Spoiler Warning

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They’re not ruining your life, our country, or anyone’s complexion. Just meaningful discussion about videogames.

Admit it. You were scared to read past the heading, that ever-familiar bolded six-letter signpost taunting your trust. It wasn’t so long ago that I would have felt the same. Covering my ears whenever someone even hinted at rolling out a verbal storyboard of a game’s content. But I’ve discovered that most of the tidbits of knowledge that have dis-affectionately been labelled as spoilers, are in fact nothing of the sort. And not only that but, hiding most of this knowledge away from each other takes away from what we could get out of our games rather than holding it safe.

More than fans of any other medium, videogame players fear even the most inconsequential of information being passed on, in case their premier playthroughs are affected in even the most minuscule of ways.

If you haven’t read Romeo and Juliet you should probably tune out for couple of sentences while I spoil the ending for you.

They die.

Indeed, everybody between here and the farthest reaching section of the Horsehead Nebula, except possibly Widget the World Watcher, are aware of the ultimate fate of Shakespeare’s two star-crossed lovers. Does knowing how the couple’s misadventure ends remove any of the pathos from the story? No, its content is no less interesting.

Rotten Apple

It’s amazing what content revelations gamers will get their proverbial knickers in a twist over. In fact, things have really gotten out of hand. This is clearly a result of the player culture losing track of what the word spoiler really means. But even that’s beside the point: why are we scared of discovering what areas, characters and objects our avatars will come across during the course of our (variably) 4 to 80 hour experience?

Perhaps it is because most games are more akin to fairground haunted house rides, filled to the brim with jumps and tons of tacky fun, but little in the way of substantive story. Revealing elements of gameplay lays out on the table the only things that these games have going for them. Daft novelties. Part of the problem could also be the form’s reliance on sequels. Plots are never finished. It’s as if those who have discovered a given game’s secrets can never truly be sure that the seemingly inconsequential moments aren’t going to take on a much larger, more important, role in the future of an IP’s lifespan. It’s a hard question to answer, and there’s probably multiple reasons for this desire for secrecy. One thing’s for certain: the gaming community’s need for all but the most basic of information to remain in ‘spoiler territory’ is driving discussion on gaming as a medium into the ground.

Becoming aware that Assassin’s Creed takes place in a virtual environment within the game was information audiences moaned, screamed, and raged about before the title’s release, even though the so-called “spoiler” is exposed in the first few minutes of the game – and is in actuality one of the less interesting points relating to its plot and themes. More recently, there were a few gamers with ruffled feathers because of the MTV Multiplayer Blog revealing that the character from the first Bioshock is, unsurprisingly, featured in the game’s sequel as a kind of religious, messiah-like figure. Neither of these should actually spoil the substance of either of the two games. The worst part is the same spoiler tags would have spread were these narrative points to be discussed post each of the game’s release dates.

SpoilersThe real drawback of this obsession with keeping the content of our games more secret than a Freemason’s handshake is that it prevents us from having any real discussion about them beyond, “they were fun”, or “the x button allows the player to kick”. It’s also part of the reason the gaming media is filled with clichés such as “compelling narrative/gameplay” and “visceral action”. The old adage “show but don’t tell” is near impossible when one is beset on all sides by angry mobs screaming “SPOILER!” Can you imagine if film critics and/or the film-going public had to hold their tongue if they wanted to talk about the locales that a character visited in a film, the antagonists contained within, or the themes and drama of their celluloid worlds? Most likely not, so why is it that game criticism should be any different? It really shouldn’t be, and in fact in many ways it should be less of an issue.

In reality it should be easier to let information – even what some may call “spoilers” – out of the bag when it comes to games. For these virtual lands contain experiences, not just opportunities for observations. No matter what your knowledge of their content is, the enjoyment that can be gleaned from each is experiential. Prior knowledge can colour your adventure, but when it comes down to it, a great experience is simply that.

Just as you know what’s probably going to be on the table at Christmas dinner – or your culture’s relevant holiday meal – the joy of eating isn’t lessened any by having a precognitive knowledge of its contents. A good game shouldn’t be any different. Sure, major twists and turns of plot are best left hidden from us because they often offer up exciting narrative directions, but beyond these elements, general game content shouldn’t need to remain secret. So next time you discover information about a game’s world prior to exploring it yourself, and begin to feel an anger gurgling in your throat, hold off for a second and think deeply. Question whether or not what you’re about to label a spoiler is actually something that is going to ruin the game experience altogether. Chances are it’s not.


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Tristan Kalogeropoulos

Founding member of RedKingsDream, a bored buffoon, Tristan spends his days waiting for an epiphany. He has been told by people he trusts that some guy called Godot will be dropping one off soon. Tristan knew he should have paid the extra for registered post. As you can most likely tell, it’s actually Tristan who’s writing this and he should probably stop before he makes more of a fool out of himself than he already has. Why am I talking about myself in the third person? I don’t know. You can follow me on Twitter, or not. See if I care.

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12 comments

  1. You’re right – gamers should worry even less about spoilers than fans of other media. Clint Hocking made the point about it’s impossible to spoil a game mechanic because of it’s interactive nature. Some people took umbridge at the idea, saying that “of course mechanics can be spoilt!” but rather I think it’s more the meaning or implication of the mechanic that gets spoilt, but I digress.

    tl;dr – games are experiences, nothing can replace the essential experience, not a story, not a spoiler, not a review, nothing.

  2. I largely agree with you both, Tristan and Ben, but ultimately, when we’re talking about experience, *surprise* is an integral part of that experience. So I can agree with you, but there is something that is lost if you’re expecting something to happen rather than being completely surprised by it. Your experience is changed – however little – by knowing what is coming.

  3. This whole piece seems to me to just take how the author feels about spoilers and apply it universally, as if everyone experiences games in the exact same way. News flash: they don’t. Some people value the experience of discovering things for themselves and react when events or environments are discourteously revealed to them. I think it’s perhaps reasonable to ask why these people read about games they’ve decided they want this experience of, but to just treat it as if it’s a silly obsession is sort of insulting, I think.

    Once I’ve decided I want to play a particular game, I don’t read anything about it and I don’t participate in discussions about it. If people are twittering about it I’ll unfollow them because this is how I like to experience a work. I treat books and film the same way because the experience of finding things out on my own is important to me. If people who don’t care about that want to engage in clearly marked spoiler discussions about works then so be it–but I’m not joining in, and I think it’s a bit absurd to belittle the way I want to experience a work in the way that this piece does.

  4. I respectfully disagree, you fun-hating bastard!

    Knowing that Romeo and Juliet are goners does allow us to analyse the play in a conscious way, which can reveal a lot about how Shakespeare uses foreshadowing, irony, tragedy and so on. But I think it makes it less enjoyable to watch, for the same reason: it makes the audience think about the plot structure, rather than live in the moment.

    Some movies benefit from a second viewing. Usually, the first viewing gives you the most immersive, emotionally involving experience. On the second viewing, you are more detached and observant of small details – that’s when you get the satisfaction of noticing how the director set up viewers’ expectations with certain lines of dialogue or cinematic sleight-of-hand, or how a crucial late plot point was set up early in the film.

    If you already know major plot points the first time you watch a film, you automatically slip into that second-viewing mode. You think about how the plot will get from where it is now to where it is then, rather than allowing it to carry you along. You may try to predict the outcome as you go along – indeed, a lot of films invite the player to unravel the threads as they watch – but not knowing the right answer is what makes that fun, like not knowing the outcome of a football game. Memento is a perhaps the ultimate example of a film that forces the audience to guess the sequence of events, but is enjoyable precisely because it withholds information.

    Of course, games (& books & plays &c.*) are not films. But despite what the Clint Hockings of the game design world imply, traditional narrative techniques are not irrelevant to games. That’s a whole other topic, but I think it’s fair to say the fun of playing a game and the fun of watching a story unfold are not mutually exclusive. I would argue that they amplify each other, even if they constrain each other as well.

    I tend to agree that avoiding spoilers can hamper critical discussion of games. Any attempt to seriously analyse the content of a game should probably be exempted from spoiler warnings, if only because a close reading of a game is written for people who have already played it. Forming impressions of a game from reading a close reading, without having played it yourself, is just a more intellectual version of criticising a review score for a game before the release date. Ideally, critical discussion shouldn’t need spoiler warnings because only those who have experience with the game can make a fair contribution. (For supporting evidence, see Michael Atkinson’s games collection.)

    In contrast, any writing directed at people who have not yet played the game does its readers no favours by revealing details rather than leaving them to be discovered. It’s not necessary: good movie reviewers are able to discuss and describe films without providing many details beyond the initial premise. A review by Margaret and David generally leaves you with a sense of what the movie is like, but little knowledge of the plot beyond what you could learn from a preview.

    To someone who has not yet played a game, spoilers serve only to dilute the impact of the experience of playing. That can apply to game mechanics as well as plot points, despite the argument made by Clint Hocking that Ben mentioned above. Let’s take an example from one of the classics:

    There is a moment in Half-Life when the player abruptly has all their weapons taken away. (Oh, apologies to the one guy in the world who still hasn’t played Half-Life.) Up until that point, the player has (probably) been carefully conserving ammunition, reserving their more powerful weapons, working out how to take down enemies with the pistol or the crowbar. They might have built up a mighty collection of firepower this way – until abruptly, it’s all taken away. That’s infuriating, right? Well, no. The satisfaction of the game is derived from what you do, not what you have, so all that hard work has not been invalidated as long as it was fun at the time. (If it wasn’t fun, that’s a game design problem.) If the player knew in advance when and where they were going to lose all their kit, they could burn through their ammunition stocks just in time to arrive at the kidnapping scene with no bullets left – and thus completely remove the gameplay effect of the scene and lose the engaging tension of conserving ammunition that is a central part of the gameplay.

    Granted, Tristan, you’re arguing against minor spoilers rather than major plot twists like the Half-Life example above. I think they all fall on a sliding scale, though: it is easiest to describe how large, twisty plot surprises affect the experience of the game, but smaller plot points provide the same kinds of enjoyment, just to a lesser degree. For example, knowing what one pokemon looks like before you find it in the game won’t change your experience much, but knowing what they all look like will, cumulatively, take a lot of the fun out of discovering them.

    tl;dr: spoilers make games less fun; game mechanics can be spoiled too; I need an editor.

    P.S. My girlfriend has the t-shirt with that movie-spoilers graphic on it, and is also the most spoiler-phobic person I know. It must be a face-your-fears thing.

    *Is there a good, concise term that means “all kinds of narrative media objects, like games, books, films and so on”? The only ones I can think of are ambiguous: “narrative experiences” is my best effort so far, but it’s not clear enough to use outside an academic essay. There should be a term for this that prevents us from needing to say “games, books, films, plays and stories (and maybe sometimes songs and other stuff)”.

  5. “Knowing that Romeo and Juliet are goners does allow us to analyse the play in a conscious way, which can reveal a lot about how Shakespeare uses foreshadowing, irony, tragedy and so on. But I think it makes it less enjoyable to watch, for the same reason: it makes the audience think about the plot structure, rather than live in the moment.”

    From an analytical standpoint, then, the second viewing is far more useful. As someone who often enjoys the analysis more than the spectacle of the initial experience, that makes the first experience the least enjoyable.

    I guess this is debating which side of a hammer is more useful–depends on if you’re trying to hammer a nail in or pull it out.

  6. Erik: yes, precisely the point I was stumbling around! The knowledge of what will happen puts the viewer at arms length from the action, so the second or “spoiled” viewing is more analytical but less emotionally engaged.

    The perfect analogue is a joke. Being told a joke you’ve already heard is less likely to make you laugh, but it becomes easier to spot how the humour is constructed the second time around.

  7. @Erik: Do you watch for fun or do you watch for insight? In my books, a James Cameron movie only holds up to the first viewing – any discussion about what happened in True Lies made it that much less enjoyable, no matter how small the spoiler.

    I think some of the emotive reactions come from the time investment involved – spoiling a minor point in a 90 minute movie isn’t that cutting, largely because there isn’t any real personal investment in watching the movie. However, spoiling the whole movie (a la The Crying Game), invalidates the point of the experience entirely, understandably making people rather unhappy.

    The investment is so much higher for a game that I think people become far more sensitive to spoilers; when you’re playing something that has a 40 hour story, those twists and reveals are often the only thing that can keep you going!

    Sure, knowing that you lose your weapons at some point may not ruin the game or the overarching story, but it might very well ruin that three hour lull that you’ve been desperately fighting your way through …

  8. “Memento is a perhaps the ultimate example of a film that forces the audience to guess the sequence of events, but is enjoyable precisely because it withholds information.”

    I’m constantly amazed whenever I hear people talk of that film who apparently did not see the pattern to how the story is laid out.

    That film does NOT invite you to guess the sequence of events. It’s not in a random order or anything.

  9. @Tristan: I have to agree with the disagreers on this one. Whereas it’s true that one has to be free to expose (spoil) all of a game’s details in order to have a meaningful critical analysis of it, it’s not true that the reading audience has no desire to be warned of this fact. What I think it boils down to is this: By all means, spoil whatever you want,. Just preface it with the words “spoiler warning”. I don’t see how those two words limit the quality of your critical analysis in the least, so overall, isn’t this really a non-issue?

    On a separate point, you haven’t supported the claim that spoilers are a larger issue in games criticism than they are in criticism of other media. Romeo and Juliet is far, far from a representative example of spoiler potential in other media. (Try something contemporary.) I’m one of those people that’s paranoid about spoilers, but I’m equally paranoid about games, movies, TV, and books.

    @Christopher Hyde, who wrote “I think it’s perhaps reasonable to ask why these people [those who hate spoilers] read about games they’ve decided they want this experience of”

    When you know you want to play Game X and you don’t want it to be spoiled for you, it’s reasonable to ask why you’re reading articles about Game X.

    When you think you might want to play Game X, and you need more information, then you are in the perilous position of finding reviews that will give you the information you need without spoilers.

    When you know you want to play Game X, are carefully avoiding articles about Game X, yet when reading an article that’s completely unrelated to Game X the author pops in a spoiler for Game X without warning, then you are rightfully upset.

  10. [...] almost nothing is purely one kind of narrative or another. Anything that could be considered a spoiler is almost certainly embedded; cut-scenes, for example, are purely embedded narrative (unless you [...]

  11. [...] almost nothing is purely one kind of narrative or another. Anything that could be considered a spoiler is almost certainly embedded; cut-scenes, for example, are purely embedded narrative (unless you [...]

  12. [...] won’t mention all of them (for the sake of anti-spoiler goons knocking down my door), but there were some great character deaths in the stories of some of [...]

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