some of the individual jokes were truly brilliant, such as the fantastic Lootbox Coin (currently available for $150 at the time of writing, but it changes price once per hour) or the beautiful NES Classic parody that turns out to just be a repainted Dreamcast, but pointing that out will earn you a beating.
But overall, it’s inevitable that what was a savage industry takedown last year can’t help but come off as an irreverent but friendly roasting this year. There was a line that really stood out to me. At the start of the show, Nina promises “overly flashy graphics… and appearances from personalities you recognise… because this is 2018 and this is how marketing is done now.” Which is a funny joke at the expense of the other shows this year, but highlights the core of the problem with the show, because that is not the only way marketing is done in 2018.
There are thousands of corporate twitter accounts which take this sarcastic disinterested approach to marketing. Being vaguely anti-establishment is the trendy new thing for the mainstream to do. Doing this joke once was an indictment of the industry. Doing it twice (and finishing your show with a ‘to be continued’ no less) is a brand.
I don’t like writing this. I’m actually a big fan of Devolver Digital. They consistently find and put out fascinating work with a devotion to gameplay and aesthetics that is genuinely admirable. They take a stance against the industry’s more exploitative practices and are entirely willing to make a thing out of it. But after last year’s show was such a hit, perhaps they feel a touch trapped by it. This is their brand now, they have a recurring show at E3 and an audience expectation to meet.
But every time they do so from now on, it will have less impact, less punch than that first show, where they held the industry’s feet to the fire and were, for fifteen minutes, a voice for all of us who tire of the bullshit of the other companies taking up the stage.
In 2002, the vicious Mathmetal band Dillinger Escape Plan were playing Reading Festival. Midway through their set, frontman Greg Puciato dropped his trousers and evacuated his bowels into a bag on stage. He then announced to the audience “You’re going to see a lot of shit on this stage today, You might as well see some more,” before throwing the bag into the audience. 14 years later, on their return to Reading, Puciato is drinking tea and reading the paper onstage instead. Perhaps he understands better the futility of recapturing a moment.
Next year, Nina will almost certainly return to the E3 stage for another vicious performance. But that’s what it will be – a performance. It will steadily become an institution. E3’s yearly roast. Gradually, it will become more fuel for the marketing machine, because of course it will, because that’s all it ever was. Watching the presentation, I laughed, I smiled but I couldn’t escape a numbing sadness, as we began watching the process of marketing wear down something beautiful.