Last weekend, I was finally able to return to the Insomnia Gaming Festival, which I last attended in 2019. Given just how much had happened in the interim, I was curious about whether the festival would be how I remembered it, or whether it would have been forced to take a new form.
My friend Danny has also written about the weekend. We bounced a lot of ideas off each other while we were there, so in many cases we’ve come to similar conclusions, but I’d recommend reading his post as its much funnier than mine!
The first thing I noticed was about Insomnia was that the event seemed smaller this year. We arrived at the entrance hall only a few minutes before the 10:30am start time yet were still near the front of the line. Similarly, while we had previously queued in front of a large stage, this time we were presented with a corridor made of barriers and a single screen that played the same 2-minute intro video for the entire weekend. While the usual staples of playable games, tabletop games, merch stands and exhibitors were all present, there were less of them than in 2019. In fact, Friday was much quieter than I expected.
Initially, some of our group were disappointed by the smaller scale and lack of upcoming games or AAA games, given that at previous shows we had been able to play games like Marvel’s Spider-Man and The Division 2 before they were released. I wasn’t particularly annoyed, as the main reason why I go to Insomnia is to spend time with friends who I only physically see at Insomnia, but I definitely hadn’t found the festival as impressive as I had found it in 2018 or 2019. Fortunately, the Pub Quiz later provided some context that assuaged my worries and changed my view of the weekend.
At least, after we actually got in to the Pub Quiz…To make sure that all 10 of us were together as one team, one member of our group booked all of our tickets at the same time. When we tried to queue up, the staff then didn’t know how to process one person holding 10 tickets. In the end, we were bounced to another staff member three times. When we reached the fourth person, she face-palmed at the situation before lending us weekend-ticket-holder wristbands to wear so that we could get inside more easily.
Once that was out of the way, we got on with the usual Insomnia Pub Quiz fare of tricky questions interspersed with jokes, music, and increasingly NSFW viral videos. It was familiar, but in a good way – a way that reminded me of what feels so special about going to Insomnia.
Near the end of the quiz, host Wizzo, who is also the founder of the Insomnia events, briefly became serious as he talked about the future of the festival. Wizzo introduced a guest to the stage: Paul Wedgwood, the founder of new Insomnia owners Supernova Capital. Wedgwood talked about his own history in game development and his goal to grow the Insomnia events. Normally, venture capitalists aren’t a group of people I consider trustworthy. But Wedgwood sounded genuinely focused on keeping the character of Insomnia, not just on its financial potential. Also, the fact that Wizzo took an executive role in Supernova Capital in order to come back to managing Insomnia sounds promising.
Essentially, the speech showed off a strong “We’ve rescued the princess from the dragon” energy; the dragon here being Mike Ashley of Sports Direct/GAME/House of Fraser infamy. To put my cynical hat on, maybe the speech was designed to convey that feeling in order to cover up a decline. For example, maybe this year was smaller simply because game companies were already at Gamescom during that weekend, or maybe companies didn’t want to sponsor Insomnia without the GAME name and eSports teams attached. But, to wear my contrasting optimistic hat; both Wedgwood and Wizzo gave the impression that they’re truly invested in making Insomnia a great experience and a great name.
While Insomnia had seemed quiet on Friday, it was much more populated on Saturday, both in terms of people and stands. Our first port of call was the busy Intel booth. Visitors needed to either play a game or do a QR-code treasure hunt to get a token, which they then exchanged for a turn on a arcade-style claw machine. A few people in our group won different collections of Intel merch, which we all then traded for optimal loot.
Left: the Session Zero crew (photo from https://twitter.com/SessionZeroSZ). Right: the collection of Sneak sachets that I ended up with.
Session Zero was one of my favourite parts of the weekend, and after the show finished I was surprised (and mildly disappointed) that the adventure had only lasted for 20 minutes. The quartet’s approach of improvising NPC characters and story beats based on audience suggestions, and of having the audience roll for the success of actions by throwing a large fluffy die to dungeon master Josh Strife Hayes, allowed for comic combinations of story and dialogue. We missed the meet-and-greet for Session Zero due to a timing mix-up, which was disappointing. Luckily, we walked past Josh Strife Hayes on the Sunday morning and were able to briefly chat with him and have our photo taken.
Saturday afternoon also featured the Cosplay Championship. We had already attended the Friday afternoon cosplay masquerade, and I was especially interested in returning for the Saturday contest as its apparently a big deal in the cosplay community. (The winner receives £1000 and becomes a judge for the next year’s contest). The craftspersonship and detail that went in to each costume across both contests was incredible, and many of the performances were more involved and demanding than what I naively expected to see. While contestants normally lip-sync and act along to existing recorded character dialogue, the winner of Saturday’s content, RoseMagpie, performed along to their own recording of the voice acting, while one Friday contestant was brave enough to sing their entry live. I also have to point out the skill of the entrant who played Majima Goro from the Yakuza series, whose entire routine, including dancing, was performed on rollerskates. (I can’t find them online to link to and credit them unfortunately.)
Watching the cosplay contests also reminded me of how much invisible hard work goes on behind the scenes of Insomnia. The stage crew needed only seconds to swap out props after each entrant, the camera operators had to be prepared for all sorts of movements and quick changes, and, most impressively for me, the video crew were able to run a highlight montage of the contest within a few minutes of the final entrant leaving the stage. The only criticism of the technological side is that I would greatly appreciate the sound team turning the bass down a bit; especially on the Saturday, the bass was so prominent that it overpowered other parts of the music and sometimes made the presenters hard to decipher. It also made my earplugs rattle!
After some last-minute shopping, including many of our group being distracted by custom lightsabers and very shiny dice, we had a short time to relax. Then, it was time for The Dark Room. The Dark Room had been described to me as a comedic live-action text-adventure game, which sounded like a great time. This turned out to be 50% true. During the first half of the show, we saw members of the crowd attempt to survive the Dark Room, and usually fail miserably, complete with comedic asides and rapid-fire reactions from host Robbotron, a trained insult comic. This first half contained a good blend of structure and hijinks, and was really fun to watch. However, the second half of the show didn’t contain any more of the actual Dark Room game: instead it was wholly devoted to chaotic escapades like Robbotron jumping into the crowd while spinning a shopping bag full of baked beans to raucous shouts of “Beans! Beans! Beans!” then later being crowdsurfed around the room to the Katamari Damacy theme tune.
The sheer weirdness of the second half created a metaphorical divide between the attendees who were part of the “in-crowd” and who knew what to do at every moment versus the first-time watchers who were confused about where the promised game show had done. For me, while the actual Dark Room attempts were incredibly fun, the second half of the show was very much not my type of thing. (However, the term “flamboyant potato” – aka pineapple – is now in my lexicon as a result of the show.)
This year, I spent much more of my time at Insomnia focusing on the community-led events, rather than looking for new games to play. That sounds weird, for a gaming convention, but it made sense to me: I can play games whenever I want, but I can’t be in that creative, enthusiastically-nerdy atmosphere whenever I want. Spending time with friends, surrounded by easy access to events and new experiences, is why I enjoy going to Insomnia. (And, to be honest, most AAA games are broken on release at the moment anyway!).
Initially, Insomnia 69 felt smaller and less impressive than its predecessors, in a way that made some of my group doubt its future altogether. However, after thinking about it more, remembering that this is one of the first Insomnia events in anything resembling “normality”, and reflecting on the speech at the pub quiz, my final view is more positive. On balance, I’m going with optimism; I think this year’s smaller and less corporate-focused event is a post-pandemic, post-being-bought dip, and that Insomnia will improve rather than decline.
Ultimately, I believe that the focus on community expressed in that speech by the new owner was genuine, and that the festival’s current emphasis on stage events and community-led events over AAA games could actually be what uniquely characterises Insomnia compared to other gaming events.