Judgments cast before they'd been adequately weighed; words sold before they’d been properly valued; shallow opinions that should have been presented as the first word in a conversation but were dropped with the clacking gavel pound of a conclusion. Yeah, every writer has regrets.
Four weeks ago in this publication I referred to Grand Theft Auto IV’s depiction of immigrants as being more nuanced and sympathetic than that demonstrated by the exquisite Baltimore-set television drama, The Wire.
The exact words were: “[Niko Bellic’s] portrayal should do more to warm viewers to illegal immigrants than any of the (nevertheless awesome) characters in, say, the culturally-acclaimed TV series, The Wire.”
While it seems like a harmless enough statement it was an idiotic comparison considering the heavyweight dramatic nature of the television series and the shits-and-giggles, tongue-in-cheek parody of the video game.
But what’s really nagged and irritated me over the following weeks is that, with a little distance and perspective, the bold proclamation was so obviously made, like so many from within our industry, with the aim of elevating video games to the respectability of more established media via bald association.
The opinion piece was written following a short weekend's playing of the game just prior to its release and, as I’ve played on through the rest of the story, the fault lines in that specific claim have become ever more apparent. While I adore the slow pacing of the first few hours, the way Nico starts off on the straight and narrow and is dragged into the shadows of the American Dream by forces of poverty and necessity, the game soon enough swings into full adolescent-posing-as-adult narrative fizz.
There’s nothing particularly unusual or wrong with that, especially when sat alongside Hollywood’s output, but claiming it has anything particularly meaningful to say about the immigration issue is stretching the game beyond its purpose.
More interesting than this whiny narcissism are the forces that brought about my (and ten thousand other professional) snap judgments of the game.
In the weeks prior to GTA IV’s release, Rockstar made promises that print and online publications would receive early review code so that they might fully ingest and digest Liberty City in order to deliver mature and balanced opinions on its day of launch.
In reality, this was not the case, with precious few publications getting to spend prolonged time with the game ahead of release. The first review of the game came from the UK’s Official Xbox magazine bearing the worrying caveat “based on unfinished code”.
Eurogamer, wise to the fact promises of AAA title retail code ‘a week before release’ are rarely upheld, arranged to play through the game over a period of days in Rockstar’s offices instead (along with a couple of other UK publications). From speaking to other editors (some of high profile titles) this was not an opportunity offered to all and, when review code failed to turn up the week before release, many were left panicking about how they were going to serve their readers in a timely manner with any integrity.
The reason for the withholding of review code was, according to Rockstar, a result to the game’s leaking onto the internet seven days before its release. Speaking to the company at the time it was claimed that this leak came from an unscrupulous journalist.
As a result, there was a lock down on all review code: everybody would get their copy just one day before the game’s release, and, despite the wonky logic (after all the game had already leaked to those with the capability to play it so why punish the many for the indiscretion of the few) there were to be “no exceptions, no arguments”.
At best then, by the time the game had been played, copy written and subbed ready for the Tuesday morning, most journalists (both in the UK and the US) had played for only a few hours, experiencing just a fraction of the game’s content, a situation testified to by various admissions in professional reviews.
Time Magazine dubbed their piece Grand Theft Auto IV: The 6.24% Review while the Associated Press reviewer, Lou Kesten, admitted to having spent only spent eight hours with the game.
Slate Magazine’s excellent Chris Baker admitted he only had chance to ‘scratch the surface of the game’ going on to say in a comment on N'Gai Croal’s Level Up blog: "I couldn't even attempt to be definitive…it was kinda liberating”.
The BBC noted the phenomenon saying: "Most reviewers were not sent advance copies of the game, and instead had to attend Rockstar offices or sit in booked hotel rooms to play the game,” where Rockstar could keep an eye and some pressure on them. While these few admitted the partial and necessarily subjective nature of their reviews, how many passed off their impressions as being definitive of the whole?
Rockstar aren't the first ones to handle big title reviews in this way. Nintendo’s recent ploy, in the UK at least, is to require reviewers to visit the ‘Nintendo Flat’ in London, a place where one can book slots to review titles for a period of time (depending on what slots are left over from the prioritised lifestyle mags and newspapers) from the comfort of one of the company’s armchairs.
For the reviewer it’s an inconvenience at best, at worst a pernicious and blatant attempt to colour their opinion in as short an amount of time as possible. Halo 3, Super Mario Galaxy, Mario Kart Wii: all big name titles (in both size and stature) only supplied to many games reviewers a few days before their release.
But what’s the benefit to a PR or publisher in holding back code from non-exclusive reviewers till the eleventh hour, especially if the game is hotly anticipated and good? In part the practice has been fueled by the internet, where there are simply too many websites about video games. The competition to be first to ‘print’ with a review, while always a consideration in magazine publishing, is exacerbated through the global competitive nature of the net. In this environment many gaming website publishers are willing to publish a final review even if it’s only based on very tentative impressions of a small portion of the game.
After all, the effectiveness of a ‘buyer’s guide’ review is reduced the closer its publication gets to the game’s release. Any reviews appearing a few days and weeks after a game’s release is almost completely superfluous, thanks to the industry and its consumer’s obsession with the next thing, the next thing, the next thing.
By withholding code until a late stage then (be it through design or ineptitude), a PR can force a journalist to rely on marketing hype and information to fill the gaps in their knowledge of the game when writing copy. In this way, control of the critical reaction is shifted back to the PR in a subtle and (arguably) legitimate way.
Add into this the journalist’s natural inclination to want to say something, anything, that will distinguish his/ her copy and opinion from everybody else and you start to get bold proclamations being made and unlikely comparisons being drawn. The pressure to say something, anything serious and unique to distinguish your piece from ten thousand others that litter the Internet is heavy. There are too many games journalists tussling over too few opinions with too little time to make them and the PRs have learned to turn that to their advantage.
What’s interesting is the recent rise in a different approach to reviews, one that isn’t dependent on their being published on the day of a game’s launch and that doesn’t doesn’t come with a score attached. The staggering popularity of Ben ‘Yathzee’ Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation videos (which, according to Alexa.com have booted host site The Escapist’s profile up several internet leagues), are almost always focused on games that the viewers have already experienced first hand post-release.
Of course, its popularity has been driven by excellent knob gags but behind the stickman puerile humor there is something more serious and profound going on. People might come for the cock jokes but they stay for the critical chutzpah that props them up. It mightn’t look like it in the classical sense, but Zero Punctuation is one of the first pieces of games criticism, as opposed to reviewing, to hit the mainstream.
A more serious example is Edge magazine’s excellent monthly ‘Time Extend’ feature, which attempts a more orthodox approach to criticism, placing a game in its wider context, drawing out its long terms achievements, identifying its aims and its various success and failures in those goals (disclosure: I'm a long time Edge contributor who has penned numerous Time Extends).
Perhaps it’s time for the industry to treat reviews as snapshot buying guides, inconclusive first words in the conversation, and to nurture the more fertile and under-populated ground for more helpful and insightful long-view criticism in the weeks and months following a game’s release.