Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Duke Nukem’ Forever: Seeing Redner

Another post about a game I’m not playing. Aside from obviously being on the drugs, I can also promise (hopefully) that this will be the last post on DNF for a while. Once again my focus is less on the game itself and more about the circumstances that surrounded its release. Specifically in this case I’d like to talk a little about the reaction and public debacle that the Redner Group caused.

For information about the Redner DNF incident, there are any number of articles written online, but I found this one to be both succinct and a little more personal than a lot of the others: http://arstechnica.com/gaming/news/2011/06/duke-nukems-pr-threatens-to-punish-sites-that-run-negative-reviews.ars

Now, as everyone has made note of mentioning, getting blacklisted is nothing new. In fact the blacklists have probably existed ever since reviewers began their work. Are they a fair tool? Not under most general circumstances. But they are still used to exert pressure - especially on smaller outlets - to keep reviews positive or suffer the consequences of simply be unable to get review copies for anything decent for the rest of their lives: play how we want or we take our ball and go home at its best.

Now, even getting review copies of games can be a daunting task at best: you have to prove that you’ve got the right skill set and that you can work under the tight timeline that will probably sometimes mean that you have to turn in a mostly done review after only having had a review copy for two or three days: a game can become a lot less fun and a lot more frustrating if you’re trying to blaze through it because it’s something that needs to be done, rather than enjoying it as something that is a fun distraction from work it becomes the work itself.

Having to do all of this while knowing that if you write something that a company frowns upon that you may not find the next copy of “big game X” in your mailbox when it comes time to write that review that everyone that patronizes your site is expecting is a frightening thing, and the Redner incident really has only amplified that feeling.

While looking back upon the entire thing it is obvious that it was a huge gaff on the part of the Redner Group, it also marked the first time that a lot of people from outside the industry really got a taste of the kind of pressure that could be exerted on reviewers. This was a group coming out and saying that people were beyond a shadow of a doubt about to be blackballed for writing an unflattering review of a game. And the worst thing is that what might qualify as “venom” in Jim Redner’s eyes is simply an honest and unbiased opinion to most other people.

Certainly the back-pedalling that came after the fact that stated that all reviews are matters of opinion and thus can say anything they want (something that I do not personally agree with although that’s for another time) it was obvious that when that first angry tweet was made that it wasn’t clear just who could have been deemed to have crossed that line, and for what reasons.

It is one thing to lambaste a game simply for the sake of doing so. Zero Punctuation has just as vocal a hatedom as it does a fandom, because of Yahtzee’s need to accentuate the negative (it’s what got him the job, and probably what keeps him employed) means that nine times out of ten the company probably isn’t going to be too thrilled about his assertions regarding their game. This is his style, sure, but it doesn’t fit for everyone, and as I’ve mentioned before being needlessly negative simply for its own sake is almost as bad as being completely positive all the time.

There needs to be a balance. You can’t be afraid to be harsh when the criticism is well placed, nor should you be loathed to give a game praise where it’s earned it. The problem is that in a relationship that is already on tenuous ground, the Redner Group’s open admission of potential fallout has made people less likely to be honest simply by making its way into the environment as a whole.

I’m not pointing fingers here, but it’s fairly easy to say that you’ll be unbiased regardless of any pressure exerted upon you. But think of it from some of the perspectives of the journalists: if you get deemed too harsh, even if it’s a completely legitimate harshness, then your very livelihood is threatened. So, you start to self-censor, perhaps even without realizing it. Complaints become washed out and generic, while praise is often tacked on for the sake of not sounding too negative and for the most pedestrian reasons.

I’m probably painting a worse picture than what currently exists, but a world of sycophantic game reviewers is something that could be entirely possible if the industry becomes unwilling to take the bad along with the good. It’s a tenuous balance, one that the Redner Group proved can be upset more easily than a lot of people would like to admit.

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