Transparency is Overrated

Seventeen years in the game industry could turn anyone into a jaded, bitter, cynical bastard.  Imagine how much worse things get if you started out that way.

I suppose I should preface this by noting that I haven’t spoken on Bungie’s behalf in an official capacity for almost ten years (gulp!) so all of this is my own opinion and you should feel free to write it off as the bloviating claptrap it probably is.

When I see articles in the video game press complaining that Bungie’s reveal of their upcoming title Destiny was frustratingly light on details, I wonder why they care. If I had a quarter for every time the game press mangled quotes, described nonexistent product features, and confused internet speculation with fact-checked confirmation, I could melt all those quarters down and put in a new driveway made of solid copper.  People who write about games (not all of them, but more than enough) are light on details quite regularly. And that’s for the games they care about, the ones they write about themselves instead of just cutting-and-pasting from a press release.  Now Bungie throws a party and the game press can’t fill in all the blanks in their Mad Libs Game Journalism booklet right away, and you’d think some of them had been slapped.

Maybe they were — but not in the way they think.

In 1999, Bungie did a little teaser for Halo called The Cortana Letters.  I don’t remember, but I’d be shocked to see even one example of the mainstream gaming press who took notice of it at the time.  It wasn’t meant for them anyway.  It was for people who had played Bungie’s Marathon trilogy and might be interested to know that, after a few years of working on the Myth games, Bungie would be returning to stories about massive ships in outer space with helpful AIs guiding you around.  Bungie thought people who enjoyed their previous work in that vein might be interested.

Much of the stuff in The Cortana Letters ended up being not especially germane to the story of Halo as people experienced it in the final game.  That didn’t matter because the ultimate job of The Cortana Letters was not to carve important story elements in stone, but to reach out to Bungie fans and get them excited.  These were people who’d demonstrated they could root out any obscure reference and conjure up pages of thoughtful discussion about the subtlest of nuances.  The Cortana Letters were a message from Bungie to their fans, saying: We know you guys are smart, and we hope you’ll dig this new thing we’re making.

It wasn’t a purely cynical marketing exercise, and it damn sure wasn’t an ARG.  It was, in a sense, a mischievous bit of slap-and-tickle with the fans who had the sensibility to savor that sort of thing.

You like that, don’t you?

Sure you do, if you can appreciate the invitation to let your own imagination and emotions become part of the experience.

For years now, even before Destiny was a rumor, people have been calling for more transparency and less hype from Bungie.  If a few pieces of concept art and a YouTube video are “hype,” it’s only because Bungie’s process has made less feel like more.  They do not deluge the press or their fans in an antiseptic wash of tedious data.  Anyone can do that.  Bungie wants your entry into this world to be an experience unto itself. 

It’s the difference between the restaurant where you relax in a well-appointed dining room, talking with friends, basking in the ambiance and the aromas drifting in from the kitchen before anyone even arrives to take your order… and the lingering stink of melting plastic in your kitchen after you spend three minutes microwaving a frozen TV dinner and eating it over the sink.

It’s the difference between the jiggle-and-tease burlesque show and the pixelated GIF of porn stars fucking.

It’s showbiz.  It’s part of the experience.  This is the entertainment software industry and we are, whether or not we look the part, entertainers.  The men and women of Bungie follow in the footsteps of Alfred Hitchcock, who had the unmitigated audacity to introduce Psycho with a trailer that featured nothing but empty environments and lots of him talking.  No clips from the actual film, no major plot revelations…and that lady in the shower wasn’t even Janet Leigh!  (It was Vera Miles, who plays Leigh’s sister in the film.)  What a rip-off!  What a waste of his fans’ time!

What a surprise that it’s remembered fondly, decades later, as one of the greatest movie trailers ever.  It’s as if Hitchcock knew what he was doing.

People demanding all the details right now for a game with a projected 10-year life cycle are like people showing up at a concert and shouting for “Freebird” while the opening act is still setting up their gear.

When Chris Butcher, a man not given to hyperbole or delusions of grandeur, talks about what games in the future will be like, I pay attention.  When Jason Jones crawls out of his techno-Gollum cave to address the press at all, I pay attention.  How much hard data I come away with is almost immaterial.  What I know is that they are handing out invitations to the dance.  This time, they’re even handing them out to the press.  Not just the hardcore fanatics who went nuts over the Cortana letters nearly 15 years ago.

So the official reveal left you wanting more?

You’re waiting for your dinner in that fancy restaurant and you’re still hungry?

The striptease at the burlesque theater is over and you’re still horny?

The press event is over and you’re still looking for information about Destiny, even though all you got for your initial efforts was a flirtatious slap?

Sounds like someone knows what they’re doing.

And if all this “hype” is too much for you, you can always tune it out and do something else.  The freezer aisle in the grocery store is full of TV dinners.  This, right now, is not for you.  There will be other things for you later.

This is for the people who like to dance.