There’s a pattern surrounding the impending release of major games and you might only notice it if you follow a bunch of game journalists on social media. Secretive screenshots without context, allusions to playing things that they can’t talk about, and a whole lot of wink-wink-, nudge-nudgery that tends to make others jealous. Then a deluge of early reviews hit the web once the embargo is over–usually at some inane time like 3 am–and everyone forgets all about it until the next game. It’s happening again today as the Ghost of Tsushima review embargo is announced ahead of its July 17 release date, outlets receive their early review copies, and people post seemingly-smug pictures of the game’s start menu screen to confirm they are playing it early. The cycle starts anew and folks get snippy. Well, I’m here to tell you: When it comes to early coverage, embargoes, and Ghost of Tsushima, it’s just a start screen and nothing more.
I have it.
I’m playing it.
I’m reviewing it.
— Greg Miller (@GameOverGreggy) June 30, 2020
If you’re wondering why this is all note-worthy it’s because of the perceived line that separates fans and game journalists. Being a hobbyist industry, gaming has long suffered the problem that, in reality, there isn’t any special set of skills required to cover video games. This was far more debatable back in the early magazine era of games coverage in the ’90s and early ’00s, when cringe-worthy writers would write such captivating coverage as “Girls think controllers are icky and should stick to Dance Dance Revolution” and A 1997 piece in the game magazine PC Zone by eventual Black Mirror creator Charlie Booker, who wrote “The problem with Quake is that you need to use both hands to play it. Which doesn’t leave a hand free for drinking and smoking. It’s things like that, that turn women away [from gaming].”
The point being is that there was a turn at some point from games writing being more by an everyman, someone who could just be your dumb buddy sitting next to you and talking about how we could actually be living in The Matrix, like, for real, man. Eventually, that turn became more about critique and hard news, like the kind many of us have degrees for. However, the impression has long stuck that anyone can spit out 900 words about “game good” or “game bad” and call it a day. That impression has led to a generation of games fans who look at professional writers as nothing more than whiny babies with their noses in the air, being given games for free and still just complaining all the time.
But I’m here to tell you as a writer with a decade of experience, approaching certain games from the angle of a journalist trying to get the job done has more than ruined my experience with some of my favorite titles. So, if you feel the urge to get salty because a bunch of game journos are vague-tweeting about how they have Ghost of Tsushima early, I’m here to tell you that if you’re really a fan then you don’t want to experience games the way we often have to in order to get coverage out and on time. Our own Editor-In-Chief Chandler Wood had some really smart things to say earlier today about the perception of getting things early in regards to Ghost of Tsushima, found below.
Today’s games Twitter discourse is apparently the “I have the game menu screen” embargo.
Here’s my take you didn’t ask for:
It helps us promote that we have content coming up. People who know and follow me or PSLS know that we’ve got #GhostofTsushima coverage incoming.
— Chandler Wood (@FinchStrife) June 30, 2020
Here’s the first major hurdle: More outlets than not by a large margin don’t pay their reviewers for time played. This has been my experience with literally every writing gig I’ve ever had, including my current job as a print columnist for a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper. I’m playing the games I review and write about on my own time, which means time away from my family that is also usually on a ticking clock. This is easier for some games than others. One of my first major early embargo reviews was getting Fallout 4 a week before release. I also had pneumonia at the time, not to mention that there wasn’t a strategy guide or tips provided. So, feeling literally like death and working to just beat the main campaign and not even considering I still had to write about the thing, I trudged on at all hours of the night trying to complete the game.
It sucked, and I won’t lie: That experience did color my impression of the game. Its bugs and glitches were far more noticeable and, in general, I was leaning into being harsher on it then I might have been otherwise. I certainly didn’t have fun, and that sucked as a gamer who considers Fallout: New Vegas to be one of my favorites of all-time. And that story is pretty standard across the industry. It’s a lot of late nights, ignoring friends and family, and in general, crawling through the proverbial mud–and this is all before you even get to the multiple revisions and edits that come along with writing massive, 1,500+ word reviews.
It’s not always a fun time, but it’s so very necessary. I’d be lying if I didn’t say there wasn’t some small thrill from getting to play big releases early, but that wears off the minute you get the game in front of you and realize “Crap, now I have to do the thing.” The early embargo isn’t just about a race to what outlet can get its review out first or one writer bragging about playing a game before others. It’s about getting the most concise information to our readership as early as possible so that you, the readers, don’t have to go in blind on a purchase you might otherwise regret.
And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t occasionally feeling some FOMO when I see other writers posting pictures of their early game acquisitions like Gollum screeching about “My Precious,” but it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. That’s the tradeoff for getting these games early. It’s not just a digital wang-measuring contest about who gets what before everybody else, we’re also ruining a little bit of the experience for ourselves so that the people that trust us for our opinion aren’t led astray.
But, hey: That’s the job. Someone’s gotta do it. Let it be us and try not to sweat the start screens along the way.