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Video gaming

E-sports, indie games, cosplay: GameStart Asia in Singapore through the eyes of a first-time visitor

One of the largest gaming conventions on the continent, GameStart celebrates everything fresh and trendy in the industry. We sent our reporter there to do battle with dragons, alien beings, invisible beasts – and obsessive fans

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 October, 2017, 6:03pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 October, 2017, 7:30pm

Cyberpunk soldiers in full battle gear march confidently through darkened corridors, armed with futuristic rifles fully locked and loaded. Nearby, an anime princess with flowing blue hair and a huge sword stands ready for combat. Over in the corner is Spider-Man, crouching over his phone with his mask off, his wiry teenage frame in stark contrast to his bald Asian head.

I have just arrived at GameStart Asia in Singapore, one of the largest gaming conventions in Asia. A weekend-long annual event, it can attract up to 20,000 people.

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Like other gaming conventions around the world, GameStart is a celebration of everything fresh and trendy in the gaming industry – alongside a heavy dose of cosplay theatrics.

Held last weekend at the Suntec Singapore convention centre, GameStart Asia is now in its fourth year and gets bigger with every iteration. Since starting out in a single small hall, the event has mushroomed, Mario-like, to fill three massive ones, each dedicated to a different interest. Video games take up the most space, with sections loosely mapped out for new technologies (such as VR), e-sports, indie releases and retro games.

“I really wanted to put together a convention that I, myself as a gamer, would want to go to, something close to E3 in LA or a Tokyo game show,” says GameStart founder Elicia Lee. “It’s exceeded expectations. This was a really ambitious project – we wanted to be an event for anyone who loves games and gaming to be able come down, meet friends and do what they love.”

It’s not all virtual though and – shock, horror – some games force players to interact with real-life people: a quarter of the convention is set aside for table-top gaming, with everything from board games to Dungeons and Dragons.

And what’s a geek fest without memorabilia? There are a selection of stalls hawking toys, jokey T-shirts (“Get a life? I’m a gamer, I’ve got extra lives!”), oversized posters and original artwork. It all adds up to a fascinating melange of the modern gaming world.

GameStart is sleekly designed, a visual-focused convention with a near-endless assortment of dedicated gaming booths. Massive driving machines sit alongside small stalls selling palm-sized devices. Suited executive types stand on stages along with their acne-ridden developers. For this weekend at least, it all seems to come together.

Most congregate at the “game zone”, where new releases are being tested by developers large and small. Only a few major titles are on offer – Fifa 18, Gran Turismo Sport, Dragon Ball FighterZ – and lines stretch into the dozens. I flash my media pass and cut a couple of queues for sneaky plays, but gamers are a crotchety bunch and my ruse doesn’t work for long.

That’s OK, though: many major games lack the appeal they once had, and it is in the indie sphere where true creativity is happening. I snake my way around it all – the retro fans recreating long-gone systems, the guys crafting handmade wooden arcade boxes, the gear heads touting typewriter-like mechanical keyboards – and settle on a small TV-and-sofa set-up, where a Singapore government-funded game called Stifled is being tested with a VR system.

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Stifled is a fascinating little release, a claustrophobic black-and-white horror game that cleverly uses the VR headset’s microphone: you are blind, but speaking into it causes pulses to reverberate around your environment, creating basic outlines. The problem is, horrific invisible beasts are also attracted to the sound.

“We started out not really knowing what we were doing,” says Justin Ng, Stifled’s young creator. “We kind of had to find our way, the same way your character does in the game. But the Singapore government has this support scheme for game developers, assisting with funding, and that really helped with the development.”

The crowds are getting heavy, so I take a break from the main area and soak up the convention vibe. A true convention thrill, whether the event is about gaming, comic books or tech, is people-watching – and if GameStart is considered a pilgrimage for gamers, the truly devout are the cosplayers.

I settle on a guy who initially seems somewhat distinguished, sporting an incredibly detailed warlord costume straight out of an Akira Kurosawa movie. I immediately regret my choice: “It’s not a costume,” he says. “It’s my armour.”

The cosplayer says it took him four years to save up to buy it from a specialist company in mainland China. He says he has flown in from Holland for the convention. He does a little demonstration with his wakizashi sword, the little one used for suicides. He thrusts the retractable plastic “blade” into his stomach – and a box of mints falls from his pocket. I’m not sure if this is part of his show, so I nod, say “cool costume” again, and walk away.

On Sunday morning, the crowds are thin. My automatic assumption is that people must have had a late night out, but I remind myself about who I’m talking about here. The machines are still being set up, so I head to the table-top area, a vast space with dozens of board games.

The selection’s assortment is almost ridiculous: there is one that recreates the Battle of Singapore, one based on the United Airlines overbooking incident (called Overbooked, naturally) and one, slightly horrifying, game built around Russian roulette. Creativity knows no bounds when it comes to table-top, and anything controversial goes, apparently.

Warhammer, a classic table-top game involving battles with miniature figures, has an area for newbies to try their hand at painting little elves and things.

“This is the first year they’ve had a full table-top area. The social aspect is a very big deal, as is the crafting of figures,” says Nicholas Wong, founder of Gamersaurus Rex, a store in Singapore. “Table-top gaming is really growing, but it’s all down to awareness. The developers are making some smart marketing moves and making it very easy for new players to get started.”

It gets to late afternoon and I am thinking of leaving, but I can’t do so until I have seen first-hand what many have trekked far and wide for: the e-sports tournaments.

E-sports are arguably the biggest thing in the gaming world these days, and some say they might soon rival major sporting tournaments – revenue-wise at least, if not for spectator appeal.

At GameStart, two players face off on opposite sides of a stage, while crowds cheer every virtual attack. A couple of official commentators are covering the match, spilling out nuggets like “He’s cornered him!” and “You need the points to win, you really do.”

The tournament over and winners crowned, I try to talk to one of the competitors. But the crowds are overwhelming, screeching and shoving for signatures and selfies. Great gamers are evidently worshipped like celebrities here. “I’ve been following Xian since the beginning!” one fan proudly proclaims.

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Two days at a gaming convention does funny things to you. Apart from the lack of sleep, throwing yourself into the modern gaming world provides all manner of stimulation. The sights, sounds and even smells can be overwhelming, but you may come out with a new-found respect for where contemporary games are heading – and the possibilities inherent.

Maybe next year you will find me at GameStart, wig firmly attached, sword in hand and geeking it out with my fellow fans.