The Influence of Hype

Hype isn’t always a bad thing.  In fact, it’s usually a great thing when it comes from the right places.  Hype generated by word-of-mouth buzz can clue you in to hidden gems you would’ve never otherwise considered.  But a few game experiences recently have made me step back to take a look at how hype factors into it all.

I keep coming back to one question - does the hype itself affect whether or not you enjoy a game?


“Oh come on, he’s not going to talk about Rage again, is he?”

Managing Expectations

I’ve lavished enough glowing praise upon Rage already, and all you really need to know about that for this article is that I really really enjoyed the game.

But the reason I bring it up here is that when I hear other people complain about it those complaints fall into one of two categories: the first are complaints that the game just doesn’t work with their AMD video card; the other is that the game just doesn’t stack up to either Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Skyrim.  I just couldn’t get my head around that second complaint - why would you compare a first-person shooter to a pair of open-world role playing games?

That is, of course, until I started looking at some of the pre-release hype.  Id Software reps had made a big stink about the RPG elements they were adding and the expansiveness of the game world - tie that in to a bunch of cinematic preview videos (like this one), inaccurate or misleading previews (like this one for comparing it to Borderands and Fallout 3 without making it clear that it’s only the setting that’s similar), and id Software’s acquisition by Zenimax, the company that owns top-shelf RPG maker Bethesda Softworks - and it becomes clear where the hype train went off the rails.


In reality it was a super-advanced blackjack simulator all along.

I, on the other hand, hadn’t been following the game before release.  My first exposure was with the Giant Bomb quicklook, and I definitely got the game I expected to get from watching 30 minutes of gameplay video.

The lesson I’m taking away from this is that hype has to be accurate, or it’s going to be a hindrance to your game instead of an asset.

Over-hype

This is probably the most common way that hype goes bad - a game gets built up to wholly unreasonable expectations and then is judged harshly when it inevitably fails to meet them.

The classic example is, of course, Daikatana.  Had it released without hype, it would’ve been just another failed FPS reaching for Quake’s crown only to fall flat on its face.  However, since it had been billed as the most advanced FPS ever, made by the best FPS production team ever it very nearly pulled ION Storm under when it sank like a stone.


Though, to be fair, John Romero did make me cry - not because he made me “his bitch” but because Daikatana taught me that this world has no room for a just and loving God.

But over-hype doesn’t only ruin terrible games, it also has a way of spoiling your experience with decent ones as well.

When a game is described more often as “great” or “phenomenal” or “one of the best” - instead of being described for what it is - it leaves you to fill in the blanks, and you’ll almost never get what you’re imagining.  It leaves you with a feeling I can only describe as “is this all there is?”

Uncharted 2 is a beloved game, considered one of the greatest games released for the PS3 period, and I knew that going in.  I expected phenomenal.  What I got was a relatively laggy 3rd person shooter where you mow down waves of faceless guards until you’re allowed to progress to the next area accompanied by a mediocre plot modeled after summer blockbuster action flicks.


... and drake has a supid face and he smells bad too

That’s pretty harsh, but I have to wonder if I’d be as harsh if I’d approached this realistically - as 3rd person shooter modeled after summer blockbuster action flicks.  It certainly lives up to that description.

Donkey Kong Country Returns was also heralded as “one of the best” - a “best of E3” award contender hearkening back to the SNES era (some of the highest possible acclaim in my mind).  In reality I got a relatively repetitive platformer with slightly sloppy jumping mechanics with indistinct platform edges and enemies - a recipe for unnecessary cheap deaths - that failed to hold my interest.


What was that?  Giant Octopus?  Yawn …

Did my nostalgia for DKC cloud my ability to evaluate DKCR as its own game?  And did the “best of E3” moniker cause me to assume that it would be free from graphic or control issues that hinder gameplay?

Negative Hype

The flip side of getting too much positive press is getting too much negative press.  This isn’t going to be a rant against “the haters.”


After all, sometimes the hate is totally justified.

There are times when “the community” (i.e. crazy people like us who have nothing better to do than to talk about video games on the internet) latches on to some piece of pre-release information, a screenshot, or a gameplay segment and decides as a hive-mind that this must not stand.  And one of the most vigorous and narrowly focused hate-gasms I’ve seen over a recent game has got to be the characterization of Samus in Metroid: Other M.

Since 1986 (so, for some of you, your whole lives) Samus has been one of the most treasured silent protagonists in all of video games.  In other games she was a blank slate - causing gamers to invent a personality and voice for her.  So when Nitnendo and Tecmo decided to flesh out her personality and back-story the community recoiled in horror at what they saw.


Spoiler: when placed in an inferno and confronted with a giant dragon monster that killed her parents and had - just then - risen from the grave to seek revenge, Samus showed an emotion.

What they missed when they focused on this tiny little cinematic was a solid 3D platformer with a relatively goofy summer blockbuster plot (that even managed to have a somewhat touching moment if you got 100% completion).

Metroid: Other M was one of the most surprisingly good games in recent memory for me since the negative hype had set me up for poop-from-a-butt.  But again, would I have thought it so good if the pre-release hype was an Uncharted 2 level declaration of infallibility (which is entirely unfair to Uncharted 2)?

Would I have enjoyed Uncharted 2 if I hadn’t played Metroid: Other M first?


Be honest, how many of you are fuming at that question?

Under-hype

I saved this for last because this is where you’re most likely to find some real gems.  While the biggest games of the year get the most hype, the vast majority of games out there go completely under-hyped.

Because Saints Row and Saints Row 2 were mostly mediocre pretenders to GTA’s throne, people really didn’t take much notice when Saints Row: The Third was announced. We kinda went on auto-pilot and assumed it would mostly be more of the same, even if they were going with the somewhat shocking tagline of “strap it on.”

What we ended up getting, though, was one of the most original and unique experiences of 2011, not a retread on tired ground.  Sure it wasn’t perfect, but of all the ways you can describe Saints Row: The third, “more of the same” is probably the least apt.


I could use pretty much any Saints Row: The Third screenshot here as a punchline.

But the absolute king of low expectations has got to be Portal.  When it came out it was a relatively obscure FPS puzzle game packed into the Orange Box with the much more highly anticipated Team Fortress 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode 2.  The expectation was that it was a small diversion thrown onto the disc to add some value to these other better known sequels.

What it ended up being - frankly - was the start of one of the most important and beloved franchises in modern PC gaming.  Its jokes became internet memes, the voice and music talent gained notoriety, and it helped propel Valve onto the stage as one of the premiere PC game distributors.  It even got a few nods from GOTY lists, as did its sequel.

But if you had gone in expecting a 40-hour story driven quest, or even a traditional shooter, you’d be sorely disappointed.  And even if you’d heard about it from your friends, odds are they had a hard time explaining it.  Going in blind gave players the opportunity to be pleasantly surprised.

Was Portal an internet sensation merely by being a great game, or did our lack of expectations allow us to be surprised by its greatness?

That’s the question in a nutshell - and even after writing this I don’t think I have an answer.  But I think I’m going to try to avoid other peoples’ opinions for a while.


At least then I won’t get stuck sleeping through 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors again