Deceit is wildly unstable. Leveraged in the proper ways, you end up with things like surprise parties and telling your friend that they totally cook as good—nay, better—as Bobby Flay. You get fun and whimsy and encouragement. The line in the sand, though, is infinitesimally small. The turn from right to wrong is but a single degree off-axis. Then you wind up shot in the head at a drug deal gone awry in the middle of a warehouse in Boston.
I watched The Departed again last night, if you were wondering.
Video games also fall prey to this hair-trigger. Sure, this can mean things like the recent Aliens: Colonial Marines debacle where previews are not what they necessarily seem and games go from seven-year projects to nine-month rush jobs, but that is simply a (overly simplified) facet of what I’m talking about in general: fronting as one thing in the service of being something else entirely. Call it a switcheroo or bait ‘n switch or what-have-you; it’s still a bit of deceit.
The trick, then, is when this hoodwinking is purposeful and with a sizable layer of shellac’d mirth. Reynard the Fox and Br’er Rabbit both are tricksters of this sort. Think about Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream where his shenanigans are the root cause of all the complications and problems in the play, but they also eventually fall out into a happy ending for all.
What brings this to mind is Little Inferno. I played this quite a while ago, but a friend recently picked it up for the iPad. Talking about it, he clearly had not made it to the tipping point of the game. After three hours of burning things and killing screaming marshmallows and stuffed animals, he still had not gleaned much of what lay hidden behind the flickering light.
I’d rather not spoil it if you still haven’t played it, so be wary of this next paragraph: there is a seismic shift in what the game is all about around two-thirds of the way through. You’d just spent hours upon hours hypnotized by the flame enveloping and caressing your duly bought and opened packages. Your neighborhood nudges you. She pushes you and sends you careening off a cliff that soon lands you in a world that is contrasted as the bleak world surrounding you is to the bright and whimsical scenes you’ve crafted in your fireplace.
And that shift is what kicks Little Inferno from a give-it-a-whirl to a must-play. That last minute deke makes the revelation of what the world has become outside of your Tomorrow Corporation (the business in the game that sells everyone their fireplaces) entertainment center. You’ve built this bridge brick by brick and halfway through crossing it, the game smashes it and you fall into a wide open chasm that ends with you taken aback in such a way that it digs into your brain like a redwood’s 2,000-year-old roots.
That is a con of the delightful sort, and it is purposeful. But that doesn’t mean that a malicious outcome lines up with a malicious intent. Sometimes the deception is a product of circumstance and lack of oversight.
Brutal Legend, the 2009 action game from Tim Schafer at Double Fine Productions, is a good example, especially since it just came out for PC again today. Sold at face value, many players expected a very specific experience: metal, Jack Black, and some solid melee combat. What it turned out to be was metal, Jack Black, solid melee combat, and two overwhelming scoops of real-time strategy.
Personally, I found Brutal Legend to be all the way a fantastic game, but the RTS stuff really did throw me for a loop. It was confusing. I had just spent so much of the game dedicating my thoughts and expectations to building on top of what the demo and the marketing had shown me: a humorous, absurd, and tongue-in-cheek action game that will occasionally let me hear Ozzy Osbourne try to talk.
Most people had a rather negative reaction to the shift. It wasn’t malicious, but it also didn’t seem entirely intentional which left a lot of people confused, angry, and resentful. Now that folks know what to expect with years to consolidate what happened with what Schafer has been talking about recently, that hurdle might be one they’re willing to jump.
As for a purely malevolent aim, I’m not sure there is one. I suppose you could argue that publishers that market games they know to be bad and take surreptitious precautions (e.g. no review copies, little marketing, embargoes that lift after the release date, etc.) are knowingly mean, but it only ever seems to be a product of circumstance. As much as most people would like to say Gearbox and TimeGate are evil for loosing Colonial Marines on us, it’s hard to blame Gearbox for (supposedly) choosing to focus on their surprisingly successful Borderlands franchise or pin it on TimeGate for accepting a contract that was ill-advised and possibly beyond their capabilities (supposedly). And besides, no one truly sets out to spend millions upon millions to make a bad game (supposedly).
Then again, it’s rare for a game to make me want to Terminator 2 myself in a vat of molten steel, but here we are.