Sony's efforts to woo Western press with Vita at the Tokyo Game Show went absolutely arse up, exposing the console to the cold light of objectivity.
A few days before I was due to leave for the Tokyo Game Show, I was handed an invite to a very special Sony event. A limited number of hand-picked press were to be conveniently chauffeured to Tokyo harbour straight from the showfloor, taken on a luxurious cruise to see the city's skyline at night, and, most importantly, offered a chance to get hands-on with Vita, the show's hottest tech.
"Sounds dreamy," I said as I fired off an affirmative RSVP. "Rock star treatment. I've arrived."
My cynical appreciation for PR efforts to put us in the mood for love didn't go unnoticed. Somewhere - probably a hot place, with lots of screams and bad coffee - something lifted its hornéd head and chortled.
"Sony," it breathed in a midnight voice. "Gonna get a bunch of journos drunk on the cheap in return for nice words? Not on my watch."
And thus, the Great Sony Boat Disaster of TGS 2011 was set in motion.
It started several hours before the show ended, when I managed five minutes in the press room to double check the details, which didn't seem as concrete now I was thoroughly lost in the enormous Messe.
"Meet the shuttle outside this hotel," Sony advised. There were no further directions, besides the stern warning that latecomers would be left behind.
"Balls," I said, and then started asking around when everyone looked at me. Nobody had even heard of the Sony Boat.
When the show closed down and I couldn't find any of my colleagues, I started randomly trailing people who looked like games writers. "Are you going on the Sony Boat? Are you going on the Sony Boat? Does anyone know how to get to the Sony Boat?"
Finally, on a bridge on the other side of the complex, I met two similarly lost guys who'd had directions from centre staff and thought 'maybe it was over that side possibly'. Together, we commiserated over the lack of information provided and cursed all PR types forever.
"Where are you from?" I asked.
"Sony," they replied.
We arrived at the correct hotel lobby with bare moments to spare, finding three large coaches waiting along with a crowd of around 50 journalists and a scattering of developers. For the next ten minutes, we watched another 50 attendees pour in, trying to look calm despite the frantic fear that they'd literally missed the boat.
For the 45 minutes after that we didn't watch anything, although at one point we filed onto the coaches so we could watch nothing in less comfort.
Now running almost an hour late, we set off for the middle of nowhere, whence we were to take another shuttle to the Sony Boat. Unfortunately for me and my fellow Bus of Doom occupants, our driver had other ideas. Asked to reverse the bus into a carpark from across a crowded, busy, incredibly narrow street - an admittedly touchy manoeuvre - he took off in the opposite direction, apparently in shame.
We were too polite to question this and as he didn't speak much English, he coyly avoided the chorus of "what"s rising in volume the further away we got. From the frequent stops, starts, and aborted turns, we slowly came to realise he was looking for a place to turn the bus around, so he could reverse into the carpark from the correct side of the street.
Unfortunately, there is no street in the Tokyo metropolis where a bus can do a U-turn in relative comfort and safety, so we spent an hour - an actual fucking hour, composed of 60 shitty minutes - going around a block.
There is no street in the Tokyo metropolis where a bus can do a U-turn in relative comfort and safety.
"He's taking us away somewhere to murder us," I moaned.
"No, no, look - we're here," a friend soothed me.
Here was the aforementioned carpark, and after carefully backing in, our driver fled behind a shed to have a smoke and avoid our accusing eyes. Two more, smaller buses collected us and sped away, leaving the streets to bump over an off-road track in complete darkness.
"Now they're taking us away to murder us," my friend conceded.
No such luck. After a cross country trip which included passing under a massive concrete bridge lined with graffiti of the less gorgeous, more you-are-going-to-be-mugged sort and sneaking along an abandoned track by the river, we reached a dock, where a barge stood, its windows glowing.
"Where the fuck were you," our unhappily sober companions commented. They'd been sitting for more than an hour at long banquet tables, mainly too polite to open the drinks and eat the sashimi in front of them.
It was now two hours later than our scheduled boat departure time but the Japanese staff seemed unfazed and took off into the dark.
"I have to back at my hotel in like, two hours," I asked a Sony representative as the engines thrummed into life. "Are we going to do this quick and be back at the time you said we'd finish?"
His eyes were glazed in resigned fury. "No," he said. "We're going to stay on the fucking boat."
"This will all be worth it when the Vitas come out."
I inched closer to another set of Sony reps, who were clearly not in a good mood. I gathered, through eavesdropping, pouring drinks, and eliciting conversation with them and publisher representatives over the next few days, that there had been several instances of "miscommunication" between the groups responsible for organising the event, none of whom were in attendence, leading to the utter disaster we had all embarked on together as a decreasingly merry crew.
"I have work to do," one writer moaned.
"I just want to go to bed," another whispered, close to tears.
"Fuck it. Let's get hammered," another suggested, and most of them proceeded to do just that, while I, a couple of camera crew, and a seasick bystander resisted temptation.
"This will all be worth it," I told myself, "When the Vitas come out. Any second now."
For several hours, we ate food of wildly varying quality and looked at the sights - a Tokyo skyline largely composed of black space, thanks to electricity-saving measures post Tohoku. In the last 90 minutes, the Vitas did come out, and there were at least 12 of them. For 100 journalists.
We reached out our hands eagerly, those at the front blissful, those at the back enraged. But the mood shifted as a ripple of information came to the back of the pack.
"They're not pre-loaded."
The Sony reps scurried to load one or two demos onto each unit, a process that seemed to take forever. There was no way of knowing what you were going to get until you had it in your hands, and those with, for example, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, weren't letting it go.
I got out my camera.
"You can't take photos of that."
"But those guys are filming that one," I said.
"What? Oh. No, you can take photos of that one." He peered at the bottom edge of the unit six of us were sharing, which looked identical to all the others. "But not this one. Or that one, or that one over there. Pretty much just that one."
I put my camera away.
"Do you want to play, and I'll watch?" I asked the girl next to me. "I'm pretty crap at ModNation Racers."
"I'm great at it," she smiled, taking it willingly. "I'm crap at it," she exclaimed moments later, as the glitchy gamescom demo failed to let her perform basic actions like, you know, steering.
"Swap with the next bunch," I ordered, and we got the LittleBigPlanet gamescom demo.
"Is any of this new content?" I asked in dismay.
The answer, happily, was yes: there was a Gravity Daze demo which was brand new. "Can I look at that?" I asked the ten or so guys who'd been holding it for twenty minutes.
"Whatever. I'm getting a drink," one of my group exclaimed, to a general chorus of assent and a leeching away of my support group. The last to stand up dropped the Vita carelessly into my grip, as if it were a used tissue.
I looked at it.
With fifteen minutes until the boat docked, I had finally got a chance to play with Vita. This little piece of tech was solely responsible for hours and hours of my wasted time, time that should have been spent working or resting for the next day's efforts, and for leaving my partner stranded outside a Japanese hotel in the middle of the night while I tried to get back to Tokyo. This little piece of tech felt as if it had it in for me, my career, my relationship, my wellbeing, my website, my boss, and my sanity.
It felt wonderful.
The Vita is light - so light it's almost possible to forget you're holding it - but the contours of the casing let it nestle in the fingers in such a way that there is some heft, and it doesn't feel fragile or insubstantial.
I played the LittleBigPlanet demo you've read and heard and watched a hundred times, and I found myself exclaiming in delight when I realised I needed to use the cleverly-implemented touch controls and didn't have to stretch in the slightest. In fact, two of my fingers rested comfortably on the pad as a result of the shaped grip, and I had to remember to lift one when I only needed a single input.
My thumbs landed immediately on the analog sticks with none of the artificiality and cramp-inducing clawing the PSP always brings out in me, and I reverted naturally to the twin-control habits I use when playing PlayStation 3.
This little piece of tech was solely responsible for hours and hours of my wasted time. This little piece of tech felt as if it had it in for me, my career, my relationship, my wellbeing, my website, my boss, and my sanity.
Speaking of the big brother, the visual fidelity between the Vita and its older relative was quite astonishing. We've all seen videos and screenshots but seeing it in action - something looking very close to a PlayStation 3 game running on a portable device - is staggering.
"Please collect shoes from box one," our motherly waitress suddenly screamed in my ear. The boat was drawing close to the dock and the Sony representatives were packing away the Vitas.
"No," I begged, as they approached, wondering if I could make it to land before they tackled me. "It's mine. It's mine. You'll never take it away. You took it away. Well done."
Sony loaded us back into more buses - one of my companions loudly exclaiming that he was not getting back onto a bus with That Man, who was thankfully absent - and dropped us off at an arbitrary central hotel. I cab-shared for a couple of kilometres on someone else's expense account, and took a lonely, after-midnight stroll back to my hotel, deep in thought.
Sony had given me every reason in the world to hate its new console, because, as much as you try to avoid it, the hullaballoo and glamour of big events does affect your objectivity - in this case, not to the portable's benefit. And yet, I found myself even more interested in getting hold of one of these magical little devices.
Someone in PR may have got a dressing down for the Great Sony Boat of TGS 2011, but as ever it's the engineers and developers whose voice we have to hear, and if those guys don't get a promotion in the wake of Vita's launch, the world is just not right.