The switcheroo occurred a little over two hours ago, and for the sake of argument let's assume that someone on the internet is pretty angry about it. That's not traditionally a winning position and I doubt it will be here - Mike Rose put it best when he tweeted,
Note that Valve are offering the game EARLY, not late. If you don't want to play indie games, just don't - it's no skin off your nose.
Yep. Valve are spotless on this: they've found a way to plug indie while pushing the PC as a gaming platform, which is really very Lawful Good of them. They've also managed to get a good proportion of the games press on-side for a marketing campaign centered around their proprietary distribution platform, which is remarkable - albeit in a "saved the village, accepted the quest reward" kind of way.
So I assume it's a personal failing that I still see a countdown that counts down to another, open-ended countdown as a little bit of a dick move. I felt like I knew what was going to happen, and was thrown when it didn't: disappointed when what did materialise was something more straightforward, more cynical than what I was expecting.
They really could have just flashed up a screen saying "HEY GUESS WHAT - YOU'RE NOT ABOVE HYPE YET" and been done with it.
That's the thing. By attaching anticipation for Portal 2 to the hype generated by the ARG they've left me feeling pretty embarrassed about getting worked up for a game that's still likely to be one of the year's best and that is still probably coming out earlier than expected. Right now, Portal 2 is the game that most recently made me feel like an entitled dickhead, and as a consequence my instinct is to forget about it for a little while. Scanning back through my most recent tweets elicits mild horror. I'd delete them if I didn't suspect that there's something to be learned from them.
Most pointedly, this experience has made me acutely aware of how vulnerable I am to extrinsic reward systems: I watched the ARG Wiki without participating, felt a tangential and illusory connection to these people - as a gamer, as a fan - that I used to justify my excitement and expectation of reward. Valve knows Us, and We're above whatever this turned out to be. Except I'm not - We're not. Well, maybe You are. You always seemed cool.
I don't think it's unreasonable to be disappointed, for that reason. It's clear that today's reveal had little to do with the progress of the ARG - it would have happened anyway, and the effort that has been expended may or may not simply speed up the new game that Valve have placed in front of everyone. The game that comes with a great big 'Get the Potato Sack' button at the top, that is less "collaborate on something bigger than yourself" and more "do whatever the hell you want as long as you buy it."
For those who have sat on the sidelines, talking up Valve's ability to show those hapless big-publisher marketeers how it's done, it's sobering. At this level, the ARG is no more convincing than one of those 'million Facebook Likes to release a trailer' promotions. If nothing else it shows that gamification requires the added value provided by smoke and mirrors to avoid pissing everyone off, which I think is probably very healthy. Or does it? Right now, valvearg.com simply reads 'OUR CURRENT FOCUS IS HERE'. I'd have thought that people with that kind of investment in the old rules would be pretty annoyed - some undoubtedly are - at the bait and switch. I'm not sure whether their continued investment is better explained by Stockholm syndrome or a profound sense of pantomime.
I'd be fascinated to see the reaction if Valve suddenly released Portal 2 to the people who've earned it: the collaborators and the problem-solvers. That seems like the most just and genuine way this could have ended, and to surrender the whole thing to market forces leaves everyone feeling cheapened. At best we've been 'tricked' into spending money on some excellent indie games; at worst we've been tricked into spending money on Steam. A beautifully engineered act of doublethink, and best challenged by walking away. Portal in reverse, the voice behind the curtain that survives because of your active engagement, not despite it.
I look at Killing Floor and feel guilty: I can't play it for the gunplay mechanics I like so much, because now I'm implicitly consenting to pump numbers into a system until it dispenses a treat. My better judgement having been blown away, a relentless critical voice manifests itself in my Steam library.
"This isn't brave", it says. "It's marketing."