The last game I truly anticipated with complete abandon was Black & White, and the lesson I learned from it was so sharp, so biting, that I've never anticipated games in quite the same way since. While I was enthusiastic about big name releases like Half Life 2, World of Warcraft, Halo 2, and most recently Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the anticipation has been tempered, and even openly restrained, with cynicism and a painful knowledge that despite moments of grace and brilliance, these are works of men and subject to the inherent fallibility with which we are all cursed. In short, I've become a gaming pessimist living by the credo that if I don't get my hopes up, then I'll never be disappointed. It occurs to me that this may be something of a tragedy.
As the days of Oblivion approached, I had plenty of time to watch the psychology of the fan and all of its subtle permutations. I watched with a brand of abject horror, as the most vocal and intense segment of the fanbase began to speak of the game almost reverently, with traits that seemed religious in nature. Thou shalt have no game above the one true Oblivion. Thou shalt not use thy lord Oblivion's name in vain. Thou shalt type in all capital letters and vulgar acronyms to really get thy point across. The most important element to this cult of Bethesda was what it most shared with religion, and that was unwavering faith on the part of its laity. Though these priests of Tamriel had never held the game, nor played it, nor been granted concrete evidence that this game would be as good as promised, their certainty was absolute.
I'd seen it before, and with disastrous results. I'd after all been a quiet acolyte of Black and White once, myself. And, I knew from experience that when you abandon yourself so completely to an unreleased game, you run the risk of having it all end in disappointment and resentment. Having put your faith in a game that ultimately proves to be fatally flawed is probably like being a devout Christian and having Jesus show up at the door, leave half empty glasses of conjured wine all over the house, record over everything you'd been saving on TiVo, and leave unceremoniously with all of your credit cards.
And, yet, there is joy too in the singular act of anticipating a game, regardless of its ultimate quality. It's easy to get burned by a bad game, and decide the hours you put in to reading previews, and looking at screenshots, and chatting about it on message boards, and anticipating its release were completely wasted, and as with anything when one takes the anticipation to an extreme that's probably true. But still, we wouldn't participate in the hype if it weren't fun in and of itself.
I remember an advertising campaign for Heinz that, to the best of my recollection, played back in the early 80s or late 70s in which you see a glass bottle of ketchup held over a tantalizing burger waiting to take the tomatoey goodness like a penitent sinner waiting to take communion. The wait seems, for the viewer, endless as you watch the thick and viscous sauce bulge slowly from the opening, held in place by surface tension that seems bolstered by some hyper-thin space-age polymer. And through this interminable wait, because there was a day when ketchup did not come in squeeze containers and an art to hitting a glass bottle in the sweet spot, Carley Simon is singing her hit song Anticipation.
Now we have plastic-squeeze ketchup delivery devices that distribute it evenly and quickly onto your burger, hot-dog, or in the worst cases eggs. We simply grab the bottle of ketchup, give it a good squeeze to taste, and proceed happily about our lives, never having to hit anything or pass the bottle around the table to the guy who says he knows just how to make the ketchup come out. And, yeah, sure getting on with the eating part is good enough on its own, but I kinda miss the, for lack of a better word, anticipation. Maybe Heinz's marketing firm was right; maybe waiting for ketchup is better than eating ketchup.
Ok, that may not have been their point, but it certainly can be an accurate description of other things which we anticipate. For example, waiting for Star Wars Episode I to be released was better than watching it. Waiting for Doom III was better than playing it. And, waiting for Black and White, was damn sure a lot better than actually playing it.
It would seem that sacrificing enthusiasm to save disappointment is an equally failing venture. It is the other extreme to which I've occasionally and more frequently fallen from those who proselytize the hype. I've become something of a pre-release atheist. My interest in coming titles, until I put them in my hands for careful study and empirical analysis, is usually one of a purely academic nature. I question everything, take nothing for granted, and damn sure am not interested in simply having faith. Show me the money, and then I'll spend it. Not the other way around, thank you very much, can I get an amen?
But, then a game like Oblivion comes along, a game that appears to match the quality promised. And, now, I almost wish I'd put in the time looking forward to it, because the only thing better than playing an amazing game is anticipating an amazing game and having it meet your impossible standards. Sure, we all know in our cynical hearts that it's a bunch of measured corporate propaganda delivered in large-scale tactical hype-strikes, but there's a good reason that so many people abandon themselves to the drunken ecstasy of hype. It feels good to believe in the coming of something great, even on the small-scale level of games, or music, or film, or book. It is strangely inclusive.
I loved the last days before a game I have anxiously awaited hits shelves, loved calling retailers the day before to see if maybe, just maybe, it's out early, basked in the single-minded drive to pick up the game, and, most of all, wallowed in that moment just after you've put the disc in the tray but before you've gotten to the first splash screen when the gaming universe bursts forth with unseen possibility "… is there anything better? Well, of course, the answer to that depends on the game. But, it's been a while since I did those things to that degree of optimism, and I miss it.
I'm happy as I put forward plentiful hours into Oblivion, satisfied that the game is crafted by loving and genius hands, but there's a strange emptiness in me as well when I think I have no game coming in the immediate future with which to obsess myself. For me, the fat dollop of ketchup has landed on my burger, and, sure, it tastes good, but there was a moment there when Carley was bawling out like a cat in a dishwasher, and that thick, red bulb of condiment defied gravity, and I guess maybe I wasn't paying attention to that the way I should have been.