As everyone is now aware, someone recently leaked the cutscenes from the highly anticipated game The Last of Us part II. While we do not feel like adding to the pile of reactions on the topic, this is a good time to take a step back and talk about what is really at stake: the video games industry’s obsession with secrecy and the developers’ emotional involvement in their work.
But first things first, let’s be clear: this article is not meant to clear the leaker of any responsibility. Much of the online discourse surrounding this event has been about finding out whether this was done as revenge against Naughty Dog (which, as you may know, is known for its practice of crunch), and this in turn has led to many mild reactions such as this one: https://twitter.com/jasonschreier/status/1254832952057434113
Again, our goal is not to find excuses for this action when we have no knowledge of the ins and outs of the leaks, but to remember that workers can – and will – break down under pressure, and that policing manners in such a way doesn’t help anyone.
But we must ask ourselves, why so much noise and heated debate around these leaks? Sure enough, spoilers are annoying, but the spoilers culture is first and foremost a marketing tool that has been (over)used very extensively by various entertainment industries. A blatant example can be found in this trailer (where it’s the only thing being discussed!), but one could also think of the huge wave of spoilers when Star Wars 7 released.
Let’s be realistic: spoilers have always been here, and there’s good reason to believe they’re here to stay. « Cutscene movies » of most games are up on YouTube on release day, or even earlier (when games are sold before street date for example). And this is without even touching on the topic of planned leaks.
So, why do spoilers matter so much? And why, in general, does the industry put so much stock in secrecy? One could think of it as a way to avoid negative reactions before release when most full-price sales happen. There is certainly a noticeable trend where big publishers and studios shun journalists by not holding preview events, or by putting embargo dates on reviews on the game’s release date. But since nowadays games have revenues smoothed over their lifetime (with the emergence of games as a service, patches, etc), does this argument really make sense on its own?
Clearly, the perception of a game is influenced by what relevant information is made available, and that can lead to missing the creators’ intended effect on the players. This is something you hear a lot from video game workers who want to see those leaks kept under wraps. But information filtering is also a technique companies use to assert their control over their workers!
Many of us have heard a variation of “think of your colleagues” when the topic of leaks comes up. By ordering us to stay silent, we are made to depend on the goodwill of our employers, our managers, our publishers and their marketing teams, to speak in our place, about the games WE make, under threat of punishment, firing or other legal consequences. This is a very strong form of control over all game workers, who end up being deprived of any power over how their work is displayed and perceived, or otherwise made to face unwarranted risks. The issue isn’t so much about forbidding any control over games information, but to know WHO is in control, and to wonder why such control is so omnipresent and widespread. Forbidding us to talk about our work to colleagues or friends is absurd and shameful for us. We are not secret agents!
Likewise, while calls to respect “the developers’ passion” are for the most part well-meaning, these miss the fact that said (undeniable) passion very often ends up breeding alienation in the same workers, in that it gets used to justify bad work conditions and low salaries. No one wishes to do away with passion, but we have to face the fact that our passion is used as a tool by company owners. As such, as workers, we need to distance ourselves from it in order to care for our own well-being and get back to the idea that a spoiler, as annoying as it may be, is only a minor bump on the road when compared to the product’s actual quality or the meaning it can convey to the audience.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that workers will feel affected by leaks. What else do we get from the games we make, since fame is reserved to “authors”, company owners and creative directors, and wealth to investors and shareholders?
We understand the pain one feels from such a loss of control over the one thing we’re left with: the pride of making a product people will enjoy. But this goes to show that our passion is exploited by employers. It allows them to obfuscate the hierarchical differences that exist within capitalist organizations, and to keep pushing the myth that games can be collective works made by & benefited from by equals even in such contexts.
Passion helps us cope with alienating work conditions, but if people are emotionally involved in a production, they should also be democratically involved in the decision making surrounding it, and also in sharing the profits. We cannot accept the status quo which dictates that because of the passion we hold dear, we should be made to suffer in silence.
About the Naughty Dog leaks: one person spoiling the whole game will have a relatively small impact on the studio as a whole, or on its owners, and the benefit of the action is dubious at best. But if the culture and myths surrounding secrecy didn’t exist, the same leaks would have sounded a lot less meaningful to the leaker. This seems like yet another instance of the Streisand Effect in action!
In conclusion, before we set out to condemn something that is, all things considered, quite benign, and someone who it seems wasn’t working at the studio anyway, let’s take the time to wonder why leaking the game may have looked to them like it could “hurt” the company.
To those who feel like they have their backs against the wall: unions exist for such a purpose. Contact us or other unions, depending on where you work, in France or abroad. Let’s organize together to defend ourselves, fend off loneliness and despair, and change the industry!