On a rainy Saturday in October, Don Rowe headed to Armageddon with 20,000 sodden gamers, cosplayers and consumers.
A forlorn pikachu trudged along Great South Road under a grey curtain of rain. Water ran from its drooping ears and down into a rapidly disintegrating paper loot-bag. The sagging and ragged hem of its yellow onesie legs were sodden to midshin and spattered with mud. The pilgrim walked onwards, heading to the hallowed ASB Showgrounds.
There’s nothing quite like the smell of 20,000 wet Armageddon attendees, particularly as they start to heat up and humidify in a virtually unventilated expo centre. It’s the scent of Dorito dust in a sauna, of beer and beef jerky. It’s the smell of the impracticality of full-body leather clothing, and Jack Sparrow roleplay taken to its rum-soaked extremes.
But to focus on the smell is to ignore the sights and the sounds. Exquisitely detailed costumes, faithful down to the stitching, were everywhere. Wedged in the tide of human bodies milling through the expo halls I brushed a techno-blasting Dalek, Vault Boys, War Boys, a guy dressed as Uma Thurman dressed as Poison Ivy, a Bioshock Big Daddy and more. The quality was just superb.
In the food court I watched a guy in a full-length purple leather trenchcoat and Joker makeup grab Ahri from League of Legends in an unexpected hug. “Ahhhhhri my dear, how aaare you?” he asked in a bizarre British accent. Fox ears slightly askew, her face implied she wasn’t particularly good. Somehow the guy managed to be creepier than Heath Ledger’s Joker.
Onwards in the river of bodies, past stalls selling energy drinks and meat products, marijuana hats and nunchucks. Sony’s Playstation booth was two stories high and had a live DJ spinning tracks far above the crowd. It was a veritable shrine to Sony, with television altars and high priests in Playstation tees. From the balcony, the throng below looked like a zombie horde, partly because some of them were actually dressed as zombies.
I stopped briefly at the official event bar, which for some reason wasn’t called the ‘barmageddon’. What a missed opportunity! There were high end tequilas, whiskeys and a bottle of $99 sake. I settled for a marginally less expensive $7 beer. I asked the bartender if they were doing a healthy trade. He just nodded with his eyes wide open and eyebrows raised. While I drank my beer I watched Boba Fett press his gun to the back of the dalek’s head, ready to take it out execution-style.
People were seriously living their costumes. A crew of shirtless slavers marched through the crowd with shackled prisoners in sack clothing. “Down, slaves!” they bellowed. The slaves screeched and moaned but got down on their knees in the end. The slavers began to dress them down “You are nothing, scum!” screamed the lead slaver, his lips all but brushing the ear of one of the cowering wretches. He was really getting into it.
But the prize for real over-enthusiasm went to the surprisingly aggressive employees from EB Games, who all but pleaded for people to come through their stall.
“What are you doing?” one demanded of me.
“Um, looking at my phone?”
“Well come in here and buy some games!”
And that’s the weird paradox of Armageddon. It’s where raw amateur enthusiasm crashes against corporate cynicism. Mass entertainment is a commodity of its own, of course, but nowhere else is the connection between this kind of culture and consumerism more apparent. Some people were there to dress up, others to look at one another, but it seemed like a good deal of the crowd were just there to buy shit.
It doesn’t matter what it was, if there’s a tenuous link to video games or anime, they wanted it. A stall offering a ‘ten games for ten dollars’ happy hour was swamped with a huddle three rows deep within seconds, games and cases flying into the air above the ravaging crowd. Elsewhere, people were getting tattooed with video game protagonists and anime characters. Online giant Mighty Ape had a serious presence, as did Games Workshop, Logitech and more.
The upshot was that at times Armageddon felt like a cosplay expo in a mega mall, where the products took precedence over the people. This feeling was emphasised by the supermarket layout. The fatty, processed big brands dominated both visually and audibly, and smaller, more interesting stalls struggled for attention on the metaphorical bottom shelf. EB Games were doing a ferocious trade just across the way from a caged and lonely Immortan Joe, advertising a costume company. Elsewhere, energy drinks were outselling indie art by a significant margin. A few solitary book salesmen stared out at the throng, melancholy dripping from their self-published titles.
Of course, this kind of event doesn’t happen without some serious corporate coin. However, while the big players are right to expect a return on their investment, the unique spirit of the thing felt somewhat crushed under the neon-lit, big-screened, kaleidoscopic corporate roar for attention.
Not everything went the way of Big Gaming. The cosplayers were taking serious liberty with otherwise jealously guarded intellectual property on every corner. Ironman kissed a Roman legionnaire, Teemo drank a beer, machine gun slung over his shoulder, and Luke and Darth seemed on suspiciously friendly terms. They were the costumed feeder fish to Armageddon’s great corporate shark – but the halls of the Trusts Arena were still teeming with life.
It’s all a bit overwhelming. The sheer crush of sights and sounds may be tolerable to the screen-fried brains of the youth of today, but there’s only so many explosions and sirens and screeches I can take. Skipping out on a chance to play archery tag to System of a Down, I made an escape from the crush through a joyous crowd of what might have been furries.
It seems there were two tribes at Armageddon. On one hand, the freak party: shirtless slavers, drunken pirates, unabashed nerds and all the others who, for most of the year, repress their urges to strip down, lather up and get their swords out. On the other were the consumerist hordes, loot bags clutched white-knuckled and eyes peeled for the next cheap deal.
On my way out the gate I asked one of the latter what he thought of this year’s expo.
“There’s less giveaways,” he said. “Not really anything free, just heaps of promotional stuff.”
I guess you just can’t win.
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