YouTube Reviews of Skyrim Special Edition Highlight Why Bethesda’s Review Policy Sucks

Bethesda ruffled a lot of feathers last week when the developer announced that it would no longer be sending out pre-release review copies to media outlets, instead opting to wait until the day before release, thus ensuring that few reviews would actually be available for potential customers to browse ahead of a game’s launch. Bethesda positioned it as a way for everyone to play their releases at the same time; I argued that it was actually to ensure that no negative reviews would appear before a game’s launch. But despite Bethesda circumventing traditional media with their review copies, they still had no issue with handing them over to certain YouTube “influencers.” The results of this policy change has highlighted how this move effectively ensures that Bethesda can control the kind of coverage their games receive pre-release, and further outlines why this is a concerning move from one of gaming’s biggest developers.

Considering how huge Skyrim is, it’s no surprise that there are few reviews from reputable outlets currently available to read. Though the reviews that have been posted online are largely positive, there have been multiple criticisms regarding how this remastered version of the 2011 game trails behind the user-made mods that have been introduced to its PC version over the years. IGN’s review states that “if you want to play right now and want the best experience, you’re better off getting the 2011 version and modding it.” While there are certainly no particularly damning reviews out there, there are more than a few negative points that have been raised about the remaster, none of which have been articulated to consumers ahead of the game’s launch as a result of Bethesda’s review policy.

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“I’ve felt less immersed in real-life forests than I do in Skyrim Special Edition’s,” said one particularly OTT YouTube reviewer.

This inevitably means that many have turned to YouTube videos in order to gather some pre-release opinions, and with these YouTubers not beholden to any particular journalistic code of ethics nor held accountable by anyone other than Bethesda in regards to their coverage, the results have been almost uniformly positive. That’s not to suggest that these individuals are unethical or corrupt, but rather that there is an entire editorial process behind the publishing of a review for traditional media, whereas YouTube reviews are largely the result of one individual buying/being sent a video game and then candidly discussing their thoughts. It may be entertaining for viewers, sure, but that shouldn’t be the extent of all critical analysis of a game prior to its launch.

Take the below review, for instance. With over 650,000 views and uploaded to a channel with over 275,000 subscribers, the guy offering his thoughts on Skyrim Special Edition spends the majority of his time sounding like he wants to take it out for a candlelit dinner rather than play it. Here are a few choice excerpts from the video:

“I’ve actually felt less immersed in real-life forests than I do in Skyrim Special Edition‘s wildernesses.”

“The fog and haze are dense, catching the surrounding colors and acting as a canvas for the long, casting shadows to paint themselves.”

“I don’t know what they’ve done [with the clouds], but it’s quite easy to just stand and watch them silkily caress the distant white peaks.”

“The light in the surrounding environments interacts with the water’s surface with an artist’s touch.”

“I found that the snow felt softer to look at somehow… it also has a noticeable sparkle to it, which makes it feel more magical.”

 “Watch as I open this door — the light ever so realistically gushes into the next room, and the door’s shadow quickly, smoothly and seamlessly swipes back the light.” 

While mostly any major new game receives similar overwhelmingly, excruciatingly positive YouTube reviews upon their release, it is important for consumers that balance is provided by more critical reviews from various media outlets. Such reviews benefit from the experience of their authors, who have mostly spent years writing about the gaming industry, and who have plenty of experience when it comes to being a video game critic. These reviewers will have also been entrusted by the editor-in-chiefs of their employers — whether that be IGN, GameSpot, Kotaku or otherwise — to write a review that is representative of the quality of their company. They are also typically put through an editorial process that will often see their writing being assessed internally before the review is published.

This process isn’t present for YouTube reviews, and as such the kind of gushing praise exhibited in the above video can be posted with few eyebrows being raised. As YouTubers aren’t representing anyone other than themselves, their viewers don’t hold them accountable in the same way that they would with an IGN critic — this means that it’s rarely thrown into question when a publisher gives a guy a copy of a video game, and then said guy waxes lyrical about how the clouds in said game “silkily caress the distant white peaks.” They simply aren’t held to the same standards by their audience.

However, with the update to their review policy Bethesda has effectively exercised control over who receives access to their games ahead of launch, and by targeting specific YouTubers has ensured that the company is limiting the amount of negative press their games will receive before their release dates. Skyrim Special Edition may well be a great remaster, but prior to its launch there was nothing save for a smattering of YouTube videos such as the one above that allowed potential customers to judge whether or not they should part with their money. Stifling criticism is not pro-consumer, no matter which way Bethesda tries to frame it.