On Friday I talked about manipulation of game mechanics to excite and steer the player into having a more layered and impressive experience, but the manipulation by developers of their audience has become much more powerful outside the games that they make.
I attended a panel, headed by Eurogamer’s Johnny McKinley, which discussed the topic of how developers and PR should use the Games Press to help market their games. The panel was made up of two magazine editors and two PR guys, and the subsequent discussion was interesting, to say the least.
Ignoring the problems raised such as undelivered game assets and nightmare PR stunts, it became clear, at least from the PR people, that there’s a very, very heavily thought out plan of information releases, when and where people see your game, all made to slowly build the excitement in the audience to fever pitch, at which point they release the game and everyone buys it.
Of course, journalists can throw a spanner in the works here, by having opinions and letting people know what the PR don’t want to. It’s easy to see that there is a sort of Us vs Them attitude between PR and the Games Press, but it’s more a case that, due to the nature of our jobs, sometimes there’s an overlap that pisses off both parties concerned.
At the same time, the Games Press thrives off trust and relationships. Piss off PR too much and they’re not going to want to show you any future games, and you can forget getting exclusive reviews and the like. It really is a case that they hold all the cards, but at the same time the final word is always in the journalist’s hand, as they lay down the review score, with its inflated sense of worth and utterly crazily vague criteria. A seven is a seven is a seven is a seven.
I’ve been working my way through a huge collection of JG Ballard’s short stories, and last night I read one called ‘The Subliminal Man’. Essentially, the plot is that these huge blank billboards are being put up around the city, and firing off subliminal advertising along the lines of ‘BUY CIGARETTES’. Of course, Ballard being the literary genius that he is, this isn’t the point; there’s a character called Hathaway who’s trying to convince people of the danger of these messages, where the real irony is that it’s already too late; they’ve been advertised to such a degree that they’re buying (the same) new cars every two months, and are essentially having their lives dictated by corporations.
Now that I’ve cast that hugely dark and worrying light on the topic, I’m going to rein it all back for you, and turn an optimistic spin on it all. I hope.
Manipulation is a good thing, so long as you’re always aware that you’re being manipulated. It’s a conscious surrender that allows you to, in the ever-brilliant words of Total Recall, ‘Take a vacation from yourself’. We’re manipulated in games, but we’re also manipulated outside of them, by them. We’ve been conditioned to understand how games work, and because of this when we see screenshots of an upcoming release, read a preview, watch a video, our mind whirrs into motion, and our imaginations are already filling in the gaps of knowledge, creating the rest of the game for us.
It’s why the term ‘Hype’ has come around, and PR companies are getting more and more adept at giving just the right pieces of information so that our imagination creates just the right game when we’re filling in those gaps. The recent release ‘Naughty Bear’ springs to mind, where we’re shown a Hitman-esque level of fairytale, cartoon violence, with the player driving a set of colourful bears with names like Buttercup and Flopsy slowly insane with fear and confusion, until one of them pulls out a revolver and blows his stuffing out.
The problem was, this isolated demo worked great as an isolated demo, but that was all there was in the game. It came out to mediocre reviews at best, and suddenly the gaps of knowledge were filled with actual knowledge, and the game I had imagined in my head, awesome as it was, was extinguished.
So what does this all mean? The idea of filling in gaps of knowledge is one that I’m desperate to see explored, really. It works so well for PR companies, and yet I can only think of one or two examples of developers actually utilising it in their games. ‘Dear Esther’ seems like the shining example, where gaps in the narrative were left wonderfully ambiguous, to the extent were you were shoving purgatory, or fever dreams, or anything you liked onto the game world, the situations surrounding it, and essentially everything. Nothing could exclude itself from being perceived as a metaphor, and because of that everything became one. The gloves were off, and the rules didn’t exist.
And what happened? ‘Dear Esther’ became one of the most glorious gaming experiences I’ve had in a game. It handled its climax masterfully, and even that was open to interpretation. It gave you information, but never enough to affect any of your theories. It was as though each snippet of information was merely the seed of an idea, half formed and completely malleable.
So, in a way, ‘Dear Esther’ is the gaming equivalent of a PR campaign, and if that is the case, then I think it’d be best if we started moving the hype out of the real and into the virtual. Although, actually, no. I enjoy hype. I’d much rather have a bad game inspire a good one in my head, than just have things depressingly bad the whole time it’s being marketed.
What I want is cross-germination of ideas. But then we all want that, really. People really don’t steal enough ideas from one another. As Tim Schafer was talking about in his talk, ideas breed. And they really do; the recluse might be a genius, but unless he has some sort of feedback on his work, his ideas are going to stagnate and become almost entirely inward looking. Movement is life, after all. And the only way to move ideas is to start exposing them to others.