Critics in the Headlights


(This is another edition of /RANT, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)


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It seems sometimes that videogames are just the distractions we play in between online videogame controversies. This week’s delightful bit of drama started with a simple image of one Geoff Keighley, sitting dead-eyed and soulless amidst an entourage of snacks and drinks, all backed by the good guys at Microsoft. It became an image for GAME JOURNALISM, the Perfect Final Form of an industry long thought to be in the pocket of publishers and marketing departments. It went from funny meme to whirlwind of shit pretty quickly though, once Robert Florence got hold of it.

Florence, writing for Eurogamer, not only used the image to paint a picture of the games press as too cozy with PR, but also slammed UK writers in particular for cuddling up to business suits at the Games Media Awards — a PR-sponsored event to reward PR-picked writers. He named one Lauren Wainwright in his criticism, a writer who had defended the practice of Tweeting from the GMAs with a sponsored hashtag to try and win a PS3. Lauren and her employer, MCV by way of Intent Media, complained to the point where Eurogamer felt it had to take her name out of the article. Rab got angry. Then shit went everywhere.

I won’t go through all the grisly details of what happened, since many of you know already, and others have done a better job. First of all, let me say that I acknowledge the simpering self-indulgence that comes when writers write writing about writers. If you hate that kind of shit, you best leave now. Second, I should say that I know Lauren. I’ve worked with her. I’ve recorded podcasts with her. She’s seen the stained, stinking, miserable den of sin I shared with a man who pretended to have a math degree to teach students when I lived in London. I also sort-of know Rab, though I’m mostly just a big fan of his and I’m delighted he even reads my own drivel, let alone talks to me. I’m an advocate of his sketch show, Burnistoun, which must be tracked down by any means. Watch it. It’s good.

That in mind, some folks have demanded I talk about all the llama-drama that’s happened this week. It’s tough to tackle, mostly because it touches on so many different subjects. It’s difficult to know where to start, or whether to just single one thing out and address that. I think for me, the most pertinent part of this is how game critics handle criticism. We are, after all, some of the most scrutinized people around, and how we handle that scrutiny ultimately determines how we’re received by the public.

It’s true what they say, critics can be pretty bad at handling criticism. Part of this, I think, is because critics don’t always receive criticism as it should be. When they review something negatively (or even positively in some situations) and say stuff a reader doesn’t like, it’s not often that rational and reasoned debate will occur. Usually it’ll just be misguided screams of “BIAS” or “Paid off” or “I’ll kill your family.” It does give you a thick skin, but it also gives you sharp claws, and using them to strike back can make you come across as incredibly sensitive, rather than simply tired and vicious, as is more truthfully the case. Honest criticism is rare and precious, but to the jaded writer, it can be misconstrued as the other.

I definitely feel that’s what MCV did with Rab’s article. To quote Intent’s Michael French, “We asked Eurogamer to remove cruel content about a staff member.”

Cruel? Let us look at this cruelty. After quoting Lauren’s Tweet from the GMA’s, Rab had this to say:

“And instantly I am suspicious. I am suspicious of this journalist’s apparent love for Tomb Raider. I am asking myself whether she’s in the pocket of the Tomb Raider PR team. I’m sure she isn’t, but the doubt is there. After all, she sees nothing wrong with journalists promoting a game to win a PS3, right?”

This is not a new argument, and it’s far from nasty. I’ve made it myself. An accusation of corruption is vastly different from warning somebody that what they’ve done could easily be open to accusations of corruption. Rab did the latter. He even went as far as to exonerate her from actual accusatory sentiment, and simply said it looks bad. It does. It LOOKS bad when you use marketing hashtags to win stuff. It LOOKS bad when you fly in a helicopter to review a Call of Duty game. It LOOKS bad when your world exclusive review has WORLD EXCLUSIVE REVIEW written across the page. It’s not proof that you ARE bad, it’s not evidence that you ARE corrupt, but it whacks a massive question mark above your head, and how you behave underneath that mark is what ultimately decides your fate in the eyes of the public.

The behavior of MCV demonstrated how that question mark becomes an exclamation. Rather than simply let the criticism stand, or write an even-handed rebuttal, the offended parties instead snapped like a cornered animal. The word “libel” was used a lot to describe what Rab said, carrying with it all sorts of implied legal threat. Eurogamer was made to remove the offending sentences entirely — not issue a clarification, nor an update, but a full eradication of any mention of names. Images of dodgy accountants feeding mysterious files into shredders instantly comes to mind — the more desperate somebody is to silence another, the more guilty they look. Whether they’re guilty or not, it just LOOKS bad.

In this case, MCV’s behavior took some minor criticism and turned it into a controversy. Ironically, the intent to remove Rab’s words have seen them salvaged, regurgitated, and read by many more people than have read the original editorial. In the eyes of the onlookers, Lauren and her employers were caught shoving files into a shredder. It prompted them to dig deeper, find further connections with Square Enix, and call her reviews into question. All stuff that could realistically be explained, had attempts not been made to obscure or hide any of it. Now it just looks suspect, and no amount of context will be enough to justify the hiding. Had everything been owned up to from the start, it would have gone away by now.

I know this, because I’ve been there. Only in the past year or two have I actually learned to sit back, relax, and let the criticism flow — sometimes reserving the right to make fun of it when it’s hilarious. Even in my more feisty years, there were some things I knew never to do. There are articles about me full of straight-up LIES, and words far more venomous than anything Rab wrote. But they’re still standing years later, because I have the best defense against any kind of libel — reality. Getting angry, lashing out, trying to hide things when you’ve done wrong, that distorts reality, shapes it, crafts an all-new narrative. It’s like catnip to people who want you booted out of town in a tornado of shame. We’re people. We fuck up. We do wrong. We have to own it. I’ve overseen competitions that, in hindsight, were just me doing some PR department’s job for it. I tried reviewing a game based on a PR-controlled review event (once was enough to let me know review events are bullshit). At the time, these things didn’t seem like a bad idea, and the intent was purely innocent, but it can look shady, and if I don’t own what I’ve done, it’ll look practically sleazy. Even worse, I’d not have faced how negatively this shit could come across and subsequently instituted a rule to not do such things in future. We are not defined by the things we do as much as we are by the things we learn from them. If your M.O. is to bury anything that calls you into question, you not only confirm peoples’ suspicion, you refuse to learn anything.

I owe what little amount of talent I have to the years of people letting me know when I was doing something poorly, incorrectly, or stupidly. Just because we’re critics, we’re not above criticism. In fact, we perhaps stand to gain more from it than anybody else. Our job is to scrutinize. We do that even better when we’re subject to scrutiny ourselves. A person who improves through critique can hold his or her head up high and critique others, confident in the knowledge that they’ve grown stronger through the very practice they’re perpetuating.

What’s more, trying to bury certain criticisms can often turn things into insults or slurs when they’re not actually insulting at all. Like those writers who insist on being called “game journalists” and not what most of them are — bloggers. Nowadays, there are gamers who use the term “blogger” or “enthusiast press” as a slur, because there are writers who try to hide from it, bury it, and not own up to reality. I say, what the fuck is wrong with being a blogger? What’s wrong with being enthusiast press? Do you guys really think most of you are above that kind of label? Oh please. You’re fans, you’re gamers, you’re no more qualified than people on NeoGAF or your own comments sections. Many of you are more akin to entertainers than journalists. You’re just lucky enough to be paid for your opinion. Don’t get me wrong, many of you work hard, work long hours, and have a lot of writing talent. You should be proud of that. You should be confident in that. If you’re the kind of person who feels insulted when you’re called a blogger or an enthusiast, you don’t come across as proud of yourself at all. You come across ashamed. You come across as needing approval for being what you’re not, rather than what you are, and then you’re just another dodgy accountant, pouring those files into that shredder.

Whether you agree with everything Rab and John Walker have said or not, the criticism deserves more than arrogant, sneering dismissal. It’s disappointing that many writers refuse to look at themselves when a mirror’s being held up.

I feel that there is very little genuine corruption in this industry. As I’ve said before, our pathetic little lives just aren’t interesting enough to justify the conspiracy theories that often occur. However, when people respond to light criticism about sketchy appearances by closing ranks in a defensive formation, all while hurling insults and condescension at their critics, they take mildly suspicious behavior and use it as fuel for conspiracy. You’re enthusiasts. You’re fans of games. You like getting little toys and bits of tat from publishers, and you love being unpaid advertisement for games if you truly believe in them. Don’t be ashamed of that. Own it.

Or, if you ARE ashamed, maybe just don’t fucking do it anymore. Either accept what you are, or become what you want to be. You can’t be one and simultaneously act offended when accused of not being the other. I have plenty of respect for both the enthusiastic blogger and the serious, super-ethical journalist. I’ve got no time for Quislings.

None of the people involved in the shitstorm are bad human beings. I don’t think they’re corrupt — not in any conscious, shady kind of way. Some of them sure as fuck look it, though, and it’s all because of what they did when faced with the headlights of an incoming drama-car. If you want to be a big success in this — I guess we call it a profession — then you need to understand that, eventually, you’ll be in those headlights, and which way you’re able to run will determine what happens.

Run to the side of the road that embraces your talents as an entertainment blogger.

Run to the side of the road that embraces your upstanding record as a journalist.

Stand confused and get smashed the fuck to pieces.

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36 Comments on Critics in the Headlights

bob

On October 26, 2012 at 11:20 am

“not in any conscious, shady kind of way.”

how about corrupt in a “my friend works in the games industry and gave me free games and I’m just repaying them and dont realize how wrong this is” way?

how about corrupt in a “wow that media law course was useful I can sure abuse it to silence critics” way?

Chris

On October 26, 2012 at 11:26 am

This is a great post, Jim.

Something that further illustrates your point is this: Dave Cook was also mentioned in much the same manner by Rab, and the fact that he’s not been mentioned to the same extent as Lauren just goes to show how much better he handled the situation.

He owned up to the fact that he messed up and that it was a bad look (although he expressed disappointment at Rab re: the way he approached that article). He left it at that, and it seems that he’s since been largely forgotten about throughout this whole thing.

fringefigure

On October 26, 2012 at 11:27 am

Good article, Jim.

Mistermorriss

On October 26, 2012 at 11:44 am

Thing is, none of these honest mistakes would happen if publishers and journos were on opposite sides if the fence. No relationship. No finance.

Chungus, Son of Chungus

On October 26, 2012 at 11:48 am

This whole drama makes me want to start blogging. I’ve always thought about it but now i’m more motivated than ever, reading Jim’s work and the reactions to him made me realize that there are people willing to read more lucid stuff about videogames. I’m an Economist and i’m very interested in philosophy and social sciences in general, so ill try to write some of my own stuff in that line.

Jim Sterling

On October 26, 2012 at 11:52 am

Chris: Yep! Acknowledgement of wrongdoing can, in most cases, make your problems go away. Again, this is something I’ve learned. I’ve been in situations where I screwed up and tried to fight the responsibility, and it only ever made it worse. Likewise I’ve been in situations where I’ve said, “It’s a fair cop” and got ready for the punch on the jaw, only to see none forthcoming.

Hell, just yesterday a lawn guy cracked my window accidentally. I expected him to deny it when I brought it up to him, but today they’re sending a glazier to fix it. The lawn guy now has my business for life.

Charlie

On October 26, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Brilliant. Sums up the entire situation perfectly. Just wished one of the enthusiasts (and Rab is the best kind of game enthusiast) didn’t have to step down due to it.

Juan

On October 26, 2012 at 12:07 pm

Dave Cook handled better the situation because he is wiser than Lauren. Another thing is if you really believe his change of mind and excuses or you think (like me) it was just smart damage reduction.

sidrat

On October 26, 2012 at 12:14 pm

Great write up. I wasn’t aware of the shift storm but really his can’t be anything new. Reviewers and publishers have always enjoyed a cozy-ish relationship. From publishers sponsored events to pre release copies.

What is important for any blogger is journalistic integrity. Whatever that means. If a blogger or reviewer or game journalist is getting paid by the publisher or developer attached to the game as long as they put PAID ADVERT in a prominent position. Their words may not reflect their true feelings and the reader will be intelligent enough to read between the pines based on other works.

If you can’t get freebies from anyone associated with the game your reviewing it could be a huge stinking pile of turd that is about to be rained down on the gaming masses so why would you want anything from the stinking publisher? If you take money to change your review to a positive bias and an inaccurate reflection of the real experience you deserve to go to jail for extortion.

marykate clark

On October 26, 2012 at 12:17 pm

I learn so much from you. If you would just call me “Grasshopper” for any and all future exchanges we might have, my world will be complete.

NintendoLegend

On October 26, 2012 at 1:33 pm

I absolutely love some of the points made here, both the general over-arching bits and the specific responses to recent incidents. However, I have one question: Earlier in the article, you say:

“We’re people. We up. We do wrong. We have to own it. ”

But then later:

“None of the people involved in the storm are bad human beings.”

… which is it? What is your standard for goodness?

I think the sooner we, as the crowd who enjoy video games, put away this farce of thinking that humans are good, the sooner all these issues will achieve clarity. My eyes are tiring from how often they roll at those who seem surprised that people screw up and do wrong. To expect goodness from humanity is to be perpetually disappointed.

Again, though: That question is just putting a fine point on one part of this, but I love much of what you say in the bulk of it. You are a great wordsmith, Sterling.

B.J.

On October 26, 2012 at 1:37 pm

I really hope this blog makes people understand games editorial/writing better, and not to immediately write it off as many do. I remember reading a NeoGAF thread about all this and just getting all depressed at people throwing accusations of bias, shilling and corruption without basis, and when I know for certain it’s not true.

I just wish more people were open-minded like most of us are. We need to get off this “lol games journalism” laugh train, because it’s not really funny anymore.

Jim Sterling

On October 26, 2012 at 2:41 pm

NintendoLegend: I don’t think messing up and doing wrong means you are a bad human being, and I never said all humans are essentially good. I’m just saying, the people involved here, based off my time with them, are generally decent folk. Decent folk who, in some cases, may not have handled things the right way.

JawaEsteban

On October 26, 2012 at 3:13 pm

Excellent piece. I wasn’t aware of this particular dust-up until reading and digging through links, but I think it raises very pertinent issues that need to be addressed by the gaming media. If they don’t, fans definitely will.
This reminds me of the controversy regarding Jessica Chobot and ME3. There may not have been anything going on there, but it looked sketchy as hell, and could have been totally avoided. I think gaming media can continue to ignore this issue at their peril. In less than a year, IGN has gone from a gaming news source to a slur for a lot of gamers. This problem is not going away.

folklore

On October 26, 2012 at 4:54 pm

Nice article.

20GOTO10

On October 26, 2012 at 6:52 pm

One thing I’ve noticed after reading many blogs and articles on this furore is that writers are failing to comment on the main focal point for Rab’s article – quintessential PR Goon, Geoff “Doritos & Mountain Dew” Keighley.

The featured image of Mr Keighley is taken from a painfully embarrassing “interview”. I say interview, but its actually nothing more than a thinly veiled advertisement for the aforementioned products.

Yet because Geoff Keighley hasn’t had a total hissy fit over all this, his part in the original articles’ existence appears to have completely evaded scrutiny.

I’m not sure which is worse: the narcissism of a handful of greedy little shills whose blatant PR stunts stand out a mile for all to see, or the sanctimonious writers who are suddenly crawling out of the woodwork to condemn / defend / self-appraise their profession.

Let’s be perfectly honest here; if Rab hadn’t put the cat amongst the pigeons, 90% of writers commentating on this story extolling their own virtues would never attempt to highlight this problem in such a profoundly open manner. That’s because even in honest games journalism, there’s still a very distinct lack of investigative rigour or willingness to hold the industry accountable. Perhaps this is a small but significant step toward rectifying the matter.

R.J.

On October 26, 2012 at 7:03 pm

Good article. While most reviewers and journalists are not “on the take” they at least should recognize that some practices look bad. A site might have an advertising department and a separate review department to keep things from getting mixed, but it sure LOOKS bad when a big budget game with lots of money for ads gets a great review and the little game that couldn’t afford ads gets a poor review. Perhaps those reviews are the honest opinions of the reviewer, but it doesn’t change the appearance of the situation.

One example I keep coming back to of appearances mattering in these situations is Jessica Chobot in ME3. Sure, she didn’t review the game, but it LOOKED bad when IGN was one of the biggest voices against the criticisms of the game when somebody that works for IGN was actually a character in the game. It especially looked bad when blew up about people criticizing her friends at Bioware, and she later wrote an apology acknowledging that she could not keep her personal and professional views separate. No matter what, it LOOKS suious that Bioware opted to put resources into creating Chobot in the game when other characters from the game could have filled the role.

quicktooth

On October 26, 2012 at 9:39 pm

I come to Gamefront precisely because it isn’t corrupt. It tells things as they obviously are. I KNOW I can’t trust most publications, not when positive reviews always correlate with the most expensive titles. I KNOW I can’t trust most reviews given the obvious bribary associated with “press events” that games companies put on. I CAN SEE when someone does something grossly unethical or propounds such a view in the games industry, and review outlets don’t call them out (or even actually PRAISE them). I just don’t go to all those publications, nor buy the products of the obviously corrupt companies. Pretty sure everyone else can see it all too. You guys haven’t produced a hard-hitting-enough article here; where obvious bribary has taken place (advertise a product as if it were an opinion, win a PS3), call it that. You did good, but not as you usually do it. To all those people championing corruption- “Don’t piss on my shoulder and tell me it’s raining” (quote from Judge Judy).

quicktooth

On October 26, 2012 at 10:44 pm

A correction: I’ve learned after reading various articles on this subject that the lady at the centre of the sh!tstorm didn’t enter the relevant PS3 competition. Nonetheless, as she’s employed by a company she’s reviewed games on and claimed not to have reviewed any games by them, the points stand.

xOSHIKURUx

On October 27, 2012 at 1:45 am

cracking article, Jim, I may just have to re-think my early opinions of you :P lol

Lauren and that odious little GAME assistant manageer Dave ‘everything is , but hey its cool cos at least I am great’ Cook are both wits of the highest order and you know it.

the problem, particularly in the Uk media, ( the UK PR circles are a closed book and a done deal ), is that it is becoming like the UP PR market. Privilige over person and a a safe haven for out of work middle class tossers looking for the experiencde they need before they go and retire to a life of dreary cocaine filled after parties, air kissing each others arses before being found dead in a pool of their own piss with champagne sodden underwear.

you need look no further than who was writing about gaming 10 years ago, who then went into PR, who is still climbing the ladder in PR and who has moved on to a more ‘stable’ industry position.

a bigger collective bunch of up their own arsehole wits the world has never seen

Juan

On October 27, 2012 at 3:51 am

Nice article, Jim. But I have a few questions: why don’t post this on Destructoid? Why the major game websites don’t even mention this “incidence” (only blogs and personal websites)? Is corporativism? This is no news worth attention for the average reader? Thank you.

Creampaella

On October 27, 2012 at 11:06 am

Jim, I lost a lot of respect for you after that misguided, overly-abrasive ‘man babies’ rant regarding misandry in the games industry. This article has finally restored some of that. More of this and less of the lefty pseudo-progressive rubbish in future, please.

S

On October 27, 2012 at 3:41 pm

“the more desperate somebody is to silence another, the more guilty they look.”

As an attorney, this is the statement that struck me most. In trials, if you have enough to satisfy a judge that a party destroyed evidence or hid evidence or witnesses, you can bring that to a jury. The idea is that, of course, an innocent party wouldn’t do that because they know they didn’t do what they were accused of. Hiding evidence makes you look culpable, even if you aren’t. I think that is doubly true of journalists, or bloggers as the case may be. I am instantly suious of a review written by someone who seems to close to the publisher or received some kind of freebie. However, I’m ok with it as long as it’s revealed, really. If I know the review is based on a press event, or the writer once worked for the developer or publisher, or something like that then I’m OK. It’s when they hide it I get suious.

S

On October 27, 2012 at 3:43 pm

*suious. I have no idea why both times it was missing several relevant letters.

S

On October 27, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Last one, just to suggest you might want to tweak your bad word remover. I can see now it specifically pulled those words out because the synonym for mistrust contains the same letters as a racial slur. Took me a minute to figure that one out.

Aedelric

On October 27, 2012 at 7:04 pm

This is why I go to gaming websites for news, not opinions. News requires facts, reviews require opinions and opinions are subjective and can be coloured. One should always make their own opinions in life not rely on others.

As for this recent drama, it is hardly an eye opener.

Kami

On October 28, 2012 at 6:08 pm

Hey Jim, great read.

It’s the Streisand Effect though really, isn’t it? The act of trying to bury it makes it all the more obvious, and what would otherwise have been a relatively innocuous little article on being wary of a conflict of interest instead erupted into a debate over the ethical standards of the industry. It became a bigger issue than it would have been if they just let it run its natural course. Now we’re in for a week or two of endless analysis and comments and accusations. They made the problem more noticeable than it perhaps could have been.

Even myself as an avid blogger isn’t immune. But that’s just how it is. We react to their reaction. That’s what we do. Welcome to the Internet Age. Where your misdeeds and mistakes will haunt you, preserved in digital amber for future analysis and ridicule. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do; this is how this new contraption works. For better, for worse, forever. I don’t believe in bad people; just bad choices, and we all make them. It’s a human resources industry. Sometimes that involves human failings too.

I think you do it right Jim. Just let it go. Let it decay naturally into the soil and be the fuel for growth. New life and new things will spring from the natural cycle of things, the order of the circle of life. Napalm the area to cover up your misdeeds and you not only destroy the evidence, but the natural order of everything in the near-vicinity. It can’t survive the fumes, the chemicals, the fire.

And that is the Streisand Effect. Because at that point, you simply can’t ignore it…

WTF

On October 30, 2012 at 4:33 am

Jim, you have a ‘lawn guy’? Fancy part of london.

Mutt Romney

On November 2, 2012 at 3:15 am

Jim, you’re one of the last people that I thought would have the cheek to weigh into a discussion on this particular topic.

9.5 for Modern Warfare 3… Really?? Seriously?? That game, and that franchise is a piece of horse and a blight on gaming…and you gave Witcher 2 a 6. Bull. Witcher 2 is a flawed game, a lot of it has been fixed, and they added a whole bunch of stuff to the base game including a 4 hour extension to the campaign for FREE…at least it was aspiring to be something more than a 5 hour glorified cutscene attached to a regurgitated, shallow and worthless multiplayer component that might as well have been designed by Michael Bay. That sort of house games journalism costs good developers sales….and CD Projekt Red are a damn good developer, when compared to a lot of the clowns who occupy the AAA space..

I guess CD Projekt Red didn’t throw bottomless buckets of cash at Destructoid like Activision did for MW3..

Jim Sterling

On November 2, 2012 at 8:50 am

WAAAAAAAH REVIEW SCORES I DISAGREE WITH WAAAAAAH is what you said.

Reality Dose

On November 2, 2012 at 9:38 am

Jim – there’s a reason people think you’re a complete tool, and it’s not because you’re ‘challenging’. It’s because you deliberately take the most controversial or opposing view at all times. The fact you respond to criticisms with witless, vapid cries of ‘baby’ (how utterly ironic and hypocritical) just buries you even further in the minds of the majority on here who’d rather you stayed away from an otherwise respected website. There’s only so long you can keep convincing yourself that the hatred towards you is because of your embarrassing hypocrisy regarding the Mario Kart and Modern Warfare 3 scores – that wasn’t the cause of it. That was just one of many, many examples of your total ineptitude as a videogame analyst and journalist. Nobody takes you seriously because you don’t take them seriously. You reap what you sow, and in this case what you reap is resentment. The worst part is that your article was actually decent, but it’s come after too many other blatant attempts at riling the masses without any informed stance or material substance behind it, and your hilariously childish reply comments negate any and all dignity you’d earned from the column. For your own sake, as well as the sake of the site in general, please know when to stop. It’s not healthy for any of us.

Daretoask

On November 2, 2012 at 10:06 am

@ Reality Dose: “[...] and your hilariously childish reply comments negate any and all dignity you’d earned from the column.”
Well said, my thoughts exactly. What was the above comment from Jim all about? That’s something I expect from our neighbourhood trolls, not from one of the journalists on this site.

quicktooth

On November 3, 2012 at 5:02 am

@everyone- did someone hijack Jim Sterling’s name and make that baby-talk trolling comment above? Because it is entirely unlike the article…

Matt

On November 4, 2012 at 10:21 pm

I drew the line after an IGN employee appeared in mass effect 3, I started looking at fan reviews for games over “game journalist” reviews, you get more of a sense of what a game is really like without the bribes for good review scores.

Deepestfire

On November 5, 2012 at 6:07 pm

I applaud your use of the word Quislings.