The bigger-selling the franchise, the less likely an interviewee is to tell you anything concrete about its latest instalment. In my experience, at least. With tens of millions of dollars hanging in the balance, it's a courageous producer or designer indeed who gives you anything save the marketing message in chopped-up, reassembled form. "That's a good question," they'll squeak, misting over with dread, and proceed to blather about viscerality and pushing envelopes and how returning players will love this while series newcomers will love that.
More accomplished operators turn this verbal dance into an art-form. 343 Studios, for instance, has spent six months discovering new and fascinating ways to say very, very little about Halo 4, a game slated for release this very year. We know that Master Chief's on board, and that he's just as he always was - well, maybe a little bit different because otherwise what would be the point of a new Halo? But not that different. Oh and Cortana's back and she's important. Guns? Yeah we've got guns. Maybe some guns that aren't the same as the guns in other Halo games. And we'll have a story and you'll love it. The Flood? Sorry, I think I hear somebody calling me in the cellar. Please direct all further questions to this licensed toy manufacturer.
You can hardly blame 343. People get remarkably, shall we say, "protective" about Halo, and with Bungie's shadow stretching back through the open door, the studio has everything to prove. Recalcitrance is only to be expected, as with Assassin's Creed, Modern Warfare and the rest. But after half a year of this, I'm mildly concerned that 343's caution may say something about its handling of Halo 4. That the game I'm holding candles for - the game I think could be 2012's most important release - may have taken the player base's sensitivities too much to heart, becoming too beholden to fan service. Studio boss Frank O'Connor has said he's ready to break from Halo lore if the project demands it. Now's the time to show it.
Pointless, baffling, easily ignored subtitle aside, Ninja Theory's controversial Devil May Cry reboot makes an instructive comparison. The studio has received death threats over its Westernised, boyband Dante, a moodier take on the ivory-haired demon slayer of yore, but has risen under the pressure, asserting its artistic identity. "We're not pretending we are Japanese nor making apologies for that," creative director Tameem Antoniades told OXM last week.
As a rabid Devil May Cry fanboy myself, I'll confess to being a little irked by the change of direction, but I respect the studio's ballsiness. Triple-A franchises are notorious for diminishing returns, so to have a developer stand up and tell sceptical previewers, angry disciples, shareholders and the world at large that it's breaking new ground, damn the torpedoes and so forth, is heartening. Ninja Theory's refusal to play ball also, bizarrely, makes the old Devil May Cry feel more distinctive and flavourful than ever; Antoniades' obstinacy has as much to do with the challenge of replicating that unique style as it does following his own nose.
If 343 feels the stakes are too high to speak its mind, I'd encourage them at least to put the same sentiments into practice. Halo 4 will, in all likelihood, be punished by the Halo community - as O'Connor puts it, "there'll be differences in style that will be attributed to 343 that wouldn't have been examined under the same microscope if Bungie had done it." Why not embrace the inevitable fallout, then, and make those changes dramatic and far-reaching? "A good question" indeed. I'm looking forward to the answer.