The Stirring of Long Dead Instruments

Every patient gamer has that one game. That one game that killed hype for them forever. The one that proved that no matter what ambitions a game set out with, no matter how sincere the dedication of its creators, it is simply impossible for any game to be more than a relatively minor iteration on what comes before.

Rutskarn’s moment, for example, was Oblivion, recounted here:

I remember how the official forums felt. People began to play the imagined perfect game in their heads long before boxes of the real one hit shelves. Everyone had their characters all planned out, everyone had their backstory written up–people were hatching assassination plots and writing fanfiction about them. I remember the tone of thread titles: “What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you’re out of the dungeon?” “What’s your character’s motivation?” “What’s your build going to be like?” People made a lot of detailed plans. Basically all of them would turn out to be impossible.

Mine was Guild Wars 2. Sure, I’d been suckered in by Spore and come to regret it, but I hadn’t become jaded enough from just that one experience. Spore was sold on the strength of just one tech demo, a tech demo that showed off basic features of one stage of the game. Sure, the character creator was great, and when it shipped it was about as good as advertised, even, but the gameplay attached to that character creator was rubbish. And I should’ve seen that coming, because what gameplay had we seen in the Spore demo, even the really good one, the one that got the hype train going before they switched to the cartoon art style? Basic combat and a mechanic for spawning the next generation of your creature.

Guild Wars 2’s hype train was different. It wasn’t just one amazing system and the vague and ultimately empty promise that there would be a rest of the game, too, there was a vision for a complete game. The dynamic event system, the beautiful art direction, the team that took its time, always making visible progress but never committing to a release date, and the simple fact that Guild Wars had been amazing had me convinced even more deeply than Spore that this was going to work. I followed every update. I discussed the game on the forums. I became such a regular that the nickname I gave to the (otherwise unnamed) Deep Sea Dragon is used to this day. I was taken in. I was hype.

The game we actually got was better than any MMO that had come before. A bit better. Dynamic events were real, and they were more interesting to follow than standard quest chains. The main plot was customized to your character as promised – crying shame it turned out to be a piece of shit and all impact of your chargen choices (or any other choices) on the plot fell away about a quarter of the way in. Combat was more active but significantly less strategic than its predecessor, which is good or bad depending on taste. It was a good MMO, just like Tera Online and the Old Republic had been good MMOs, and probably better than anything that came before. If you want to get started with MMORPGs, one of those three is probably your best place to do so. Maybe swap out Tera with Blade and Soul at this point, or look into Black Desert Online if you don’t mind a botched translation from Korean and insultingly steep microtransactions on a game that’s already buy-to-play.

GW2 and TOR were good games, but they were nothing to get hyped over, and if Guild Wars 2 was nothing to get hyped over, then how could any game ever be? That was the day the hype died for me. It was the day I realized that gamers needed a parody cover of Miss American Pie. It was the day I became a patient gamer. The day I began waiting for games to drop from $60 to $40 base price, and then bought them on sale for $20 anyway. The day I started sorting my Steam wishlist by price and everything over $30 was only there as a reminder to keep an eye out until it got cheaper, no matter how many years that took. That day in summer of 2012, before Cuphead and the Binding of Isaac and Undertale and the Stanley Parable, back when Kerbal Space Program was a half-finished alpha and there were only three good indie games in the entire scene – Super Meat Boy, Braid, and Cave Story – I started following indie releases almost exclusively, because when those games inevitably failed to deliver on their promises, at least you were only out ten bucks.

Five years after that and I wouldn’t have bought Hollow Knight until 2021 if they hadn’t released it on a permanent 60% discount and come strongly recommended by Joseph Anderson. Hype is no longer the sweet thrill of anticipation. It has become my enemy, and a fallen one, dead and buried. Horizon Zero Dawn can show what appears to be several minutes of actual gameplay where a cave woman hunts robot dinosaurs and I am unmoved. Sure, it looks promising, I say to myself, but Spore looked promising, too. Final Fantasy XIII looked gorgeous in trailers, and you’d think being the thirteenth installment in a series known for its characters and narrative they’d know how to handle a character arc without spending twenty hours stagnating while characters aimlessly search for purpose and reiterate the same beats over and over, but you’d be wrong. And hey, you remember the Dead Island Trailer? The one that was tonally unrelated to and significantly better than the game it was attached to? Click on that link. Watch that trailer again. It’s fantastic. Playing half itself backwards so that by the time you see the parents desperately fighting to save their daughter’s life, you know she’s going to die and take them with her, followed by home videos of the family vacation they were supposed to be having. It has such an aura of inevitable tragedy and loss. I rewatch that video every couple years just to remember how great it is. I have not once played Dead Island.

But something strange has happened to me lately. You saw the post title. You knew where this was going. Someone linked me to a new trailer for a video game I’ve never heard of before. And dear God, this violation of taboo in service to horror is something I haven’t seen since Silent Hill. Like, the original Team Silent Silent Hill. And that was a retrospective violation of taboo, where I was coming into gaming culture so late that the taboos that Silent Hill had undone were becoming largely vestigial, where if you had twitchy nurses oversexualized and yet dehumanized by the extent of their otherworldly maiming, the response was not some kind of horror but rather “so you’re aping Silent Hill, then?”

This is the first time I’ve seen a competently executed horror game dare to transgress so far past the boundaries of what’s normally considered good taste in real time, and they are good at it. Unless they, too, handed their trailer off to an unrelated company and are making something tonally unrelated (which seems unlikely given the content of that trailer is clearly pulled from in-game cut scenes and gameplay), then they know how to use these violations for more than just their sheer shock value, but rather to set up an otherworld that is deeply inhospitable to us, so much so that it is uncomfortable just to look at. This is a place that makes me feel that bizarre horror paradox, it’s a place I want to go to because I don’t want to be there, and something deep inside me takes that as a challenge.

I’ve been excited for a game I don’t own before, because somebody else I trust bought it and played it and gushed about it. That Joseph Anderson video about Hollow Knight, for example, got me super excited to play Hollow Knight. I haven’t been this excited for a game that isn’t actually out yet since 2012. Something stirring deep within me against my best efforts to contain it.

I am hyped for this game.

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