What it’s really like to go to the Tokyo Game Show

By Brenna Hillier, Monday, 29 September 2014 13:04 GMT

The Tokyo Game Show is a dream come true. Maybe the one with the screaming walls.

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For many of us on the edges of geek culture, such as it is, Tokyo is a magical, mystical city, the origin story of our industry, the seat of some of our greatest content. (Please quietly ignore the fact that any other Japanese cities exist and in fact produce a significant quantity of the nation’s gaming output; everyone else does.) The Tokyo Game Show was an impossible dream to teenage Brenna.

Every gaming convention is overwhelming. This is an industry of almost pure spectacle, but put enough spectacles side by side and they start to blend together, a vomit upholstery pattern of bright colours and sparks. So each and every spectacle strives harder and harder to be the one distinct spot, the piece of carrot, that pulls at the eyes. Like the hundred wives, each is more beautiful than the next, where “beautiful” is probably better expressed as “louder”. It is a cacophony.

The Tokyo Game Show floor is a wall of sound you can feel against your flesh; a muffling blanket that falls from the rafters, wraps around you, and cages you in electricity, so that passing back out into the hurly burly of Chiba feels like stepping into silence.

Japan is already a noisy place. Tannoy greets you in four languages, rotating non stop through a litany of warnings, advice, information and a total failure to let you know the train you’re about to get on goes in the opposite direction to all indications. Promotional staff smile with their enormous teeth and roar at you from every street corner. Platforms and road crossings play music or bird sounds or beep insistently. The entire staff of every business call a greeting and farewell to you whenever you pass through a door. The sirens never stop. Even in the train carriages, where talking on phones or playing music loud enough for your neighbours to hear is considered the height of rudeness, a robot voice constantly informs you what that the next stop is, what side the doors will open on, and that sudden stops may occur so please hold on.

But the Tokyo Game Show floor is a wall of sound you can feel against your flesh; a muffling blanket that falls from the rafters, wraps around you, and cages you in electricity, so that passing back out into the hurly burly of Chiba feels like stepping into silence. Suddenly you can breathe again, and the fight-or-flight stops beating insistently against the back of your sternum.

Even on the business days, where you can walk for whole steps at a time without someone’s elbow making its way into your lung cavities, everyone has to scream at each other to be heard. And they are screaming: please take this card. Please come queue for this demo. Please watch this livestreamed presentation. Please show me where the press room is, because if I don’t have a cup of tea and stare at my Facebook for a few minutes I’m going to have another nervous breakdown.

Though you have all day – have two or four days, maybe – and in an imaginary, wondrous world no back-to-back publisher appointments, you cannot see and do everything. So what do you do?

Do you stick your head through the approximate nipple holes of a giant pair of breasts in order to play the latest Oneechanbara game?

Do you go and have your photo taken with a bunch of handsome men (and very handsome women dressed as men) and maybe have them seize you and whisper to you in a dramatic fashion which, if it ever happened in the real world, would probably result in you putting your fist through their face? (What terrible effects are romantic manga and games having on young people. I’m genuinely afraid I already know.)

Do you go and let EA take your photo in a mock police station while all around you perfectly manicured and almost universally tiny men and women in quasi-military copper outfits pose for the flashes with face breaking grins?

Do you attempt to get your photo taken pretending to be squashed by the gigantic Gundam statue, only Namco Bandai has installed the most appalling, impossible backlighting as if they deliberately set out to ruin your entire life?

Do you queue for 30 minutes, 60 minutes, 90 minutes, three hours to play Bloodborne for 12 minutes?

Do you stop and rotate on the spot, watching the people watching, and wondering, again, what you’re doing?

The Tokyo Game Show technically doesn’t take place in Tokyo. It’s held in Chiba, an entirely different city about 40 km away, but still within the arms of the greater Tokyo metropolitan area. If you take the right train it’s maybe a 45 minute trip from downtown Tokyo. If you take the wrong train, three or four times, and aim for the wrong station, it may take you four hours. But Microsoft was very understanding about this.

The show is held in a convention centre called the Makuhari Messe. Messe is a German word; gamescom also takes places in a Messe. I like the word “Messe” because it sounds like “messy”, just like every convention centre ever.

Makuhari Messe is a bafflingly Japanese building. The main exhibition halls are roomy and numerous and strung out in a line, which is perfectly sensible even if it does mean the occasional sprint between booths at the opposite ends of the show floor. But everything else is an esoteric morass of corridors, lifts, escalators and doors that go nowhere, or go somewhere startling, covered in signs telling you everything but what you need to know.

The show floor is on ground level. The doors into the show floor are on the first floor. Your meeting is on the ground floor in an adjoining business space. Naturally you need to exit the show floor and enter the business space through the formal portals, so you are now on the first floor. Can you walk into the first floor of the business area and take a lift down to the room immediately below the one you’re staring at right now? No. You have to find a hidden escalator and pass through a short maze of doors marked DEFINITELY DON’T COME IN HERE.

Ignoring signs and directions is an important part of the Tokyo Game Show experience, and foreign press are very good at it. We are famed for our inability to comprehend directions like “please don’t post this or we will fine you”.

Ignoring signs and directions is an important part of the Tokyo Game Show experience, and foreign press are very good at it. We are famed for our inability to comprehend directions like “please don’t post this or we will fine you” and “please post this or we won’t want to talk to you any more”, so a sign saying “don’t charge your phone here” when we have been lost on a train for four hours frantically Googling “what does ‘tokubetsu kyuko’ mean” and need to look up where in the hell Capcom is hiding is nothing to us. We snap our fingers at it.

Some of the most exciting signs to ignore are those saying “foreign press must have a completed registration form” and “press must renew pass each morning”, because if you talk fast enough and with an earnest enough tone while holding your passport Japanese staff will generally glaze over a little bit, make some token notes on a bit of scrap paper (probably along the lines of “I don’t get paid enough for this”) and wave you through. Signs like “no exit”, “no entrance”, “re-entry only” and so on can similarly be avoided by the expediency of setting your face in a slight frown and marching through pretending to be completely deaf to the pleading “sumimasen”s that follow you.

(I am a horrible foreigner, but I paid for all my train tickets, kept my hotel room clean and only got noisy on a train once, so I’m excusing myself the conference shortcuts being a horrible foreigner provides.)

There are signs you should not ignore, of course, and these signs nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath or shooting pains in the chest. Possibly you are having a heart attack due to the stress of an impossible schedule, the weight of the work not being done while you gallivant about Asia on the company dime, the uncertain future of games media and your spiralling social anxiety which, ah ha ha, is exacerbated by being totally alone in a country where you can only speak the language if you are drunk and there is no time now to be drunk.

Getting from the Messe to the useful end of the Otani is easy. You go out the far doors on the first floor and go up a bit then cross a bridge then go down a bit then go in the doors marked BANQUETS ONLY then go through a service corridor then circle the mezzanine then take the escalators down then cross the lobby then find the lifts hidden in a narrow alcove.

Other important signs include the one on the roof of the Hotel Otani. This, or one of the numerous other hotels ringing the Messe, is where you spend a lot of time in lush suites watching demos of games (some of which unexpectedly come out the next day, making your attendance entirely pointless) and listening to translators carefully explain that they can’t tell you anything at all, ever. Getting from the Messe to the useful end of the Otani is easy. You go out the far doors on the first floor and go up a bit then cross a bridge then go down a bit then go in the doors marked BANQUETS ONLY then go through a service corridor then circle the mezzanine then take the escalators down then cross the lobby then find the lifts hidden in a narrow alcove then take one to the appropriate floor, which is usually in the 20’s or higher.

By day three I came to believe that I could no longer control the muscles on my face, and that if I smiled my skull would appear beneath my skin and terrify children. That’s what it’s like to go to the Tokyo Game Show.

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