-- Alice Walker
"Halo 3: The moment is upon us" reads the breathless e-mail from Xbox Flash. Followed by the tag lines:
A Hero Must Rise
It's just marketing. It's not even particularly brilliant marketing. It's hype for hype's sake. But the irony is that the slogan, "BELIEVE," is the problem with all marketing towards the hardcore gamer. We (and I mean me) read everything. We watch everything. We drool over the plate-scraps of developers. We BELIEVE in capital letters. We want to believe. Our belief that what is coming tomorrow is better than today is unshakable.
Boy are we stupid.
On September 25th, nerdmerica, and I imagine many other continents, will get a mysterious flu, and there will be much rejoicing. There will be trash talking all day and night as people Master-Chief themselves into nothing more than 200 pounds of flesh-colored pudding with thumbs. And I'm willing to bet, nearly half the people playing will be disappointed.
Not because the game won't be any good. Even I, a comparatively tepid fan of the Halo series, know from the demo that the game will be rock solid and there's no doubt in my mind whatsoever that it will take up permanent residence on the Ikea DVD rack next to my desk. No, people will be disappointed because things rarely live up to Halo levels of hype. If you've played through the first two chapters in the Halo novella, you're in a frenzy. The three years since the release of Halo 2 has been intensely stressful for you, the incurable sufferer of Halotosis. An entire generation of consoles has emerged, with blockbuster titles like Gears of War and BioShock receiving all the glory while you've had to deal with (shudder) backward compatibility. But now your time has come. And you already know it's going to be the best. thing. ever.
But here's the thing. You're probably wrong. I know, because I always say this, and I'm almost always wrong. Here's my list of best games ever that left me disappointed, and their kindred surprises that made me quiver like lime Jello (tm).
Flight Sim X: Possibly the most outrageous screen shot porn ever made. The experience? Eh.
Flight Sim 9: Paid little attention to it during development. Crapped my pants upon firing it up.
Doom 3: As the full resolution gameplay footage trickled across my net connection, i was sure this was the game to end all games. And it was, for about 3 minutes.
Doom: Showed up on my computer one day and I had no idea what the hell had happened, but I knew it was GOOD.
World of Warcraft: By 2004, already jaded on MMOs, WoW seemed to be 2 years of waiting for a cartoon. I'm not suggesting I'm any arbiter of commercial success here, just that it didn't come close to living up to my personal dream of what an MMO could be.
Neocron: To this day I can't tell you why I started playing it. But in 2002, the real first person shooter qualities of it combined with a thriving (if short lived) competitive clan system made it Geektastic.
The pattern has repeated in almost every generation, in every genre. The less I know about a game ahead of time, the more impressed I am by its virtues, the more forgiving I am of its flaws. There have been very, very few games I have waited for with rapt attention, eagerly pouring over screen shots, whining my way into beta, salivating through release and playing for hours, overlooking gaping holes and green puss-laden warts because I had the rare experience of expectations met and exceeded.
Yes, BioShock is one such game. I won't write a review of it. I don't really do reviews. I don't do reviews because context is too important. I'm happy to tell you if I think a game sucks, or is brilliant, but if I do, it will have the word "I" in it, and that's not how commercial press works. If it's got a "we" I won't slap a 93 on it and ship it out. I wouldn't even know how to review BioShock, except to say "I wanted to love it, I bought the hype, and I was still impressed." Because I knew exactly what I wanted out of it and I got it, warts and all.
Part of this was because BioShock landed in a vacuum. Yes, Ken Levine had made System Shock 2, but BioShock was new in all ways that mattered. These expectations problems are far worse when it comes to beloved franchises. In the case of a game like Fallout 3, there's no way that expectations can possibly be met. "Our expectations are higher than anyone else's," said Todd Howard, Executive Producer at Bethesda, while I was grilling him about the post-E3 fan-craptacular hubub. He's charged with ferrying the Fallout franchise into the next generation. People will hate his game. No matter how brilliant it is, there will be a cadre of fans who simply will not be satisfied. So how much should he tell you? He's going to make the game his way, but he can't tell you everything, because he's go a job to do. And anything he says is just going to steer you in the wrong direction. "We're making the stuff we really want to play, but If you've waited ten years for something, your expectations are pretty high. It's fair to get online and say 'I don't get it.'"
So what's the solution? What's a hardcore, net-surfing, midnight-madness uber-geek to do with your new Chapter 3 baby coming online?
If I look back on the past few years, there are games that gave me nearly as much joy as BioShock, in no small part because I expected nothing whatsoever out of them. When my friend Rob raced over with his copy of Guitar Hero, I looked at him with ridicule. "You have to be kidding, DDR without the excercise?" But I knew within moments I'd tapped into a vein of high quality ore, one which I would spend the next year refining. Guitar Hero 2 for the 360 was better in nearly every measurable way, and while it's consumed more hours than the old, long since gifted PS2 version did, it's been much less satisfying, if only because its excellence is expected.
Don't buy it on day one. Convince yourself you don't care. Stop looking at the release schedule. Pre-order nothing. Sure, you might miss the day-1 spoiler threads, but you know what? You'll enjoy the games more. This is a good season we have coming. I say this not just as a dad who shipped both kids off to school this morning, but as a gamer. It's Season 2 for the new consoles. It's prime time for the 360. The PC, DS and PSP calendars are all full of joy. If your an equal opportunity gamer, you have far more games to play than you will have hours to play them, even if you decide to forgo bathroom trips and simply sit naked in the bathtub for 3 months.
Let a little serendipity enter your life. Let whimsy guide your pre-holiday purchases. Play something you've never heard of that a friend says is great. Put off Halo 3 for a week or so, and play Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass or Hooked! Real Motion Fishing instead. Because who knows, maybe one of them will rock your world.
Expect Nothing by Alice Walker
Expect nothing. Live frugally
Become a stranger
to need of pity
or, if compassion be freely
take only enough
stop short of urge to plead
then purge away the need.
Wish for nothing larger
than your own small heart
or greater than a star,
tame wild disappointment
with caress unmoved and cold
make of it a parka
for your soul.
Discover the reason why
so tiny human midget
exists at all
so scared unwise
but expect nothing. Live frugally