Strings Attached: What We're Not Allowed To Talk About When Reviewing Games

When professional reviewers prepare to review books, movies or video games, there's a basic understanding that the reviewer won't spoil everything. The reviewer will hold back some details, for the pleasure of their readers or audience.

But something you might not know is that game reviewers -- ourselves included -- don't always pick what we hold back. We often get a document that lists things we've been asked not to mention. The documents that detail what we can't mention are often amusing. And I've been letting them pile up, so that -- without spoiling any recent games in any major way, mind you! -- I could share this odder aspect of our jobs with you.

Let's start with a fresh one for Gears of War Judgment. This one came from Microsoft, along with a shrinkwrapped copy of Judgment, a week or so before the game was officially released. It's just one page long and includes the following line, which is standard and, as you'll see, a bit of a head game:

Please avoid including any plot spoilers in your review and features, including (you may want to avoid reading this until after you complete the game):

The sheet then lists seven bits from the game, though they're actually mostly vague. Trust me. Things like "The outcome of the trial" and "The ending of the game". They also mention "The fate of" specific, named characters. And then: "If you have questions around what is or is not a spoiler, please contact your PR representatives."

Halo 4 had a similar one, listing 12 posible spoilers, including "the prologue of 'Halo 4'". It included this reasoning: "To allow fans to experience important story moments in 'Halo 4' first-hand, we request that you do not include any mention of the following..."

Note that it's all plot stuff. Gears had no restriction on, say, levels or modes. Spoil the gameplay all you want; just don't spoil the plot.

Reviews also typically come with fact sheets that remind reviewers who made the game, how long a series might have been running, what the key new features are in the game. It's the standard stuff you'd expect. It's what you figure a game publisher wants you to know about a game. The reviewer might also get a cover letter signed by the game developer thanking them for taking the time to play. Contrary to some conspiracy theories, they don't include a blank check!

For SimCity I got a 16-page "review guide" that included two pages of Q&A about what makes it the right time for a new SimCity and whether you can play singleplayer (yes, you can... technically). But SimCity's review guide was sadly lacking any amusing spoiler restrictions.

The sheet we got with DmC, the controversial reboot of the Devil May Cry series, did have a spoiler list. They didn't want us mentioning the wig joke that you'll encounter in the game's first level.

Some review restrictions affect what we can right, but others just limit what we can show. God of War: Ascension's review guidelines bar the taking screenshots or video after chapter 12, which, sadly, bars the publishing of screenshots or video from most of the game's best levels. Reviews could run on March 7. The game came out on March 12, when, obviously, the restrictions lifted.

The review sheet for Sega's Aliens: Colonial Marines had some restrictions on the video a reviewer could capture. "NO posting of the last 3 levels online"; "No posting of unedited footage of more than 20min", "No posting of entire levels without interruption". OK. Fair enough. Anything more would be a "let's play" instead of a review, right? And it's not like those restrictions affected any reviews of the game that I've seen.

Nintendo's embargo sheets are among my favourite, because they are the most detailed. They had just two restrictions for this week's Lego City Undercover. I'll skip the one that is a spoiler. The other? "Outlets may cover everything from the beginning of the game through the end of Ice Cream Factory."

Their Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon embargo makes it clear that parts of the game's first, second and fourth regions can be covered in previews, but the third region is off-limits until it's review time. Makes me want to get to that third world!

The reigning world champ of hyper-detailed Nintendo embargoes remains the one for last year's Kid Icarus: Uprising which includes such amazing guidelines as:


Cannot mention the exact total number of powers and the conditions to get each one.



Cannot mention the exact total number of items and the conditions to get each ones


Can mention the Stand.

Can mention the Left-Hand play option using Circle Pad Pro.

Can mention the tutorial video guides.

Can mention setting options, except for hidden ones (Dialogue mute, Viridi's Menu Skin)

Nintendo also provided a grid listing all of the game's weapons. Those typed in green text were OK to mention. Those mentioned in red were not. (For example: "Viper Blade" was in green. "Crusader Blade" was in red.)

I don't mind most of these embargo sheets. They seldom prohibit anything I or my fellow reviewers at Kotaku actually want to mention in our reviews, and they rarely seem effectively designed to mask a game's warts. But part of that multi-page embargo ticked me off, and I complained to some Nintendo people last year that it felt they'd crossed a line from being reasonable and, well, who in the world was going to mention the number of items in their review? And, if they did, would that be so bad?

Thankfully, that Kid Icarus one was unusual. I'd never seen one like that and, to Nintendo's credit, have never seen a similar one again.

(Something I didn't encounter personally, but that I found troubling -- and reported about in 2008: the publisher Konami tried to keep reviewers from mentioning the length of the cutscenes in Metal Gear Solid 4. We don't recall any line-crossing embargoes for Konami's recent Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. So, they too, have gotten better.)

Nintendo, in particular, seems hell-bent on preserving surprises for readers even when, perhaps counter-intuitively, it could make their game sound inferior to what it actually was. For example, for Super Mario 3D Land on 3DS Nintendo didn't want reviewers mentioning that, when you think the game is over, you're really only halfway through it.

That kind of restriction can be problematic. Nintendo's trying to preserve a huge surprise for their players -- and in so doing is showing a willingness to let review-readers think that Super Mario 3D Land has half as much content as it really has. The restriction does leave the reviewer in a conundrum: follow the restrictions and publish a review that omits something you think is important, or hold the review until the game is out and then publish anything you think merits mentioning.

All of these restrictions are the strings attached of running the review early, before the game comes out, on the review's embargo date. Running a review later? It's a valid option. We ran our Super Mario 3D Land review after the game came out and mentioned its double-length surprise.

Some may say there should be no strings attached, no content restrictions for these early-access games. I'm not so sure. I think it's reasonable for the game-makers to make a few requests, as long as they're not micromanaging. And if the restrictions are ridiculous? The most a reviewer has to do is wait until the day the game comes out.

And, so, now I can finally reveal that the ending of Halo 4 is...


    Interesting article.

    One minor error: "Some review restrictions affect what we can right"

    Really good read. It's also encouraging to see that developers really care about the gamers experience. There are factors in they are asking be held back that would actually help them shift more units and gain better reviews, but are willing to sacrifice that to enrich the experience for the players.

    'Professional reviewers'? Did you guys get PHDs in that? As someone who reviewed games for almost a decade in both print and online publications, I raise my single eyebrow at anyone using that term.

      If you get paid to review games a a primary source of income doesn't that make reviewer your profession?

        If you get paid to operate a checkout as your primary source of income does that make you a professional? 'Professional' does not equate to 'profession'.

          I would say it does. What then does dictates a professional.
          I don't think many footballers have a PHD in football but they are still professional footballers.
          If you advise large company on risk mitigation aren't you a professional risk mitigation consultant?
          What makes somebody a professional if not their profession?

          Are you thinking of an expert? Seems to be the closest to what you're describing.

        Not when you let the phrase "Some review restrictions affect what we can right" get published.

        Depends on which dictionary you pick up. These days, it's generally regarded as work in a field you're officially qualified for is a profession, unqualified work is considered an occupation.

        The line is blurred these days, and professional is usually regarded as anyone being paid as their primary source of income.

      prove it

      you have a monobrow??

    Well I consider the term "Professional" to be anyone who does something for a living, or full time.
    The dictionary seems to agree with me.

    1. following an occupation as a means of livelihood or for gain: a professional builder.
    2. of, pertaining to, or connected with a profession: professional studies.
    3. appropriate to a profession: professional objectivity.
    4. engaged in one of the learned professions: A lawyer is a professional person.
    5. following as a business an occupation ordinarily engaged in as a pastime: a professional golfer.

    So if the author here reviews games full time then why not call them selves Professional?

    Maybe it's time to stop being game reviewers and become journalists. Write whatever the hell you want, whatever you think is appropriate, or that your readers should know. If game companies decide to send you review copies of games, great, if not, oh well, at least you'll have some integrity.

      and risk their "professional" career?

      have you seen what happened to the youtube reviewer blunty3000? Samsung dropped his ass for all their products over him using the word "ass" on his twitter.


      I disagree, if the requests are reasonable and don't want you spoiling surprises or plot twists that's fair enough. But don't effect you talking about the games problems than it should be fine.

      If asked not to mention the crappy camera and control scheme and the fact the game couldn't be reviewed with a score under 90%, I wouldn't bother doing a review.

      Also we live in a world of legal and contractual obligations, the screw you I'll write what I want attitude could see financial penalties against you and your company.

    This is why when games come out I also like to check the reviews of Independent Reviewers as their not bound by any information embargo, Both Angry Joe Show and Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation for example mentioned that wig joke in DmC

    And, so, now I can finally reveal that the ending of Halo 4 is…
    A big letdown!

      She's a dude.
      It's people.
      He's dead the whole time.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now