Cynicism, Hype, and the Space In Between

Boilerplate: I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist. I just talk a lot and people get tired of listening will say anything to get me to shut up. But back to the topic at hand…

The Notorious Belghast dropped a cryptic Tweet the other day which came back back into vogue during this conversation we were having on Twitter about hype and cynicism.

To me, hype is a blame game. We blame dev/pubs for presenting us with the 5 minute “sizzle reel” and then delivering a game that’s 55 hours, 55 minutes of boring slog. I recently bought (and refunded) Remnant: From the Ashes in small part because friends were playing, but in larger part because it looked like it offered a mix of Breach (since closed) and Secret World Legends — that real-world supernatural horror action genre that I love so much. In the end, it turned out to be a Souls-like retread of Hellgate: London, and I felt a bit let down. It was presented as something that I felt that it didn’t deliver on.

Hype as a marketing tool is meant to get the game in front of our faces. The games market is so overcrowded that the initial presentation has to be as bombastic as possible in order to rise above the noise of the crowd (for certain genres and certain games, but not always). It’s also often used as an elevator pitch for ambitious plans that the developer wants to take a run at. They can only give us a 5 minute showcase because maybe that’s all they’ve got at that stage; they are only talking about their target goals, not what they have in hand, and in any development like in war, no plan survives contact with the reality that sometimes systems don’t work in practice like they did on paper, or maybe the technological hurdle of making a dream come true is too high to surmount and needs to be scaled back or dropped entirely.

We as consumers are complicit in hype because after the logo fades from the presentation video, our minds shift into high gear about what this all means. My relationship with Remnant is completely on me. I misread the signals and in the end I filled in the gaps with what I wanted the game to be. We’re all seeking our own gaming “white whale” and as gaming is an imaginative hobby that attracts imaginative people, part of what makes hype work is our propensity to dream up all of those “what if?” scenarios that we’d really love to see grow from the seed that was planted during the presentation. It’s pretty low rent at the start, because we know that there’s going to be months or years for us to gently return our feet to the ground…but do we ever? Sometimes we choose to remain in the clouds because the view is better from up there than it is from the Earth.

Rather than consign ourselves to never feeling excited about game ever again, we adopt the position on the cynic. We claim that we know that hype is horrible because of the potential to make us look like fools (if only to ourselves) so we claim we “disconnect” ourselves from the emotional drive of the marketing push. We won’t theory-craft, we won’t read developer blogs or watch their live streams. We’ll just busy ourselves with other matters, and when the game is ready to launch, we’ll revisit and see how things changed between the presentation and the production. We like to think that in this, we are now perusing the stacks with an investors eye. Being aloof makes us seem more thoughtful and less impulsive.

I have used this picture so many times because it’ll never go out of style.

But again, I don’t think that we’re capable of being as stoic as we present ourselves to be. I don’t think we want to be that detached if we really believe that even a sliver of the hype might turn out to be true. We’re just afraid of spending energy on allowing ourselves to get built up, only to get torn down at the 11th hour, because that feeling just sucks. We want to be excited about things because we love being passionate about our hobbies. We just wish we could be as tempered as we might claim to be. Everyone has their trigger points, and it’s easier to ignore the hype around some products than it is others, so we’re never 100% immune to hype, nor are we ever 100% invested in cynicism.

I like Nimgimli’s original assessment the best, though, because it insinuates a kind of functional cynicism. We still allow ourselves room to get hyped about hype, but we acknowledge that we can’t get hyped about everything. We use cynicism as a hair shirt, in a way, because it’s a way of discipline used to avoid getting excited about 20 billion other games we might otherwise get excited about. Taking a cynic’s stance as a means of focus is kind of appealing, really, because it allows us to have the option to not render an opinion on a game until the game is ready to be opined about, but without resorting to the usual trash-talking-as-a-way-of-proving-our-cynicism that we might otherwise see.

1 Comment

  • Pete S

    August 21, 2019 - 11:14 AM

    I have many thoughts on this but I’ll hit some bullet points. Cynicism can be a useful tool but it can also be destructive, particularly in the hands of “influencers” who, as their annoying name suggests, can really influence the success or failure of a game. No Man’s Sky was that rare exception where, no matter how much hate was heaped on it, Sony continued to support Hello Games as they went dark and got back to work. Contrast that with Anthem where the hate seems to have killed off what could have become a fine game, but it seems like EA has more or less put it on life support.

    I mean, we can put the blame on the developers too, for launching before a game is ready. Or the publishers for pushing the devs to do so. (Of course I really enjoyed No Man’s Sky from Day 1, but I acknowledge I was in a minority). It all seems kind of impossible. We gamers get outraged about “crunch culture” but we also get outraged when a launch slips, and we get outraged at the idea of costs going up (higher costs could presumably mean more dev resources) and we get outraged at games releasing in an unfinished state. I’m glad I don’t work in game development!

    Anyway, problem is, as always, cynicism sells. People apparently love watching YouTubers snark about games more than they enjoy YouTubers discussing things rationally. Enough negative videos and soon the people who DO like a game don’t want to admit it for fear of getting flamed and people coming in cold see all the negative videos and, without even watching them, assume a game is garbage.

    To me this all falls under the cynicism umbrella but I know you kind of think of cynicism differently than I do.

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