Attendance is all killer and no filler. While the demo room gets foot traffic from Fantastic Fest at large, panel attendees consist almost entirely of industry people, journalists, professors, and garage developers. There isn't a fanboy in sight, and in four days of events I don't catch a single word of leet speak. At times, I feel like our small group of insiders is an Illuminati cabal, plotting an industry coup.
Even better, no one tries to sell you shit. Apart from Waypoint's announcement of an animated series about two buddies who play Halo, dubbed Apartment 117, there's no attempt to build hype. Hard-sell ads and promos are mercifully absent. The closest thing to booth babes are two conservatively dressed blondes from Time Warner who hand out swag while pausing occasionally to shoot desperate glances at the bar. In the primetime afternoon spot that would usually hold a launch announcement, Fantastic Arcade held an ethics panel.
It's clear that the panels focus largely on revolutionary games. You don't book Richard Garriott as keynote speaker unless you want to discuss pioneerism. The original indie developer, Garriott built Ultima from his living room, and is currently running his new gaming company, Portalarium, out of his lake house.
Garriott's an interesting speaker. Not many videogame tycoons live in a self-designed castle featuring an observatory, secret passages, and a dungeon with real human skeletons, nor have they dropped $30 million to blast into space in a Russian rocket. The man is nuts for space, and brings it up often, which would be insufferable if he wasn't so fascinating. The topic reaches nosebleed-inducing levels of surreality during a live taping of in-gamespace talk show This Spartan Life, when Garriott soliloquizes about space travel while soaring around Halo: Reach on a jetpack and beating Brutes to death with an oversized golf club.
The liveliest panel is a meet between Jonathan Blow and Timecrimes director Nacho Vigalondo, which instead of inducing the expected temporal Ragnarok from the meeting of two legends of time manipulation, focused on the topic of videogames influencing film. Watching their verbal sparring feels like seeing two Wushu masters face off.
The films are a mixed bag, but thankfully, the Alamo serves food and beer directly to your seat. "Classics" like The Last Starfighter and The Wizard go down all right if you've primed the pump with a few pints, but it's no accident that the excruciating 1980s arcade sex comedy Joysticks was shown at the only Alamo location that serves hard liquor. The documentaries are a better bet overall.