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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The video game review process is broken. It’s bad for readers, writers and games.

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What’s the point of a review? No less than to answer the weighty question of how people ought to spend their limited time on this Earth.

That’s some task, and different reviewers approach it in different ways, though in writing about video games there are two main schools of thought. Some writers attempt to give readers a broad picture, weighing a title’s gameplay, story, stability, features — or lack thereof — and the number of hours a player could foreseeably invest in the game. (Here we return to the language of spending time.) Others endeavor to enlighten readers, unlocking new or instructive ways to understand a game. But both of these approaches are hurt by the way video game reviews are done these days.

In advance of a game’s release, media outlets are usually granted early access to the title alongside an embargo agreement, which, if agreed to, specifies when an outlet can publish its coverage. Embargoes can also delineate what details are off limits; some developers, for example, will request that plot twists and endgame content be kept out of reviews. (We’ve made public note of these restrictions when relevant). But even as games have ballooned in size, taking progressively more time to beat, those timing restrictions haven’t necessarily grown to accommodate that shift.

I played 25 hours of “Far Cry 6” in the six days between receiving the game and the embargo lifting. In that time, I cleared roughly a third of the game’s map, though that likely amounts to less than a third of the game’s story. Admittedly, I played at a more leisurely pace than many other reviewers (surely I could have squeezed in 50 hours of “Far Cry 6” if I really tried). I frequently paused to work, eat, exercise and attend to other obligations. In other words, I played the game the way any normal person would — and as a result, had nowhere near enough experience to evaluate the game fully at the specified time the embargo lifted.

Review in progress: ‘Far Cry 6’ is a glitchy simulation that’s too big to wrangle

My co-worker, Jhaan Elker, received a code for “Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl” less than a day before the game released to the public. Similarly, I had 3½ days to play “Deathloop” for review, and I could never shake the feeling that some of my frustrations with it were born of that restrictive timeline. Any gamer will identify with the feeling of needing to put down the controller and return to a game the next day. Reviewers aren’t afforded that luxury.

As a result, the overwhelming majority of video game reviews are written in a burst, immediately following a marathon session with the game. For every prestige, 5,000-word review that lands a week after a game’s release, 25 more are cobbled together in a frenzy with the goal of hitting the embargo date, which is the same for every outlet. Vanishingly few reviewers command an audience that will treat their work as appointment reading. As such, most writers are at the mercy of Google’s search engine, and time their work to the peaks at which people are seeking out reviews. Take an extra day to polish your prose, and you’ve given up pageviews to your competitors. Google’s search engine takes a lot of factors into account, but I doubt it has any perspective on the artfulness of a much-agonized-over introductory paragraph. The system rewards speed.

Does that approach benefit anyone? A cynical reader might say it serves a game’s PR apparatus. In some cases, this compressed schedule leaves reviewers with too rosy an outlook on a title — especially titles that have the benefit of polish, or whose astonishing qualities require little unpacking. But everyone else ends up worse off. The current regime is bad for writers crunching under a deadline, not to mention the harassment they might face if they get something wrong. It’s bad for readers, too, if the reviews they turn to are written by someone playing at a completely different pace, whose objective is to get through the game rather than to enjoy it.

Restrictive embargo timelines used to invite scrutiny. They were the mark of a bad game, one that the publisher was trying to sneak past reviewers into the hands of some saps too hyped up to do their due diligence as consumers. But games have changed since then. Games are longer, and those that tend to invite critical discourse are often the longest and most burdened with content. Some games can be played indefinitely; the recent vogue for games-as-a-service is hardly behind us. These changes make the timelines around embargoes even more onerous.

With the rise of streaming platforms, it has become conventional wisdom that the speed at which viewers watch a TV show changes how it’s perceived. Those who followed “Breaking Bad” on TV, for example, saw antihero Walter White’s descent into evil in slow motion compared to those who binged on Netflix. In a recent New York Times Magazine essay, the editor Willy Staley persuasively argues that millennials who binge “The Sopranos” can more easily discern the characters’ flaws — flaws that their boomer parents never picked up on.

Review: ‘Deathloop’ is an imperfect ode to games in 2021

So what of games? Surely compressing an experience that most players will have over the course of several weeks and even months into three days — tied to a looming deadline, no less — will change the valence of the experience. The levels in “Deathloop” are artfully constructed references to specific time periods and historic trends. But as I sped through the title, I didn’t have the opportunity to consider those finer details — adding another point of frustration. So, was the game well served by its roughly three-day review period? The profile of a default gamer is a person in their 30s or 40s who buys two or three games each year, into which they sink innumerable hours. Is that reader well served by a review written under the conditions outlined above?

Why not just publish after the embargo? The answer is deceptively simple: Reviewers want people to read their work. Excluding some outliers, the way the Internet works is that a vast majority of people arrive at an article via search. This makes intuitive sense: People seeking a specific thing — in this case, reviews of a particular title — will turn to a search engine, the best way for them to assess their options at a glance. But interest peaks around a game’s release, which traditionally comes a day or two after reviews drop. You might write the most thoughtful, measured evaluation of a game. If the review arrives past that peak in search interest, though, it risks finding virtually no readership. In journalism, the answer to the thought experiment about whether a tree falling in a forest makes a sound if nobody is around to hear it is a resounding, “No.”

Is there a good reason for the system in place? I’ve never seen one given. It’s possible that developers may still be polishing the game, or in the case of multiplayer-first titles, servers may not be ready. Bigger games demand more work (often punishingly so) and the turn to always-online social gaming experiences relies heavily on all sorts of other dependencies: servers, code bases, platforms and third-party services all working in tandem. It’s a lot to wrangle, and it doesn’t seem to be working for developers either.

The system in place is bad for reviewers. It’s bad for readers. And it’s bad for games. In college, an art professor of mine remarked during a museum tour that one could conceivably spend an entire day considering just one work of art. Critics and casual observers alike have argued for decades that games are, in fact, art. But more than that, games are vast museums. Every in-game vista, narrative and mechanic is the work of one or many artists — and each is potentially worthy of examination on those terms.

Now, imagine speedrunning a museum visit, and being asked afterward to explain the merits of the gallery’s collection. Does it seem like what we’re doing is sensible?

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