On Dec. 20, I published a blog, titled “At Least Now You Know Which Video Game Reviewers Are Sellout Clowns,” about games journalists who’d complied with the studio CD Projekt Red’s non-disclosure agreements limiting how they could cover Cyberpunk 2077 in exchange for early access to what has turned out to be a shamefully broken product. The blog angered a number of readers, including many in games journalism, who felt that I’d failed to account for the constraints and power dynamics of their industry, and in so doing had unfairly attacked powerless writers for systemic issues far beyond their control.
Some of the most pointed and thoughtful criticism came from Heather Alexandra, a former senior writer at Kotaku (and colleague within the various companies that housed both Kotaku and Deadspin during our tenures at those publications) who now works as a content and community manager for the video game developer Double Fine. In a comment under the blog, Heather raised several objections to the article’s portrayal of the games press and the role of NDAs in shaping coverage of games.
In order to get a better understanding of the issue from someone with firsthand knowledge and experience, Samer, who edited the original blog, and I spoke with Heather on a call last Thursday. Our conversation is transcribed below, edited and condensed lightly for clarity.
Samer Kalaf: So just to give a little background as to where your expertise is coming from: Before you were at Double Fine, you were at Kotaku for roughly four years.
Heather Alexandra: Yes, about four years. I started off as a staff writer, and then moved on to a position which was essentially a senior position, but we called it “senior writer and critic,” because, I don’t know, we could. And because my job at that point had largely morphed away from reported pieces and more towards longform cultural stuff, and then also reviews. I was spearheading most of our Triple-A [game] reviews. I think if I was still there, I would have had to have probably done The Last of Us [Part II] or something, which would have been a lot. Then, instead, I switched teams. I went to work for game companies.
SK: For Kotaku, how would reviews be determined? Was it basically you had first—not dibs, but you could choose what you’re doing and whatever you were occupied with, somebody else would take the other stuff after that?
To an extent, I think Kotaku might be a little bit more unique in that aspect. I can’t speak authoritatively to how reviews are handed out at any other place than Kotaku. You could express interest in something, and then very often, too, it was based upon pre-existing familiarity with a series. So I’ll give an example of how that developed: We had a situation when Resident Evil 7 came out, I believe, in 2017, where we didn’t have a lot of people who were really interested in playing a Resident Evil game, if I can be quite honest, and not because they disliked Resident Evil but because a lot of people just weren’t as familiar or comfortable with horror games. So I just volunteered to do that. Then after that, because I already had pre-existing familiarity with modern Resident Evil, that meant following up from there, I did the Resident Evil 2 remake, the Resident Evil 3 remake. I’m sure if there was another Resident Evil game, I probably would do that, too.
There’s pros and cons to that, right? You have people who are very familiar with a series, who can talk about it authoritatively. But sometimes you lose the freshness that comes with a new pair of eyes. What does it mean—and I don’t mean this disrespectfully—but what does it mean to have [former Kotaku editor] Jason Schreier be the person, the only person reviewing Final Fantasy? Well, it means you have somebody very familiar with Japanese role-playing games, speaking very authoritatively, but it means that maybe you don’t have the same freshness that you would get from a new writer, or from somebody who had never played Final Fantasy, or something like that. I think it mostly worked out. But yeah, it was largely due to pre-existing familiarity and sometimes availability, depending on what writers were doing.
SK: Yeah, I could see it being an advantage in terms of familiarity but also a disadvantage in terms of—they’re trying to maybe resist subconsciously comparing it to whatever the best moment in that series was to them. Because I feel like they’ll always hold it up to that ideal.
It really depends on what you want from a review. Reviews are 90 different things at once. They’re part travelogue and part, like, food critic thing, and then also consumer stuff. In the right circumstances, they can be—although they very often are not—actual reportage. It kind of depends on what you need for any different thing, which I think sometimes will affect the author that you choose for any given work as well.
Albert Burneko: It seems like it would also shape who the review can be for. You mentioned the example of Jason reviewing Final Fantasy games. As somebody who’s super into Japanese role-playing games, it may be hard for him—maybe more of a challenge for him, in that case—to write a review that would speak to somebody who, maybe that would be their first Final Fantasy game, or their first Japanese RPG, and they don’t have something to compare it to. Because his review will be full of all this context and nuance that just can’t quite fit in there, in the actual text. Does that make sense?
Yeah, I think games writing is—I won’t say unique. I don’t think anything’s overly unique when it comes to games writing or games in general. But what I do think is that every now and then, there are certain considerations that games writing has, and very often, a lot of places presume that their readers have a very intimate familiarity with either the series that is being discussed, or the news events surrounding a certain game, which I think is maybe not the best way to go about it. Both of you probably know this insofar as all the blogs that have been written over the years, but you have to write presuming that a sizable portion of people who come across your review, or your article, or your reporting are people who have no familiarity with the thing at all. That manifests sometimes in the more dry ways of—that’s one of the reasons that you really just sit down and be like, This is how a battle system works. Or, Here is a brief outline of the plot. You should have those things in your reviews, so that people have touchstones that they can refer to that help them understand what you are talking about.
One thing I will say about games writing is that it’s very easy to get into jargon. There’s tons of weird jargon that you could have for video games about controllers, or interactivity or blah, blah, blah, and you need to—although you might risk alienating some of the people who are very familiar with games—you need to write with an assumption that there’s bound to be somebody reading your review who has never picked up a controller in their life. And that’s a balancing act.
SK: We’re talking right now about the relationship between reviewer and reader. And I think we’ll probably get back to that, too. What Albert was writing about was the relationship between reviewer and studio, and I was interested in getting your thoughts on—from your experience, what is the relationship there?
OK, yeah, I can definitely do that. I do want to say that I’m primarily here as an ex-writer and to an extent, a former colleague, and that the one thing I definitely don’t want to do is I don’t want to speculate too much on any specific decision made by another studio. We can talk about certain decisions, and I might even speak to things that I wish were done differently, but I’m not somebody who is in a position professionally or I think just personally to speculate too much on Why did this company do that? or Why did this company do XYZ? I don’t know if that’s necessarily fruitful. But what I can say is that I can kind of go into embargoes or NDAs or things like that, talk about some things I want to see changed personally—or I would like to see changed if I was still writing—and go from there.
SK: Sure. Yeah. We can get into that.
So I think the reason why I disagreed with some of what you wrote was not because you were incorrect to diagnose a problem. I think you were correct to perceive the existence of a problem, insofar as access journalism just naturally has certain problems. Ultimately, my point of disagreement with the article was that I think you perhaps misidentified the people who have the most control in that situation. And that’s not outlets. I think that’s publishers. I think that’s the people dictating the terms of embargoes, or NDAs.
But before we even go further than that, I want to establish that most times when you’re reviewing a game, you’re never signing an NDA. I can think of, in the course of four years of working at Kotaku, and this is me speaking without even being sure of the complete veracity here, I can think of perhaps one time where I had to sign a document to agree to something. Otherwise, what happens is you’re given a game, and you’re given embargo guidelines. And these guidelines are more like gentlemen’s agreements more than they are anything binding. You can break these things if you want, and you’re not going to get fined thousands of dollars. I think there’s been some reporting saying that some recent games that had used NDAs, there was a threat of monetary, punitive action, if you broke the NDA.
But most of the time, that’s not what’s happening. Most of the time, you’re getting a code and you’re getting a list from Nintendo or someone and it mostly says things like, Hey, after Chapter 6, can you not write about the story twist there? Or if you’re playing like Ghost of Tsushima, you might get something that says, Can you not reveal the existence of the fourth sword style? or whatever. And we abide by those things for two reasons. The first is, quite frankly, that they’re not very intrusive. I’m hard-pressed to think of any embargo condition or request that I received over the course of my work that I found was intrusive. I can think of examples of a game this year where some of the embargo stuff was obtrusive, but I wasn’t working at that point. I will say, and again, I want to be careful when speaking about other studios, but to my understanding, there were a lot of embargoes surrounding what you could discuss for The Last of Us Part II in a way that probably limited reviewers’ abilities to tell folks everything they needed to or to really dive into that game satisfactorily.
Most of the time, it’s not obtrusive. But—there’s the big “but” to that—you are accepting loose guidelines from a corporation, because you just need the continued access. That’s where the problems start to form. I bet you can just feel it in your brain, in terms of—but that’s economic. And that’s where I think the misdiagnosis came, where very few outlets for games coverage these days, that I can think of, have a subscription model, even though many of them used to. So it’s all advertisements. The cost of missing out on early coverage is expensive. And that’s a gross thing to say, but it is a truth, right?
[Editor’s note: In an email after the interview had concluded, Heather referenced the time GameSpot fired editorial director Jeff Gerstmann in 2007 over a low review score given to Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, whose publisher, Eidos, had purchased significant ad space for the game on GameSpot at the time. Heather saw it as a useful example of “how economics can disadvantage writers at even the top levels.”]
So this is, for instance, why I sort of disagreed with this idea in your piece that a writer might opt out of an embargo, buy a game, and then write a review very quickly to kind of compete. Because games are big. Games are very large. Playing 60 hours: It doesn’t sound like labor. When you say, “Hey, I need to play a game,” it doesn’t sound like labor, but it is. Then you have to factor in the writing time on top of that.
I think the biggest issue with embargoes and stuff right now isn’t—I mean, you could say that it’s this fact that you accept it, and you abide to it because of implicit retaliation from a publisher, which we know is a thing that happens because Kotaku had been blacklisted from certain outlets for reporting on leaked, or—allegedly, let me say—but also the thing that I want to see change mostly is I want writers to have more time. I think one of the reasons that we see reviews that are so tilted to one end of the extreme or another is that writers just don’t have time. They come into their reviews really hot, they have really tight embargo times of maybe a week. If you have more than a week, it’s a luxury. Right now, even the biggest games are giving people basically a week. You see review scores or things that feel incongruous—it’s because people are not being given the time either by their editors, quite frankly, or by the constraints of a publisher embargo, to really sit and reflect on a game. That’s one of the things that’s affecting coverage in a way that is unfortunate more than anything else.
AB: To that, it seems as though Kotaku’s practice of embedding a writer with a game over an extended period of time, after its release, both kind of gives readers a fuller look at the game than what you described by this sort of pressure that writers are under to produce quickly, and also maybe frees the reporter a little bit from some of the leverage that the studio otherwise has over them, and over the outlet. Does that seem right?
Yeah, and I don’t want to suggest that the sort of pressures that we’re talking about are pervasive, or active I’ll make you a deal you can’t refuse-type stuff. But there’s that implicit idea of: What does it mean to lose access? Embedding can be a way to fix that, to make sure that you have a writer that maintains contact with the game, especially as we can see with recent games, where situations can change very rapidly after release. Ideally, you also just have enough lead time to give people good reviews. I think it’s very easy for publishers and news outlets to see themselves in competition with each other. To a degree, that’s true in the sense that journalists always have to be in a slightly adversarial relationship with the people that they cover, just in order to maintain a certain degree of honesty. But I think overall, publishers, or at the very least writers—and especially the people who make games, developers, programmers—we want the same thing, which is that we want good reviews, by which I don’t mean, reviews that are flattering. I mean reviews that are honest and well-written.
So what can be done by outlets to make sure that happens? Embedding is part of that, but again, I think more outlets probably need to acknowledge the amount of labor that goes into a review and really give their reviewers time. I would like to see—because we have precedent for certain cases where it’s happened—I would like to see publishers perhaps give, when possible, journalists more time with their games as well.
AB: I had a question about the embargo terms you mentioned. I’m wondering whether, when you were working as a writer, you saw a distinction between the kinds of embargo terms that the readers themselves might see as being in their interest, like the review not spoiling something that in a game, as opposed to a movie, they’re going to be actually doing when they consume this product, like unlocking a certain sword or fighting a certain enemy—the readers might actually have an interest in not knowing that before the game comes out—versus an embargo term like the sort of thing that came up in the discussion of NDAs around Cyberpunk where I don’t think a reader would see that as materially in their interest to have screenshots and recorded gameplay withheld.
Yeah, I think that’s a tricky one. Again, I don’t want to come in here and speculate upon decisions that another studio has made. What I will say is that in terms of limiting people to B-roll, or limiting the type of video footage that can be used, that’s not entirely uncommon. This is not quite the same thing, but when I was reviewing Death Stranding, I believe our stipulation for footage was that you couldn’t show anything after Chapter 4. Now, that’s a massive game where most of the gameplay’s the same, so that doesn’t really matter too much. So very often, when you see things in embargoes that have to do with B-roll, you don’t really pay as much attention to it, because quite frankly, if I was writing—I’ll speak only on my own behalf. If I was writing a review of Cyberpunk, the thing that I wouldn’t be concerned about is B-roll. At least when I would first see that stipulation, I wouldn’t have probably thought too much of it. As to the specifics of your question, I can’t think of a time where I saw anything that I thought, Well, this is clearly to protect a publisher from having certain things known too early that would be unflattering to them.
I think a lot of the terms of embargoes are tied to hype, because hype is incredibly self-sustaining in the game industry. You have this issue where people are really excited for a game and because people are really excited for a game, well, now an outlet needs to cover it. And because an outlet needs to cover it, then they’ll agree to certain terms, regardless of—we can debate whether or not they should have—because they need to get that coverage out, they need to be first, they need to make sure that they can stand on their own two feet. That means that they accept terms that are—embargoes that are short, that lead to people to rush their work, which lead to reviews that perhaps are less considered. I’m not saying this is common, but I am saying that hype sort of self-sustains itself. And to my experience, what goes into an embargo, while some of it is often reasonable, largely preserves that hype cycle more than anything else.
AB: That makes sense.
SK: I was going to ask about pre-release hype and how that—
It’s a problem. It’s an absolute problem. I think the reason I keep on harping on [how] I want writers to have more time or I want embargoes to have more lead time or things like that is because I think there’s economic things that are unfortunate that leave journalistic outlets at a disadvantage in terms of what terms are being accepted, or things like that. I think that’s absolutely true. But I also think that just sub-culturally, gaming is so suffused with hype that things get so large, even before release, that they can’t fail.
We have to remember that we’re talking a little bit about Cyberpunk right now. I don’t want to talk about the quality of Cyberpunk. I haven’t even played the game, so I can’t. But, we have writers who reported on the existence of lights in that game that would trigger seizures. We have a reviewer at GameSpot, Kallie Plagge, who gave it, I believe, a 7 out of 10. Both of those writers were women, and they received intense harassment for covering the game in a way that was just not materially perfect. That harassment didn’t come from publishers. It came from readers. It came from certain parts of the gaming subculture.
I have a friend who has known me ever since I’ve been working at Kotaku, who has heard me talk about review processes, who knows someone—not to pat my own self on the back, but I think I was a pretty honest and pretty ethical individual in the time of my work. They were talking to me the other night, and they said they were mad about Kallie’s review. And that didn’t feel proper to me. That felt like somebody who was doing their job. When you do your job in this industry, very often you’re rewarded with a lot of people telling you that they want you to die or something. And that supremely stinks.
I think there’s so much opacity regarding what goes into games review and games writing, that I still have friends who tell me that they think that reviewers are paid off, that they get money for just doing whatever they want to do. That’s not true at all. There are people on YouTube that can sign ad deals, and that’s unfortunate, and sometimes they don’t disclose it, but nobody’s in a room giving a writer $200 to write a good review of Red Dead [Redemption] or whatever else. That’s just not how it goes. Writers are so economically disadvantaged in this arrangement that they just kind of have to accept the terms that are given. That’s where the imbalance is more than anything else.
AB: You mentioned YouTube, and that’s interesting to me. I was wondering if reviewers who are working in the written word, do they find that they’re sort of competing with YouTube now, just because of how much of games discussion occurs there?
I don’t think there’s as much audience overlap. I think there can be, right? Most readers go to personalities that they trust more than they go to outlets that they like. That’s just not how the model works anymore. So they’ll go to YouTubers they like, or they’ll say, Oh, who’s writing this review? Oh, Jason Schreier is writing this review. OK, well, I like Jason Schreier so I’ll read his review. It tends to be very personality-focused. The difference between YouTube and traditional press is that YouTube is so self-sufficient, in the sense that it’s often just a single individual, which means that there’s pitfalls there.
I think influencers are cool, because you can have very authentic reactions from people who are fans. You can see that, and I think that’s valuable. One of the things I love about the job I do now at Double Fine is getting to—part of what I do is—quite frankly, I’m able to facilitate and give people codes so that they can play games on their YouTube channels and have fun. When done right, that’s perfect. That’s great. That’s a great relationship. But YouTube is this tricky space where people will get offered free stuff. And they’ll take it, whereas if we were at Kotaku, we can’t take free stuff. Are you kidding me? Absolutely not.
So YouTube is this very cool space where you can have a lot of authenticity in ways that I don’t think you can get in writing, and I hope there’s value there. But I think it’s also to a certain extent a less regulated space, which presents its own set of challenges. And it’s also one of the reasons why traditional press is sort of disadvantaged, in the sense that Kotaku can get blacklisted by XYZ place, but a YouTuber, probably not going to happen—unless they do something really egregious on a personal level, would be my guess. I hate the idea that there’s this ecosystem of competition, because I think we all, again, want the same thing, which is able to talk about games honestly, and to do it well. But I think that capitalism just sort of turns everything on its head, right?
AB: Sure. It sounds as though the incentives for YouTubers to participate in the hype cycle would be a lot stronger, because there are fewer ethical constraints kind of holding them back. If they’re getting free—correct me if I’m off base, but it seems as though in the case of a YouTuber who can get free stuff, if they’re reliably a source of gas for the hype cycle, they’re probably going to get more free stuff.
Probably, I would say? Again, I don’t want to speculate on decisions that are being made by studios. I think it’s fair to say that you appreciate folks who are positive, but also, I think that’s a misunderstanding. I’m working at a studio that’s going to release a game next year. I want people to enjoy that game. I want people to love Psychonauts 2. I think the team is working incredibly hard. But if somebody were to review it and give it a low score, so long as they were being honest with us and they weren’t just tearing into it in a mean way and calling people bastards or whatever? I think there’s value in that, too. And I think that the ecosystems of game development, of YouTube, of games writing right now, fundamentally misunderstand the degrees to which they’re not as—there’s this sense of us vs. them on a lot of people’s parts. I saw a major director of a game react negatively to a headline yesterday, which to be fair, I thought was a bad headline.
But this us vs. them nature is very bad. YouTubers can kind of come in and fill that gap. Where there’s a tension between a publisher and traditional press, you can just go straight to a player. I don’t think that’s the right way to do it. I think the mission that I try to uphold, as somebody who is very public-facing and engaging with our own players at Double Fine, is that you just want to facilitate people’s ability to enjoy something and let them do the rest. You don’t do it with an agenda other than, We have cool stuff, let’s share it and let’s go from there. But I don’t think every place probably does that.
SK: This is going back a little bit to talking about the abuse and harassment that some reviewers face, but I remember your article “Games Criticism Is A Kindness,” I think that was one of the last things you wrote at Kotaku. I’m just going to read a small part of it right now: “Video game players are deeply passionate about works they love, as they are seen as validating their passion and investment in the medium. That passion is commendable and understandable but misguided. It only serves to create an ecosystem of fanatics. This is the ecosystem that criticism necessarily opposes.” I think it’s kind of a human—this part is a human reaction in that when you invest emotional or actual currency into something, and someone tells you it sucks, you tend to get defensive. The part where that is beyond the pale is going after that person and sending them GIFs to induce a seizure or death threats or anything like that, obviously.
A question that I’ve had people pose to me a lot—people have asked me plenty of questions about reviewing; I hope nothing I’ve said has been off base today—is how much do you self-select or self-censor? The thing that I tell folks is whether that’s because you are, as a writer, thinking about the response of a corporation, or if you’re thinking about the response of angry readers, I think that that consideration happens, but I think a good writer pushes through it, because that’s the job. The job of a critic is to not just tell people what they want to hear. They need to tell people what they experienced. This is also, for instance, why you could have a review of a game that most people have a bunch of glitches on, and then somebody just doesn’t mention them. It’s because they just didn’t experience them. You’re limited in a review to reporting on what you’ve experienced, which is good and bad. It means that you’re giving a very honest recollection of the thing. Sometimes it means that recollection of the thing is incomplete. You missed a side quest, you didn’t do enough crafting, you didn’t encounter glitches.
After you do the job a while, you just accept the fact that people are going to tell you to kill yourself, which is like the saddest thing that I could say to you today. You just accept that. I mean, y’all get that, too, right? You get that for people when you talk about sports. Part of the truth about being—especially in traditional press, but YouTubers get this, too—is that when you talk about a thing, and people have wrapped up so much of their identity and their lives, and their sense of wellbeing into these products, when you say that they’re less than perfect, people get very upset. I think that’s only gotten worse over the years. There’s a calculus where you maybe rephrase certain things, but I think that if you are withholding certain sentiments, then that would be a problem. I would like to think that people aren’t doing that, though.
AB: You mentioned the possibility of reviewers just not bumping into the glitches that will come up for gamers later once the game is actually available in every format. That made me think about how, in your comment, you mentioned that reviewers of Cyberpunk were given the PC version. And that ended up figuring into CD Projekt’s retrenchment after the game—after all, the controversy was that they had focused so much on delivering a smoothly running PC version and kind of neglected the rest. The thing I was wondering about is: It’s kind of unique to games that they’re released on so many formats simultaneously. There’s not different exotic hardware involved in releasing a movie, or a novel, or an album, the way that there is with games, where just the language is sort of fundamentally different between PCs and Xboxes and so forth, and I’m wondering just what your thoughts are, and how that complicates the work of giving it a review that will be useful to the largest possible readership.
I think you just have to be honest and open, which sounds trite, but what I mean is that you just tell people what you’ve played on. You say, Hey, we played this on PC, and this is what our situation was. Pretty much every place does this. I think it’s rare—again, I don’t want to speculate on the decisions of another studio too much—but I think it’s very rare to have a situation where a game is running so vastly different on different platforms. The last time I can think of a situation maybe comparable to what we are seeing right now with Cyberpunk was that there was an issue with the PC copy of [Batman:] Arkham Knight, where they actually issued refunds, because that port had a great deal of issues. I don’t believe the majority of reviewers played that version. They might not even have at all, because maybe that was a port that came out after. I can’t tell you the timeline on that. But if a company came to me and said, “Hey, we have PC codes, that’s all we have right now,” I think it would be a little bit inconvenient. There were writers who were saying, “Hey, we’re only getting PC codes.” Ethan Gach at Kotaku, my former coworker, was pretty public about the fact that, hey, we’re only getting PC stuff right now. That can mean differences. We’ve seen that that can mean sometimes very stark differences. Ideally, that’s not what happens.
I think it’s hard. You can’t go into a review—the wrong way to look at a review is to say that it needs to cover every damn thing. Which is to say that it needs to cover every platform, that it needs to cover every side quest, that it needs to intensely cover every bit of crafting in the game or whatever. Reviews—I think I mentioned early—are partially travelogue. If you’re writing a travelogue, you write about the paths that you took. Then you can talk about whether or not you liked that trip. Or, on a more extreme example, say you’re a food critic, and you’re given a whole meal, and one of the things comes out burnt. You’re not required to eat the burnt thing, right?
You can just say, “Hey, this thing was a little overcooked, and I didn’t want to engage with it.” In the case of a food critic, that’s treated as acceptable, because it’s common sense. But in the case of a game, you might say, “Hey, I didn’t really do all of these side quests,” or “Hey, I didn’t really feel a need to engage with these special blah blah blahs,” and sometimes people will get very mad at you for that. They’ll get incredibly angry at you for that. I wish that more people understood that review is yes, consumer reporting. It’s partially there to help inform purchasing decisions. But even then, I don’t think that that should be the primary purpose of a game review. That’s where a lot of the tension and disagreement between writers and certain facets of readers comes in. Readers really, really want consumer reporting. They really, really just want to know if this thing is good. Can I buy it? I understand that. People don’t have a lot of money. They want to know what cool world they can escape to and if it’s fun. That’s fine, and you can do that. But also, you need to tell people, Hey, this game wants to tell you about violence, and it fails to do that, or, Hey, this thing is really great and let’s talk about the ways in which it’s really great.
There’s a tension there. Again, I don’t want to comment or speculate on decisions made by another studio. I think it would have been probably better for more platform availability to be something that was taken into consideration for Cyberpunk. I think it’s something that should be taken into consideration for pretty much any game if you’re able to do it. I would love to—with Psychonauts, I don’t want to just be like, “Hey, we have PC codes.” I want to be like, “Hey, here’s your Xbox One code, do you want to try it on PlayStation 4?” I hope that we’re able to do that. I’m not somebody who is in charge of those decisions, but ideally, that’s what I would like to see.
AB: I was wondering, with the gap between how Cyberpunk performs on PC and how it performs on the last-gen consoles—it seems like that was a pretty uniquely large gap in this case. It’s not characteristic of game releases that the version that’s being played by probably the preponderance of gamers is all but unusable and there’s another one that’s great. I’m wondering if you think that there might be any possibility of a change going forward, where reviews might—where publications might take the stance toward something that only getting the ability to test it out on one platform out of five or six means that they can’t say definitively that they’ve played the authentic version of the game.
Well, as a game critic, I could lose my mind trying to figure out what the authentic version of the game is. Is it the unpatched version, is it the final Ultimate Edition? I think the solution there just again becomes, Hey, this is our PC review or, Hey, let’s really disclose the fact that we didn’t have access to certain things. Some places, what they did after this is that they made it very clear—they said, Hey, this is our PS4/Xbox review, and the score will be different. Unfortunately, those things had to come after launch, because there was no other way of getting access to the game, except for it to release commercially. But I think you might see outlets that might do that sort of thing more often.
What you won’t see is [where] outlets all get together and say, “We’re only getting access to one thing. Let’s all just not take this embargo.” I see a lot of people who wax very philosophical about, “Why do outlets not just do XYZ thing together?” The answer is money. Because you could have 10 people in a room, all the EICs who say, “You know what, we’re not going to do this this time.” And one of them will do it, just because it’s advantageous. If there was ever a situation egregious enough for people to really come together, to maybe not do what a publisher says, it would need to be union-driven. It would need to be something driven by cooperation between guilds, or things like that. It’s not something that can just sort of happen.
I might be spinning the wrong yarn here, but it was, I believe—wasn’t it the LA Times that was barred from covering Disney or something for a while? They were barred from something, and a lot of other places stood up and said, Well, then we’re just not going to cover your stuff. We don’t have that in the games industry, because we have had instances where outlets have been blacklisted and other outlets did nothing. That’s just a truth. That is just the truth of it. That’s probably because the market is so precarious. Outlets just can’t afford to skip out, and that’s again where the power imbalance tends to be found.
SK: You were right: The LA Times was blacklisted from press screenings, and then they reversed the decision.
Yeah, I don’t think you would get that in games writing at all for like nine different reasons, partially because collective action stuff in the games writing industry is still limited in its understanding of what it can achieve. Which isn’t to say that the places that are unionized are doing a bad job. They’re doing fine. But it’s that—if IGN somehow was blacklisted by Blah Blah Blah, I don’t think other places would say in solidarity, “Well, then we’re not going to cover Blah Blah Blah’s games.” I just don’t see it happening, which is a little disappointing.
SK: Is there anything else that you wanted to say that we didn’t touch on?
I think a big issue is that people just don’t understand what goes into game review processes. The thing that got me was that New York Times piece that said, Well, normally people are given months in advance. No. [laughs] I mentioned it in the comments of the article, which was—I can think of one time where reviewers were given months in advance for a game, and that was Persona 5, a game which is, even on a casual playthrough, anywhere from 80 to 100 hours. Sega Atlus did what I think was a very smart—both in a business-sense thing and also what I think is a fairly ethical thing—which was to give our viewers a lot of time. By giving reviewers a lot of time, it made sure that they could explore that game comprehensively, which only meant giving reviewers more time to appreciate what went into that game, to really experience it in multiple different ways. It allowed them to be comprehensive, and because they were allowed to be comprehensive and proceed at their own pace, regardless of whether or not you like Persona 5—maybe you’re somebody who doesn’t even like Persona 5—I think there’s no disagreement in my mind that the process that writers were allowed to engage in for that review process was good and proper.
Again, the thing I want to see more is just giving people more time, because I think it leads to better reviews. I think it leads to better information for players. I think it honestly leads to better relationships between writers and publishers. I would like to see that be normalized. But I also acknowledge that making games is a miracle: Games are made of spaghetti and bullshit. It’s amazing that any game gets made. Sometimes you cut it close, and that can’t be avoided. We’ve had instances in the past where publishers have gone above and beyond the call of duty, and it has only just led to better work, writers and workers that were treated better, and I think that would be a great standard to really aim for, even if it might be difficult.