Each spring, the Electronic Entertainment Expo—known colloquially as E3—appears like a mirage amid the sun-baked parking lots of downtown Los Angeles. For three surreal, press-conference-filled days (and open-bar-filled nights), video game purveyors from around the world gather together to puff their chests, play techno music from very large speakers, and generally attempt to elbow one another out of the way via announcements/pronouncements, “news,” and absurdist boasts.
What happens at E3 does not adhere to the logic or, more importantly, to the ethical standards of the outside world. And why should it? No one holds anyone accountable for anything at E3. Attending the show is akin to watching a pair of monocle-sporting zillionaires engage in a game of one-upmanship. So you’re giving away T-shirts? We’re giving away USB-drive keychains. You have Tiger Woods at your press conference? We have The Beatles at our press conference. You’re picking up journalists in Humvees and doing your demos in the backseat? We’re picking them up in Apache helicopters and doing our demos at 8,000 feet while feeding them gourmet hamburgers.
Then, after 72 hours of this dizzying sturm und drang, like a bar at closing time, the lights come up, the industry collectively rubs its bloodshot eyes, and everyone does their best to separate the reality from the B.S. E3 exists because it’s supposed to give us answers; it purports to be the bellwether for the medium. But the reality is that E3 always leaves us with more questions than answers. Those questions, if they linger long enough, can evolve into bona fide mysteries. Things happen in Los Angeles during E3—preposterous things, unnerving things—that can’t easily be explained. What follows are some of E3’s Greatest Mysteries.
At Microsoft’s 2009 E3 press conference, veteran game designer Peter Molyneux introduced the audience to Milo, a towheaded boy who lives inside a TV screen. Molyneux, the P. T. Barnum of video games, cued a short film—which should have been the first clue that we were about to be duped—showing the virtual boy interacting with a real woman. The woman and the virtual boy appeared to be having an actual conversation. The boy seemed to hear her; she seemed to hear him. Then came the coup de grace: the woman drew something on a piece of actual paper, and somehow fed it into the top of the TV where Milo received the paper in his virtual world.
Audience members gasped. People walked out of the press conference on unsteady legs, unsure of what to make of the technological wizardry they’d just witnessed. Later that same day, a handful of journalists got the chance to speak to Milo firsthand. Those journalists in attendance reportedly failed to experience anything approximating the degree of interaction that the woman had experienced in Molyneux’s press-conference video.
“There’s something fishy going on with Milo,” one writer said. A second journalist described the Milo press demo as having a “Wizard Of Oz quality,” referring to a conspicuous curtain at the Milo demonstration, behind which no doubt plenty of disappointing non-wizardry was transpiring. Even so, Milo was all anyone could talk about, or write about, for the remainder of E3 2009.
Then, as quickly as he had arrived, after becoming arguably the biggest E3 sensation of all time, Milo vanished.
Case Status: Open. While “Molyneux’s Milo” has yet to return to E3, he did make an appearance in Molyneux’s 2011 TED talk.
Nintendo’s Vitality Sensor
At Nintendo’s 2009 press conference, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, looking dapper, bounded onto the stage to announce the Vitality Sensor, a wedge of plastic that attaches to the Wii remote and covers the user’s index finger. The device, as many in attendance would cleverly observe, resembled a space-age marital aid. The Vitality Sensor supposedly would gauge a gamer’s pulse, and therefore could be used to “map the landscape of the body’s inner world,” Iwata said, adding that people could use the Vitality Sensor to “achieve greater relaxation.” He also conjectured that the device might even enable people to use video games “to fall asleep.”
Still riding high on the runaway success of Wii, the first game console in history that people’s parents purchased, Nintendo was in a brassy, told-you-so mode in 2009. The Vitality Sensor was a manifestation of this chutzpah. What makes the Vitality Sensor so intriguing is that it has—or perhaps had—the potential to be Nintendo’s greatest folly since 1995’s Virtual Boy.
Case Status: Still open. The Vitality Sensor was notably absent from Nintendo’s press conference in 2010, and again in 2011. Though Nintendo representatives have made passing references to the Vitality Sensor, no software, including any of those sleep-inducing games, or release date has ever been announced for the peripheral.
The South and West Halls of the Los Angeles Convention Center are historically where the industry’s biggest, suspenders-snapping players like Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo set up their multi-million-dollar booths. But there was once a third, off-the-beaten-path wing of the Convention Center that represented the hardscrabble side of the industry.
For many years, Kentia Hall was the epicenter for all manner of video game effluvia. This was where the collectors, the gaming preservationists, and the Willy Loman types would flaunt their “but wait, there’s more!” wares. You could find things like an exercise bicycle hooked up to a Super Nintendo, or a robot made out of a trash can and a Speak-N-Spell, or a plastic toy guitar that let gamers play along with covers of rock songs. (Yes, Guitar Hero was born out of the primordial ooze of Kentia Hall.)
After the endless darkness, neon, and “booth babes” of the South and West Halls, Kentia served as a kind of palette cleanser. Walking into the sobering, brightly lit Kentia from the simulated night of the South and West Halls was not unlike having a policeman shine a light in your face and ask if you’ve been drinking. Those bright lights made it feel as if Kentia’s humble denizens—unlike Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo—had absolutely nothing to hide. The booth attendees in Kentia sometimes wore clip-on ties on their necks and Brylcreem in their hair. And they actually shook your hand, thanking you in earnest for looking at, say, their weird fishing game. Finally, if you were hungry, Kentia was the place to go for reasonably priced hot dogs.
Case Status: Closed. Kentia Hall has not been used for E3 since 2009, instead fulfilling its true destiny: serving as a 415-car parking garage.
Activision’s 2007 press conference, hosted by Jamie Kennedy
With stains on his untucked shirt and looking for all the world like he just woke up underneath an overpass on the 101, entertainer Jamie Kennedy took the stage at Activision’s press conference in what can only be described as a compromised state. “How’s everybody doin’?” he asked. “Isn’t this exciting? We’re at E3, and I’d just like to say that this place is the only place that makes the guys at Comic-Con look like Ocean’s 13.” His first joke of the day was met with the one-two punch of uncomfortable laughter and awkward silence. Things would only deteriorate from there.
When introducing a developer from Neversoft, Kennedy said, “Wasn’t that the first name for Viagra?” More awkward silence. Another Kennedy bon mot: “There are so many virgins in here, Richard Branson is doing this event.”
The press conference’s lone bright spot occurred when Kennedy, noting the British accent of a developer, asked if it would be okay if he conducted the remainder of their interview as Ozzy Osborne. The developer quipped, “But aren’t you doing that already?” and was rewarded with a round of applause from the audience.
Case Status: Closed, with one minor postscript. In June of 2011, Kennedy, via Twitter, referenced his Activision press performance one final time. He wrote: “wow u dorks can’t let that go, You have no idea what really happened, because ur not in the biz, ur a spectator.”
At E3 2004, an elusive console known as The Phantom, which had been the subject of months of speculation in the industry, finally made its tangible debut—sort of. Unlike the PlayStation 2, the Xbox, or the GameCube, which required CD-ROM discs to play games (and which all reigned supreme at the time), The Phantom was described as a “video game receiver.” Translation: For $30 a month, players could have PC games beamed to The Phantom console via the internet. From a business standpoint, The Phantom was a precursor to present-day game-streaming services like OnLive and Gaikai.
The console was being manufactured by a company called Infinium Labs, a name which unfortunately sounded like something from a piece of Half Life fan fiction. Even when The Phantom was real, as it very much was at E3 2004—Infinium Labs erected a large, shadowy Phantom booth in the South Hall—it still couldn’t manage to shake the nagging, Candid Camera-style doubt that somebody, somewhere was having a good laugh at our expense.
Case Status: Closed. The Phantom vanished from the Infinium Labs website in 2006 and hasn’t been seen since. The term “The Phantom” is now commonly used as shorthand to describe any piece of hardware that likely won’t see the light of day. For example, the PC-centric console that Valve might or might not be developing is commonly referred to as a potential “Phantom.”
The Story: E3-goers looking to save a buck routinely subject themselves to Third World-level living conditions for the duration of their spring-time stays in Los Angles, as hotel options downtown tend to be overpriced and limited. It’s not uncommon to be bitten by bed bugs or to discover that your shower drain is clogged with cigarette butts. It’s also not uncommon to encounter an apparition or two.
The Hotel Figueroa, which is always popular among E3 attendees thanks to its proximity to the Convention Center, features an elevator that travels from floor to floor during the night of its own accord. The elevator’s doors open and close, with no one ever getting on or off. Televisions have also been known to turn themselves on and off at odd hours. The Ritz-Milner Hotel on South Flower Street is reportedly home to several ghosts. The clerk at the front desk, if you ask nicely and slip him $20, will sometimes tell you which floors of the hotel are haunted. Finally, the most haunted of all E3 hotels is without a doubt the Millennium Biltmore on 5th Street and Olive. It’s the last place where the Black Dahlia was seen alive back in January 1947. Other Biltmore apparitions include the ghost of a lost little girl and a man in a top hat who can only be seen in the reflection of one of the bar’s mirrors.
Case Status: Open. Anyone staying at the Millennium Biltmore can always take comfort in the fact that Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd once filmed key scenes for Ghostbusters there in the early 1980s.
The Last Guardian
Game designer Fumita Ueda’s body of work includes Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus, a pair of games that have single-handedly generated approximately 10 billion hours of nerd conversations. The Last Guardian, the latest artful enterprise from Ueda and his team, made its debut at Sony’s 2009 E3 press conference. The game’s four-minute trailer showed an oversized griffinesque creature and his boy companion. The two played together, solved puzzles together, and fought off weird-looking stone warriors together. The whole thing, which was cleverly set to the mournful theme music from Miller’s Crossing, made everyone in attendance 1. mist up a little and 2. yearn to go home and scratch whatever pets they owned behind the ears. Ueda, we were certain, had done it again.
Which is why, when E3 2010 rolled around, fans cried out in despair when the Sony media event came and went with nary a mention of The Last Guardian. And when the game was again absent from Sony’s 2011 presser? Attendees shook their fists at the sky and threatened mutiny.
Case Status: Still open. So exactly where is The Last Guardian? Why has it been delayed for so long? Part of the answer likely has to do with the fact that Ueda has reportedly left Sony’s Japan Studio, although Sony was quick to point out that he will continue to serve as a “consultant” on the game.
The red-wigged scourge
Strange gifts are routinely foisted upon convention goers at E3. Swag-minded attendees have even been known to bring a second empty suitcase to L.A. with them, to be used exclusively to haul home the goodies being given away on the show floor. Usually, these gifts will take the form of a sticker, a poster, or a glow-in-the-dark something or other. In some cases you may receive a lukewarm Pepsi. But in 2011, the third-party peripheral manufacturer Nyko baffled attendees by handing out free red shoulder-length wigs. To acquire a wig, one needed to endure a demo of Nyko’s Zoom peripheral. The Zoom is an attachment for the Kinect that supposedly makes the device usable in smaller rooms. (It does not work.)
Why neon red wigs? No one knows, really. But this explains why nearly every photograph from E3 2011 features grinning, sweaty men who appear to be in search of the try-outs for the next season of Untucked. Side note: At press time, a Nyko wig was selling on eBay for $39.99. It had zero bids.
Case Status: Closed.
This action game was designed to give fans a look at the StarCraft universe from a more intimate perspective than the god’s-eye-view of StarCraft games typically allows. Ghost was originally announced in 2002, with a “firm” release date scheduled for late 2003.
That date proved to be as firm as warm Jell-O. In a sign that trouble was no doubt brewing behind the scenes, Blizzard decided to take the game away from Nihilistic Software—Ghost’s original developer—and give it to Swingin’ Ape Studios to finish. With Swingin’ Ape on board, he game was officially re-announced at E3 2005—the first “re-announcement” in E3 history—with a brand new release date slated for 2006.
And again the release date came and went. Blizzard has been quiet about the game ever since. Blizzard co-founder Frank Pearce said in 2008 that Ghost was never officially canceled. This gave fans hope that Blizzard will actually make a—brace yourself—re-re-announcement of Ghost at some point, and eventually still publish it.
Case Status: Closed. In 2006, Blizzard announced that the game was on “indefinite hold.” Despite the fact that a novel was published based on the fiction of the game—StarCraft Ghost: Nova by Keith R. A. DeCandido has a 3.5-star rating among Amazon users—the game is now generally considered vaporware.