I had a brief twitter exchange with Duncan Harris, the proprietor of the excellent website Dead End Thrills, which, for the uninitiated, uses third-party mods and bleeding edge hardware to produce stunning screenshots from computer games, sometimes known as tourist shots or less politely, bullshots (because they’re bullshit screenshots, obv). The following tweet from Duncan started it all off:
I’ve had a fair few industry requests for editor-assisted bullshots recently. Soon they will be everywhere, custom lighting and all.
And was followed by:
Normal screenshots just aren’t seen as competitive by a lot these days. Gotta spotlight those models and enrich those shadows.
I tweeted that I didn’t think it mattered in feature material, but in reviews it probably wasn’t a good idea. Duncan replied that websites are moving to a more stylised lifestyle magazine approach, which meant that all the shots are likely to be bullshots, even those used in reviews. His second reply stated that as long as everyone knows they’re fake then its not an issue, but he did later tweet that the jury is out on whether or not whether or not bullshots actively mislead. The Storify link has the salient points or see our twitter feeds for full details.
The issue here is one of imperfect information. As I am aware of bullshots and the possibility that any promotional material may be processed and not representative of the game, I fall into the camp of the informed consumer, and it is completely right that I should take note of the providence of the screenshots. It’s also true that, due to the age of my PC rig, I was unlikely to get the best video quality anyway, so I was already labouring under a false pretension when I saw un-modded screenshots.
So why am I making a fuss? First of all you get an impression of a game from its screenshots, especially in a review. If the shots have been enhanced then it can mislead the reader, as they have a reasonable expectation of getting an approximate experience described by the words and images of the review. Even though I can’t get the Ultra settings on my PC now, I have the opportunity to upgrade and achieve the same quality in-game, whereas the bullshot is usually impossible to recreate during gameplay as they can involve any number of tricks to achieve their fidelity and composition including stopping time, weather modifications, and third-party image processing and lighting.
But if it’s obvious, it’s okay, right? I don’t know if the shots on Dead End Thrills taken in isolation are obviously modded to a layman. I agree they are different to normal screenshots, but are they so different that you would know they’re not modded? I’m not so sure. If you put those same shots on IGN or Eurogamer in the middle of a review it becomes much less obvious. Adding a disclaimer in each review and/or a note on the bullshot to state that it has been modded might be enough to placate my sense of foreboding, but I doubt it.
Context here is king. On Dead End Thrills it is obvious that these shots are being produced by a combination of modding, artistic skill and top-end hardware because the website is all about modification and extremely detailed screenshots. We are told very clearly what modifications have been used on every shot and in some cases have a detailed breakdown of how the shot was achieved. On a gaming website, bullshots may, or may not, be marked that they’ve been produced by a third-party, and may, or may not, appear with a suitable caveat. If a bullshot is being used for a review then that misrepresentation may be enough to convince a person to buy a game they may otherwise not have.
Bullshots, quite rightly, sell games, they can even make dud games look awesome, which is why their use in review copy a little troubling. As ever, the cry is Caveat Emptor, Buyer Beware!