On any other Torontonian August Saturday, the streets would have been deserted. But on August 28th, hundreds of fans of all denominations filled Front St. for their chance to get into the sixteenth annual FanExpo, held at the Metro Toronto Convention Center. The size of the crowds could have been anticipated from any stop on the TTC; en route, the t-shirts of eager guests-to-be displayed their franchise allegiances, with every voice loud and proud.
Volume turned out to be the common noun of FanExpo 2010; whether referring to the sheer deluge of people on the outside of the complex, the amount of amazing content provided to those canny enough to buy passes ahead of time, or the fever-pitch of cheering throughout the center’s amphitheatres, it is debatable whether any other Canadian convention could compare in terms of variety. With balanced attention paid to the five pillars of nerd culture, there truly was something for everyone. And with the lines outside the building never abating, it felt as though everyone knew it.
Upon arrival, most attendees headed directly for the second floor. Home to the convention’s merchandisers, artists, and largest corporate sponsors, guests could enjoy demos of a select few holiday video games while collecting comics and autographs. The demarcation of the booth depended predominantly on the weight behind it; while individual artists may not have been labelled prominently, there was no missing the booth of Tron: Evolution. Chris Whiteside, the lead design developer for the title at Vancouver’s Propaganda Games, was leading a demo when I arrived. The game is very much a fluid experience–any and all of the blockiness in Tron’s past has been done away with completely. Musings on the game’s inspirations led Whiteside and I to the subject of Canadian industry specialties.
“We’re drawing from the best ground-based games, Prince of Persia, Assassin’s Creed…Canada has some of the best developers in the world for mobility based games. Obviously, Prince of Persias on its fifth iteration now? They’ve had plenty of time to work things out. There are examples from America–Uncharted’s very good. But a lot are done in our neck of the woods.”
Patriotism was put aside from then on. The giants beneath Tron: Evolution exist, but Propaganda looks neither back nor down on its predecessors.
“…There were certain things we wanted to refine from Prince of Persia and Assassin’s Creed—we wanted to get the player to wall-run everywhere, and from Assassin’s Creed, we wanted to focus on accessible controls.”
Throughout the combat scenes, the young man at the controls stood rapt.
“We wanted to make something that was totally Tron. We all sat down together with Kosinsksi and Sean Bailey (director of Tron: Legacy, executive producer of Tron: Legacy) and did the story-writing. As we knew the story of the film, we built it into the story of the game. The hardest thing was being so underground with the game; we only really showed it off at E3. We were worried about whether the fans would embrace the game as feeling like Tron…I watched the movie two months ago, and it was amazing to see the characters of the film reference events of the game, and see the physical geography be based on what happened in the game. It’s the first time in our business where this kind of cross-media pollination has been done to this depth, and it’s something Disney’s going to do, moving forward. It’s hard work, but it pays off.”
The hard work of the panel organizers paid off in turn. When I arrived in the auditorium for the noontime Tron: Legacy panel at 11:30, the hall was half-full; by five minutes before, there wasn’t an empty seat to be found. The show got off to a late start for reasons unexplained, but the audience was well-behaved. When a member of the throng attempted to start a militant chant of ‘Tron’, none joined, and most laughed at the attempt at disorder. The panels’ MCs, Innerspace’s Teddy and Ajay emerged to great cheers, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover I would be enjoying more of Chris Whiteside’s company. His enthusiasm was doubtlessly fed by the crowd—justifiably so.
“There are four great things about the game. This is not a movie game—this is the bridge between the original story and the film coming out this Christmas. The second aspect is the tactile gameplay; we want to make the players feel as though they truly are in Tron. Thirdly, there are multiple lightcycles in the game. In the single player, it is set-piece given, while in the multiplayer, it’s totally up to you. And the really important thing is we just solved the big problem that was haunting the game—we are happy to announce that as of Thursday, we have ninety degree turns in multiplayer.”
Unsurprisingly, this won a round of applause.
The following video showed the interaction between the filming crew and the team behind the game; for a few short minutes, Vancouver filled the hall. Following the Propaganda video, Whiteside returned to narrate gameplay. The landscapes looked even more beautiful on the silver screen, and the controls looked tight, with the exception of the apparently sensitive lightcycle controls—but upon considering the demands of a vehicle whose existence defies every law of physics, a high-strung control system does not seem out of the question. The audience was delighted by the footage—if Whiteside believes that the game’s chief difficulty was its lack of exposure, that fear can be put to rest. A gentleman to the last, he gave a birthday shout-out to a man in the audience before leaving the stage to the MCs’ care.
The impact of Tron was celebrated with a video of cultural references to Tron synchronized to Daft Punk’s ‘Around the World’–with Daft Punk as the primary artist for the Tron soundtrack, there could be no more obvious choice. Tron himself (Bruce Boxleitner) came out at the end for a Q&A session, which regrettably had to be forgone in order to catch the Q&A of the cast and crew of Riese: The Series.
To make it in anything even briefly resembling time required great haste; thankfully, the panel more than justified the sprint. With the Steampunk Canada crew in attendance, the cast and crew had the luxury of a loving audience—perhaps not as large as that of Tron’s, but equally passionate. The chief subject of the panel quickly became the nature of the relationship between webcreator and fan. Ryan Robbins and Ryan Copple led the panel, but the five members of the team formed a unified front.
“Starting as a webseries, you have a different relationship with your fans. There’s a sense of entitlement, rightfully so, because they’ve been with you since their discovery. So it’s really disappointing when you can’t give them anything, due to networks, and network decisions…The waiting’s the hardest part, waiting until we can say ‘Here you go, fans, here’s some stuff!’.”
And this the perfect day for stuff. Every anecdote from the panel, whether on costume decisions, eager actors who want to be on Riese, or angry kickboxing mishaps, was punctuated by laughter. We now know the episodes will be re-edited when re-released, and that it will be carried on one of the two Canadian sci-fi channels in addition to SyFy in the USA. That release date will be released within the next two weeks–and most mysteriously of all, a new character will be edited into the show. In addition, the tie-in game by Genius Factor Games was given some attention.
“It’s standing to be released at the end of September, early October, and it’s a card battle-game that takes place in Eleysia, and you play as either the Resistance or the Sect, and it’s all about the campaign to take over the nation. There’s a lot of fun story elements, and some behind the scenes things too. It’ll be a companion to the story, but also a stand-alone game. Following the iPhone game there’ll be an iPad release in glorious HD. I’ll tell you a little easter egg—when we were doing the card art, we did a photo shoot, and pretty much every card is us…I’m about fifteen of the cards. If you look closely, there’s the shaved head again….Christine plays herself. That’s good.”
Christine Chatelain was comfortable and relaxed. When asked about the difference between her roles on Sanctuary and on Riese, her answer was light-hearted.
“Well, I went from wearing no clothes to a lot of clothes….Actually, in Sanctuary, I wore a neon…condom-type…It’s awful! The director was very nice, everyone felt so bad for me that he actually wore it one day of shooting.”
As much as fans love pomp and circumstance, there was something to be said for the intimate atmosphere that the Riese crew provided for its fans. It stood in contrast with every other part of my day at the convention; between the sheer scale of the upper hall and the raucous fans of Tron, intimacy was out of the question in every other hour. But kindness was present on both sides of the stage. Fans cared where the money went from the tie-in game; Riese was happy to assuage their fears and encourage downloads of Gravity Well. The panel ended with the Steampunk Canada crew welcoming the speakers to their booth in order to enjoy the company of their fans; the relationship of Riese with its fans is admirable, and true.
While Vancouverite content was plentiful, Torontonian entertainments were slightly more difficult to find. Toronto businesses were well-represented upstairs, with the Silver Snail having a noteworthy booth. By mid-afternoon, the upstairs level was nothing less than a labyrinth. The Hand Eye Society was retroactively grateful not to have been placed on that second floor; by the end of the day, there was no blaming them. The chaos of arranging the flow of people took up much of the staff’s energy; my hunt was unaided by the program and attendants.
Thankfully, upon my arrival at the ground floor booth of the Hand Eye Society, Miguel Sternberg was more than happy to show off the contents of the Torontron, their modified arcade machine demonstrating the products of his Spooky Squid Games, one of the founders of the Hand Eye Society. Three people surrounded his station to the right–two of them were children. The game they were playing, The Night Balloonists, had many charms for the younger set. Between its simple one-button control system and the art nouveau aesthetic, the game naturally caught the eye. Upon his completion of the round with them, he then gave his full attention to the Torontron.
“The Night Balloonists is one of several games that we have on display. One’s a prototype from a larger game we’re working on Guerilla Gardening: Seeds of Revolution, and then we have Night of the Cephalopods and Cephalopods: Cottage Defence, which are both Lovecraftian horror titles.”
What could be more Toronto than a defence of cottage culture?
“It’s really good in that doing an event like this would be hard as an individual, but great as working together. We don’t really see each other as people to compete with; we’re working together to do well, and that benefits all of us. I’m one of the co-founders; it was Jim Monroe that brought us all together, and we came together to discuss what that should be, and it became the Hand Eye Society.”
Heavy Weather, one of the founding titles of the company, plays as simply as it should. Heavy objects fall, and dodging them allows the player to continue. All of the company’s titles convey the same mildly twisted sense of humour; the machine remained popular throughout my time at the booth. Night of the Cephalopods stood out with its pitch-perfect narration. Guerilla Gardening stands on the horizon as a downloadable game, and further down the pipeline an unnamed Xbox Live game will make a debut. The Hand Eye Society is on the rise; I look forward to seeing each step of the journey.
FanExpo was a strong demonstration of Canadian-made products on the rise–the only Canadian fiasco was the convention itself. With more booked time and space, it can be one of the greatest conventions on the continent; with restraint, more efficient and more intimate instead. No matter which path is chosen, fans will clamour at the gates–if the convention hears them out, we can all look forward to FanExpo 2011.