The Last of Us 2 leaks and the ethics of spoiling video games

When is a video game leak deemed “acceptable?” Those working in the games industry are placed under increasing scrutiny from the audience they serve, while game leaks continue to grow in number. With studios now often failing to control the narrative surrounding their game before it’s even been revealed, are game leaks in general piling on unnecessary pressure for no gain?

Last weekend, Naughty Dog’s upcoming The Last of Us 2 leaked online, with a number of videos revealing major plot points and gameplay. The studio has confirmed the leaks to be legitimate, releasing a brief statement saying that it was “disappointing to see the release and sharing of pre-release footage from development.”

It’s unclear who was responsible for the leak. The prevailing theory is that it was a Naughty Dog tester, reportedly upset by the company’s treatment of its employees. At the time of this writing, this allegation is unconfirmed, though it has divided people between two camps: those expressing sympathy for Naughty Dog workers who have had years of hard work published online before their game’s official release, and those who see it as an act of warranted rebellion.

Naughty Dog higher-ups previously came under fire due to industry reports detailing its allegedly poor working conditions. Back in March, Kotaku described an “unhealthy culture” that heavily overworked its staff, forcing a swift turnaround of talented employees that was branded “unsustainable.” As such, if the leak is the result of a disgruntled Naughty Dog employee, some believe it to be a deserved response to the company’s treatment of its developers.

Despite this belief, the Naughty Dog employees who have spoken out about the leaks have expressed disappointment at the events. Level designer Evan Hill replied to a tweet suggesting staff would be “more concerned about the crunch they’re still being put through,” replying: “No, the leaks fucking hurt… a lot.”

“I dedicated two years of my life helping refine how this story is told,” he continued. “And that’s on top of years developing the skills needed to do so. The leaks spit on that work. It’s not about sales. It’s about the passion we poured into the work for its own sake and the sake of the audience.”

The Last of Us 2 leaks are the latest in a long line

the last of us 2 leaks spoilers 2

The Last of Us 2 leaks are some of the most substantial in the gaming industry’s history.

However, while The Last of Us 2 leak may have been substantial, it’s but the latest in an increasingly long line. Nowadays, a game is rarely revealed via official channels without a journalist, insider, or anonymous employee breaking the story first. Even today, Ubisoft was in the process of “revealing” Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, which was already all but confirmed over a year ago.

ALSO: Tell GR | Do you read or avoid spoilers?

So what separates these previous leaks from The Last of Us 2‘s? What makes it okay to leak a game reveal, but not okay to leak TLoU2? In terms of impact, it’s inarguable that revealing a story-driven game’s major plot points is more of a blow to its potential success than revealing an upcoming game exists. But that doesn’t mean that other, less significant leaks aren’t impactful in their own way, too.

Last year’s E3 fell apart at the seams before it had even begun, with everything from Banjo-Kazooie’s appearance in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate to George R.R. Martin’s collaboration with From Software, Elden Ring, being leaked ahead of time. The biggest industry of the event of the year was severely dampened by this, with the wind taken out of publishers’ and developers’ sails by having their announcements being discussed before E3 had even started.

After E3, Pokemon Sword and Shield were also revealed ahead of schedule, with a 4chan leak showing us its starter Pokemon’s evolution chains, its legendary Pokemon, the game’s new Gigantamaxing feature, before eventually outright revealing its list of generation 8 Pokemon and the complete Galar Pokedex. Nintendo’s biggest game of the entire year was unceremoniously outed, and fans were left to speculate over (and become disappointed by) what they had learned before developer Game Freak had even announced it.

Then Overwatch 2 was revealed by ESPN ahead of Blizzard’s BlizzCon 2019, detailing how the sequel would focus on PvE and inciting criticisms from Overwatch fans in the process. This meant that Blizzard had the unfortunate task of “announcing” a game to players that they already knew existed, and were already ready to hate based on the initial ESPN report.

All spoilers have an impact

Games like Overwatch 2 have been leaked, with pre-reveal information being criticized by fans.

If we’re arguing against The Last of Us 2 leaks because of their impact on Naughty Dog’s developers, then we should also consider that leaks such as E3’s line-up, Pokemon, and Overwatch also affect developers, too. Without the context of an official reveal, people are left to speculate based on half the facts, something which can also have major ramifications on the teams working on them.

A USGamer report last year on crunch within NetherRealm Studios claimed that workers were “screamed at” when a major Injustice 2 leak went public. According to the site’s anonymous sources, NetherRealm’s president Shaun Himmerick called contractors into an emergency meeting after the leak, which went online two months before the game launched.

“It was just awful. I felt like we were just corralled into a room to be screamed at [by Himmerick],” said one of USGamer’s sources. “It was disturbing. People were upset and crying and I was really shocked that it happened.”

When games or hardware are revealed by third parties, the information that is distributed can be inaccurate or framed in such a way that it can stir up heated responses. Game development is already a tough working environment, so fighting against opinions formed about your work before your company has even revealed it is surely a key peril of the role. Coupled with the heavily reported internal pressure most staff face, and leaks have become an unfortunate reality for those creating the games that are being leaked.

Is there any value in leaks anyway?

Naughty Dog has received sympathy for the leaks, but this is rarely outstretched to other developers affected by smaller leaks.

So why leak games and their reveals in the first place? The job of game journalists, commentators, and anyone covering this industry impartially is to write about the topics that are of interest to our audience. We don’t serve a game’s marketing department; we serve our readers and/or viewers. But who, exactly, benefits from finding out the location, title, plot details, etc. of a game before it has been officially announced?

As a consumer, I wouldn’t want to find out the ending of The Last of Us 2 from a random tweet, because that’d spoil the work that has gone into its story up until that point. Similarly, I imagine most would rather find out about upcoming video games with an official reveal, given that it would provide the necessary context rather than rumors passed around the internet. Still, as an industry, we avoid divulging key information related to the former while broadly covering the latter.

Jason Schreier has been the most noteworthy and reliable source of video game leaks in recent years, with the ex-Kotaku reporter breaking a number of key stories. In response to The Last of Us 2 leak, Schreier tweeted: “Just catching up on this Naughty Dog story and man, no matter how angry you are about your workplace conditions or your pay or whatever else, leaking your whole game just hurts all the other people who were in the trenches with you. So many better ways to channel that rage.”

Previously, Schreier has been responsible for leaking key Fallout 4 details by way of obtaining casting documents, announcing that Fallout 76 would be an online RPG before its reveal, and that 2K is reportedly working on a new BioShock game. Today, Schreier also tweeted about the Assassin’s Creed reveal taking place, referring to an old report of his that suggested the game would revolve around Vikings. Now, these are hardly the same severity as The Last of Us 2 leaks, but it does raise the question of why we draw the line that we do when it comes to what are largely deemed acceptable game leaks.

If concerns over the impact that leaks have on developers are paramount, then it’s arguable that all leaks have lasting ramifications. If it’s because of the way in which The Last of Us 2 was apparently leaked, then it’s also arguable that a protest over alleged mistreatment in the workplace (no matter how self-destructive that protest may be) is more understandable than an insider releasing confidential details just because they have the ability to do so.

Game Revolution publishes these reports just like everyone else — our job is to serve our audience, and as that audience is always interested in reading about upcoming games, we cover leaks and rumors like every other outlet. At this point, failure to do so would be like putting a cork in a sinking ship – an admirable but ultimately useless effort.

However, as we’re all desperately trying to avoid The Last of Us 2 spoilers because of their potential impact of our enjoyment of the game, what exactly is the value of leaks outside of providing readers with information they’ll eventually receive anyway, albeit in a format that lacks the often necessary context of an official reveal? What value do we ever get from learning about a game before it’s officially debuted? At best, we get excited for a new release that might not be anything like its initial leaks suggested it would be. At worst, disappointed readers take their pitchforks to developers based on half-truths and misinformation.

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