Posted on March 14, 2012, Jim Sterling Videogame Reviews Aren’t the Exciting Spy Thrillers You Want Them to Be
(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.)
Over the years, I’ve seen many accusations flung at videogames reviewers. Some of the accusations are thrown my way, some of them are thrown at other reviewers to highlight how honest and terrific I am. Whatever the motivation, and regardless of who the criticisms are aimed at, I need to shoulder the burden of bursting your bubble and hammering home a rather disappointing truth — videogame reviews are nowhere near as exciting as you think they are, for the most part.
Every time I see a comment claiming to know how, “All reviews are bought and paid for by the publisher,” or declaring that, “This game got a high score because the reviewer is scared of not getting anymore free games,” I have to wonder exactly what kind of world such accusers reside in. It certainly seems like an exciting world, where the rather mundane and ordinary realm of consumer blogging has been replaced by a shadowy dystopia of undercover operations, sleazy backroom deals, and merciless threats from sinister corporations. I wish the world was like that, because it would make playing through boring tripe like Mindjack a lot more enthralling.
The above video has been doing the rounds recently, and like that one about Kony, it’s pretty damn good at making a point through provocative words and apt musical choices. It is, however, an incredibly romantic view of what we do as game reviewers. It awards the job far more importance, far more intrigue, than it deserves. As a game reviewer myself, allow me to confirm to you that the majority of us are uninteresting people, with relatively generic lives. I pay my mortgage, raise my family, and waste time watching shit movies like Hardware and Puppet Master. I spend no time at all tendering or refusing blank checks from sinister executives, because nobody’s ever done that. Life just isn’t that cool.
I am not meaning to imply that sleaze does not happen. The “Gerstmann Incident” at GameSpot is a favorite example, and there are definitely some publishers who try a few questionable tactics to encourage high scores. There are certain practices I disagree with, such as “review events” where writers are invited to a nice hotel and risk having their gameplay experience subconsciously married to an awesome paid vacation. It’s true that many reviewers get free games (as in any industry, because buying them all would be financial suicide) and that swag can be tossed the reviewer’s way in order to curry favor. Of course, many fail to realize that the swag can get a bit annoying, cluttering the house and eventually being tossed out. Many fail to realize that a free game means very little to most writers — a piece of shit that wastes your professional time will still deserve an ass-kicking, regardless of whether or not it was received for free. Some gamers believe a free game comes with caveats, but outside of polite embargo requests, I’ve never been asked to give a certain score, or write in a certain way. Here’s the boring process I go through when securing a review copy of a game:
- I email the publisher/PR representative and ask if I’m on the list/can get on the list.
- Publisher/PR representative confirms, with a note on embargo time.
- I get the game and review it.
That really is all there is to my job as a reviewer. It’s not as dramatic as some pundits make it out to be. It’s a rather brief and professional interaction, and while some believe the existence of a free copy is proof that a review’s been purchased, all I have to say is … even if that’s true, it’s not proof that they purchased a positive review.
Another thing people need to realize is that most publishers/PR people don’t really care about your score. This prevalent fear of blacklisting that people believe exists? It’s practically nonexistent in my experience. I’ve torn shreds out of games from Capcom, Sega, Electronic Arts, Sony and Activision in the past, and the worst I’ve gotten is a, “That’s a shame” or a joking, “You’re insane” from 99% of all publisher reps I’ve interacted with. I still get titles from all of them. Sure, they like positive reviews, but let’s face it — their job is exposure, and any press is good press to them, for the most part. These big corporate publishers, the ones that could afford to pay for positive reviews, are publishing games so big that a few negative reviews won’t even harm them. I mean, will EA really pay for a positive review of Mass Effect 3, when it’s managed to sell a ton of copies with half the fanbase hating on it? Not only is it an unlikely scenario, it’s a waste of money and a bad business decision. Ultimately, the idea of the blogger receiving a check in exchange for a positive review is a fantasy. When you try and imagine that transaction going down in reality, it’s pretty funny in how farcical it is.
Over at Destructoid, we’ve had a few advertisements pulled over reviews, but it’s not like we can even blame them. After all, who wants an ad for Kane & Lynch 2 on a site that gave it 1/10? We get it. But even though the ad was pulled, no threat was made. No demands were heard. It was just a thing that happened. A rather boring, ultimately understandable, thing that happened. No hard feelings.
Amusingly, it’s not the big publishers with the ton of cash that cause reviewers the most trouble. Not in my experience. The only grief I’ve ever been given is from developers, the guys without the money. I’ve had phone calls from the makers of Hydrophobia, I’ve been blocked on Twitter by Cliffy B after responding to his complaints over getting an 8/10 for Gears of War 3. The people that put their heart and soul into the game, the “good guys” of the videogame industry, are the ones who get angry and demanding. Again, it’s a little understandable — you’ve put years of your life into a product, and therefore you take negative reviews personally. Meanwhile, the publishers are just footing the bill and looking forward to the sales — they don’t have the emotional incentive to start pressuring reviewers for high scores. Believe me when I say … none of them care, not the same way the developers do. And the developers don’t have the money or the pull to start bribing or threatening the game reviewers.
The worst I’ve gotten from someone in PR was the infamous Jim Redner situation, where he made a rather emotional public threat about blacklisting certain 2/10 reviewers for Duke Nukem Forever. He later apologized and 2K Games distances itself from the outburst. Again, it ended in a rather dreary fashion. Nothing notable happened in the long run. I got pissed at Redner, Redner got humbled, and we all moved on. Because ultimately, a lot of this perceived corruption just isn’t stood for, and most publishers know that blacklisting will just lead to more negative press. As someone at Sega once told me, “If we blacklisted you, you’d just buy the games and trash them that way. What’s the point?”
Then there are the readers themselves. The above video does make a good point about how gamers try and pressure reviewers into satisfying their predetermined notions of what a game numerically deserves. To date, I have had NO publisher ever demand a certain score from me. I’ve lost count of the amount of actual gamers who have done it. Usually they do it while telling me to be more of an “honest journalist.” The fucking irony. If reviewers are rating games too highly — and I think a fair number of high profile games get way too much praise — I’d say it’s a lot more likely that they’re simply trying to give their audiences what they want, and I almost find it hard to be angry at them for tossing out a high score just to avoid the petty backlash and harassment that readers are so happy to dish out these days. It’s not the grinning executives at EA or Activision who are demanding that reviewers sacrifice their integrity — it’s a vocal minority of angry gamers.
There are problems with videogame reviews, certainly. I think some reviewers can give in to hype a bit too much, and fans get way too angry when their tastes aren’t catered to by a particular writer. We risk an industry where 10/10 is considered the “usual” score for a game above a certain budget. I do not mean to imply these problems do not exist, because they do. However, the causes for them are nowhere near as enthralling as you might think. Most positive reviews seem more to be the result of reviewers being gamers, first and foremost, prone to the same over excitement and tendency to overlook flaws as any other fan. And while there have been instances of publishers being a bit sleazy and trying to curry favor, the scope and scale of such incidents, not to mention their regularity, are so small as to be highly inconsistent with the generally dull life of the average reviewer.
It’s flattering that some people think that game reviewing is akin to a deadly spy thriller, full of secrecy and conspiracy, but the simple truth is — it’s not. Most of us do our job like anybody else, and we don’t deserve dramatic Youtube videos made about us. Besides which — writers are inherently egotistical, and your attributing that much importance to what we do only serves to fuel our undeserved arrogance.
Nobody needs game reviewers like me to be more up our own asses than we already are.