I went to Gamescom and all I got was this Sony fedora

My time at Gamescom 2014, during which I got to eat a proper German sausage.

Gamescom should probably be called ‘Sittingonthefloorcom’. That’s not really a criticism, but turn up expecting to be entertained every minute of the convention and you’ll probably leave disappointed. An hour into a queue to play the next Assassin’s Creed makes you realise the man in front of you with a collapsible camping chair and a kindle is probably the most sensible person ever birthed from a womb.

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Admittedly I don’t have much experience with conventions, so I wasn’t sure what to expect in my adventure to Cologne. Gamescom is the second biggest games convention in the world, with an absurd 335,000 people all jostling to play the latest games months before their release. A startling majority of said 335,000 were young men, which surprised me: they’re actually not as big a demographic amongst people that play video games as you might think. I’d like to believe the branded fedoras Sony and Square Enix were giving out were designed as some kind of razor-sharp ironic statement on the perception of said demographics.

Gamescom is mainly geared towards showing off the big blockbuster titles, with a smattering of smaller ‘indie’ projects thrown in. League of Legends, for example, has almost one whole of the 11 mammoth halls to itself, with enthusiasts from across the world gathering to play against each other in the flesh. Fans proudly strut through the halls in costume, going to admirable lengths to recreate their favourite characters from video games old and new. It’s humbling to see so many people with such excitement over a shared pastime. Sitting in the queue for what turned out to be a posh trailer for Tom Clancy’s The Division, I found myself effortlessly nattering away with another visitor who had travelled all the way from the US, about how Black Flag should have dropped all of that assassin nonsense and just been a game about being a pirate.

The game I was probably most excited about having a razz on while in Cologne was Alien: Isolation. Inspired by the first film in the Alien franchise – rather than its more action-packed sequel, Aliens, as most spin-off games are – means there’s only one monster stalking you, but you have no way to kill it. From my meagre twenty-minute session I reckon it’s got a good potential for brick-shitting, although that all hinges on how much you see the alien. In the film you only get a full frontal of it at the end, and your imagination is invariably spookier than a lanky man in a rubber costume. In my playthrough the alien ended up bumbling around a bit, and the ‘oh shit it’s right there’ novelty did start to wear off. Hopefully the game proper will give the alien a bigger area to roam about, meaning encounters are sparse but intense occasions.

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The Evil Within was another on my list. Also a horror game, its popularity was confirmed by a three-hour queue time (a good chance for a nap away from my hostel roommate’s impressive sleep apnoea). Whereas most horror games these days go down a more forgiving, action-oriented route to appeal to a wider audience, The Evil Within is supposedly a return to the old-school spookiness of ‘survival horror’ games of yore; so says the game’s director and the creator of the whole Resident Evil franchise, Shinji Mikami. The Evil Within certainly feels the part, with the Gamescom demo throwing players into a haunted house with various grizzly puzzles to solve. Marrying ruthless survival horror and over-the-shoulder gunplay together made me wistful for Resident Evil 4, and I really wanted to like it, but certain game design choices worry me; the game has the potential to forfeit scariness from player frustration. Taking cues from The Last of Us’ stealthy mechanics – there are now lots of glass bottles lying around that make a loud smash when you throw them – makes taking the not-zombies head on foolhardy, encouraging strategy and conservation of ammo: even a lone enemy can be enough to finish you off if you bollocks-up an encounter. But awkward camera positioning and elaborate animations when, for instance, entering a room may make intentional clunkiness overbearing. It’s certainly one I’m looking forward to seeing more of when it comes out in October, at any rate.

The indie section of the convention was unsurprisingly much less busy, featuring an arguably more diverse range of games. Chatting to the developers themselves, rather than some attractive people hired to man a stall for a day, makes it a more rewarding area to wander through. Of the many games on display, my favourites included Rive, a 2D shooter-platformer with snappy controls providing some solid arcade-y fun, and surrealist puzzler Back to Bed, which sees you guide a sleepwalker through an Escher-esque environment. An exhausted-looking developer gave me approving nods as I cracked each cheese-dream-inspired level, so I must have been doing well. A short distance away were stalls from games design university courses. German ‘rollerskate-em-up’ student game Neon Lines had me manically giggling as I whizzed around a warehouse smacking men with guns in the face with a golf club. I defy anyone else alive not to crack a smile while playing such slapstick gold.

Spotting the Oculus Rift stall on the first day, I promised myself I’d make time to go back and give it a go before the week was up. The Rift is, after all, a piece of tech I wouldn’t easily be able to muck about with outside of an event like this. For those unfamiliar with it, the head-mounted display is the latest in virtual reality technology, allowing players to peer around inside a digital world in real time. I was particularly excited to see a Rift-enabled version of SUPERHOT, a first-person shooter in which time only progresses while the player moves around. I’d already played a browser-based version, but adding the Rift to the mix adds an extra layer of skill and strategy. Darting your head to the side to dodge an impending bullet and watching it woosh past you is super good fun. I probably looked like a complete loon jerking my head around in the middle of Gamescom, but I was having a bloody good time in my own special Matrix world.

As the final day of the convention came to a close and the thousands-strong army of attendees marched back towards the city of Cologne (a city seemingly devoid of any actual German restaurants, as we quickly discovered) I felt more excited for the medium of digital games than I have done in a while. It’s easy to point out that, playable demos aside, most of the content you’re queuing up to see is available online, but it feels a bit like telling a football season ticket holder that they’d get a better view if they watched all the matches at home on the telly. Although I spent considerably more time waiting to play games than actually playing them, there’s an ineffable excitement in the air you can’t help feel invigorated by. My time in Cologne has certainly wetted my appetite for future conventions.

I’ll probably bring a comfy chair and a book next time, though.

Originally published on Storehouse online.