Review Embargoes: The Subtle Straitjacket
How reviewer's guides and embargoes are stunting the growth of games criticism
I'm sorry to report that General Karn is dead. I'm sorry not because I'll particularly miss General Karn - he's a vicious war criminal who rides around on the back of a giant monster and frankly deserved everything he got - but because I'm not supposed to report his demise at all.
General Karn is the villain of Gears of War: Judgment, and his fate is one of seven items deemed off limits by Microsoft in reviews of the game. I'm not entirely sure why this is considered a spoiler worth protecting. It certainly won't come as a surprise that in the game's climactic battle players are expected to shoot both Karn and his monstrous mount repeatedly until they die, but a spoiler it apparently is and one that Microsoft felt important enough to pro-actively fence off from critics before fingers touched keyboard.
"We take it as gospel that embargoes are important things and that we must abide by them under fear of...what exactly?"
It's just the latest headscratcher from the prevalent yet little discussed practice of "reviewer's guides", those polite but firm PR missives that inform those of us who write about games where our indelicate syllables are allowed to tread.
Let's be clear: I'm not singling Microsoft out for this. Rare is the major release that doesn't come with some kind of PR guidance these days, drawing a barrier of red ink around the things we're not allowed to talk about, nudging us towards preferred talking points such as marketable new features or openly insisting we sign contracts binding us to specific review conditions.
Here's the surprising truth: we know how to do our jobs. The popular image of the games critic is still one of nerdy amateurs, slick with fanboy flopsweat and palpitating at the thought of getting paid to play games, spurting their half-baked thoughts across whatever blog or content aggregator will have them. And, okay, fair enough, that does happen.
But the vast majority of the specialist press is made up of mature, experienced professionals who take our jobs - frivolous though they may be in the grand scheme of things - seriously enough to think and care about what we write.
It's a subtle kind of straitjacket, a far cry from the sort of cash-in-envelopes strong-arming that many erroneously think greases the wheels between media and publishers. That doesn't mean it's always a good idea, however. Few would want to navigate the PR fallout that followed the release of Sony's early PS3 exclusive, Lair, when developer Factor 5 sent a lavish reviewer's guide to the press after the dragon-based shooter had already attracted negative coverage. Under those circumstances, the intent behind such material is in plain sight. "You're playing it wrong," is the implicit message, which rather ignores the fact that if a game needs special documentation to draw attention to its highlights, maybe those highlights aren't so special after all. Rather than making reviewers reappraise Lair's slender charms, the action merely drew attention to its flaws.
"When a publisher tells us how to review a game they're stepping beyond their boundaries and making an editorial decision on our behalf"
So when a publisher tells us how to review a game, insisting we're not allowed to mention anything that happens after Level 3 or that entire characters must remain off the table for criticism, they're stepping beyond their boundaries and making an editorial decision on our behalf. That's unacceptable. "Thou shalt not spoil the ending" is one of the key commandments for any critic of the arts, but it's not up to the PR department to tell us where the line is drawn. If I were to decide that the fate of General Karn is important enough to mention - or even basis enough for the entire review - that's between me and my editor.
As patronising as reviewer's guides can be, they're nothing next to the inexplicable lunacy of embargoes. Perennially unpopular, yet rarely commented on publicly, I've yet to find anyone who can adequately explain what the benefit of these archaic chokeholds is. Certainly, there's absolutely no benefit to the media outlets that abide by them. Publishers get all their coverage in a neatly timed package, maximising the profile of their game on the date they want, while websites end up splitting their audience as the biggest feature of the day becomes the one literally everyone else is running at the same time. It's madness.
I certainly don't hold publishers and their PR representatives responsible for this state of affairs. Much as we journalists would like to believe the role of a PR is to help us get access to the materials we need, their top priority is to make sure that the product they're handling is represented in the manner their employer wants. It's hard to blame them for trying to shape what we can say and when we can say it. That's what they're paid for.
What's shocking is how readily we, as a supposedly independent media, go along with it. We take it as gospel that embargoes are important things and that we must abide by them under fear of...what exactly? We dutifully run through the new features, helpfully bullet-pointed in press releases and underlined in reviewer's guides. It's as if we've all been bamboozled by Derren Brown, a simple yet binding "would you kindly?" request so effective that Bioshock's Andrew Ryan must surely be nodding in approval.
I suspect this is partly down to the uncertain nature of games criticism in the first place. It has always been a discipline caught awkwardly between consumer journalism ("Does this product work?") and arts criticism ("Does this piece work creatively?"), and the temptation has always been to seek the familiar safety of the former rather than risk splashing into the uncharted intellectual waters of the latter.
There are, at least and at last, signs of resistance. Time was, breaking an embargo meant a publication jumping the gun and putting a review live ahead of time in a bid to grab the first exhilarating rush of clicks. Increasingly, we're seeing sites ignoring embargoes in the opposite direction, delaying their coverage until they're ready to publish on their own terms, thank you very much.
Edge and Eurogamer didn't publish their SimCity reviews until over a week after the game's disastrous launch. Videogamer.com was late publishing its Tomb Raider review, and openly told readers it was because it couldn't agree terms with publisher Square Enix for early access to the game. GameSpot opted to publish a first impressions piece rather than rush its review of Gears of War: Judgment.
"The overly chummy relationship between the two sides of the fence often masks a prickly undercurrent, an innate distrust, that serves neither party all that well"
I'm certainly not suggesting that the press should give the finger to publishers and run amok, but that the overly chummy relationship between the two sides of the fence often masks a prickly undercurrent, an innate distrust, that serves neither party all that well. We're not writing for an ignorant audience. Our readers know about embargoes, they often know when those embargoes are, and the very mechanical routine of it all provides fertile soil for rumour and conspiracy to take root. A late embargo means the game is crap and the publisher is protecting its pre-orders. Positive reviews delivered on-time are viewed with suspicion. If abiding by the rules benefits nobody, then the rules need to change.
The solution is simple. The vast majority of console reviews these days are written based on boxed, finished promo copies of games anyway. All the context we need should be there. Send the games over when they're ready and leave us to it. Trust us to experience that game on our own terms, write about it accordingly and publish when we have something worth saying. Please don't tell us, however politely, that certain aspects of the creative process are not to be discussed because it doesn't fit in with the marketing plan. Please don't assume to set our deadlines for us.
You'll still get the coverage you need, but you'll also get more thoughtful, more insightful criticism. Gaming won't get its own Pauline Kael or Lester Bangs until we stop treating reviews as a product, a part of the PR mix, and start seeing them as an end in themselves. Interesting criticism sparks debate, not about scores but about the art itself. It helps us find new angles, new subtexts, new themes which in turn shape the way we view the next work to come our way. We are all - writers, designers and gamers alike - being undersold by the current system, which locks writing about games into dusty old boxes that are no longer relevant.