Note: this feature was written late last week, before Gamescom kicked off.
When I talk to fellow writers about the experience of Gamescom, they're more likely to use the verb 'survive' than 'enjoy'. While not considered as intimidating as E3, a show so large and unruly that Los Angeles is actually contained within its halls, Gamescom can be a difficult place to get work done but as I prepare to fly out for my fourth visit, I can't think of any place I'd rather be.
To make the most of it, plans are needed. A full book of appointments for each day is a start but it's also necessary to have some kind of arrangements for necessities such as food, the quiet away from the crowds and interactions that aren't recorded on a dictaphone. On the second day last year I realised around 4pm that I hadn't eaten since leaving the airport the previous morning and hadn't had a single conversation that wasn't an interview of some sort. At one point, I stumbled into a hall I'd never seen before and saw a DJ, a temporary skatepark and a group of visitors with a custom-built Claptrap. The robot was so well-made that I wouldn't have been surprised if it were travelling with 2K, but it was a fan creation. They hadn't given it a voice, which meant that I could admire the craftsmanship without wanting to kick it in the nuts and bolts. It was a pleasant experience, watching the little fellow trundle along.
Pleasant experiences are the heart of Gamescom. It's not an event to survive, it's an event to savour. As I prepare for my fourth visit, here are some previous highlights.
Ascending to the top of Cologne Cathedral with Dan Griliopoulos. I'd never been to Cologne - this was my first Gamescom – and as soon as I left the train station, I fell in love with the cathedral. It's an extraordinary building, made more so by its location. The river is close and the only other structures in the vicinity that even attempt to scrape the sky are blocks of glittering glass (it was, for a brief period in the 1880s, the tallest building in the world). The gothic complexity of the cathedral is obvious even from afar but up close the effect is bewildering. Every surface is thick with detail and the buttresses and pinnacles are as elaborate as the most intricate piece of carved wood. Six hundred years in the making, it still seems to be a work in progress, with scaffolding in place every time I've visited.
Dan and I climbed to the top, circling the tight spirals of the staircase and inching past tourists who had overestimated their own endurance or understimated the difficulty of the ascent. When we reached the top, we were out of breath but when we'd recovered, we fell into conversation about in-game architecture and mourned the rarity of gothic structures in immersive sims. That said, if I encountered that spiral staircase in a game, I'd assume it was the old-fashioned equivalent of a Mass Effect elevator - there to disguise a long background loading period.
Meeting Ice-Pick Lodge. Pathologic is one of my favourite games so meeting two members of the team who will be working on the remake was a golden opportunity. That they were two of the most intelligent people I've met inside or outside the industry was a relief. There's nothing quite like meeting the minds responsible for something you respect, particularly when they surpass all of your expectations. We talked about film, theatre, architecture, disease and literature. Games too, from time to time.
I left the pub (we didn't have a meeting space so ended up talking in the evening, next to a laughing animatronic, which seemed fitting) with a newfound respect for a game I already adored, and convinced that anything intelligent I wrote about it in the future would only scratch the surface of its complexities at best.
Sleepyheads At The Airport. On the way to Cologne, I'd rather have the airport and plane to myself. Strangers are fine but I don't like finding myself in a cluster of games journalists. Since I'm going to spend the next four days talking shop, surrounded by nothing but games and the people of games, I'd like a few hours of quiet, alone with my thoughts or a magazine before the work begins.
The return trip is a different story. I see the same faces most years, leaning into a coffee or staring out onto the runways, confused and done down by waking life. Gamescom isn't a party but there are parties. I've never made it to one because I prefer a few quiet drinks in the company of friends or a late night work session to get fresh thoughts onto the screen. I understand why people party though – they're blowing off steam at the end of a long week and spending time with friends they only see once or twice a year. There are writers at Gamescom and the Paradox Convention, which is my other annual trip, who live so far away that we might as well be in different worlds. For one week every year, we can pretend that's not the case and it's a wonderful thing.
But this entry is really about how much I enjoy seeing the sore heads of colleagues when I'm blissfully hangover-free. It doesn't happen often.
Forgetting everything else. My job is not my life. Of course it isn't. Some people, especially writers and creators, don't know how to switch off or don't want to. When they're not working, they're thinking about work.
In my everyday life, I don't mix with people who work in the games industry, on either side of the dev/journo divide. I've never worked in an office with other games writers and although I count some writers as friends – particularly those that I work with – I don't live in the same city as any of them. My social life is far from games and that is a good thing for me.
But at Gamescom, I enter the bubble. Even though there's a heavy marketing presence from the big publishers and I hear more than enough repetitive promo speak to last a lifetime, the abiding sense is of a place buzzing with creative energy. I love that there are so many bright and brilliant people gathered in one city and I love how enthusiastic the majority are. By day two, I feel like I could happily feed off that energy for weeks and by day four I'm usually inspired to write ten thousand words about how brilliant the games industry can be.
I never do because it only takes one bad story or experience to bring me back down to earth, and to think about the crunch and the bullshit and the commercial compromises. But maybe, this year, I'll push all of that to one side and write about every positive thing that happens during my trip. The excitement and dedication of the people queuing to play something new, the courage of a designer without a booth who is willing to show an unfinished and messy build because he/she believes in what it might eventually become, the way that established and experienced developers so often offer advice and support to those taking their first steps.
Gamescom is exhausting but it's not a thing to survive – it's a thing to celebrate.
This feature was originally published last week as part of, and thanks to, The RPS Supporter Program.