How to Train Your Hype Dragon

I have a list in my head. It’s like the list that the Bride in Kill Bill keeps, only instead of people who tried to do me in on my wedding day, it’s a list of video games that broke my heart and crushed my dreams. Get out the Companion Cube plushie, and I’ll show you where the bad video games touched me.

See, for me and most gamers, the hype machine is a double-edged sword. We hate it, we love it, and we’re addicted to the process.

It always starts out with a landmark announcement, usually at a conference of some importance, accompanied with a trailer–the infamous shot heard round the world. A couple months later, a developer blog crops up on the internet, blazing virtual trails with concept artwork. Within a year, the upcoming game’s release date is solidified, and a community is gathered and waiting. What follows next is the tail-end of the successful press dragon; friends & family alphas, closed betas, and a barrage of supposed media leaks.

By this point, the press dragon can’t be slain. All you and thousands, sometimes millions, of others can only watch with baited breath as the beast turns to face you.

Yeah, you better hope it doesn’t demand a sacrificial virgin or something.

For some reason, few games get me on that level. I’m not scared of dragons, I guess. I tend to live in a week to week basis; I rarely anticipate releases, generally preferring to swoop down and pick up a copy of a game a few days after its launch.

But that isn’t to say I don’t get indulge myself in the futile exercise. Sometimes, I become prey to the very press dragon I spend my day job concocting. Point in case would be the little list I spoke about earlier. Now, about this list–let’s just say it isn’t a good one to be on. It begins with Twilight Princess, heads onward to Spore, and takes a long and hard look at Fable 2 before finally setting its sights on Left 4 Dead 2.

Simply put, these were failures of games; games that I anticipated, and that let me down considerably.

Games that really dropped the ball.

I still get mad whenever I think about Spore. EA Maxis had an incredible concept, but the execution begged to differ. Anticipation ran high for the title, but upon release, it just wasn’t complete. The package was polished, certainly, and the game phases were immaculately designed, but there was something missing; that spark of life no simulation genre game can be without.

Instead of playing God, the player was watching the computer play God, and it was lackluster.

Prior to Spore, I don’t think I ever could have said that EA Maxis ever made a disappointing game (unless we count the Streets of Sim City, which I’d rather pretend doesn’t exist). But there we were, as gamers, looking through a magnifying glass into a failed Petri dish of a game.

Badly designed flash mini-games pitted players as single-celled organisms which seamlessly connected and evolved into the growth of a complete planet and its ecosystem, but without any of the desired gratification. Organisms were designed, an unremarkable species was born, but as the tribe of creatures wobbled from point A and B, the game grew progressively drier and drier. It just wasn’t on the same level of Populous (the SNES game, not the remake) or even Sim Earth. There was no connection and when the creatures crawled further up the evolutionary chain, it became absolutely painful to continue on.

But Spore wasn’t the only game to really let me down and leave me a victim of the hype machine gone wrong. There were more. And one really awful one was Fable 2.

Let me tell you this: Fable 2 was a bad game.

Amendment: Fable 2 was a good game made absolutely insufferable by the fact that its predecessor was game of the decade material.

The original Fable was a short and ambitious game that was surprisingly good. The world of Albion was deep, towns were teeming with life, and the combat system was solid. Even the port from the XBox 360 to the PC was excellent and generally went without a hitch.

Fable is, and always will be, a game I recommend to friends when they say they’ve skipped a lot of good titles over the years.

As for Fable 2, not so much. Not at all, really.

I first remember hearing about Fable 2 when I was linked to a developer diary video about the companion pet feature–a loyal dog who followed you to the world’s end and back, complete with an ingenious A.I. specifically developed by Lionhead Studios. The developer in the video was overflowing with pride and emotion; he was the doctor, and it was Frankenstein.

But as enthralled with his own creation as he was, I was more so. Fable 2 was billed as everything the first one was and more; more world to explore, more choices to make, and more tantalizing features. Unfortunately, as the release date neared, and issues with downloadable content and the collector’s edition began to arise, it became clearer that the game was in over its head. The mirage the previews and developer blogs had built up started to fade. And once it came out, it didn’t fare much better. Somehow the new and improved features overwhelmed the game and made it nearly unplayable. It just didn’t feel worth your time. It was easy to walk away from and hard to return to. The storyline was bizarrely linear, good and evil less of a choice than before, and more a determined plot line left less to the imagination. It wasn’t bad, but it was an insult to what the sequel to Fable could have been. It was playable, but it wasn’t what it was meant to be.

Thinking about it, Fable 2 was the second biggest video gaming let down I’ve ever experienced.

The biggest let down, however, was Left 4 Dead 2.

I was a big fan of Left 4 Dead. I still am. It was released on my twenty-second birthday, and my friends even got me an L4D-themed birthday cake. It was a blast. I played No Mercy so much that I knew every infected inch of that map. I used to Boomer people off ledges in versus. I even crowned witches with reckless abandon. When I first heard about Left 4 Dead 2, I was all for it, especially the setting of the deep South. A lot of my friends told me it was going to be a waste of time, but I was an ardent devotee to Valve at that point. In my mind, the geniuses behind the Sandvich, Zoey, and Gordon Freeman could do anything.

Anything except apparently making a sequel to Left 4 Dead that was as good as the first.

Now, I like L4D2 and there’s a lot of things about the game that I really enjoy. The addition of melee weapons are probably the biggest. There’s nothing more satisfying than picking up a chainsaw and going Texas Chainsaw Massacre on hordes of the undead. The maps are also oozing with atmospheric and feel strategically well designed; playing on Hard Rain for the first few times left me breathless. The storms, the flooding, and the wind’s intensity were incredible. Another enjoyable feature were the new special infected and the different types of special zombies each map contained–especially the clowns and the Chargers.

But these new features didn’t really make up for the fact that, while arguably more polished and ridden with vastly improved features, Left 4 Dead 2 felt like a downgrade from the original. It felt like an upgrade in all the wrong ways–an expensive Hollywood remake of a B-movie with cult status.

It’s particularly hard to pinpoint why, and maybe that’s why fans don’t talk about it as much. Despite being set in the soul food capital of the United States, it just wasn’t as soulful. Maybe Louis, Zoey, Francis, and Bill were just a better ensemble than their Southern counterparts. I mean, I would prefer Zoey over Rochelle anytime, no questions asked–sorry, Ro, but Depeche Mode just doesn’t do it for me. But if it was just the cast, then wouldn’t the recent content pack for L4D2 called “The Passing,” which featured the old crew minus Bill, be a huge and noticeable improvement?

Not really–the game and its content patch both suffered from a disturbing sense of detachment, a lack of nuanced fear the previous title mastered. Perhaps I just have a phobia of hospitals, but something was decidedly less compelling in the second game compared to the first. While I killed zombies and fragged Tanks, I never truly felt like it was a fight for my life. I never felt pressured. More often than not, like L4D2‘s Nick, I felt annoyed that I was even there.

Regardless of the game, though, there’s still questions to be asked. Is it our fault, the consumer, for expecting too much? Are we insatiable monsters, demanding too much from developers constrained by the limitations of time and resource? Did we breed this press dragon, and then bemoan its existence hypocritically after?

The question is rhetorical. You already know the answer, anyway.

We’re in it for the exciting images, the hushed press conferences, and the gaming conventions. Who doesn’t want to get a special beta invite? Who doesn’t want access to premium, never before seen gameplay footage? We’re all begging for exclusives and the next big thing. We’re demanding to be entertained. Line us up and feed us to the dragon, we want to be eaten.

It’s all a part of the process.

Perhaps so too, is the inevitable disappointment.