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Yeah, they’re game, boy

Times Staff Writer

AMID the marketing decadence and general cacophony of the video game bacchanal known as E3, there was also hushed reverence, the sort of wonder historically reserved for the Holy Grail.

Outside Nintendo’s Space Age exhibit at the Los Angeles Convention Center this week, a line snaked for city blocks. Inside, eager young men surrounded a museum-style display case, gazing quietly at the sleek consoles perched there. Some took photos.

“There’s never been anything like this in the history of video games,” gushed Andru Edwards of Gear Live Media.

The object of their adoration was the mysterious Wii (pronounced “we”). On an elevated stage nearby, uniformed Wii masters performed for the awed visitors, gesturing wildly, their every move registering on flat-screen TVs. Two men appeared to be playing tennis, aiming their strokes toward the screen. One man conducted an animated orchestra that only he could hear. All this while three lovely young women in blue miniskirts used their microphones to discuss the merits of their white go-go boots.

It was all strangely unsettling. But then perhaps that was the point. It’s the rush of the new, the unfamiliar, that the faithful desire.

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Starting on Wednesday, die-hard gamers swarmed the Convention Center for three days this week, lining up hours early, armed with their hand-held devices and overstuffed backpacks, pale as the undead, hungry for the next level of play, the next retina-blasting battle, the next high-def, high-concept digital dreamscape.

A triumphant cry lifted from a crowd of hundreds when the doors opened for non-VIPs at 10:55 a.m. Wednesday (because who could wait until 11?). Cheek-to-jowl, they moved into the hall with surprising speed. One young man darted out ahead, jogging. A woman on the periphery looked on, agog. “Frightening,” she said. Within 10 minutes, the wait to enter the Nintendo exhibit was three hours.

They came for the $25-billion industry’s premier video game trade show, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, an annual event that will draw tens of thousands of professional video game players, designers, publishers and retailers from all over the world. It’s a world that is changing as video game sales increasingly move online, but one thing is constant: the armies of adrenaline junkies fueling this monster.

Inside the exhibit halls, a space roughly the size of New Jersey, the noise was deafening, so loud that a plane could have landed in the lobby without prompting so much as an eye twitch from anyone. Of course, noise was the least of it, really. Entering this space meant surrendering a good portion of one’s frontal lobe to the relentless, albeit spectacular, imagery. It was like watching a dozen action films -- all at once.

Hence, large packs of people standing motionless, glued to the giant movie screens that trumpeted cinematic crisis every few feet. Asked what they were watching, the response was always the same: “I have no idea.” Typically, they were held rapt by some well-built, bloodthirsty hero on the run, unmoved by his apocalyptic bad luck, surviving against all odds, whether in the Middle Ages or the Middle East.

Somehow, surly comic Gilbert Gottfried’s characteristic whine cut through all this, clear as a bell. That is, Gottfried in the flesh, not some cartoonish facsimile. A video game neophyte, he was playing reporter at the expo, trying, somewhat unsuccessfully, to collect sound bites for the video game cable network G4TV.

“When did you first start becoming Mr. Chrome?” he asked some guy painted silver from head to toe.

“When they hired me,” the man answered.

Gottfried stared blankly into the camera as if silently cursing his agent. He continued aimlessly wandering the hall with his camera crew and his extremely large bodyguard in tow. He tried to rally a couple of “booth babes” from the Power of Korea Game exhibit. No luck. He paused to survey the masses of gamers, most of them men in their 20s wearing chin scruff and baggy pants.

“There are people here that are bigger losers than I am,” he said.

Ah, but there were legions of high scorers. At the PlayStation 3 exhibit, half a dozen men with incredibly dexterous thumbs manned the consoles of a game called God of War. On-screen, a guy trapped in a dungeon -- or was this the Seventh Circle of Hell? -- severed one of a monster’s three heads and then used it to beat the beast to death. An impressive spray of bloody mist followed his every move.

Off-screen, the players stood perfectly still, feet planted. Their quivering digits and darting eyes the only evidence of effort. It was joyless game playing.

But that’s not to say there was a lack of enthusiasm here. True, a decency crackdown on scantily clad “booth babes” by event organizers meant notably less cleavage this year. And, yes, even before the expo opened, many game bloggers seemed profoundly underwhelmed by Sony’s new graphics and Microsoft’s new Xbox3, products that cost tens of millions of dollars to produce.

Still, there were girls in silver mini-dresses who writhed on platforms as an emcee cheered gamers through a (simulated) hostage situation. There were people dressed as large game animals. There was blistering irony via message T-shirt.

“Video games are my friends,” read one worn by a guy well past the age he should be wearing such things.

“I’m one of those bad things that happen to good people,” read another worn by a young man who was really too short to do much damage.

And for the record, although the crowd was mammoth, there was no line in the ladies room.


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