E3 2017 has come and gone, leaving demos, trailers and podcasts in its wake. But amidst the usual presentations and speculations was a surreal performance art piece by Devolver Digital. Framed as a press conference, it held a funhouse mirror up to the games industry and the reflection wasn’t flattering. It was a stout blend of parody and satire that will have your face cramp up as you try to laugh and cringe at the same time. Viciously funny and deeply unsettling, Devolver used the industry’s biggest event to call them out on their bullshit. That’s a gangster move.
The Austin-based publisher has always had a contentious relationship with E3, as it usually sets up its own mini-festival nearby to capitalize on the expo’s crowds without having to spend an exorbitant amount on booth space. Apparently this year E3 decided to hit back, as Devolver found themselves suddenly unable to secure all the necessary permits to put on their usual show. It is only fitting then that Devolver’s Big Fancy Press Conference starts by lampooning the rhetoric and style of E3 presentations. A lone figure walks onto a dark stage, greeted by overenthusiastic applause that can only be silenced by gunfire, and begins spouting buzzword salad while the camera constantly cuts between extreme angles on the speaker. Chief Synergy Officer Nina Struthers berates the audience and tells them exactly how she will rip them off and she is greeted with thunderous applause. She says nonsense like “Check a look” before revealing trailers that are nothing but a list of features over a sizzle reel of pixelated violence. Finally, she assures us that even though the game she just showed doesn’t exist yet, we can still buy it right now. “Tomorrow’s unethical business practices TODAY!” she proudly declares.
Next, Milo Lowrie demonstrates the next great technological advancement in monetizing your player base. The “Devolver Digital Screen Pay” feature does nothing but make it possible for the user to literally throw money at the screen and have it transferred directly to the publisher. Lowrie even keeps smiling when his miraculous device accidentally severs the user’s hand, calling to mind the many broken and unfinished AAA games that nonetheless shipped with fully functional online stores ready to sell you season passes.
Even we, the gamers, are not spared. Struthers unveils their new “Comment Created Content” initiative, giving players the ability to complain even more powerfully, seeing criticisms uploaded to the game in real time. Sadly, no amount of input ever seems to be enough for the angry consumer—even when they get what they want, they just want more. Ironically, a game’s most vocal detractors and most dedicated players often tend to be the same people. This felt like a plea to all armchair developers to stop telling them how to do their jobs. It is disheartening for artists in any medium to release a new work and have it immediately eviscerated for its smallest flaws while all of their meticulous craft is ignored, but it is particularly true in video games. Skyrim, one of the most played games ever, still gets comments like “I was only able to play 100 hours before it got so repetitive I had to quit.” Even if slaying your thousandth dragon wasn’t as exhilarating as the first, if you decide to spend a week in a fictional place you have to give credit to its creators.
The only misstep in this otherwise perfect satirical suckerpunch was the game trailers themselves. Because of the context, both of these games appeared to be joke concepts, presented as mockeries of creative bankruptcy. Ruiner was a distillation of every cyberpunk cliche ever, all stylish smoke and chrome with no substance. Serious Sam’s Bogus Detour was both a sequel and a top-down pixel art shooter, two things that are hardly scarce in today’s marketplace. I was a bit surprised to discover these were both real games being sold in earnest, but to be honest that plays right into Devolver’s strengths. One of my favorite indie games last year was Enter the Gungeon, a bullet hell roguelike full of weapons-grade puns, that challenged you to shoot your way through legions of Gundead to claim the ultimate weapon: a gun that can kill the past. Devolver’s catalogue has always been full of tongue-in-cheek titles that rely more on humor and fun mechanics than technical prowess, a place where ludicrous ideas no other publisher would touch can flourish.
To sum up, Devolver Digital held its first ever E3 press conference. They bought a slot on the official E3 Twitch stream in order to play a satirical sketch making fun of E3. But even as they heaped ridicule and scorn upon the expo and its culture, they used that same marketing machine to promote their own games. That’s how you do it the Player Way.