Hype. It's the game industry's lifeblood, but also its poison. Developers and publishers prey upon the expectations and excitement of their customers, doing whatever they can to generate and maintain a buzz around their upcoming projects. We in the press are no better, all too eager to give game makers the platform they need to whip public interest into a frenzy of eager hope.
Sometimes a ride on the hype train pays off, with recent games like Dead Space and Fable 2 benefiting greatly from the extra attention and living up to their publicity. Other games have not fared so well, such as Too Human, which just couldn't deliver everything that game creator Denis Dyack was promising.
As a reviewer, I had always been told never to talk about a game's hype when officially criticizing a game. The more I think about hype and the way it has become so intrinsically linked the industry, however, I find myself asking if it's actually fair to dismiss a game's promises when discussing the final product.
Should hype affect review scores? Read on for my thoughts ...
Whether you're a reviewer or not, you cannot help but have expectations about a game. Positive or negative, one always prejudges, sometimes anticipating good things, sometimes anticipating bad. Publishers of course would much rather you expect the former, so will do all they can to sway your opinion and hopefully guarantee a pre-order or first-day-buy.
If the game does not deliver what you were promised, however, you're bound to be disappointed. Furthermore, it's likely that your lowered opinion of the final product will be significantly lower than it would have been, had you not been made to anticipate so much. While the publisher has made its money, this is of course bad news for the customer who got burned, having just spent sixty dollars on a total letdown.
It's a reviewer's job to be as objective as humanly possible, and as fair as one can be when discussing a game. Of course, we as people have our personal preferences and there is always going to be some internal bias, but that shouldn't stop one from being able to recognize the positive and the negative in all things. That said, it is also a reviewer's job to write for their audience, an audience that is under no obligation to be "fair" when judging a game.
This is where I feel it may be important to consider hype when rating videogames. If you, as a reviewer, wait for a game which has been built up as the second coming and get significantly less than you were hoping for, is it really so professional to simply forget that and write about the game as it stands? If you truly are writing for your audience, then maybe you should discuss the publicity, since your readers likely have the same expectations you had.
Of course, I can see the merit to the argument that hype shouldn't be discussed in reviews. A reviewer is there to talk about what a game is, not what a game isn't. By that same token, however, sometimes a game is a massive disappointment because of what it isn't, something which the publisher highlights when it starts writing publicity checks that its final product can't cash.
If you are buying a new home cinema that promises surround sound, but the final product delivered to your house has only stereo, you have a right to be upset, and a reviewer of said home cinema would be right to point out that the system's advertising is lying. Similarly, if a food critic goes to a restaurant that promises the best steak in town, only to find out that they don't have steak on the menu, is he to ignore that fact when writing about the tofu salad he had to eat? No, of course not.
But somehow, it's unprofessional to talk about hype in a game review.
With the rise of the Internet and the fact that gamers are now able to connect with the industry 24/7, it's only natural that developers have found a much bigger voice in recent years. Charismatic figures like Hideo Kojima and Cliff Bleszinski have become a lot more prominent thanks to the Internet, where everything they say is recorded and dissected by eager gamers. Fortunately for those two, they have the gamemaking skills to back up their words, so they rarely have to worry about overhyping their stuff. People like Denis Dyack or Peter Molyneux, at times, are prone to speak too highly of their products, and sometimes promise what simply isn't there.
With developers now able to say so much, and eagerly saying it, it's almost impossible for even the worst game to get built up as something more. Many times we can see through the bullshit, but sometimes a game can look magnificent and wind up a big disappointment. For example, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed was expected to be the best Star Wars game in years, only to receive a mixed reaction in reviews and generally be regarded by gamers as a massive disappointment.
Looking at the Metacritic scores for Unleashed, one wonders if some of those "60" scores would be a lot lower if they had considered how little of the game lived up to its promise.
Another thing to consider is that it's a two-way street. While it's true that the games industry sometimes talks a bit too much, it isn't as if gamers remain completely blameless for getting overexcited. I remember back when Mirror's Edge was first revealed. After only thirty seconds of footage, comments cropped up from the masses declaring "DO WANT," as the general public already set their hope levels astronomically high over what was, at the time, nothing but concept.
We all do it, your writer being no exception, so where would we draw the line between who is responsible for a game's disappointment? If we were to factor hype into review scores, can we even make a fair distinction?
It's a grey area, and one that I feel deserves more consideration than it gets at the moment. Should hype factor into review scores? I think it should definitely be weighed up on a case-by-case basis. As it stands, publishers will say whatever they can to make you buy a game. They will promise you the stars regardless of whether or not they are delivering trash. That's their business, but the business of a reviewer is to give an honest appraisal of a game, and if one of the points is that the publisher is lying, then gamers ought really know about it.
Ultimately, though, the decision should lie with the you, the reader. Do you believe that hype ought to be a part of the review process, or do you believe instead that it unfairly sways the tone of a review? We write for our readers, so we'd like to know.
reviewed by Jim Sterling