Do we need to finish games before review?

Let’s talk video game reviews.

As many people who come to The Outerhaven, or any other gaming website, know that video game reviews are the lifeblood of these websites. Without these reviews, all we would be doing is posting news that companies send out in email blasts and post on their own websites anyway, making us pretty much pointless.

Recently, the game Sifu has hit store shelves (and the PlayStation Network once they sort out the delivery issue) with a lot of fanfare. However, the game has also brought around the age-old debate over if reviewers should finish a game completely before sitting down at their computers and typing out a review for a game.

If you read some of the Sifu reviews, you will notice a common thread of reviewers stating that due to Sifu’s high difficulty setting and learning curve, many were not able to complete the game before the embargo date that was set by PR companies that sent out review codes of Sifu. This had led to a few people inside, and mostly outside, the gaming journalism area to ask if reviewers should be required to finish a game completely before writing their review, or is it ok for reviewers to play a part of the game and then review it.

The tweet you see above is a part of a thread on Twitter that has brought this whole debate back into public view, with people both inside and outside of the industry giving their two cents about if reviewers should finish a game before review or not.

The answer to this whole debate is more complex and nuanced than a lot of people will consider it to be. As someone who not only reviewed Sifu without completing it, and as a reviewer with over 10 years of experience, I would like to break this whole thing down, open some “forbidden doors” of the gaming journalism realm, and see if we can work out an answer to this whole debate, or if there is no answer to be had at all.

Part 1: What constitutes “finishing a game”?

The first thing that needs to be addressed is what constitutes “finishing a game”.

A lot of people think that finishing a game means that you play the main story till its conclusion. While this is the most logical version to go with, other people would consider a game finished when there is nothing left to do in the game, also known as “100% completion”. As reviewers, where do we make the distinction? Most would side with the logical version: A game is considered finished when the main story has wrapped up and the credits roll.

But again, things are more complex than that. What about games where there is no story? Not every game that comes out has a story mode. Take a lot of sports games for example. While there are some exceptions like NBA Live 18, and some Madden or NBA 2K titles where there is a career story mode, most sports titles do not have a story mode. With games like these, what constitutes playing enough of the game to review? Do we measure such things in hours? Days? Weeks? Do we need to play Madden Ultimate Teams for a specific amount of time before we can review it?

How about fighting games? Since Mortal Kombat (2011) changed things by adding a full story mode, most fighting games do not have a story mode either. A fighting game is more about the actual gameplay than a story. So again, what is the requirement in this matter? Do you need to play tutorials? Do you need to go online? Should I spend weeks replaying the same matches over and over again just to fill some requirements to review the game?

Then you have games like JRPGs and MMO games, which either have a very long storyline to complete, usually consisting of hundreds of hours on content before you can get to the endgame. How much of this do I need to play through in order to review the game? Honestly, if we had to finish a game in order to review it, I’d still be grinding away on Final Fantasy XV, Witcher 3, Red Dead Redemption 2, or subscribing to World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV for months on end.

And what about DLC content? Most games these days come out with a road map of content that will be coming out post-launch. Some of the better titles will come out with extended story segments that are added through DLC. Knowing this, are we required to wait and finish these DLC stories too as they are a part of the main storyline? Doing so would mean we would be reviewing a “complete” experience, it means giving up a lot of views on your review to be more complete.

So, as you can see, in the opening gambit of this debate, it is near impossible to work out an answer based on simple questions like what constitutes finishing a game.

Part 2: How much does the story matter?

The whole debate around finishing a game before writing a review seems to be the story. In a game like Sifu, the game that started this whole debate again, there isn’t much of a story to be had. As I mentioned in my review of Sifu, the story is a very generic story of revenge against someone who murdered a family member. This type of story is so common that I really don’t need to spend any more than 10 minutes looking at it before knowing that I can skip 90% of it when reviewing it. But others seem to think that the story in Sifu is so required to the experience that you must finish it or just not review it at all.

If Sifu was a game like Telltale’s The Walking Dead, The Last of Us: Part 2, Kingdom Hearts, or something where the story is so long and complex that only taking a sample of it would be a huge disservice to those who worked on the game, then I’d be right there with you saying that games like this need to be finished before reviewing as the story is a key part of the experience. However, Sifu is not a game where the focus is on the story, it’s on the gameplay.

Whether story matters in a review are something that smart websites will consider on a case-by-case basis. When the story is a focus of the game, then, of course, we will take it into consideration and make sure we can play through as much as possible, and if it’s good, through till we complete the game. But what people seem to forget is that not every game has a story or requires a story to be an enjoyable experience.

Part 3: Interactive vs Non-Interactive

One of the points of contention that were comparing playing and reviewing a video game to watching and reviewing a movie, something that comes up often for some reason even though it’s like comparing Red Apples to Red Potatoes, sure they look similar, but are fundamentally different in their content and how you look at that content.

When you’re reviewing a video game, you need to take multiple things into account. The story, Gameplay, Graphics, Sound, Replayability, Extra Content, Microtransactions, The type of game, and much more depending on how deep down the rabbit hole you want to go. When it comes to reviewing a movie, you really only take a look at two or three things: The story, characters, and the acting. Another thing that separates the two mediums is that with a movie you are just sitting there watching the movie, but with video games, you are interacting with the game and having to understand and talk about a lot more.

With video games, a huge part of what makes them enjoyable is that you interact with them, you have steaks in the story, characters, and everything else happening on screen. With a movie, all you are doing is sitting there watching a screen, making it a non-interactive experience. Much like the “do video games cause violent behavior” debate, a lot of what makes a video game enjoyable is the interactive nature of the game.

Comparing the two mediums is really not a fair comparison due to the method used in reviewing, the criteria used in reviews, and what you’re doing at the end of it all. There is no way that you should be comparing the two mediums when it comes to reviews, and those people who do probably do not understand the difference between an interactive and non-interactive medium.

Part 4: Embargos, Time Constraints, and NDAs

Now here comes the part where I open that “Forbidden Door” that I was talking about in the beginning.

A lot of people think that the life of a games reviewer is stress-free and lazy, after all, we get to spend our days sitting on our couch or at our computers playing video games all day. Seems like life huh? But in reality, there is a lot more to it than that.

When a PR company or developer sends us a game to review (If we’re lucky enough to get one), we usually have to agree to a set of conditions. The main condition is an Embargo, where we are not allowed to publish or even speak about a game we are reviewing before a specific date, usually, 2 days before the game hits shelves. Then there is the NDA agreement, in which the company or developer will tell you what you can and cannot include in your review or coverage of the game.

An example of this was when I was given a review code for Marvel’s Spider-Man on PS4. Sony was so protective of the game that I was not allowed to record my own gameplay to place into the review and had to use pre-supplied B-Roll. I was also not allowed to speak about ANY of the main story beats at all, leaving me with not much to report about on the story outside of the already known information. I copped the same thing when CAPCOM sent me Resident Evil Village to review. I was so handcuffed by the company’s requests that even though I played through the whole game before review, I couldn’t talk about any of it. So how would anyone know I completed the game at all?

The one thing that people also do not seem to understand is the production time it takes to do everything that goes into a video game review. Not only do we need to play the game, but also keep notes while playing, record gameplay for the video review/gameplay videos/video guides, but also write, edit, proof, second proof, get images and video embeds, create and edit videos (complete with scripting and recording voice-overs), and much more. Not every company is like IGN, Kotaku, G4TV, or other higher-end gaming outlets that have a group of people working in multiple departments to get everything ready on time.

Speaking of time, I don’t think people understand that time crunch that a lot of reviewers are under. As a games reviewer, when you get a game to review early, sometimes it can be a 2-week window before the review is due. Other times, you might get 3 days to do a review of a game. If you are lucky to get the review code early, then you might be able to finish the game before review, but more than likely, you’re either going to sacrifice some of the game to make the Embargo date, or you’re going to be doing some really late nights crunching to get things done on time.

Part 5: Paid vs Unpaid

Another great myth is that EVERY games reviewer is getting paid to play video games all day and night. Not everyone is employed at a place like Kotaku, Gamespot, or IGN where you get paid to write content. If anything, the actual playing of video games for most companies is an UNPAID part of the job. Then you have places like us, The Outerhaven, where we are staffed by passionate people who are doing everything for FREE. Yes, I said FOR FREE. Here at The Outerhaven, we don’t get paid unless you’re a contracted freelancer doing a guest post for the site. Otherwise, our “payment” is the video games themselves that are sent by the PR companies or developers.

The truth is that most gaming websites are not employing people to play games, they are employing people to write content. Take a look at the majority of the content that websites publish these days: Outside of news, people are publishing Top 10 lists, opinion pieces, replies to social media talk/topics, etc. Playing video games is a small part of what those that are paid to write actually do. If they do play games, a majority of them will do so, at home, on their own time… Unless you’re G4TV, then you have people specifically employed to play those games, write those scripts, and do all the behinds the scenes stuff for you (So you can focus on brow-bashing your audience about old social debate topics like sexism in gaming and GamerGate).

For those of us who “work” for a smaller outlet like The Outerhaven and forego payment for the passion of writing and keeping the games we review, then you are often doing EVERYTHING on your own and during your personal time. Speaking on a personal level, I am currently unemployed in the “Government sense” and I have time to dedicate to playing, writing, editing, proofing, etc. But that’s just the thing: I have to do all of this myself, on my own time, for free. I did make the choice to write for this outlet as I believe in what Keith has created here and I want to help him achieve the success a site like this deserves. In order to achieve that success, then I need to put in that grind in order to get there.

As I said above, if we are lucky, then I might get 2-weeks to not only play a game for review but also do all the production of a written and video review in the time. So that 2-weeks I was given, to begin with? That drops down to somewhere around a week or less of gaming time, which might not be enough in order to finish the game. If we are given less time, then I either have to crunch a to get everything done, put in long nights, or sacrifice something from the game in order to make deadlines… And don’t get me started about having to do a review where we pay for the game out of our own pockets.

Oh yeah, we still have lives outside of gaming… Forgot about that.

Part 6: Reviews are Informative

While we do our best to give every game our all before reviewing it, there are things that get in the way of making a review of a finished game.

Most review codes for games are not the exact same game that you pick up off the shelf. A lot of the time we are playing a version of the game that the company considered “gone gold”, meaning that the game is stable enough to be put out into the market, or at least enough that they can patch it on Day 1. Many times when we receive that review code, the notes included will state that there is a Day 1 patch happening and that any bugs or glitches will be fixed for the buying customers. So we are often fighting against bugs and problems that might not exist by the time you get the game and after our review is published.

Another thing is the game itself. Sometimes a game can have a LOT of content, upwards of hundreds of hours, or like the case of Sifu, some games are designed to be punishing. You might not think it, but reviewers are not high-level professional gamers, with most of us just being your average skilled player. So we do get stuck in places or find that our skills are not enough to make it through the whole game, or in the worst case: We run into something that either wipes our game progress, screws up the game, or locks everything up and makes the game unplayable. It’s our job as reviewers to tell people about these experiences so that they can hopefully avoid the issues we found in the game.

So excuse us if reviewers are not gaming gods. We’re just normal people who write about games.

Part 7: Should Reviewers Disclose How Much of the Game has Been Played?

Disclosure is a huge thing in this day and age. Everyone wants to know everything at all times, and you must tell everyone everything you are doing at all times. With games reviewing, people are starting to question how much of a game is played before it is reviewed. But the question is if we, as reviewers, should disclose how much of the game we have played before reviewing it. Does the deeper issue then become what is an acceptable amount of the game being played before a review is written?

On the issue of disclosure, while I think that it’s a good thing in most situations, in the terms of the review I tend to disagree. There are too many factors that can hamper or completely derail the playing of a game before a review is written. It also harkens back to what type of game I’m reviewing at the time. For example, I can’t play a JRPG or MMO to the finish due to the number of hours needed in order to reach the endgame. I might spend 5-6 hours on a fighting game or a sports game because after that time I’ll have played enough of the game to get the general experience of the game. But will I disclose that in a review? No. Because at the end of it all, time is not a factor in a review unless you’re one of those people who believe “time spent in-game equals a dollar amount”.

Some people might look at what I said and tell me that “you haven’t spent enough time with the game” or that a game “gets good around 50 hours in”. Well, that is your opinion, but you don’t live my life nor do you have to do what I do as a reviewer. While you have all the time in the world to play a game, remember that I am having to play the game within a specific time frame, and also write, edit, etc the written and video reviews. Also, while you are playing one video game, I’m having to deal with anywhere from one to three games at a time in a single week, so I’m having to split my time more than you do.

So if reviewers cannot finish a game in time for their review, then I don’t think they should disclose that to anyone as to how they spend their time doesn’t mean anything to anyone but themselves.


Part 8: Conclusion: What do we do?

So after all that, should reviewers be required to finish a game before reviewing it?

There are two schools on the subject: Those who say we should, and those who say we do not. To be honest, both are right, and both are wrong. Like reviewing itself, finishing a game is subjective and should be left to the discretion of the reviewer and the website or company they are working for. It should not be something that the public or anyone else puts upon the reviewer as they don’t know or understand what goes into the work a reviewer does or has time for.

However, should finishing a game be a requirement from PR companies or developers, then they need to start giving out review codes earlier than they do now. They need to understand that playing games under crunch are just like development under crunch: something that should not be happening in the industry. But it does happen too often, and again, it seems that those outside the industry do not understand.

At the end of it all, reviewers are just gamers who are lucky enough to get something extra for playing a video game, either a paycheck or the game itself. We enjoy games just like you, but we are in a position where we can explain what we like and don’t like about the game, just like you would discuss with friends. We are not gods, super beings, or high-level competitive players. We just write or talk about games on video. So stop holding us to standards that most of you cannot hold yourselves to… After all, we all have a backlog of unplayed or unfinished games.