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Southeast Asia has Nothing to Say

It was back in 2009 when I was last in Singapore--the year of H1N1, Cawadoody: Modern Warfare 2, and bad annoying music on the radio. The birth of Squeenix-Eidos. Ensemble Studios' death. On second thought, it wasn't the year of bad annoying music. It's become clear that every year is bad annoying music year for me ever since the nineties ended.

I was there to attend the fourth CG Overdrive--a conference in Southeast Asia for graphic artists and visual effects people--and I was psyched. Everyday for a week, in the company of my other artist friends, I braved the scorching heat and lugged over a notebook, a huge sketchbook, and my DS Lite to the Singapore Expo. The event was held in the farthest hall at the end of a significantly long walk, which made things even worse. None of that mattered, though; I was excited.

I was there to learn how best to create--to mold a reality out of bytes and pixels, to play God with 1s and 0s. I was under the same roof with people from all around the world who are the pioneers and leaders of the industry. I was there to move on to the next level in our secret club of concept artists, animators, and designers. I--and Southeast Asia along with me--was going places.

A funny thing happened after the first lecture I attended, though. It was Alex Alvarez's talk, and he had just turned the mic over to the audience to take some questions. "Would anyone like to ask Alex a question?" boomed our emcee. He stepped forward, microphone in hand, and looked to the audience for the first curious soul to raise his hand in response.

Nothing.

"Come on, guys," the emcee added, smile still on his face. "It's not everyday that we get to ask someone like Alex Alvarez a question."

And there was nothing. I sat in the audience with about a hundred other people, and no one among us had anything to ask or say. I certainly didn't have any technical questions, but in retrospect, a technical question wouldn't have been the most appropriate one to ask, anyway: he had just talked about his experience as a kid, and how he had liked to shut himself in his room and just doodle monsters and dream up worlds and ideas, and how he first discovered the online world through BBSes and how he learned to make friends over a virtual space. Figuratively, Alex had described the childhood of all of us there.

Maybe I should have asked which of the eight Virtues was his favorite. Or if the phrase "Coconut of Quendor" meant anything to him. I don't know. I should have asked something--if not to expand my own knowledge, then to just try to better understand how he thinks.

That was the first of many incidents of utter banality on our part as the audience as the week dragged on.

Are you a Warhammer fan? Did you ever play the first Dawn of War? Yes? Do you remember that fantabulous intro that starts with ships swooping down from the sky, continues on to an all-out battle between the Space Marines and the Orks in a beautiful, chaotic, bloody mess, and ends with the Blood Ravens chapter banner flying proudly on top of a hill even as it gets peppered by bolter fire? Do you remember that intro? Wasn't it just awesome? Wasn't it freaking incredible? Didn't you feel your balls expanding tenfold as you sat there watching it?

Well, we watched it again during the conference. It was presented to us by visual effects guy Allan McKay as a sample of his FX work. A guy who helped make all that awesomeness exist in our world was right in front of us presenting his work. Our response was predictable: we sat there and took it all in silence. No one applauded--not even after Allan uttered a quiet, satisfied "Cool." after the video ended. The whole room would have exploded in a testosterone-fueled gamer high if even one guy started clapping, but no one wanted to be The Guy. Not even me, back then.

I ask at this: why?

It was the week of the Stoic Asian. For five days, we sat and silently peered left and right and over our shoulders whenever the open forum began. A few questions eventually got thrown up here and there, of course, but not much; I even asked Norihiko Hibino (of Snake Eater theme song fame) a question about composing game music and he gave me a ticket to Video Games Live for my trouble! But those instances were the exception, and not the norm.

All of this long-winded exposition is in service to my question of "Why?" Back when we regularly played Team Fortress 2 on StarHub, we'd be lucky to get in a match with just one guy who knew how to use his microphone. In public Asian servers, every match is like those five days of embarrassing silence. Are we just shy? Are we afraid? Do we think we sound silly? Are we just afraid to reach out, only to find out that there's no one out there who will respond? Do we avoid looking into the mirror so we don't have to see that there's nothing there peering back at us?

What the fuck am I saying, now?

What I'm saying is that no, Southeast Asia isn't going places. Not with all those silent drones in the game servers. Not with people like us who were content to sit there and allow ourselves to be spoonfed and not bother to try to run that extra mile to push ourselves even beyond where we expected to be. We're not dumb. We're not incompetent. But if we have nothing to say, then there's no point to creating anyway, now, is there?

That's what everything boils down to: having something to say. It's especially true for any creative endeavor, but let's be totally relevant and look at this matter from a game development standpoint. All the best games have something to say. Deus Ex says that the centralization of power is detrimental to society. Its prequel Human Revolution says that it's human nature to tamper with God's work. The Witcher says that people with exceptional abilities and talents will always be abused by those in positions of power. Call of Duty says America, fuck yeah. Fallout, of course, says that war never changes. It goes on and on.

What do we, as Southeast Asians, have to say? Are we happy enough to sit in the audience and parrot what the West and the Japanese have already said before? A lot of us dream about breaking into the game industry, but part of me wonders about the titles we'll be churning out once it becomes economically viable to do so. It'll happen eventually. I dread that day when we will finally accept that we are indeed devoid of any original thought.

Let's not make that our future. Let’s not.

It was 2009. One of the speakers ended his lecture, and the hall was bathed in silence. The speaker looked at all of us with a knowing expression. "I've been to Asian conferences before," he said matter-of-factly.

There was no open forum for that talk. He showed us another video instead.

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