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Edge Magazine #183 Christmas 2007

Hyped to death

Edge #183, Christmas 2007

The power of hype is a curious thing. It make a-one man a-weep, and another man a-sing. Despite my supposedly trademarked, clichéd, he's-running-it-into-the-ground-now grumpy old man persona, I'm not immune to hype myself. Indeed, way back in the waning years of the 20th century I can remember buying Def Leppard's Hysteria album off the back of being told it was some sort of important, pop cultural milestone, and then listening to it, and then punching myself around the face and testicles for being so gullible. We're all guilty of falling for hype. It's the same as the crowd buying into the Emperor's new clothes; none of us want to look stupid by saying we can see the big guy's floppy manparts, and none of us want to look as if we're missing out on something really great. We all buy the new iPod because, well, Johnny Neighbour has one, not because we need it to improve our lives.

Presumably because it wobbles on an economic knife-edge most of the time, the games industry drives one of the biggest hypemobiles on the entertainment superhighway. I can't think of a film or a music release that has ever been subject to the same level of sustained, pre-release hysteria as the biggest games releases are treated to. Consequently, the big games are so forcibly rammed down our oesophagus that I end up resenting them. And I end up resenting them because I'm an idiot, and tend to end up buying them.

Case in point: Halo 3.

I'm sorry to everyone who likes it, and wants to sit in a tree k.i.s.s.i.n.g it, and touching its bottom, but I was really disappointed. And I was disappointed, in part, because I'd swallowed the hype. The in-our-face PR campaign had got coverage on the main BBC news bulletin, for flip's sake. The release of some stupid videogame was seemingly a newsworthy story on a par with British soldiers being killed in Afghanistan, Diddy David Cameron wibbling like a baby about something while Gordon Brown huffed and barked like he'd got a bulrush stuck in his throat, and someone being stabbed in the cheek with the end of a hose. How could I not buy it? This wasn't just a game. It was an event.

I mean, I didn't hate Halo 3. I just... I dunno... it was just sort of OK. A marked improvement on the tiresome Halo 2, certainly, but it sort of just consolidated what was good about its predecessors, and then made it look a bit prettier. I wasn't necessarily seeking innovation, but I admit that I had expected - nay, hoped - that the singleplayer campaign would've lasted longer than the two days of intermittent playing that it took me to complete it on the normal setting. I know that it's only half the picture, but having played Halo 3 online I find it as intimidating and as frustrating as its predecessor; it's great fun if you're absolutely brilliant at it, but for the rest of us - if we can't find any friends to play against - we're screwed.

Perhaps the thing which annoys me the most about the entire Halo franchise is the way in which Bungie seems to think it has a work of high art on its hands. Or, at least, wants us to think that. Frankly, if you published Halo's story alongside even the trashiest of sci-fi novels, it'd win every award for plop fiction that you've got going. If they just shoved the story in there, and didn't make such a big deal about it, it wouldn't stink up my throat as much as it does. Like (the admittedly far superior and more innovative) BioShock you can even buy it in a special box - the gaming equivalent of calling a packet of cheese and onion crisps 'le Parisienne fromage avec delicately pan-fried-shallot-flavour potato thins'. There's lots to like about Halo 3, and it's a great package overall, I just don't think it justifies three years of hype, getting on the main BBC news, and being released in a special tin.

At least there are occasions where hype doesn't work. Public relations is a balancing act, and sometimes you can tip the wrong way. That's precisely what has happened with the PlayStation 3. The launch of the PS3 was deemed newsworthy by the BBC, yet it has all been downhill from there. The system has remained in public relations freefall pretty much for the whole of 2007, and it seems that nothing Sony does can stop it.

The level of negativity surrounding the PS3 is almost anti-hype. And, as with positive hype, not all of it is deserved. Don't get me wrong - even with its desperate new entry-level model there's no way I'm buying one of the wretched things. Release some decent games, Sony, and I might change my mind. But in the same way that everyone has apparently been brainwashed into believing that Halo 3 is flawless, game-of-the-year material, the games-buying public now has an ingrained conviction that the PS3 is irredeemably awful.

Hype, PR, plugging, promotion, marketing, puffery - call it what you will, it's an arcane art that nobody truly understands, least of all the consumer. And that's just how they want to keep it. The cheeky monkeys.

Mr Biffo co-founded Digitiser, Channel 4's Teletext-based videogames section, and now writes mainly for television

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