E3 tends to be a rather dry series of press conferences, in which nervous-looking executives try to drum up interest for games that fans may or may not care about. It can be deeply awkward and corporate, and I often struggle to fight off a strong feeling of cynicism after having sat through so many of these shows.
But E3 2019 feels a bit different, as small moments of either personality or joy break through the surface and cause everyone to come together and celebrate just how human this show can be at its best.
Each of the moments that have grabbed audiences during E3 2019 involve someone bringing a whole lot of enthusiasm to their role, and that energy combines with a sense that maybe, just maybe, the whole thing is about to go off the rails in a delightfully unscripted way.
Keanu Reeves and Cyberpunk 2077 at E3 2019
This happened when Keanu Reeves took the stage during Microsoft’s press event to promote Cyberpunk 2077, for instance. Keanu Reeves is already having a pop culture moment, with fans enjoying action films like John Wick 3, romantic comedies like Always Be My Maybe, and Reeves’ remarkably simple yet deep answers to impossible questions going viral, so we were already primed to enjoy his presence. But holy shit was Reeves ever able to read the room and bring a maximum amount of joy to the moment.
When I get compliments in my mentions and want to spread that positivity #KeanuReeves #cyberpunk2077 Person in crowd: You’re breathtaking! ★ Keanu Reeves *laughs* You’re breathtaking!... You’re all breathtaking! pic.twitter.com/bcgq2bt1dA— setzehomes (@setzehomes1) June 11, 2019
Ikumi Nakamura and Ghostwire: Tokyo
A similar thing happened when Ikumi Nakamura took the stage to introduce GhostWire: Tokyo, and just about stole the show with her unstoppable happiness at the task of announcing the game and selling it to an eager crowd. This was her moment to shine, after an impressive career behind the scenes, and she was ready to wring every last second of goodness out of it. Does this seem like the person who would watch Hellraiser daily as a child?
It’s rare to see someone who seems this genuine and excited to be showing off their work, and it helps that her exuberant demeanor was even more fun due to the fact she was discussing a very scary-looking game. Again, it was a moment of humanity and happiness that seemed like it could have gone off the rails at any moment, but it never did. It felt human and wonderful, and the internet reacted appropriately. The better news is that, so far at least, Nakamura seems to be enjoying the attention.
These fan arts are my treasures and make me smile. Arigato ！これは私の宝物たちです。 pic.twitter.com/oBCGPtMRGI— Ikumi Nakamura (@nakamura193) June 10, 2019
Joe Bernthal and Bam Bam, the very good dog
The internet likewise lost its collective mind when actor Joe Bernthal came out to promote some kind of shooty-man game, but he did so with his own pet dog, named Bam Bam. And yes, it was a very cute dog — even if some of us wondered if the poor thing might have been a little sedated.
And who wouldn’t want a supportive dog onstage while you’re presenting in front of such a large crowd? And Bam Bam wasn’t a prop or a publicity stunt, he’s just one of Bernthal’s three rescue pit bulls. Here’s a picture of Bernthal with Bam Bam while the dog was still a tiny puppy. The moment landed so hard because so much of it felt genuine and warm, despite the somewhat boring tone of the game he was there to discuss.
Helen, the very old assassin of Watch Dogs: Legion
And the last of the viral moments of this year’s E3, at least for now, happened when Ubisoft showed off Watch Dogs: Legion by introducing the world to Helen, who is apparently a retired assassin. You don’t see a lot of aging women absolutely kicking ass in the world of narrative games, and the world fell in love with Helen within seconds.
It’s not like Ubisoft knew that we would all react this way and that Helen would become such an instant icon; companies with that kind of insight into why characters go viral would, you know, do so more often. And the fact that the demo also introduced permadeath right before we meet Helen makes it seem as if she’s in danger, because anyone can die in this world, and it suddenly feels very important that we keep Helen safe.
What does this say about E3?
Things along this nature happen every year, although 2019 seems to be especially thick with them. And these moments show how starved we can be for actual human moments during a show that’s designed primarily to sell us things. It’s also worth noting that this sort of thing can’t be planned very well or faked; that would destroy the whole point. Microsoft and CD Projekt knew that bringing out Keanu Reeves would be a popular move, but it’s not like they could plan for Reeves taking so much pleasure in the crowd and his job talking about the game.
Each of these moments were somewhat risky, in their own ways, even if that risk was just that a big star or a developer who wasn’t used to the spotlight would bore the audience once they reached the stage. Or maybe Bam Bam might have freaked out and ran into the crowd. Or Helen might not have gone over well as the audience waits for the next boring video game protagonist to take over.
But none of that happened. Each person, even the virtual ones, were perfect, and they brightened up E3. We want these human moments, and we want things to be a little messy and fun. The problem is that no one can effectively plan to offer that sort of thing at a venue this large, which makes it even more remarkable when it happens, as if a little bit of actual soul was able to sneak through the layers of artifice to connect with people who legitimately love games and the culture around them.
And fans continue to celebrate these moments, which keeps the joy coming. There’s a danger that some executive somewhere is thinking about ways to replicate this sort of natural, direct connection to the fans, and those attempts will likely come off as stilted and artificial. Nintendo tends to fall into this “forced meme” feeling from time-to-time during Nintendo Directs, for instance.
So let’s enjoy the good stuff while it lasts, because these are the times E3 feels a bit more like a celebration and a bit less like one long commercial.