Pageantry doesn’t have the best reputation. It’s easy to think of it as low art, a kind of kitsch, from beauty contests to pro wrestling. It can seem especially gauche in gaming, where keynotes and conferences are forged from pure marketing fluff in order to coax us into salivating about products that aren’t even out yet.
We live in a marketing-rich culture. We’re offered teaser tweets for teaser posters for teaser trailers for actual trailers for upcoming films (looking at you, Sam Mendes’ SPECTRE). One of our biggest shared mythologies is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in which every unit of story acts as a shimmering advertisement for the others. The hype train is real; it’s now part of the excitement of participating in mythology and media.
That’s why I found myself watching Sony’s E3 pageant—sorry, conference—with such rapt attention. It takes real stones, and no small amount of showmanship, to walk up to an audience—in this case, a worldwide audience of millions—and declare that not one, not two, but three of their Elder Gods are not dead, but in fact coming back to life on a PlayStation near them. I mean, of course, The Last Guardian, Shenmue 3, and the biggest surprise of the night, a true current-gen remake of Final Fantasy VII.
The bombshell of Final Fantasy VII is key to what made Sony’s show so powerful. This is a critical piece of childhood mythology for millions of people. It’s what ignited in many of us that fire that said gaming was a serious pursuit, a place where magic could happen and wild stories could be told. Console gaming was always off-limits in my house, and I can’t quite explain to you the early charge of being a teenager and having a friend sneak his PlayStation over to show me a game starring a spiky-haired hero with a giant sword, with a level of graphical atmosphere unlike anything I’d seen before. That feeling is hard to put into words, but I can tell you with certainty that it came roaring back to life during Sony’s event tonight.
Low art and high art have never been accurate distinctions. Things we think of as low art often have much stronger communities built up around them because the mythologies are so essential to those who participate in them. Like a lot of people, I grew up scoffing at pro wrestling, but that was before I learned how deeply meaningful, visceral, and fun it can be for those who participate in it. I’ve always been a devoted fan of The Mountain Goats, but when their most recent album, the wrestling-themed Beat the Champ, came out, I got a sympathetic peek inside what made that medium so powerful for lead singer/songwriter John Darnielle. In “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero,” he recounts memories of watching wrestling as a kid while living under the thumb of his abusive stepfather: “I need justice in my life/Here it comes/Look high, it’s my last hope/Chavo Guerrero, coming off the top rope.”
Final Fantasy VII came along at a similarly tender age in my life, when I was still struggling with my own childhood. It offered me a dark world where hope nonetheless persisted, and although I don’t game as much now as I did then, it still gives me head-to-toe chills to suddenly be back in the living, breathing world of Midgar. Only this time in even more blistering detail and scope. I’m the sort of person who chafes at the cynicism of marketing, the endless sausage-making of AAA gaming. But this conference reached a part of me that existed before that—a kid who just knew there were killer worlds in my television waiting to be explored.
As an adult, I’ve come to regard gaming as a place where “low art” and “high art” have the potential to commingle, or even be dissolved. But I also see the realities of economics reducing gaming’s limitless canvas to endlessly repetitive products, and sometimes that can feel like a withering march into mediocrity. Even this level of excitement over a remake of a nearly two-decade-old game seems, in and of itself, like an indictment of the current state of affairs.
That’s exactly why sometimes it takes a little pageantry to remind us why we fell in love in the first place. To give us a light show, make us forget the man behind the curtain, and remind us that myth and magic can sometimes be real. I held myself above that for a long time, but tonight I gave up that affected resistance. It feels so good to come back to the fold.