Thought/Process: Year in Rear View
Now that it's over, 2007 can safely be logged as a banner year in the annals of the video game industry. Big numbers (Halo 3's one-day sales record), big surprises (the Activision/Vivendi merger) and big business moves (EA's acquisition of BioWare and Pandemic) all made headlines in 2007. It's easy for a gamer to look at the broad strokes and feel like a part of a swelling cultural movement. While much of that is true, getting caught up in the warm fuzzies of camaraderie can obscure some of the critical faculties that it takes to be a really savvy participant in gaming culture.
Looking back at the last year, the one thing that's been a steady factor in my experience has been the yawning gap between hype and hands-on. Hype's a fact of life in any entertainment business, and videogames are no exception. With first looks and previews being part of what some have called a broken editorial dynamic, the gaming press has a role in setting up expectations, too. Add in marketing and advertising campaigns and the buzz gets so loud that you often feel bad for not being a fan of games that you're supposed to like.
Most recently, I ran up against that glass wall while playing Assassin's Creed. Leading up to its release in November, game journalists had been hearing about the game for about two years. Ubisoft, the game's publisher, promised a next-gen experience like no other: adaptive group artificial intelligence on a grand scale, a cutting-edge locomotion engine and a story so good it just had to be kept secret. The development pedigree of the title -- folks from Ubi's Montreal studio would be working on the game (and they made Prince of Persia!) -- quelled any skepticism I had.
Then I got the game, played it, and reviewed it for some of the mainstream press outlets.
I felt let down, for reasons way too numerous to get into here. Still, it wasn't the first time a release I'd been looking forward to felt under-realized. The difference here was the way the hype cycle continued to rev up Assassin's Creed after its release: best-selling new intellectual property in the last five years, with 2.5 million copies sold in a month! In fact, a friend who was playing it with me liked it a lot, up until the third portion of the game. It was only then that the criticisms that I'd been making about the game began to sink in.
The distance between hype and reality is all about missed opportunities. The early demos shown at E3 in 2006 and other trade shows thereafter hinted at a core philosophy, at planning and at consequence as part of the gameplay AC was to deliver. That particular part of the promise of Assassin's Creed was exciting because death happens nonchalantly in videogames. It's often simply the means to an end. Or, it's so overplayed for maximum dramatic effect that its true weight gets trivialized. Assassin's Creed had a chance to change how people think about stealth in videogames, and this is where it really goes wrong. Coming from UbiSoft, Creed could've been the game to provide the kind of conceptual quantum leap that their Splinter Cell franchise represented when it first hit consoles. Better yet, on an even larger scale, it could've changed the way people think about death.
Judged on a hype-to-reality ratio, last year's games like Uncharted and Stranglehold break even because they deliver the kinds of experiences that the end user is led to expect. The messaging around Uncharted primed you to expect an 'Indiana Jones'-type experience, and Stranglehold teased gamers with the promise of a super-stylized guns-and-ammo orgy. In both instances, those claims were met. Games like Portal from The Orange Box and BioShock come out ahead because parts of their core experience were left to the end user to discover and make his own. BioShock's TV commercials sold it as a sharp-looking, infinitely-configurable shooter, with little hint to the compelling narrative that awaited. When you got to those creepy, gut-wrenching moments in the game, they felt like surprises, like added value. Hell, Portal as its own entity got very little hype, and only then as a tweaked-out first-person shooter. Once players got a taste of the elegant yet simple design and of GLaDOS' personality, a whole other level of engagement opened up. It may seem weird to say it now, when both games are showing up on damn near every year-end list, but neither BioShock nor Portal was oversold in terms of hype.
Other games promised you sprawling epics. Heavenly Sword tantalized would-be buyers with highly choreographed ass-kicking in the vein of 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,' and Ninja Theory's PS3 debut did offer up moments of sublime martial arts mayhem, but lame puzzle-solving, iffy controls and choppy narrative flow ultimately made Heavenly Sword feel mundane.
In his book 'Reading Comics,' critic Douglas Wolk puts forth the idea of the 'superreader,' someone who's so steeped in the lore of comics that the experience of a single issue of a series resonates on multiple levels. The videogame industry's not as old as comics, but it attracts attention for the profitability of its various intellectual properties and the seductive richness of the interactive experience. The problem with hype is that it undercuts that richness.
Hype drowns out dissent. Hype dulls criticism. It creates a mob mentality, a lemming-like response that prevents a community from discerning for itself what's worth canonizing. Let's say that the gaming analogue to Wolk's superreader is a superplayer. Superplayers aren't going to be hardcore fanboys with unilateral allegiances to console or companies. Superplayers will be gamers who can see how a game creates its own context, supports that context, and fits into a larger continuum of creativity.
If too many mega-hyped titles underdeliver on their promises, nobody will want to be a superplayer. If hype continues to fog up our field of vision, no one will even be able to become a superplayer. So, while we eagerly anticipate the big-deal games of 2008 and beyond, it's worth it to weigh the hype surrounding them. Keep it in mind, not just to spare the strain on our wallets but also to judge how this industry is maturing.