The world of videogame reviews is perpetually wreathed in chaos. Controversy surrounds it at every turn, and it would appear we can’t have a single game review turn up without some manner of complaint, outraged scream of bias, or accusation of shady business.
The latter is a subject that causes much concern, and with good reason. As the reviews editor for Destructoid.com, I’ve come to feel that a review is duty-bound to do right by its reader, to provide an insightful, factual, and above all, honest assessment of an expensive videogame purchase. If a review cannot be trusted, then what’s the point of it even existing?
So, it never fails to surprise and disappoint me when an outlet boasts of a “world exclusive” videogame review. To me, there is nothing that screams “do not trust a single word you’re about to read” more than a review that preens its feathers over how exclusive it is.
The very concept of review exclusivity does a complete disservice to consumers and goes against the idea of a review’s existence in the first place. An exclusive news item, I understand. That almost guarantees you’ll get your article sourced from other publications, and you’ll get to feel like a journalist for a day. An exclusive review doesn’t generate link-in hits, and considering even late reviews generate huge amounts of traffic on their own, I don’t know how stopping other outlets from running their reviews actually benefits anybody in the long run. But these grievances are not germane to the issue that lies at the core of this – exclusive reviews simply cannot be trusted. I’m not one of those morons who scream “BIAS” or “MONEYHAT” over every little review, and I would never go so far as to outright accuse another reviewer of accepting some kind of dodgy deal behind closed doors. However, that’s exactly what an exclusive review says.
An exclusive review says that something has been brokered. It says that the publisher knew of and approved the content of that review before it went live. It says that the reviewer is quite happy to become a PR thrall and a glorified advertiser just so he gets the glory of shouting “first” like a dimwitted forum poster.
Whether it’s true or not doesn’t matter. It’s all about appearances, and an exclusive review gives the appearance of something unethical transpiring in the shadows. Even if a reviewer is as honest as the day is long, the very fact that his review is up before everybody else’s makes it look like he cut a deal and that colors the entire review. I simply can’t trust a review which was obviously mutually agreed upon by the writer and the game’s publisher.
It’s sad because, when it comes down to it, I think the industry is far less cloak-and-dagger than some members of the community public like to think it is. Truth is, most of us aren’t being paid off by game publishers, and the vast majority of us are normal gamers, not sinister conspirators from Hell’s obsidian lakes. The moneyhatting and the blood-inked contracts are very rare, but it’s stuff like review exclusivity that keeps the myth alive. I’m willing to bet at least half of the exclusive reviews were agreed upon without the invocation of a Faustian pact. However, the impression they give is far more inauspicious than the reality most likely is. I’ve been offered exclusive and early reviews in the past. One PR representative for an unnamed game – one that might involve men in tight pants hitting each other – stated that if the review was above a 9.0, it could go up earlier.
To me, having a review that doesn’t look bought is more important than having a review go up first. Being first means nothing. You might scrape a few extra views from fans of the game, but those fans are likely going to check out all the reviews anyway, so those hits would have come regardless. To me, it says that you agreed with a publisher to give a game a high score before you even got your copy, and in exchange for little more than the opportunity to wave your dick around for a day and feel like you’re important over something that everybody will have been forgotten about in a month’s time.
Obviously, there are exceptions to the rule. Game Informer’s exclusive review of Aliens vs. Predator, for instance, awarded the game a rather dismal 5.75/10, and although I could question the absurdity of having a score that ends in “.75”, it does show that exclusivity doesn’t always guarantee a high score. But then when IGN busts out a 10/10 for Grand Theft Auto IV and says that its story deserves an Oscar nomination, that “world exclusive” tag looks just a little suspect. For an example of just how suspicious an exclusive review can get, one has to cast his or her mind back to the mid nineties. You may recall, if you can unlock the part of your brain that shields you from extreme mental trauma, a little fighting game called Rise of the Robots. The game is often held up as an example of one of the worst games of all time, and it certainly is the worst fighter that ever made it to store shelves.
It was critically panned … except by those magazines that had been granted “exclusive” early reviews. Those select mags gave the game much higher scores, despite the fact that anybody who bought the game cried themselves to sleep for a week. One reviewer was even quoted on the back of the box as saying, “You’ll wish all games were this good,” with a rating of 93% slapped next to it. Looking back, it’s pretty embarrassing for any reviewer to have his or her name associated with a positive Rise of the Robots review, and the fact that the positive buzz came from early write ups only damns them further.
Can exclusives really be trusted after that? And that was in 1994!
Whatever the final result, a publisher had to have agreed to the exclusive, and publishers don’t do things for free. Whether it’s advertising space, a top billing, or the guarantee of a high score, there are expectations in place, and by accepting an exclusivity offer, I think it says a lot about you as a writer. Unless you’re Game Informer and you’re reviewing Aliens vs. Predator, apparently.
Nobody is perfect, and it is unrealistic to expect that reviewers can always be unblemished bastions of journalistic brilliance that never make mistakes. I’ve made my share of mistakes with reviews, and I sometimes think we as an industry can be far too worried about what publishers may think of low scores, or are too scared of our own readers and wish not to offend them by criticizing a major release. Much of the time, I try not to take the industry too seriously, and I can brush off some of the review business’ issues as simple mistakes.
Something like this, however, really needs to be looked at and questioned. As reviewers, we certainly need to ask ourselves if being “first” is worth looking like a lackey of the marketing department. If you wrote a review that was completely honest, I think you have even more of a reason not to belittle your work by slapping on that exclusive tag.
In fact, I don’t even blame those who make the offers. They are public relations representatives. It’s their job to get a game as much exposure as possible and to help get things sold. A publisher needs to sell games to survive, and I’m not so naive as to blame them for trying to maximize their good publicity. I’ve never thought less of a PR rep who makes an offer, but I can’t help cast a suspicious eye upon anybody who takes them up on it.
I need to stress once again that I am not accusing reviewers of willingly sacrificing their integrity for exclusivity. There are people on NeoGAF and News4Gamers who can do that far better than I can and with a far more liberal use of the caps lock. I hate that so many people are more content to accuse reviewers of being bad at their jobs rather than accept that, sometimes, not everybody agrees over what makes a good videogame. It is frustrating that we’ll never move beyond that, while reviewers themselves aren’t helping the situation.
What I am suggesting is that perhaps they are devaluing their words and diminishing their own profession by happily radiating the appearance of a bought review. Reviewers ought to have more respect for themselves and their readers for that.
Jim Sterling gives the concept of exclusive reviews a 4/10.