There are games, and then there is Halo. Microsoft’s video game empire consists of toys, soda, an upcoming film and millions of gamers who are willing to wait in line at midnight to play a game before anyone else. Everything imaginable, from french-fry boxes to a Pontiac G6, has been silk-screened with the Halo logo. The hype is so inescapable that, when the third entry in the series was released last week, my mother called me to ask if it was any good. How could any game possibly live up to a marketing campaign that has reached someone who wouldn’t know an Xbox from a typewriter?Can advertising hurt a product?
From a sales perspective, absolutely not. Two million gamers lined up in the wee hours of the morning to purchase Halo 2 in 2004, and it would be foolish to think that number would be any smaller for Halo 3 in 2007. To the men and women of Microsoft’s marketing department, the only thing that matters is numbers; numbers of copies sold, numbers in the magazine review scores, and numbers of people who will continue to subscribe to Microsoft’s online service to play the game.
But to people such as myself, who were lined up this past Monday like a depression-era bread line, the hype can be off-putting: never have I felt more like a demographic than the afternoon I stopped at the 7-Eleven to buy a Halo flavored Slurpee.
In the past year, I’ve witnessed three different television commercials, a free online game, and a series of live-action vignettes on YouTube, every one emblazoned with the tagline: “Finish the Fight.” My friends quizzed me about new weapons, new vehicles, the story, and the characters, all revealed through magazine interviews and minutia that required fans to pour over the official trailers frame-by-frame, to extract every minor detail. I was exhausted with Halo 3 before the game was released.
It’s a matter of feeling pandered to. Somewhere, there is a woman or man who knows what soda I like to drink, what games I like to play, and what books I like to read. They are all too eager to construct an elaborate fictional universe for me to get lost in, or slap a picture of Master Chief on a bottle of corn syrup and call it ‘Gamer Fuel’, so long as I go out and buy their game. Normally an informed consumer, I found myself wanting to play Halo 3 not because I thought it would be fun, but because all my friends would be talking about it after they beat it. We needed to “Finish the Fight.”
And now I’ve finally played the game. I’m already halfway through. Is it really halfway over? After all that waiting?
The situation is analogous to the Harry Potter phenomenon: people, overcome with the spectacle of marketing campaigns and midnight launches, rush their new baby home and consume it so fast that they hardly taste it on the way down. In the following weeks, online message-board flame wars flicker, die, and start anew. Pranksters try to spoil the ending for as many people as possible. What used to be termed a media circus is now completely governed by the population at large: we create our own media circus, and the professional media covers it.
Ultimately, I’m resigned to the fact that there will be hype. It’s effective, and it’s good marketing sense. But my advice to anyone who enjoys books, movies, music, whatever you have a passion for: don’t believe the hype. Find a journalist who loves the movies you love, or a friend who reads the books you read, and see what they have to say. The best kind of hype is word of mouth from someone you trust. To answer my mother’s question: Yes, Halo 3 is very good. But it’s not that good.