The year is 2001. On a rainy October day, I run from the parking lot into the dorm, covering my head with a Best Buy shopping bag as I try to avoid getting swallowed up by the weather. After a not-so-quick elevator trip, I’m in my dorm room, tearing into the packaging of a Playstation 2 game. I curse once or twice as I pull at those little security labels, the ones that cling to your fingers like plastic mosquitoes and refuse to let go.
As the game spins to life, I am in a city. Just like the world beyond my windows, the world in the looking glass of my TV is consumed by rain. Soon enough, I am pulling motorists out of their vehicles with ease. I’m causing mayhem. I can go anywhere I want. I learn fairly quickly that this world has a name: Liberty City. The game I’m playing is Grand Theft Auto 3, and this is the first time I have ever seen it in motion. The experience waiting for me catches me completely off guard.
The scenario I’ve just described doesn’t happen to me too often these days. In 2010, the world we live in is one espoused in information, saturated by it down to every pore. If we want to know something, we have immediate access to it. In fact, even if we don’t want to know anything about it, the information is everywhere, on every blog, on every news site, on every profile. The wonder of each new game fades.
For a while, I wondered if this lack of the “wow” experience and surprise in games was simply due to the quality of gaming in general. The more I think about it, however, I think a great bit of it has to do with gaming culture and media, and the way we swarm all over everything we can about the games we care most about. Want a screenshot? Have twenty. Want some gameplay? We’ll release a gaming video every month for a whole year. Our surprise is stripped away, one update at a time.
The conclusion I’ve come to is this: gaming in the age of information overload hurts our enjoyment of video games.
In the past, (insert random year here), when the (funny name for Internet) started to push forward with locomotive-like momentum, I was what you’d call a spoiler hound. Movies, books, TV, games – it didn’t matter. I used to love knowing the end of something before I even started it, just so I knew where to set my expectations and enjoy the ride as it happened. Over time, I’ve mellowed out on this a bit. While I don’t care about spoilers, I certainly don’t seek them out.
But back in the day, things were different, especially when it came to video games. I was always hungry for any scrap of info I could find for the games I really cared about, searching high and low to have that craving satiated. The funny thing is, this addiction to information wasn’t just located within myself, but permeated the entire gaming culture at large. News sites and rumor blogs alike have sprung up like garden weeds, and all we have to do is travel a short distance in our browser to fill that voracious addiction to information overload.
Here’s the funny thing about addiction, though: it’s kind of like a sumo wrestler. The more you feed it, the more that squat dude can push you around the ring. Soon, it’s the master, and you’re not.
In the last year especially, I’ve started to sense this about the way I look for news on gaming sites. At some point, there was a shift about the way gaming news was portrayed, and about the way information was relayed back to us, the consumers. People know every last stinking detail of every game before it even hits the shelves, and as a result feel like they can pass judgment on something that isn’t even out yet. For instance, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood jumps into stores today, and I think I’ve seen a gameplay video released for that every two weeks for the last several months. Even while trying not to pay attention to those things, I feel like I already know way too much about the game.
It doesn’t end there, either. The flying level in Halo: Reach was probably one of the biggest aces that Bungie had in its sleeves. Unfortunately, everybody and yes, even their mothers, saw that video at E3 2010. While it was great to see such an awesome and exciting glimpse of an anticipated game, a part of me was unsettled that the surprise of the experience was taken away from me on launch day. It’s hard to imagine what an ignorant version of myself would have said or thought about that sequence if I saw it in its context and not beforehand. I imagine the thrill would have been even greater than it already was.
The first game that really caught me totally by surprise in this generation would have to be Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Having never been a huge fan of Call of Duty, I wasn’t too enthused about the game’s release until all of the praise and reviews started pouring in. I went out and grabbed the game, having seen no footage or screenshots. And what a game to try with no knowledge beforehand. It was one of the craziest, twisty stories I have ever experienced, and the way the gameplay changes up on you constantly creates a dozen hour whirlwind from start to finish.
This also happened to me with Batman: Arkham Asylum as well as Red Dead Redemption. Each of these games hit me with a haymaker, and I think it’s no great coincidence that all 3 of them unfolded for me in much the same way, knowing absolutely nothing.
So how does this affect me today? Basically, I keep my eyes off of the news sites when it comes to these kinds of stories. While I will read and post things that I find interesting, I tend to stay away from anything beyond the first set of screenshots or the first gameplay video I see, opting instead to know as little as possible. For instance, we have only a few scraps of information about Batman: Arkham City, but what little I know already feels like too much. I may not even watch a single trailer for it, because I simply just want to play this game as soon as possible. As you can imagine, as someone that helps run a gaming site, this gets kind of tricky. We always try to post things that are relevant, interesting, and hopefully not overkill.
This is actually a much bigger issue with a lot of different potential angles to explore, but I think I’ll cut it off here. I haven’t even gone into how the different video game sites and studios feed off each other by just publishing press releases. Or how a lack of information can backfire and go the other way when a game hits you with something you don’t expect, such as Brutal Legend or the way Hideo Kojima subverted the information hounds with Metal Gear Solid 2 and pulled a hero switcheroo. Or how one of the greatest endings I’ve seen in recent gaming (Castlevania: Lords of Shadow) pulled this off by doing the opposite kind of subversion. Or how the amount of information leads to over-negativity about games since we have no context until we play. Instead, I’ll open it up to you.
How do you guys approach information for games that you really care about? Do you think the age of information overload affects the way we play and experience games? When’s the last time a game really surprised you because you had no knowledge of it beforehand?