02 November 2010

The Great Milo Hoax Of 2009

The defining moment of E3 2010? It was dapper Don Mattrick at the Microsoft press conference announcing that everyone in attendance would receive a free Xbox 360 Slim. We shrieked like guests on Oprah--myself included (I know!)--then went home and wrote very nice things about Microsoft--well, most of us wrote nice things--and waited patiently by our mailboxes for our shiny new Slims to arrive.

Looking back, this moment was not the act of largess it appeared to be at the time, but rather Microsoft's diabolical way of slipping the media and the industry at large a collective mickey. Slims-for-everyone made us all feel a bit groggy and starry-eyed that day. We walked out of that press conference, back into the blazing L.A. morning, feeling pretty kindly towards Microsoft. As if struck by a sudden, extreme case of amnesia, no one--not one of us--was grousing about Microsoft's wool-pulling fiasco from the the previous year. I am referring, of course, to gaming's greatest hoax: The Great Milo Hoax Of E3 2009.

Slight digression: As a boy my parents once took me to the Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown, New York. It was a miserable, miserable day. It was all old fucking plows and cotton gins and cider-making paraphernalia and gift shops and shit. I believe there was a display titled "The History Of Ribbon Candy."

The only thing of any interest to me was a display of a creature known as the Cardiff Giant. The Cardiff Giant was--or rather, is (he's still there)--a petrified, ancient giant. He hailed from a now-extinct race of giants. His corpse was discovered in the 1800's by two workmen digging a well.

As my parents wandered off, I stayed behind and studied the giant. I initially felt like phoning the media--HELLO CBS THERE IS A DEAD GIANT UP HERE AT THE COOPERSTOWN FARMERS' MUSEUM PLEASE DISPATCH YOUR FINEST REPORTERS IMMEDIATELY. And then I began to look a little more closely at the giant.

According to the Farmers' Museum pamphlet, a man named George Hull had the giant carved out of a 10-foot block of gypsum in the 1860's. Then he had it buried in the ground on the exact spot where he knew workmen were scheduled to dig a well.

A tent was erected over the giant's "discovery site." Hull and his partners charged the public the then-exorbitant price of 25-cents-per-peer to peer at their discovery, a price which they promptly doubled to 50 cents two days later once they realized that demand was greatly outstripping supply

P.T. Barnum immediately made an offer to buy the giant for 50K. The giant's owners said, in so many words, "Go screw." So Barnum had his own fake giant made. He put it on display in New York and publicly declared that Hull's giant was a fake, and that his fake giant was the real giant.

Hull and his partners weren't about to let Barnum get away with this. So, in 1870 they took Barnum to court and sued him for calling their fake giant a fake giant. After a cursory investigation, both giants were revealed as fakes. In the end, the presiding judge ruled that Barnum could not technically be sued for calling a fake giant a fake giant.

Meanwhile, all parties involved--Barnum, Hull and others--made scads of cash on these fake giants, thanks in no small part to the one thing hucksters, fast-talkers, and telemarketers have relied on since the dawn of civilization: the never-fail gullibility of the general public.

I peered through the rickety fence surrounding the Cardiff Giant and thought, What a damn fool I was! How did I ever think, even for a second, that this giant was real? Of course giants are not real! In the same way that Batman was born out of his parents' murders, I swore in that moment to never be duped this way again. Yes, from that day forward, I, Scott Jones, would lead an utterly duped-free existence.

On that muggy August day in Cooperstown, New York, my greatly advanced degree of cynicism was born. Never again would I sit in awe before magicians performing magic on television. And Tooth Fairies, Sasquatches, and E.T.'s? Santa Clauses, Easter Bunnies, or that that kid Mikey from the LIFE cereal commercial died when he combined Pop Rocks with Coke?

The Cardiff Giant killed them all.

Or, at least I thought he had.

A few days ago, while enjoying my full-blown, fully adult, and totally cynical life, I caught wind of this Charlie Chaplin-cell phone phenomenon thing. I Googled it. I watched the old woman, who resembles my long-dead alcoholic Aunt Clara, as she passes through the frame chatting excitedly into what appears to be a bona fide cell phone.

I thought, as did many of you, "MY GOD IS THIS EVIDENCE OF TIME TRAVEL? Has this woman transcended time and space and, while doing so, remembered to bring her cell phone with her?" (Something that I personally forget to do approximately 19-percent of the time whenever I leave the house, let alone leave my entire era.)

It's silly, yes. But for a few, brief, and pretty glorious seconds, it was fun to believe. Well, maybe not believe; "believe" is far too strong a word. It was fun to "entertain" the notion. I like the sound of that. Yes, I entertained the notion for a few seconds that time travel was actually possible, that this overweight woman in her jaunty hat and ill-fitting dress was actually a savvy time traveler from another dimension.

And then--poof--reason, sanity, good sense and my old friend cynicism came rushing back in.

Which brings me back to E3 2009.

I was attending the Microsoft press conference on a painfully early morning in May. Beatles Rock Band was coming out that year. Oh, look! Paul and Ringo are here. Then Steven Spielberg made a cursory appearance. But somehow upstaging both Spielberg and the remaining Beatles was Lionhead's Peter Molyneux and his "friend," Milo.

Milo was a diminutive kind-faced boy who lives inside your TV screen. Peter cued a short film--which should have been my first clue that a duping was in the offing--showing his virtual boy interacting with a real woman. The live woman and the virtual boy appeared to be having an actual conversation. The boy seemed to hear her, and she seemed to hear him. Then the woman drew a picture on a piece of actual paper, and somehow fed it into the top of the TV where Milo received the paper in his virtual world.

WHAT ALCHEMY IS THIS? I thought. WHAT WIZARDRY? WHAT WITCHCRAFT? COULD THIS BE THE WORK OF SATAN? REVEAL YOURSELF, SATAN!

No kidding. I thought all of those things. Except for the satan parts.

My jaw, quite literally, hung open, something which I had assumed was only a cliched expression. I walked out of the press conference on unsteady legs, unsure of what I'd just seen. Milo was all I could think about, or talk about, or write about for the rest of E3 2009.

Later that day, a handful of writers got the chance to talk to Milo firsthand. (Unfortunately, I wasn't one of them.) "What was it like?" I asked, as if they'd just returned from the future. Responses, for the most part, were disappointingly measured. No one, it seemed, had experienced anything even remotely approximating the degree of interaction that the woman had experienced in Peter Molyneux's press-conference video. "There's something kind of fishy going on with Milo," one writer quietly said to me. There was, he explained, a Wizard Of Oz-feel to the Milo demonstration, as if there was a wizard behind the curtain, pulling Milo's strings. I assumed he was speaking in metaphor until I talked to a few more people who'd chatted with Milo and discovered that there was an actual curtain at these demonstrations, behind which no doubt secret bullshit was going on.

Then, as quickly as he had arrived, after becoming the biggest E3 sensation of all time, after making me walk around on wobbly legs for three days, after making me wonder and hope and open my heart again, Milo vanished.

He hasn't been seen since.

This year, Microsoft made no mention whatsoever of Milo. Instead, they set their phasers to stun by throwing free Slims into our laps, then sent us on our merry way. The saddest part? It worked. It fucking worked. All we could talk about after E3 2009 was Milo and Project Natal. After E3 2010, all we could talk about was who got one and who didn't.

Well played, Microsoft. [Insert slow-clap sound effect HERE.]

Project Natal turned out to be lame. They changed its name to "Kinect." It does not let you feed real paper to a virtual boy who you can be friends with, as Microsoft once promised it would do. From what I can tell so far, now that Kinect is here in my living room, it's a futuristic device capable only of misunderstanding my voice commands and allowing me to steer a virtual raft by jumping up and down.

These are definitely not the droids I was looking for.

The larger question here is this: As gamers, why aren't we vein-popping-from-our-foreheads angry about this? Why haven't we excoriated Microsoft for this shameful display of smoke and mirrors? Why aren't we storming Microsoft headquarters with pitchforks and torches and chasing Bill Gates into the old windmill?

Imagine Nintendo announcing next year that the Wii 2--the Wiiii--will be powered by actual rocks from the moon. Imagine Sony showing up at next year's E3 and saying that their new hardware has a special graphics chip inside which will allow gamers to finally experience the sensation of what it feels like to eat four slices of great pizza while receiving a deft, high-speed handjob from Mila Kunis.

Any promise, any claim, no matter how outrageous, can be made. It's a post-Milo world. We just live in it now.

Bullshit has been foisted upon gamers practically since the dawn of the medium in the form of doctored screenshots, broken promises, terrible games, and a steady, constant stream of misinformation. That wee cynic who was born on the boring grounds of the Farmers' Museum so many years ago wants to slap you all across your collective faces and say, "Wake the fuck up, people. We can't allow these jag-offs to get away with this shit anymore. We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore."

But the gamer inside me? The same person who so desperately wanted to believe in the Cardiff Giant? The one who wanted to believe in Milo and the Charlie Chaplin cell-phone lady and televised displays of magic? Honestly? That part of me will forever be down for a decent hoax. That part of me will always be here waiting, bracing myself, ready to believe the unbelievable.

Yes, we've had our hearts broken before. And, yes, without fail, our hearts will be broken again.

Yet, as gamers, we hope.

Because gamers, for some inexplicably fucked up, totally unreasonable reason, have the biggest hope tanks in the world.

We hope, and we hope, and we hope. Then we hope some more. We read the day's news, and we hope. We load up a new game, and we hope.

And when something once again fails us? (And it will.) When another promise turns out to be empty? When we're confronted with yet another Milo?

Put a few gratis Xboxes in the mail.

Or you know what? Don't. Either way, Xbox or no Xbox, we'll just be out here, hoping that at least some games are good, hoping that some of the news doesn't turn out to be another Cardiff Giant.

Man.

What a pack of beautiful fools we are sometimes.

14 comments:

  1. Just found out your blog and im loving it. Keep up the good work jones!

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  2. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAMEN!!

    Sh*t... You are so on it! We are hoping games we'll always be better but then, as money get more deeply involved, we're getting less for the same amount of money and love...

    But maybe it will pass... Pff... See? Hope again... lol.

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  3. It'll be pretty exciting to see the horrible natal reviews over the next few days. I suspect that the free xbox slims, and the more recent free natal add-ons handed to the media won't keep them from sucking huge time ;P.

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  4. Scott, love your work here and on ROTR, keep it up.

    Thank god someone is saying the right thing amongst the $500,000,000 hype onslaught from M$. Can't wait to see the return lines when the shit don't work when it isn't in a 20'x20' furniture-less demo room with 50,000 watts of lighting.

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  5. Gamers game in order to immerse themselves in a world of fantasy and fiction. Because of this, they are more likely to bite onto a hook baited with lies of this fiction and fantasy overlapping with reality.

    One of the few downsides to having a great imagination is being pretty easily duped. But it's worth it, isn't it?

    Great article.

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  6. I hope, I hope, I hope that you write more frequently. LOVE your posts!

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  7. I'm not sure the Xbox slim bribe had much to do with the media not throwing a shit fit about Milo disappearing. It was pretty clear to everyone that the video demo of Milo was a Cardiff Giant and I don't think anyone truly believed Milo would ever see the light of day. Live demos of Kinect have never really lied. It's always looked like a laggy, less than ideal experience, even if some games have nuggets of fun buried within. The stuff that seemed to work perfectly (like Milo and that Kinectimals demo at E3) were obviously faked. The fact that they had to fake results should've told us all we needed to know about how Kinect would work in our living rooms.

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  8. I'm not OK with faked tech demos, Steve-O.

    From an ethical standpoint, I don't think you can make boasts about the capabilities of your peripheral or machine, then just pretend you never made those boasts.

    It certainly wasn't clear to me that Milo was a fraud at the time. I really did think I'd have a nice boy who lived inside my TV set by now.

    Damn it all, why do I have to be so damn gullible!

    (Great to hear from you, buddy.)

    -jones

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  9. Great post! You are a very crafty storyteller.

    I think beyond gamers inherent need/want to believe in the unbelievable, there's also an issue of agency.

    The gaming community - as a community - is pretty new and I don't know that we necessarily have a sense of what sort of power a global community can wield. We don't yet know that we can unite, rise up and demaind . . . well, something.

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  10. Dear Scott. The Giant does indeed live.

    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/peter_molyneux_demos_milo_the_virtual_boy.html

    TEDGlobal 2010, filmed July 2010; Posted August 2010.

    Aside from that, it was a great read.

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  11. I think the reason very few people are angry is that very few people actually expected this whole 'Milo' thing to come fruition.

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  12. This is so try it hurts I almost shed a tear lol. Although i have become much less hopeful with my expectations. At the beginning of this i though you were gunna say that they never gave you your xbox lol

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  13. Good article, Mr. Jones! 'hope tank' I like the phrase.

    BTW, when will the Porn Industry jump all over the Kinect and offer us the virtual reality porn we were offered. Then you can have your Mila Kunis or any other celeb!

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  14. I had fun choosing this particular painting online that now hangs in my downtown office, from Wahooart.com, who sells canvas prints of art masterpieces. While the original is treasured in some art museum in England, my print http://EN.WahooArt.com/A55A04/w.nsf/Opra/BRUE-8LHS4U, of this painting by Edward Burne-Jones is very much appreciated by my staff and clients. The print quality is really excellent.

    ReplyDelete