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 about what is or is not a spoiler, please contact your PR representatives."

Halo 4 had a similar one, listing 12 possible 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.

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 single-player (yes, you can....technically). But SimCity's review guide was sadly lacking any amusing spoiler restrictions.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!

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 write, 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 favorite, 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!

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

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:

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

and

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

and

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 okay 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.)

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

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....