It’s August, so you know what that means: it’s time for the XBLA Summer of Arcade. Or Winter of Arcade for you hemispherically challenged. Every summer since 2008, Microsoft has thrown out onto XBLA a select handful of games as part of a summer promotion for downloadable titles and indie developers. It’s obvious they’re making some solid money out of the feature (otherwise they would have stopped it a long time ago), but the sentiment is appreciated either way.
Since the first Summer of Arcade lineup, we’ve seen at least one Game of the Year contender emerge out of each batch alongside several other topnotch titles. First there was Jonathan Blow’s seminal Braid, perhaps the first widely played and recognized indie game of the modern gaming era, which cropped up with Bionic Command Rearmed, Castle Crashers, and Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2. 2009 saw the absolutely incredible Shadow Complex get backed up by ‘Splosion Man (and the inception of the Donuts Song) and Trials HD.
Then the overall level kind of dipped a bit. Limbo was obviously a great game but the rest were acceptably playable but forgettable fare. The same goes for Bastion in 2011. Last year, while laden with games with interesting ideas like Hybrid and Wreckateer, bore only Dust: An Elysian Tail as anything of long term worth. So you can hopefully understand when my expectations for this year’s Summer of Arcade were tempered.
Flashback looks like a rather straightforward remake. Charlie Murder appears to be a charming brawler with some great wrinkles to the formula but not much more (it actually turned out to be rather good). And Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons was coming out of Starbreeze Studios. This was a fairly reputable developer known for sleeper hits like The Chronicles of Riddick, The Darkness, and Syndicate, so how were they going to bridge the gap to an indie puzzle game?
I had no idea, and I’m not sure I was all that interested in finding out. And for the most part, aside from reading about the Summer of Arcade lineup a while ago, I’d forgotten it ever existed. In fact, “forgotten” may be too kind for something I barely acknowledged in the first place. Harsh words, I know, but the marketing behind the game wasn’t doing it any favors either.
And then the reviews came out. And the tweets. And word of mouth began to spread: “you need to play this game.” Huh? Where was this coming from? I had no idea, but some select things that Polygon’s Justin McElroy said really stuck out to me. He’d been teasing this as one of the best games he’s played all year, but withheld the name due to embargoes. My mind raced around, thinking about what he could be talking about. Sure not Saints Row IV; we already know a full month before its release that that’s a good game. Beatbuddy: Tale of the Guardian might be it, but the likelihood of that, as much as I liked it back at PAX East, being one of McElroy’s favorite games seemed pretty slim.
So when his tweet for his review of Brothers said to not read it, I assumed it was really bad. But he followed it with “Brothers is one of the best games of the year, and you should go in fresh as you can.” And then “This is my reminder that you have to buy Brothers now, but save the reviews till after you play it, I implore you.” And finally “On the one hand, it’s the kind of game where discovery is half the fun, so going in as fresh as possible is ideal.”
Giant Bomb’s Brad Shoemaker jumped on the train. So did Penny Arcade’s Gabe. A ton of people also started comparing it to thatgamecompany’s Journey. At this point, not reading the reviews was like trying to stop myself from jumping into a pool after wandering a desert for a week. But I also knew the value of going into a game as fresh as possible, knowing as little as possible.
Journey, actually, is a fine example of this. I played this game wholeheartedly under the guise of it simply being another wonderfully artsy little title from thatgamecompany and its creative director Jenova Chen. I figured it might be just like Flower: an abstract, colorful expression of a nebulous tale that serves as a backdrop for a soothing product of creativity and momentous bliss. All of that is true for Journey, but I didn’t expect it to build in such a way that told a tale of happy curiosity crushed by unbelievable heartbreak only to be uplifted once again by unimaginable ecstasy. It acted as a conduit to building my own emergent relationship with a world and a friend within a purely artificial and constructed framework.
I think this worked because I didn’t know much at all going into it. I expected great things due to the studio’s pedigree, but I wasn’t at all aware of where the game itself would be going. I allowed myself to be taken unaware, to be hoodwinked by a game with a pretty face and a flashy smile. A friend of mine who pretty much has the exact same taste in games as I do read everything there was to read about Journey that didn’t contain a spoiler before playing the game. He knew how it worked to find another player and the tricks people would use to get around places and use chirping shorthand to communicate. He knew the tone of the mysterious game and its obtuse but pointed story of struggle and victory. He knew too much.
He found it to be an okay game.
Sometimes it’s not just about expectations, though. Sometimes it’s about filling in blanks that shouldn’t be filled in by you but by the game. That sounds obvious, but consider BioShock Infinite. In any amount of marketing consumption, even if you just happen to walk past a bus stop with a banner ad across the back of it, you’ll see the important bits: a man, a woman, and the sky. He’s going to rescue her. Watch any teasers or trailers—old or new—and you know why he has to find her and how much the world is willing to stop you. Read anything about the game and you know what she’s capable of.
Basically, simply by existing within or near this industry, you take all of the air out of the who, what, when, where, and why sails when the first hour or so of the game is nothing but raising them to catch the right breeze. If you didn’t know what kind of game you were getting yourself into, the switch from a thoughtful first-person exploration of a lighthouse that suddenly shoots up into a heavenly world of clouds and Stepford Wives-ish inhabitants would be insane. And then the immediate contrast with the very violent face-shredding at the raffle would be all the more poignant, much like the first moment of violence in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive.
Then, as you explore the tower at Monument Island, so many questions come up. What in the world have they been experimenting on all these years? What have they been observing? A child? No, surely by now this person would be grown up by now. But what takes away the humanity of a person and turns them into a “specimen” to be studied? Is this quarantine because of something intrinsic to the subject or because of what they did to it? So many questions to be asked and connections to be made simply because you didn’t know. But you do know, so instead you go in wondering where the hell Elizabeth is and why did it take so long to get here from the rocket chair to Weirdsville Station.
I made a promise to myself back in 2009. I saw Duncan Jones’ Moon after the trailers intrigued me, but the entire ordeal was almost wholly unwound simply because I knew its premise. This followed where Terminator Salvation was actually ruined in its entirety because every bit of marketing let you know that Sam Worthington’s character was, in fact, a machine instead of taking the smart move and letting us figure it out along the way. (That movie, though, had plenty of other problems besides that, so whatever.)
I promised myself to stop watching or reading things for games and movies that I’m excited for. It’s hard given the job I have where keeping up with the news and marketing of games and studios is all I have to go on, and where half of what I do involves playing games before they’re released, but it’s a promise I made to make sure I keep my experience just as the creator intended: fresh. So I won’t read anything about Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons until after I play it. I won’t watch Supergiant Games’ trailer for Transistor more than I already have. I won’t ruin these games for myself.
Ignorance, after all, is bliss. But actually I will watch the Transistor trailer one more time because hot damn that song.