The Summer of #i69

The last weekend in the fading moments of August took me on two great journeys. The first was an excursion halfway up the country and back again, the second one of understanding and appreciation. In a time where Insomnia and many events like it are recovering from some forced downtime, a question presents itself: was Insomnia #69 good?

Great Expectations

To get to the answer of this question requires some looking back. Three years ago, in a period I now like to call “the before times”, I had a joyful experience attending Insomnia #65. I’d never been to anything like Insomnia before and it was as awesome as it was overwhelming. Big games like Borderlands 3 among others were there, the layout and scope of everything felt massive and most importantly it left me wanting to go again so badly.

Just in time for the world to implode on itself.

Thankfully the world eventually returned to something resembling normality and after all that time, me and my friends finally made the pilgrimage back to Birmingham once more. Just as before we could only be there for the Friday and Saturday, but we were ready and more importantly, we were expectant. Big games, a mad rush to get everything done and making more memories to last a lifetime. Did we get that? Well… Not really, kind of and yes but not quite how I thought. Hold on, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s turn the clock back to the Friday…

Friday, Friday, Got Mixed Impressions on Friday

Having made our early morning excursion to THE NORTH as the road signs kept loudly declaring (thanks again for the lift Ted!), we rocked on up the NEC just in time to meet the rest of our travelling band in time for the big opening. Three years is a long time and memories can certainly get a bit fuzzy, but first impressions at the gates of gaming goodness were a lot more restrained than what I was remembering. We had standard tickets and missed the early access but there were a lot less people than I was expecting and the sights we could see of the festival seemed small. At the same time, I was keeping a reminder in the back of my mind that this was the first summer show since the before times and having only had Insomnia 68 to get back to business, this was understandable. That thought stayed in the back of my mind… Much like the song.

For context, on the big screen above the entrance they had a short cycle of information and adverts that looped every few minutes. Whenever it would loop back around to the Insomnia information section it would play a short tune that at first I found quite catchy, but it very quickly became repetitive and irritating, made worse that for the whole weekend it kept playing and was easy to hear around most of the hall. It really does make for a good first impression, but I really wanted it to stop after a while. Curiously, there only seemed to be a couple of indie titles being advertised as well. It might seem strange that I’m spending this much space taking about it, but it bugged me enough to make me want to mention it.

The music wasn’t all bad though! We went to the main stage to watch the opening ceremony and I stuck around at the end to watch an opening performance by drummer and Twitch streamer Mrgregles. He did a fantastic job with a few songs before leading into an epic medley featuring everything from popular songs to the Tetris theme and I’m pretty sure even the Thomas the Tank Engine theme was in there. It was an incredible performance and it made me sad to find out that his main show would be on Sunday which we couldn’t be there for. Highly encourage checking out his work!

Just like that, the festival was open for us to explore… Briefly. As I mentioned earlier, Insomnia 65 left me pretty overwhelmed by everything on display, but by lunchtime many in our group including myself were feeling pretty deflated. There were no big, impressive new shiny things to line up and gush over really. The longest thing we queued up for at all was a short line for some Sneak freebies. There just wasn’t anything big, loud or attention grabbing. There was already talk from some in our group about considering not returning next year. We came with expectations and instead reality hit us with a Reinhardt charge. Keep this in mind, I’ll be coming back to it soon. Besides, as one of our jolly band pointed out, this was only Friday. Tomorrow would likely be bigger and better.

While we were roaming the halls of Insomnia, we weren’t the only ones! There was a zombie event taking place over the weekend and especially during the earlier parts of Friday the actors were in full zombie dress and shambling around the floor. They were incredibly cool looking and I was very impressed with their movements and performance, but at the same time they kept appearing out of nowhere to scare and surprise. I’m sure many found this entertaining but as someone with anxiety issues I admit I found it a bit much, as did my friend I was with at the time. The hordes were largely absent after lunch and throughout Saturday leaving me wondering if there were complaints. All the same though they were very impressive and my understanding was they were raising money for charity which is cool!

With the afternoon vanishing before us and not much on the floor attracting my interest, I convinced a few of the group to join me at the Cosplay Masquerade. Cosplay isn’t really something I’ve ever had much interest in, but I had seen some excellent Overwatch cosplays including an amazing Reinhardt, Winston and Torbjörn among others which had me curious so off we went. Much to my surprise it was a lot more enjoyable than I was expecting, mostly because of my lack of expectations. I knew there would be costumes of course, but I was very surprised when the first entrant started singing. The performance/in-character elements never really crossed my mind before but I was very impressed by all of the clearly talented people that took part. It seemed pretty clear this was very important to them all and I’m glad they all got the chance to take part. I’m a big fan of the Destiny games and seeing Saint-14 come first place was awesome!

By this point Friday was almost over, but we had just enough time for some matches of Fall Guys in an area set up for it. A fun time was had but mine and my friend Sinead’s games bugged out in one of the matches and all we could do was spectate but otherwise it was a good time.

And with that the main day was over. Friday didn’t quite turn out to be the day I thought it would be, but Saturday was more interesting to me anyway – I was very excited to see Dungeons and Dragons group Session Zero so I still had something to look forward to. This wasn’t the end of Friday just yet however…

But Wait, There’s More!

Many who go to Insomnia know at this point that the Pub Quiz is usually one of the highlights of the weekend and this was no exception. Eventually. To make sure we all got onto the same table, one of our friends got all of our tickets – 10 in total. As soon as we tried to get in, we were bounced around between various different people until the last one finally gave up and gave us a BYOC band to help us get in, with the strict conditions that we take them off again afterwards (we did, don’t worry!). Organisation of the event definitely felt a bit on the iffy side but we did eventually get in. A brief table swap later in aid of a disabled group and we finally get settled in for the evening on chairs so uncomfortable I never want to see them again, but enough about that, how was the quiz itself?

Very good! It was a fun time with some very tricky questions. Just like the last one I went to, there was a round that involved cross-referencing answers from different sheets and it became a game in itself. Difficult, extremely well thought out and definitely created by an evil genius. I’m already looking forward to the next one! For the most part the rest of the quiz was standard pub quiz fare, which I thought was both good and bad. On the one hand the questions were pretty varied, but on the other hand many of the questions were esoteric and I preferred the previous one I went to which was a bit more angled towards gaming and sci-fi knowledge from what I remember. Naturally there was singing and lots of jokes in-between rounds and it was a fun time.

If you’ve never been to the quiz before and are interested, I should point out that some of the jokes can be very adult and if you are of a more sensitive nature you might find it a bit off-putting, but they rarely last long and I still think it is worth going for the experience. Be prepared for a potentially late night too – officially the quiz was meant to finish at 11 but it wasn’t over until gone midnight. I enjoyed it but especially if you are around all day, be prepared for a very long one!

The night came to a close with a quick appearance from Paul Wedgwood, co-owner of Supernova Capital and owner of Insomnia after it was sold by former owner Mike Ashley. What he spoke about was the start of a turning point in my opinions of Insomnia 69, but I’m going to come back to that in a bit. For now, day one is over. Saturday awaits.

Tokens, Dice and a Violin

At this point we unfortunately had to part ways with some of our group as they could only be around for the Friday, but the adventure continues! Even though we missed the doors opening, it was immediately obvious how much busier it was. This is actually something worth noting if you have social anxiety or have sensory overload issues etc. – there were noticeably more attendees, the hall was very warm and it was much louder than Friday.

While we wandered around yesterday some of us noticed an Intel area that had a claw machine for prizes, but it was empty by the time we got there. This ended up being what we went for first (after a quick dash by the Sneak stand!). It was a fun diversion and much to my surprise I got some things I’d actually use from it but I definitely think it could have been set up better.

The line for this was pretty busy (maybe more so than anything else I’d seen this year outside of evening activities), but not everyone needed to be there. The way it worked was that by speaking to staff or playing some of the games on offer, you would be given a token to spend on the claw machine. The problem was that this wasn’t obvious at all and many, including ourselves, were lining up for something we couldn’t actually use. One of the staff eventually came over and explained how it worked, at which point Sinead got sent off to play a game and they gave me a token too so I could hold her place in line. Unfortunately, her game took much longer than the queue so she had to line up again afterwards to use her token – a line that was continually growing and shrinking as people were arriving and finding out that they needed to do other things first. It would have flowed considerably better if it was just organised in a way where people had to pass through the gaming part to get to the prize part, removing the confusion.

With a bit of time to spare afterwards, we got some goodies from the marketplace and quickly dropped things back at the hotel, skipping lunch so we could get back in time for the main event I’d been waiting for – Session Zero. Session Zero is a small group made up of content creators Josh Strife Hayes, Callum Upton, RageDarling and BillieTrixx performing Dungeons and Dragons stage shows and campaigns on their YouTube channel.

We just about managed to get a seat at the small expo stage and we had an amazing time watching the session play out. It was brief, but it felt like much longer had passed (in a good way!) and was very engaging. It was only when we went to leave that we realised that had attracted a much larger crowd than we thought. It was a lot of fun and I’m looking forward to seeing it again! It was definitely a bit restricted by the environment though – even as close as we were it was occasionally hard to hear what was going on over the background noise. I’m not really sure how this could be solved, if it can at all. An argument could be made for potentially having it take place at the main stage at future events, I don’t think it would work well considering the interactive elements and the smaller space definitely adds to the character of the show.

One thing I would potentially consider for families interested in seeing them is that while they encouraged family friendly adventure suggestions from the audience, some of their own antics didn’t always stick to it. Nothing I would personally find a problem and I thought it was all hilarious, but I can see the potential for some parents to find certain elements excessive (poor Tommy). Well worth the time if that isn’t an issue for you though!

There was a bit of a mix-up after this which was unfortunate. A meet-and-greet had been announced ahead of time and I was really looking forward to meeting the cast, but at the show the announcer seemed to suggest the time for that was 3.15 when really this was the end time for it. As such we went off and came back to find nobody there which was incredibly disappointing. In all fairness we could have misheard, but everyone in our group heard the same thing.

Happy times resumed shortly after though as we went back to the main stage for another session of the Cosplay Masquerade. We caught the last few minutes of the 15th anniversary cosplay contest for Assassin’s Creed and saw some fantastic work by all involved. This continued to be the case throughout the Cosplay Masquerade itself and it was awesome seeing all the work the entrants put into their costumes and performances – rosemagpie doing a great job and earning first place. Just before the winner was announced, there was an interlude featuring a phenomenal violin performance from Heavyy Rain, concluding with Undertale’s Megalovania. Still in awe at the skill needed to play the song, move around as characters interacted on stage and react to it all at the same time!

As good as the performances were though, I did think the show could have been handled much better from a technical standpoint. The main problem was the volume – Friday’s show was so much better because for the most part I could actually hear what was going on. This show was far louder and through no fault of the performers I felt it actually took a bit away from their performances. Whether talking, singing, playing background music or even the violin, a lot of it was hard to even register and there were a couple of speaking and singing performances where unfortunately I had no idea what was being said or sung because of the speaker distortion and that really is a shame.

For us that was the end of the daytime events, bringing the end to our Insomnia adventure ever closer. Little did we know though that there was a wildcard still waiting to be played…

Beans, Bread and the Flamboyant Potato

You wake up, headache in full swing, you aren’t really sure where you are or what time or day it is. You walk up to the window and realise to your horror that you are having a fever dream – beyond the rubble of everything you once knew and recognise you see a raging battle between the NyanCat Empire and the forgotten hordes from Goat Simulator 2. One member from each side of the fight look you in the eye and charge in your direction. Everything fades to black before you hear a loud, booming voice…

“YOU AWAKE TO FIND YOURSELF IN A DARK ROOM!”

That almost certainly isn’t the backstory to The Dark Room, if there even is one, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t sound like it’d fit! This was… certainly an experience!

The Dark Room, an interactive live-action video game, is the creation of John “Robbotron” Robertson. I’ve seen bits and pieces of the advertising for it at both here and Insomnia 65. Previously it was on a day I wasn’t there but I was here this time and I was tempted, so I somehow convinced our group to come along for the ride.

And wow, what a ride.

I’ll say this now so people don’t make the same mistake we did – I would strongly suggest researching into this show a bit before attending as the interactive game show bit was only really half of the show. I’d have noticed this to a degree if I’d properly looked into it, but I just kept seeing “live-action video game” and it stuck. Even if I had been well informed, I definitely still would have been surprised!

The show was split into two halves and the first half is easily some of the funniest comedy I’ve ever sat through. It absolutely isn’t for the easily offended and it seems like in theory anyone can be a contestant, although thankfully only people who willingly indicated they wanted to take part did so as far as I can tell.

While there is an end goal for the text-adventure style game – to find the light switch and escape, the real value comes from the game itself. As a choose your own adventure type of game, each run is different and it was consistently funny seeing people trying various things to avoid or embrace the cries of “YA DIED! YA DIED! YA DIED!”.

The highlight for me was DCflake being at the show dressed as Robbotron, being asked to come up and play the role of host while the real Robbotron played as a contestant in a way I can only really describe as memorable. Watching DCflake’s take on the role was best described as watching the gleeful excitement on someone’s face as they get a car for their birthday before watching things descend into confused chaos as they realise their car is really a monster truck, unaware they are at an off-road race being all too aware they don’t know how to drive. By far the funniest part of the night for me.

If the session had ended there or had carried on this way, this would easily have been one of the funniest shows I’d seen in a very long time. Unfortunately, it mutated very quickly into something barely recognisable as the same experience while the audience either wonders what is going on or is eagerly awaiting the insanity depending on whether they know what is about to happen.

By this point the show was clearly intended for those that had been before or were just up for something a bit wild and different. The description for the show even mentioned things getting crazy and I took that to assume the game would continue and craziness would be added to it – playing minesweeper gets mentioned, as well as beans, bread, a flamboyant potato etc. These were definitely involved… Just not how any of us were expecting.

Baked beans being poured into a bag and thrown everywhere (if you do want to go and don’t like the sound of this stick to the back!), having various bits of food thrown everywhere, bread being thrown into the air and cut with a sword, an attempt at getting someone with walking difficulties crowdsurfed around the call (the staff shut this down fast!), Robbotron himself getting crowdsurfed around the hall in his pants, twice! Someone seemed to get injured during all of it too. Safe to say, there was a lot going on and none of it involved the game that attracted us there in the first place.

There seemed to be two very different reactions to this – an almost cult-like response where those who knew what was coming were extremely into it, and a second group of people (including us) that found it to be a bit much. This really is a shame since the general feeling was that the first hour was amazing but the second hour might as well have been some sort of after-party. The show was streamed via Twitch and our friends that had gone home earlier in the day were watching and found the experience uncomfortable.

If you can stomach it (the show, not the beans!), I genuinely would recommend the first hour and would gladly go again next year for that part, but unless the above sounds fun or you already know what you are getting into I would consider leaving once it becomes obvious the game is over. Can’t stress this enough, do some research on this one first! Thinking of it, we did meet someone in the hotel on the way to the show that guessed where we were going and hoped we would enjoy ourselves but seemed very happy not to be going themselves. Should have seen something strange coming!

There are alternatives if you still want to try and experience the show – there was a free, presumably family friendly version on the expo stage during the day (again, may be wise to research first!) that might be a good entry point if you are curious but want to start on something a bit easier to approach. There is also a not as family-friendly video game version on Steam that I bought and tried while researching for this post and while it does have some issues and seems to be based on older material, I had a good time with it and it did solidify in my mind that the show would have been a lot better if it included the game itself more.

With The Dark Room and Insomnia itself over for us, the question of whether it was good or not returns…

What Is Insomnia anyway?

Returning back to the pub quiz, you might recall me mentioning Paul Wedgwood’s brief appearance. Quiz master and original Insomnia owner Craig “Wizzo” Fletcher introduced Paul as someone pivotal to Insomnia’s return after his company Supernova Capital bought it from Mike Ashley. Paul himself reminded the room that this was only the first big summer Insomnia after both the before times and the transfer of ownership – there was a smaller Insomnia 68 earlier this year as well. Our group discussed this after the quiz and much like staring up at the ceiling after falling over, it provided a new sense of perspective.

Given Wedgwood’s own history as a game developer, it seems like Insomnia was very fortunate to have fallen into the hands of someone who actually likes video games and can see the potential in continuing to develop Insomnia. This had me thinking though – what is Insomnia?

I think back to Insomnia #65 – the towering wall marking the Nintendo section, the big and bold Borderlands 3 tent, all the other big hitting attractions that year. Insomnia #69 was nothing like this at all and seeing a greatly scaled back version of the big event we all remembered going to came as a big surprise. I would argue though this might actually be for the best! Based on conversations I had with friends and overheard from other groups in passing, I think this might actually be the best chance for Insomnia to refocus and re-establish itself.

What I haven’t mentioned so far is that after visiting Insomnia #65, some of us would attend EGX just a few weeks later. That event too left a big impression on those of us that went and when we were discussing the state of Insomnia this year, the immediate thought from some was to go to EGX next year instead. This has also been a view I’ve seen others online express since then. Having been to both I can definitely see where the comparisons are coming from and at first I reached for a similar conclusion myself, but thinking further I don’t really think they are as similar as might be assumed on first impression.

If you were to go to the websites for Insomnia and EGX right now, they in theory sound very similar. Both have games, community events, a varying array of activities etc. That being said, EGX has always primarily being a trade show, expected to bring in the big games and developers and for many that go, it is a work exercise. It can afford to go bigger and bolder because of this business focus. Insomnia on the other hand is a gaming festival – a celebration of gaming. Would it be nice to have big games there? Sure. Do they need to be there for Insomnia to succeed and be worth going to? Having a lot of time to think it over, I would say no.

The big ticket stuff was a large part of my first Insomnia experience and of course it shaped my expectations for future events, but on reflection I find myself wondering if those big ticket things actually work against Insomnia. I was so focused on the big, shiny new things before that I wasn’t really paying much attention to the core parts of the show itself – the focus on playing games together, the stage events bringing the community together in that strong sense of community that I’d argue the festival has been built on ever since that first LAN party that started it all.

This year, with no big distractions, I was free to explore a lot of the things I normally wouldn’t have paid much if any attention to at all. In doing so I found a new sense of appreciation for the event itself but also all the smaller things – gaming as a community, the cosplay scene, Dungeons and Dragons, avoiding iffy hotdog vans and not just fixating on wanting to try all the new games I knew I’d be playing in a few months anyway. All the while Paul’s message was in the back of my head and I genuinely feel Insomnia is in a good space to refocus on the community aspects of it all. To be clear this is not me saying new games etc. can’t work with Insomnia, but I don’t feel like the time is right to try going back in that direction. I look forward to the next one and I really hope anyone on the fence is willing to give it another chance – I do think Insomnia will get bigger and better.

Life Is Like a Box of Chocolates…

I wanted to end this with a happy moment that to me really reflects how I see Insomnia at the moment. We might have done everything we could by the end of Saturday, but we weren’t heading home until the Sunday morning. As I mentioned earlier, I really wanted to attend the Session Zero meet and greet but unfortunately missed it.

Sunday morning comes around and I AWAKE TO FIND MYSELF IN A HOTEL ROOM. Wait, no, wrong section. Anyway, we wander up to the NEC for breakfast, said goodbye to the rest of our group and headed back to the hotel to make the journey home, happy and tired after our weekend of adventure. As we are passing the lake by the hotels, one of my favourite places, someone must have decided to roll a d20 on my behalf and landed the 20 as JoshStrifeHayes just happened to be stood there.

I can be incredibly socially anxious, particularly when approaching someone I don’t know. Even if I had been at the meet and greet, there’s no guarantee I’d have walked up to anyone and started talking. I realised I just couldn’t pass on this opportunity thought and managed to say hi. We had a quick chat and he even offered to have a photo taken.

This might seem like a strange story to end this on, but I really think it works when I think about it. The interaction I initially wanted would likely have been very brief in a loud space where I’d barely hear anything and would have been immensely uncomfortable. Instead, I got a quick, calm chat and a lovely photo right next to one of my favourite spots.

What a way to end the trip!

This is a mirror for how Insomnia #69 felt for me – I didn’t really get what I went there for, but with time and reflection I realised I ended up with something much better than what I hoped for. Insomnia has a character all of its own and I can’t wait to go again.

Can’t wait for next year, who knows – maybe some of you reading this will be there too!

Thanks for taking the time to read all this, I really appreciate it. Until next time, take care of yourselves!

One thought on “The Summer of #i69”

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