The problem with Square Enix's 48-hour game reveal

You've got to applaud Square Enix for trying something different. Starting today, the publisher kicked off a three-day livestreaming event entitled Project CKP, an acronym for the cryptic phrase 'Can't Kill Progress' and a tease for the reveal of a new game by a Western developer. The idea is that viewers on Twitch can vote to determine the fate of a man who's seemingly being imprisoned and tortured (an actor, of course, though there's a definite snuff film vibe to the whole thing). But building up expectations like this can be dangerous, and Project CKP might end up overshadowing the reveal of the game itself.

The idea is a smart play off the wildly popular Twitch Plays Pokemon stream, when thousands of viewers frantically vied to control a humble Pokemon Trainer with a tidal wave of input commands via the chat. The stream's captive audience created a culture unto itself, with cries for Democracy versus Anarchy and cheers of "Praise the Helix Fossil", feeling invested enough to the point of orchestrating grand acts of cooperation and sketching out heaps of reactive fan art. That kind of overnight viral success is what marketing teams dream of, with the stream peaking at 120,000 concurrent viewers all fascinated and entertained by this virtual hive mind of fervent Pokemon players.

But Twitch Plays Pokemon was directly interactive at any given moment, while Project CKP is not. Since there's no way an actor can respond to every line in the maelstrom that is Twitch chat, the 'game' of watching is reduced to a series of six votes, which will ostensibly have some effect on the man's fate without the need to improvise new footage on the fly. In the meantime, viewers are treated to about five hours of a man lying motionless on the ground, intercut with looped footage of him screaming out to his captors in vain. There's not much viewers can do to alter the on-screen action, so they're left to make their own fun in the chat.

And when you put thousands of Twitch viewers in a room, chaos is usually the only possible outcome. If you've ever watched the chat in a popular stream (think 10k viewers or more), you know that any attempt to communicate is instantly drowned out by a sea of mockery, confusion, and ASCII Hitler faces. But that's part of the entertainment these viewers derive - a delirious stream of consciousness that's in constant reaction to the onscreen happenings. However clever someone in Twitch chat may be, they become a crier screaming to be heard amidst a crowd of people who are all shrieking just as loudly. A Men In Black quote comes to mind: "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it."

That kind of spectacle might be what Square Enix was hoping for, with viewers drawn in by morbid curiosity and linking the stream out to all their peers. But as of this moment, it seems like this isn't the kind of phenomenon that builds up hype for a video game. Judging by the whirlwind of exclamations in the chat, there's a sense of befuddlement as to what exactly this stream is supposed to accomplish. Project CKP is getting people talking, but by this time next week, it might be more memorable than the actual game it's promoting. And asking for three days worth of constant viewer engagement - especially on the Internet - seems highly unrealistic, both for the audience and the people putting on this show.

Of course, something more exciting than 'disheveled man, moping around and looking like he really needs to pee' could very well occur over the next dozen hours. But the problem is that this is all pretty much pre-scripted, and the clues to cracking the CKP code are all gated behind the periodic voting checkpoints. Unlike Valve's masterclass in viral hype-building with its Portal 2 ARG, where theorists had ample hidden content and misdirecting breadcrumbs to dig into and decrypt, Project CKP fanatics have nothing to work with at the moment beyond a distorted Instagram video. Right now, it seems like no amount of detective work can make this reveal event be anything but on-schedule, which puts a damper on the excitement of anyone who's genuinely invested in the whole idea.

Given that the footage has shown off a man with a robotic arm, the prevailing theory is that this will all culminate in a reveal of a new Deus Ex. But that expectation creates a problem, where viewers will spend the next three days obsessing over what the end result might be, given time to build up anticipation for something that may not deliver on the build-up. If it is Deus Ex, viewers will feel like they called it, or that Square Enix gave it away too quickly and they ultimately wasted their time. If it isn't Deus Ex, people may be left wondering why they spent hours of their life watching a man curled up in the fetal position for a game trailer of something they're not yet invested in. If you had no idea Project CKP existed and simply queued up the impending game trailer on YouTube, you'd be no worse off - and given how incomprehensible the chat is, being a part of it doesn't seem to be its own reward.

All that is to say, Project CKP seems destined to overshadow whatever it ultimately reveals. Twitch viewers, riotous though they may be, are still keenly aware that this is all a marketing campaign for a game they'll gladly heckle within seconds of seeing it. Trying to control that perpetual din and direct it towards excitement for a product is a lofty goal, but only time will tell if it'll actually pan out in Square Enix's favor. The company has bounced back from worse, mind you - there was that Hitman trailer with Agent 47 murdering sexy nuns, and a reveal for a reveal for a Final Fantasy 7 port that practically shouted "Psyche! No HD remaster here, nerds!" to the audience. Here's to hoping that Project CKP has a happier ending than those marketing missteps.