A plagiarised Dead Cells IGN review and the damage it could have done.
Indie roguelike platformer Dead Cells landed last week and quickly became a phenomenon within the industry, though not for the reasons you might think. Shortly after the game’s release came IGN’s review. Shortly after that, a video popped up on YouTube by a little-known content creator by the name of Boomstick Gaming, who noticed that IGN writer Filip Miucin’s glowing review of the title matched his own pretty closely. In a convincing video, the original reviewer plays each review side by side to demonstrate the resemblance between his own opinions and those of Miucin, with damning results. Soon thereafter, IGN released a statement informing fans that Mr Miucin had been fired from the site. In all the excitement, Dead Cells received a decent amount of extra publicity, though a plagiarised review can pose long-term threats to indie developers.
Many of these dangers were introduced when Miucin attempted to clear his name in an ill-advised (as they often are) YouTube apology. “The bottom line,” Miucin tells viewers, “is that what happened with the Dead Cells review was not at all intentional.” The disgraced writer explained that he regularly visited other review sites before starting his own review process. That’s a difficult revelation to use as a shield.
Presumably, Miucin’s defence is that, because he may have viewed Boomstick’s review while preparing for his own, he unintentionally included the original review’s sentiments thinking they were original. This opens up a murky line of discussion. Should reviewers be consulting other reviews during their process? Sure, if reviewing a new genre or a game element they aren’t familiar with, getting some extra context on that aspect of the experience can aid a reviewer in providing justified coverage. The key distinction to be made here between a conscientious writer and Mr Miucin is a matter of timing. And this is where we run into our first danger.
Indie games are often highly praised for their unique perspectives, original concepts, and forward-thinking approaches to game design. Unfortunately, in the world of plagiarised reviews, this can be their downfall. They are, essentially, more vulnerable to subjective opinion. There’s a reason these novel ideas are only implemented by indie developers, after all: they’re risky and can be polarising. It is essential, therefore, that each review is describing that reviewer’s own personal understanding of, and reaction to, the game at hand. Reading other people’s opinions on a tricky mechanic, or an out-of-the-ordinary game system, will colour your own opinion whether you realise it or not. Once that happens, a review has failed in its goal to provide a justified account of a game experience. In an arena as cutthroat as that of the independent games industry, that can be incredibly damaging. Of course, you can check out other reviews and remain a trusted journalist – just do it after you’ve formulated your own piece.
Unfortunately for Miucin, it’s plainly obvious that the IGN Dead Cells review was simply a thesaurus-heavy version of Boomstick’s, even following the exact structure of the original. And it reeks of intention. When a reviewer does intentionally copy a review, it’s not just the original poster who should be wary. Enter danger number two.
‘Mimetics’ is the process by which information is shared, altered, and shared again by a group of people so that by its end state its changes can be traced to reflect cultural or social movements. We know it in a primal form – memes. However, mimetic reactions are the dangers lurking behind every copied review. When a response to a release gathers traction online due to the perceived authority of the writer, it can become viral in its sentiment. To put it simply, if a reviewer one looked up to and respected exclaimed that the weapon system in God of War was frustrating, one might feel more inclined to inform their social group that the weapon system in God of War is frustrating (it’s not, the license of example shines here!). People begin to uphold such sentiments without even playing the title, to the extent that many of them come to believe they have in fact experienced it for themselves. Such wildfire spread can threaten disaster for vulnerable developers relying on such word of mouth.
Miucin went on to slam Kotaku writer Jason Schreier for breaking the story. “Maybe he was implying that if you have similarly opinionated reviews, then you’re just plagiarising,” he announced, conveniently ignoring the fact that his own review consisted of the exact same points in the exact same order, often in the exact same phrasing. Herein lies a double threat. Once a reviewer does plagiarise a review, other readers and reviewers are on high alert. It’s the reason so many previous stories of Miucin’s have come under similar fire since the revelation landed. Imagine being a reviewer now, watching the Dead Cells IGN review debacle and finding someone else has had the same thought as you when reviewing a game. Once you know that people do it, and come under significant fire for doing so, you’re going to be more likely to want to cover your own back. Unfortunately, that means cutting that sentence.
We’ve come to our third danger, one that speaks to both developers and reviewers. Indie games often rely on word of mouth and reviews to get their game known and paid for. Without the seal of approval of previous titles or big publishers, consumers are going to be looking to reviews for validation. If people become afraid to chime in with their own opinions due to a fear of being called out for plagiarism (assuming it is a fairly substantiated and original review) then those opinions – good or bad – aren’t heard. If good opinions aren’t shared, they get nowhere.
Many are excusing Miucin’s transgression due to the publicity the saga has provided for both Boomstick and Dead Cells itself. The game was always going to be a big release, but the added controversy has certainly seen it at the top of far more news sites. However, turning a conveniently blind eye to the real damage that can be done by promoting opinions that aren’t even your own on powerful platforms like IGN allows that threat to grow stronger. Reviews are highly influential, and plagiarism is nothing to be brushed off lightly.
Our very own Ed Nightingale called this game “so much more than the sum of its influences,” so go ahead and check out his Dead Cells review!