Over the past few years, a new marketing buzzphrase has taken hold in the world of gaming: "Over The Top." Those three words contain a plethora of implications—this game is going to be raunchy and violent, unrealistic and unserious. It will inspire joy in your inner sixteen year-old and chagrin when your significant other enters the room. And just maybe, it will even be… controversial. And so publishers, developers and spokespeople have started to make a big to-do about a game's over-the-topness. "We have identified the limit of taste," they seem to be saying, "and we have purposefully surpassed it."
So Saints Row 2 was delayed and Volition spent a few months adding a slew of ridiculous side activities to the core game—streaking in a Borat-style unithong, throwing innocent civilians in front of trains, car-surfing, base jumping, spraying sewage on houses—all in an effort to set it apart from the competition. And it worked; the final product was a surprisingly fun, goofy alternative to the seriousness of GTA IV. But at the same time, it never felt entirely convincing. There was something about the ad campaign, which explicitly poked fun at GTA IV's relative realism, or the frequency with which a Volition spokesperson would describe the game as "Over The Top" that made me wonder: was this a real creative vision I was seeing, or the end result of a reactive marketing strategy?
Google any recently released game along with the phrase "over-the-top" and you'll find all manner of previews, interviews and reviews containing the phrase. Since I've played a good number of these games, I've started to wonder about what's really going on. Why has this phrase risen to prominence these past few years? What does it even mean? Where is this fabled "top", and how does one get over it?
Looking back, I believe that it may have all started with Saints Row 2. Volition's open-world crime game was originally slated to be released at around the same time as Grand Theft Auto IV, but I'm guessing that someone finally took an honest look at the behemoth they going up against and said, "Guys, we need to recalculate our plan of attack here."