Posted on June 21, 2011, Jim Sterling Duke Nukem Forever and Jim Redner’s Balls of Squeal
(This is another edition of </RANT>, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more)
Those of you who read gaming blogs with any fair amount of regularity may have heard of Jim Redner — head of The Redner Group, a PR agency that was recently fired by 2K Games after threatening to blacklist those reviewers who deemed “unfair” in their assessment of Duke Nukem Forever. Redner would go on to make a public apology — and email private ones to reviewers such as myself — for what he deemed an outburst of emotion that he sincerely regretted.
With that in mind, it seems like Redner is a particularly disingenuous man, as he made the exact same threats again — albeit thinly veiled this time — in the form of a recent Wired guest column. Apparently he wasn’t that sorry since he still stands by everything he apologized for, and my apology email looks rather hollow reflected in this new light.
Now, I could spend an entire column talking about the dishonesty of apologizing for a rash statement before making the exact same statement again, but Redner said a lot more this time, and just as he feels reviewers should be held accountable for the content of their articles, I feel Redner cannot say what he said unchallenged, because what he said was — quite frankly — total bullshit.
“Opinions are never wrong,” wrote Redner. “Reviews, when backed by fact, are always correct regardless of the score. The reviewer’s story was downright mean spirited. It’s as if the reviewer had a grudge and finally found an outlet to unleash his hostile brand of negativity. The review goes so far as to disparage the people who poured thousands of irreplaceable hours of their life, spent absent from families and loved ones, into the creation of this game.”
Redner never mentions the review by name, in keeping with the passive-aggressive behavior I’ve seen from several people involved with DNF’s development. It is entirely possible he is talking about my own review, written on Destructoid. Redner’s original (now deleted) Tweet references a “2/10″ review, and I did certainly question the mentality of those who developed the game — with good reason. I wanted to know what Gearbox and DNF’s prior developers were thinking when they created a game that presents the torture of women as a good enough joke to stand up on its own and presents Duke Nukem’s sociopathic, sexually maladjusted nature not as a real point of humor, but as something laudable and aspirational. I believe that was pretty fair. At no point — in any review I’ve read on the subject — was anybody personally insulted. A studio’s motivations and design decisions should be just as much a part of the review as anything else.
The really contentious part of Redner’s argument, however, is the fact that developers should be let off the hook because they “poured thousands of irreplaceable hours” into a game. This is an argument that I’ve seen many times before, that a reviewer needs to consider the feelings of the people who made it. I’d say that’s the last thing a reviewer needs to think about when assessing a game. Like it or not, a reviewer isn’t there to protect developers from feeling sad. This is not pre-school, where everybody gets a star and no child is left behind. This is the realm of business conducted by adults, and if you’re going to turn on the waterworks when your game is trashed, you should not be in an industry where art is produced for public consumption. It’s simply not the place for little princesses made of eggshells.
Redner denies that he blacklists reviewers. Instead, he uses a “selection process” based on whether or not he thinks a reviewer will like a game, or is a good fit for their particular tastes and interests. This is not wholly unreasonable. Publishers have a right to send what they want to who they want, whenever they want. Nobody’s going to question that, and the reasoning Redner puts forth is sound. He argues that his job is to build positive hype and that he sends review copies out to those outlets who he thinks will provide it. Again, that’s fine. Nobody deliberately sets out to get their game a bad review. The thing is — it’s always a gamble. You can build your hype, you can send your review copy to a fan of the genre or a fan of the series, but that’s no guarantee they’ll like the game. In the case of Duke Nukem Forever, the gamble did not pay at all — the game’s been almost universally panned with varying degrees of harshness. It is this harshness that Redner seeks to address, and where he truly goes off the deep end.
“It is my opinion that when someone exceeds their journalistic integrity and publishes a scathing, derogatory, uncalled-for review, I have the right to question it. Integrity isn’t a badge that can be waved around to suit your situation. It is a lifestyle. If you ask for a copy of the game for review, you have an ethical duty to provide a fair review of the game. You do not have to like the game. You do not have to publish a glowing review. However, you must be fair and accurate. You owe it to your audience, yourself and the video game community.”
This is where we start to wade in some very murky waters. What does it mean to be fair? To me, being fair is being as brutal and uncensored as possible, in the interests of giving the reader an emotionally honest review. Be it lavish praise or harsh criticism, my personal code of ethics dictates that I pull absolutely zero punches when talking about how a game makes me feel. Yes, it can lead to a harsh tone, but if I feel a game deserves it, I have been as fair as I can be. To some, fair means that you can’t say mean things. Again, it’s this pre-school mentality where everybody has to be “special” and nobody can be criticized. Fair is being able to back up everything you’ve said, and I’m yet to see a harsh review that fails to do that. Everybody had their reasons for hating Duke Nukem Forever — be it the outdated gameplay, unfunny jokes or the blatantly hateful, ignorant, sometimes homophobic content.
“Hardworking people, including myself, spent thousands of hours away from family and friends working on Duke Nukem Forever. The game is what it is, but we poured our hearts into bringing the game back from video game purgatory. That single story hurt and I acted rashly, vented my frustration and I am paying for my actions, more so than you know. Shouldn’t the journalist have to pay for his? Should I continue to support him?”
And this is where Redner goes from murky to downright pathetic. A journalist should pay for giving his honest opinion? Seriously? The suggestion that any reviewer should be punished for being truthful and refusing to dress up their opinion is absolutely abhorrent to me. I cannot think of a more vile professional ideal. At the end of the day, you worked on a game, you put it out there, and you sent it to a reviewer in the hopes that he’d provide his opinion — good or bad. If a reviewer did that — regardless of his tone or choice of words — then he did his job. He did ALL that his job requires of him. The proposition that a reviewer must suffer in some way for fulfilling his job requirement fills me with a disgust so pure you could strip paint with it.
As far as “paying” for the review goes, I can certainly say I paid for mine. I had to play Duke Nukem Forever. That’s punishment enough.
“We should not supply games to journalists who are capable of such hatred. Life is too short to surround ourselves in such baseless hatred. We should focus on the hundreds of other writers who are capable of being fair, even when writing a poor or low scoring review. Reviews are subjective but fairness should always be a constant.”
Redner says this as if he’s never hated a videogame, or a movie, book, television show, food, government decision, or anything, ever. The idea that any review was written with a level of hatred that Redner has never seen before is bitterly amusing. What is less amusing is the assessment that criticizing a game is fine, so long as you refuse to hate it. What utter shit — a reviewer OWES it to his readers to let them know if he hated a game, and if that hatred is best communicated with strong wording and harsh tones, then so be it. In the case of Duke Nukem, I can’t say I found a single positive thing to say about the game. It was garbage, and I stand by that. That is as fair as I am capable of being. Many reviewers felt the game was trash, and they said so. You can’t be fairer than that.
According to Redner, arbitrator of all that is fair, some reviewers “work outside the line of ethics.” Unfortunately, he never defines what those “ethics” are, and thus leaves the impression that by “ethical” he means, “says things I agree with.” That’s a habit many butthurt gamers adopt when a reviewer doesn’t like a game they happen to enjoy. They scream “bias” or “unprofessional” not because they actually know what those words mean, but because they’re upset over being disagreed with and are too cowardly to admit it, so they hide behind vague ethical rules that they’ve half-baked themselves in order to justify their unwarranted grievances. Unless Redner can actually provide a detailed explanation of what it means to review ethically without just saying, “Don’t hate my games, be fair,” then I’m afraid I can only treat his views with the same level of contempt that I reserve for commenters in the threads of IGN reviews.
I’m not so arrogant as to dictate to Jim Redner what his ethics should be. I would expect him to extend that courtesy to reviewers. It’s actually fine if Redner doesn’t want to send copies to certain people — what galls me is a man imposing his own values on other people and demanding that all reviews stick to his inflexible idea of what a review can and cannot be. Personally? As a reviewer I have one ethical rule — be honest, even if one must be ruthless. So long as a reviewer did that, then they did fine by me, whether I agree with them or not. I don’t care how a review is written, so long as it’s not bullshit. I didn’t see any bullshit with the Duke Nukem Forever reviews. I saw a variety of criticism with a variety of tones, and it was all fair to me, because I didn’t think anybody was lying.
If you don’t like a review, by all means say so. But have the f**king balls to own your opinion and say so. Don’t hide behind ill-defined ethical values as a way to deflect attention away from the fact that your feelings got hurt. You insult those you work with, those you represent, and yourself when you do that, and I’m more than happy to buy the games myself if it means not having to work with glorified GameFAQs posters.