For more than a moment you may have hesitated clicking on this blog, complete as it is with such a grandiose and borderline-vulgar metaphor, not to mention a potentially disagreeable one at that. In the grand scheme of things, the hype 'epidemic' (as I am infalming it to be) may seem trivial in comparison to the apocalyptic numbers of 'casuals' supposedly infecting and debasing the medium we supposed 'hardcores' cherish so dearly. And let's not forget the real issue facing videogames nowadays really is the evil monopoly of Microsoft, the confused half-truthery of Sony and the sheer complacency of Nintendo.
So far, so dramatic (not to mention ironic), but before I get into full swing, allow me to clarify that this rant is not aimed at that other incredible epidemic hitting videogaming, i.e. the true evil that is fanboys. Whilst I have no qualms against a little bit of pride, I'm lost for words when trying to comprehend or understand the logic behind hyping a game months away from release purely on the basis it will be gracing a console I own. All three parties of console fanboys are culpable, so I'll let them hype their Haze's, Too Human's and... hold on let me think of a title coming out on Wii... nope... and I'll just remain a content bystander.
The hype I'm writing this article about, rather selfishly, is the hype we as gamers generate within ourselves. My own personal hype. Not the false show of blind brand loyalty that plagues forums across the net (and beyond), but that palpable sense of anticipation which reaches fever pitch as we wait, often feverishly and impatiently, for that next big title we have literally spent years looking forward to.
This year saw for me one such title in particular, the undeniably impressive Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Last year I had an equal amount of buzz for the likes of Final Fantasy 12 (released over here in Britain last February) and, perhaps confusingly to some, Tomb Raider: Anniversary. As December 2007 approached I waited with bated breath to *finally* get to play Ico, a game I'd been anticipating to play for months but had deliberately left off until Christmas in a bid to try and recapture the magical time I'd had the year before playing Shadow of the Colossus around the festive season.
So many games, so much hype, and what single thing unifies them all?... a confusing but undeniable sense of initial disappointment. It varies drastically with each title, both in length and severity, but I cannot put my hand on my heart and say that with all of the titles mentioned above I didn't have at least one period of time where I was feeling a little let down, or just the sense that the game wasn't all I had built it up in my expectations to be.
Before MGS4 fanboys flame me to kingdom come and hurl all manner of abuse at me, let me elaborate (and if you don't have the patience to read then fly, fly my friends). My first night of playing Guns of the Patriots was a wonderful experience, and I remember how blown away I was by the sheer variety and quality of everything on offer. It is a resplendent and hugely accomplished piece of videogame entertainment, a real tour-de-force of what the medium can, and indeed should aspire to achieve in every aspect.
So why did I still feel a little inexplicably jaded as I whizzed through the entirety of the game in a matter of a few nights? Well, whilst I believe going into a real psychological analysis would be over-reaching to say the least, I still nonetheless think there are three main factors, which I'm going to address here, even if for my own sake. Before I go into them, I'll fully acknowledge the majority of this post, and indeed practically all of this relevance, is very personal and individual, I know plenty of people who don't feel anything of this calibre when it comes to new releases or anticipated titles, but alas, I'm writing so I'll stick to what I know and feel.
NUMBER ONE - Desire for Repetition - I've realised, looking up at all of the titles I've mentioned which have been significant, or even minor, disappointments over the past year or two, even if I've only felt that way for a short while, they all share one similar trait: they're sequels. Now as much as I applaud and encourage innovation and originality, and taking gamers on new and different experiences every time we hand over our hard-earned cash for a new title, nonetheless I definitely believe that when it comes to major, anticipated sequels, whether we (or more accurately I at least) want to or not, we project our positive experiences and preferences from the games which have come before in that particular series. It seems like a moot, almost ridiculous, point, but when it comes to sequels I seem to initially always have this desire to compare it to its immediate predecessor and think of 'all the good things' about it which this current iteration has left out. I did it with Final Fantasy X, fretting and worrying and mildly disappointed over how it didn't have the same whimsical feel of the PS1 Final Fantasy's, then along comes Final Fantasy XII and I'm sitting there disappointed that it's characters aren't as rounded, it's story doesn't have the depth or emotional clout and it's music isn't as eloquently beautiful of that of Final Fantasy X.
Likewise going back to Tomb Raider: Anniversary, my initial qualms were that the control system felt too streamlined and 'easy' (if that even makes sense), and that the levels didn't seem as large, complicated or elaborate as their iterations in the original PS1 games. It is this constant stream of comparison that seems to plague me when playing on such personally-hyped sequels. Metal Gear Solid 4 changed locations too much in comparison to MGS3, which itself, upon release, suffered in my opinion plot-wise in comparison to MGS2's labyrinthine and complicated story. Resident Evil 4 was too action-packed and not scary enough in comparison to any of the previous Resident Evil titles. The list goes on....
Whilst some of the criticisms may still hold true, you'll have no doubt noticed the majority of them are ridiculous from an objective point of view. Disliking the fact that Tomb Raider: Anniversary had far more streamlined controls than the tank-movement of the PS1 titles?!? Being disappointed that Snake Eater did not have as nigh-on-incomprehensible a plot as Sons of Liberty?!? Just these examples alone are enough to make me sound like a lunatic, but as I said, they're not conscious, rational objections I have, merely moments where I acknowledge differences from my previous experiences with that series, and out of what I can only understand to be some base desire for a repeating of the enjoyable time I had before, object to them.
NUMBER TWO - Time, the great destroyer - An important, but cynical point to remember: The purpose of *any* trailer, preview, glimpse, sneak-peek or anything of that commercialised ilk has the sole purpose of getting us prepared to hand over our cash. Once we've bought a game, or purchased our cinema ticket and so on, we've given the studios and developers what they want and need. Yes, it's incredibly cynical of me, but it's also incredibly true. As such, hype, for the majority of games developers, is a wonderful thing, and the number of studios who will utilise it to get sales far outweigh those who genuinely care whether or not the product they release lives up to expectations.
Going back to Metal Gear Solid 4, my chief example, we get an example of a game being announced and previewed 3-4 years before it is actually released. Glimpses of the story, occasional hints at gameplay eventually follow through to fever pitch. 3 years is a long time to be waiting excitedly for a game to be released, and the occasional morsel fed in the form of trailers and the like only heighten this anticipation. The danger of this process as a gamer, however, is we begin to piece together (or, again, at least I do) the experience we are going to have with this game. Subconsciously, of course. The teaser trailers of Snake putting a gun into his mouth instantly ignite all manner of thought processes and possibilities, and we latch onto them with surprising ferocity. We see glimpses at bosses and, when they look as impressive as the 'Beauty and the Beast' unit in MGS4, we can't help but get carried away thinking what the boss battles are going to be like. We get the words of excited members of the development team, or magazine/internet previews excitedly gushing how insanely brilliant their test-time with it was, and this also fits into our little jigsaw of the amazing, yet surprisingly self-defined experience we're going to have playing this title.
Now obviously, not all games have the development cycle of publicity campaign Metal Gear Solid 4 had, but still, the fact remains - and I'm certain I'm not alone in this - we can't help but continue to be shown things and make assumptions and decisions, be they subconscious or not, about exactly what this game is going to be like. Then of course when it is eventually released and is inevitable different, we feel a little confused, jaded or disappointed. A good example is how excited I was seeing the first trailer with the aforementioned 'Beauty and the Beast' bosses. It was a cut-scene so no inkling as to what the boss battles would be like, but I started getting crazy ideas about laughing octopus in particular. Then when I eventually reach that particular boss battle, it is nowhere near as kinetic and crazy as I was expecting. But why did I expect it to be like that? Because I saw the trailer and my over-active, admittedly rather creative mind went into action. Had I not watched the trailer before playing the game and that boss battle came along I would no doubt have been floored by it, the sheer design of the enemy alone was outstandingly cool, but still, because I'd had the time to grow expectations of what the fight would be like, I ended up being a little jaded when it wasn't what I had naively expected.
As such, I firmly believe the longer we wait for a title, the higher the anticipation builds and the more trailers and previews we watch or read, the more we actively start piecing together the experience in our minds. It's premature, presumptuous and naïve, but that's how our minds work - we're given a nugget of something and we begin considering, pondering and elaborating upon it. And this, in conjunction with my existing point before about sequel expectations, can sometimes really unfairly damage our first play-through of games which are undeniably remarkable, such as MGS4.
Moving onto the third, and thankfully more positive, point...
NUMBER THREE - Time, the great healer - Hypocritical? Nay! The periods of time addressed in my last point were those leading up to the release of a big, heralded game. Now I'll look at the time that passes once the game's firmly in your possession.
With all of the games mentioned above on my list of 'semi' or 'temporary' disappointments, they all benefited greatly from both a second playthrough and also letting a chunk of time pass before doing so. I also strongly believe that the length of the game itself factors in very heavily on how well it can recover from it's initial sense of mild disappointment.
When a game I've been eagerly waiting to play comes along and ends up being completed in a short space of time, the likelihood of confusion and dissatisfaction factoring in is quite high. However, give me an epic, lengthy endeavour (Final Fantasy XII springs to mind) and it ends up being such a protracted haul that I have enough time to get over the differences and series-absences, and get on with accepting, and subsequently enjoying this new game on its own merit and for what it is. As mentioned, Final Fantasy XII is an excellent example - for a good while I sat there playing it almost out of loyalty to Square and the Final Fantasy name that anything else, whilst simultaneously spitting fire that it had been labelled as such. It just didn't, to me, 'feel' like a Final Fantasy game, but that was again purely because I was expecting a re-hash of one of my previous Final Fantasy experiences. When I *eventually* got over the massive changes (which took a while as they were considerable for a FF game to say the least), I began to thoroughly appreciate and adore the game. Yes, it took a good number of hours and the first third of the game suffered to my mood swings, but after that it became an escape, a good few hours away into the world of Ivalice which became as enjoyable and addictive a distraction as any of the Final Fantasy games before it. The controls which I went through a period of disliking quite intensely because they were so radically altered from the line-up, wait-for-your-turn tradition, I ended up loving for the pace and flow it gave the title. When all was said and done, I still ended up feeling the cast, story and music were not quite up to the usual standards of excellence the series carries (or did once carry), but my dislike for the title had entirely vanished, and I ended up giving it 9.6 in my gamespot review.
Metal Gear Solid 4, on the other hand, absolutely flew by. I completed it before some of my hesitations and disappointments could fully subside. There's no denying I appreciated the sheer quality and brilliance of the title, but I hadn't yet had enough time to fully get over what I considered to be it's short-comings, one of which, ironically enough, was it's length. Now, in hindsight, with a couple of months having passed since I completed it, I can look back and see how much I raced through the game, the sheer variety of ways to play it offers, and how it truly is not a game intended for a single play-through by dint of that variety of options and pathways both tactically and gameplay wise.
So yes, time can be a healer as well. Give a game you've hyped to infinity some cool-down time, then come back for a second play and those uber-high expectations you had first time round, be they from expectations you have from their series predecessors, or from the long, protracted wait for it's release, will be inevitably gone, or at least considerably dulled down. There's no denying some games will just generally disappoint and will not live up to the standards naturally expected of them, but if there's one thing I hope this article has addressed is that we can indeed be our own worst enemies when it comes to building up the hype for a game we've waited so long to own and enjoy. Whilst that sounds painfully obvious, I do believe we are sometimes blind to how, even subconsciously, we can really begin shaping and building up an experience we've yet to have, or begin predicting and assuming a journey we've yet to go on, so that when a new Metal Gear Solid or Final Fantasy comes along and dares to be bold, original and brilliant, we aren't so much overwhelmed and amazed as mildly confused and a tad disappointed that what we're seeing and playing isn't what we saw and played last time through, or at least isn't strictly adhering to what we envisaged and imagined from the copious amounts of teaser trailers, previews and footage we've spent the last 3 years glued to our monitors watching.
Now, everybody is of course different in terms of personal expectations and how individual titles meet, or indeed fail to meet, those expectations. It's not as if support for Metal Gear Solid 4 has been slim, far from it as we all know. Nor is it as if I'm calling the titles mentioned in this article bad games, again, the truth is the exact opposite - the vast majority of games mentioned herein have been titles of the highest quality, and I admit entirely it is personal hype that exceeds and deflates them. It may be that I'm just particularly associative, and is a rare thing indeed. If that is the case, then I hope it has at least been an interesting, albeit perhaps confusing, insight into the mind of someone trying quite resolutely to stop letting his expectations and assumptions race ahead of him at a time when videogames can, and in some cases, really are, pushing an exciting number of envelopes in the realm of interactive entertainment.