Brenna went out to dinner with Battlefield developer DICE. She was liberally wined, dined and schmoozed by EA, and must now confess her sins.
EA asked me to dinner. I emailed Pat. "Shall I go to this? I feel like I shouldn't," I wrote, alluding to our non-hospitality policy. But DICE - or rather, creative director Lars Gustavsson - was going to be in attendance, and we haven't talked to the Swedish team in a while. "Yeah, go on. Just declare it on the site," the boss ruled.
EA elects to drive us all out to the venue from a central pick up in the city. I leave myself too much getting lost time and am loitering non-glamourously in an alley when I spot the string of black Mercedes vans marked Battlefield 4. They have tinted windows. 15 year old me is deeply impressed.
A dozen of my peers turn up, walking out of a nearby event VG247 and its 2 million uniques had not been invited to (I quietly file this away under "to action" and "revenge"). Some of them seem a little unsteady and many are clutching canvases. It is 1715.
I climb into a van with two Gamespots. We sit unmoving in the sealed vehicles for lengthy minutes and I begin to sweat; anytime I participate in a PR convoy I remember the Great Sony Boat Disaster of 2011 and start getting stress flashbacks. I mention this and one of the Gamespots knows the story; he is now somewhat discomforted. At least, I tell myself, I am divorced now; regardless of what time I come home that relationship can't get any worse.
We drive for a long time, avoiding clogged up arterial roads by weaving through suburban streets. The van's radio is playing a terrible commute program. We snipe about this until, just after crossing the harbour, the driver quietly offers to change the station, defensively noting he didn't set the channel when he got in. We switch to another terrible commute program on another station. I text GamePlanet in the van ahead to find out what station he's got. "Anti-Semitic talkback." Probably worse than Miley Cyrus, I decide, and elect not to ask for another change.
Finally we arrive but spend a further ten minutes driving round in circles looking for the correct gate. I didn't read the invite very well and realise for the first time we are at Homebush, Sydney's Olympic Park, where the EB Games Expo is being held this weekend. It's Australia's premiere consumer gaming event - or perhaps was, now that we have a PAX. VG247 won't be going because it would cost all the money in the world to make me spend the October long weekend looking at games we've already seen four times since July, so I'm keen to see the inside.
The expo hall is slightly eerie; it's a space designed around the tides of 40,000 people and without them everything is huge, echoing, and stark. Call of Duty: Ghosts looms large at the entrance - well done, Activision! - and Xbox One dominates nearby. I try to envision myself as a punter wetting myself with excitement to walk among these giants but all I can think of is the noise, the work, the inevitable PR appointment slippage, and the lack of edibles. Conventions: fuck 'em.
But EA has pulled out all the stops, it seems. I had wondered why it didn't just whisk us off to a restaurant closer to home, and the answer is that it has set up a formal dining table for 32 in the shadow of the famous Sydney Rampage Tank. There's a red carpet flanked by drinks waiters and photographers leading to it. It's an incongruity, a strange little bubble of posh in the middle of a temple to common denominator consumer excess. I quite like the effect, but as I carefully manoeuvre so that the tallest, muscliest men in the room are between me and the circling cameras I am starting to feel I have committed a tactical error; this is not going to come in under the heading of "minimal hospitality".
There are ammo boxes full of dry ice on the table; I decide this is a Frostbite reference. The event staff have locked the candles up in lanterns, presumably to avoid accidents, but we are free to give ourselves third-degree frost burns. I argue good-naturedly with Geek Bomb about where to sit, then get out my dictaphone. I leave my prepared interview questions in my handbag, though; Gustavsson is tucked away at the far end of the table, to my increasing dismay. IGN, GamePlanet and Gamespot are sitting across from me. Kotaku isn't here; he's got a newish baby and only ever eats determinedly healthy things. Most of the table is filled with my drinking buddies from the local games press, and I disappointingly concede I have wasted an excellent outfit on an evening lacking romantic potential.
There is a comedian whom everyone else knows because he's on Good Game, but I don't hang out with the TV guys very much. He introduces us to the Rampage Tank, makes some pretty decent jokes ("You can drive an aircraft carrier through an island - for $79.95 retail!") and then gives us a spiel about dinner. It's a five-course degustation prepared by the chef from Newtown's Oscillate Wildly.
This is definitely not minimal hospitality. I make friends with a waiter; I am going to want this mineral water topped up approximately every two minutes. There is a hashtag - #dinewithDICE - and an ice sculpture with the same slogan. I resolve not to tweet, since nobody is paying me to advertise anything. Anyway, I hate hashtags unless they are #ironic.
Immerse yourself in real world environments.
To Eat: "Desert" - Parmesan Custard, Tomato, Sand, Consomme
To Drink: 961 Beer "Lebanese Pale Ale", Beirut LEBANON
There are multiple forks, and the consomme - which the comedian incorrectly introduces as a gazpacho, and which is poured out from military canteens - is served in a Japanese tea cup. People on both sides and across the table are freaking out. This is one of the rare instances in which I feel more at home than my colleagues in a social situation. I'm wearing a perfect double windsor; do I look like I'm ever uncertain about which fork to use? Bread sand is not a foreign concept to me. Formal dining is my jam. The beer is quite good but I wince a bit when it's introduced as appropriate because it comes from a warzone. Gustavsson tells a cute anecdote which I dutifully record. I drink a spacer.
The environments will change.
To Eat: "Smoking Box" - Foie Gras, Bonito, Toast, Olive
To Drink: 2011 Weinbach "Schlossberg" Riesling, Alsace FRANCE
From the desert to the steamy jungle is the chef's explanation for why the next dish comes out on a box stuffed with dry ice, leaking vapour from two discreet vents. Gustavsson tells us DICE swore it would come up with a better name for Levolution before Battlefield 4 shipped and now regrets everything. I've never seen bonito except as flakes on other food and here it is in sashimi form; it tastes much the same. Nobody can find the olive except me. The Reisling comes from vineyards that were blown up in World War II, or possibly World War I, or perhaps both; I'm not big on history. Or geography. Or wine. I drink a spacer.
EA trots out the evening's entertainment - a duo known as Flaming Strings with generic European stylings (eyeliner, accents, a suggestion of tango) who do various delightful things involving balancing axes on chins; setting things on fire; eating fire; and playing the Battlefield 4 theme on violins. At one point the chappie pulls out a longsword and balances it, point to point, on a knife held in his teeth, while he does a sort of limbo. I am afraid Gamespot will sneeze and we'll witness a death. I can't take another bout of mental scarring. Later the woman stands on the chappie's shoulders in high heels, and they both set their bows alight and play a duet. "No flash photography," she keeps repeating, sweating slightly in genuine fear, and I glance around at my learned colleagues wondering which one of them will commit manslaughter via iPhone. Nobody does. I revise my opinion of several of them upwards by a couple of notches. The chappie waves a lit candelabra over the heads of the diners opposite and I tighten my grip on a glass of water, knowing IGN's fondness for hairspray and fully prepared to save a life even at the cost of eternal wrath. I am not called upon to perform this action.
Collect intel. Take control.
To eat: "Cross Hairs" - Venison, Beetroot, Horseradish
To Drink: 2010 Bonny Doon "Contra" Field Blend, Santa Cruz USA
Halfway through this course Polygon arrives and I go over to compare notes on how we are possibly going to get any coverage out of this. People are getting a bit restless and talkative, and there is a mass exodus to the bathrooms. My notes are becoming shorter and hazier. The comedian tells us the wine is from California because you can't have a war without getting the Americans involved somehow. Someone at the far end of the table takes mild offence and several of us give him a blank face. I drink a spacer.
There's more entertainment: a speed painter. He says he has two influences - the Australian wobble board artist whose name is best not bandied about for legal reasons and Mr. Squiggle. GamePlanet and IGN share a glance of bafflement as they are both foreigners and grew up without decent TV. The painter does us a bit of BF4 promo art and ends his act by setting it on fire. It is all very safe and there is no need for evacuation. This is just not my night.
Work together. Develop a strategy.
To Eat: "Grenade" - Chocolate, Plum, Boysenberry, Raspberry
To Drink: 15yr Old H&H "Malvasia" Madeira PORTUGAL
I grew up reading Georgette Heyer novels which is why I know what a madeira is. Although I could conceivably have purchased one at any time in my adult life it has somehow never occurred to me and I am having a capital-m Moment at this new experience; I text my grandma and Facebook an old friend. I even take a photo and tweet about it - sans hashtag - then try to justify my evening-long disdain for the rash of Instagramming that's been going on. Nobody knows how to eat the grenade but me so I lead the charge, smacking the hard chocolate shell open with a spoon. It's got a little sugar Bad Company tag attached and is stuffed with pop rocks. Pop rocks. Boy, does this guy know his audience. I drink a spacer.
Destruction. Mission Complete.
To Eat: "Flaming Sorbet" - Blood Peach, Apricot, Apple
To Drink: Edradour "Un-Chillfiltered" Whisky, Pitlochry SCOTLAND
Gustavsson is trying to eat his second dessert but Polygon has cornered him. I wander over, pull out my dictaphone, and put on a patient face until a PR minder comes over and makes polite noises; I am probably going to have to make this up to Polygon later but on the bright side: less transcription to do. I ask Gustavsson a couple of mildly aggressive questions and he doesn't vomit pre-prepared copy at me for which I am quite grateful. I make him sit down and eat while we chat briefly, and advise him on the correct consumption of his dessert; I feel this wins me some karma. The waiter steals my spacer glass.
It is time to go; people are striking out at random for doors which won't open while organisers try to herd us into groups with the same destination. There are some unfamiliar faces here and one of my colleagues asks me who the two good-looking guys are. I pretend I can identify a good-looking guy and march off to ascertain their identities. One of them is from Channel Ten. "Oh, mainstream," I say, thinking that this explains the high quality haircut, but am later told this was interpreted as a snub, since I immediately left to report back with my intel. I'd feel worse about this if, in the van on the way back, Channel Ten had not called IGN "Blondie" uniting my opposite number and I, very briefly, in a shared act of mental murder.
There is a bit of a debate in the van about the purpose of the event and whether coverage is required, expected, possible - whatever. The majority consensus is "not".
I do not participate in the argument. I'm thinking about how much it costs, per head, for a well-staffed, five course degustation with a portable commercial kitchen and multiple entertainers. I'm thinking about the tank. I'm thinking about the fact that the majority of attendees will not produce any copy. I'm thinking about the limited budgets most Australian PR staff work with, trying to get press in to look at games. I don't know what I think about all this thinking. I think I made a mistake not faking a stomach virus at 1900 as I'm now suffering extreme guilt.
I quite like going to preview events; it makes sense to me. I play the game and write some words, dutifully advising the hosting company of my coverage and current audience stats, which they send off to their international overlords. I understand what we all get out of it. I don't understand Dine with DICE. It fosters good relationships, my peers contend; it shows support for EA.
I get home at 2300 and my housemate peers at me cautiously, asking if I'm drunk. I genuinely don't know. It seems possible.
Battlefield 4 comes out on PC, PlayStation 3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One at the end of October. Brenna hasn't played it but understands it contains guns.