Spoilsport: On Gaming's Unhealthy Obsession With Spoilers
A few weeks ago, I was emailing with a friend about Brütal Legend. He had played and loved the game and thought I was farther along in the story than I was. In fact, I had just begun to play it. In the course of our discussion -- me wondering why the gameplay was boring me to death, he trying to convince me to hang in there -- my friend, in an aside about the story, revealed the content of a late-game surprise. "Oops," I e-mailed back. "I'm not that far yet." He apologized, saying he hoped he had not ruined the game for me. I responded by saying that I really could not care less, since it is rarely the what that affects me when I am playing a game. To me, what happens during the ending of a game is not that interesting. What is interesting is the manner in which the ending of a game is framed and the constellation of detail that accumulates around an ending. As a gamer, I am most affected by the how.
This is actually Honus Wagner.
This attitude is, by all evidence, not widely held among gamers. Reviews and blog posts about games -- and, tellingly, a lot of genre films -- are often strewn with SPOILERS AHEAD warnings, as though the reader who truly wishes to avoid the premature disclosure of certain aspects of a game's story or other elements is an automaton with a non-functioning "stop reading" button. I have come to believe that the general obsession with spoilers among gamers is a pox that must be eradicated. For one thing, it is deeply infantilizing. For another, it presupposes that what makes a story interesting is the mere act of revelation rather than the skill with which something is revealed. To put it another way, the fact that Anna Arkadyevna throws herself under a train is a spoiler. So is the fact that Robert Jordan is mortally wounded while attempting to blow up the bridge outside of Segovia. So is the fact that Quint is bitten in half by a great white. So is the fact the fact that Atlas is actually Frank Fontaine. Knowing these facts beforehand did not take one iota away from the pleasure I had in reading "Anna Karenina" or "For Whom the Bell Tolls," watching "Jaws," or playing BioShock. The real pleasure came from elsewhere: how Anna is driven to her desperation at the train station, how Jordan faces up to the moment of his death, how Quint desperately pounds upon the snout of his devourer, and how Atlas' cheerful brogue dissolves into Fontaine's cruel growl. I would argue that the more dependent a work of art's emotional power is upon the lizard-brain surprise generated by some putatively shocking revelation, the more cheaply sensationalistic that work of art probably is. (What this probably means is that a lot of videogames are, indeed, cheaply sensationalistic.)
This thing will kill a lot of Locusts.
My first encounter with the feared totemistic power of the videogame spoiler occurred when I was writing about the making of Gears of War 2 for The New Yorker, a magazine not noted for its videogame coverage. During my extremely pleasant visit to Epic's studio in Cary, N.C., five months before the game's release, I accidentally learned, long before any other journalist, that the game would include a mortar. Wow, I thought. That's pretty neat. The good people of Epic, however, accustomed to the invasive tendencies of traditional videogame journalism, were greatly concerned by my having learned of this mortar. I assured them that their secret was safe with me and they warily accepted this. One Epic employee helpfully explained that the obsession with keeping game content under tightly wrapped tarpaulins has everything to do with the industry's tech origins, when so much of what distinguished one company from another was the stuff only it had figured out how to do. So it was not as if I blamed them; but, at the same time, worrying that much about a prematurely disclosed mortar seemed to me to suggest creative priorities that are, to say the least, profoundly weird. The only weirder thing, I suppose, is responding to the carefully timed news that a game has a mortar as though this is actually important.
The novelist John Gardner once said that there are basically two stories: someone comes to town; and someone leaves town. I would agree with that. I would also argue that there are basically only two twists: they are not who you think they are; and this is not where you think you are. Storytelling is an ancient art, and human beings have been exposed to it long enough by now to know most of the storyteller's tricks. Good storytelling manages to convince you that you have forgotten the tricks, even -- and perhaps especially -- when you are perfectly aware what is coming. Of course, no one wants to have every twist and turn within a story revealed to them, and any critic that takes it upon him- or herself to provide that service merits public stoning. Luckily, I can think of no reputable critic who understands his or her duty in this way. A good critic, I think, develops a sixth sense for the kinds of surprises that can in good conscience be revealed, the kinds of surprises that should only be hinted at, and the kinds of surprises that are best left completely out of the discussion. Many big, flashy surprises, such as Atlas' real identity, are bound to leak into public consciousness long before most people play a game anyway. But gamers are losing track of what makes a story a story when they mystically endow anything inherent to the discussion of storytelling as a "spoiler." For their part, critics are badly misapplying their energies when, years after BioShock's release, they are still warning of spoilers while writing about BioShock's third act. Worse are the readers who upbraid any critic who fails to preface any disclosure about BioShock's third act with a spoiler warning. Here is a spoiler: Eventually, you have to grow up.
Apparently this game wasn't very good.
If you disagree with this, you might profitably ask yourself why music criticism, literary criticism and film criticism are largely absent of hand-wringing worries about spoilers. I suspect this is the case because most of the people who pay enough attention to music, literature and film to want to read intelligent criticism about it do not think of themselves as hapless consumers at the spoiler's loose-lipped mercy. To interact with any creative work, whether a videogame, an album, a book or a film, is, in a very real sense, to be its co-creator, to pull from its core your own personal meaning and significance. To worry about spoilers is to cede this co-creative power; it is to make oneself a bystander in an active imaginative process. With videogames, we have nothing less than one of the most involving and potentially powerful forms of art in the whole history of the world -- a form of art whose interactivity has everything to do with the how rather than the what. Worrying about a mortar, or who the hell is Frank Fontaine, or that (spoiler!) the final confrontation in Assassin's Creed II is a fistfight with a fat guy, is not even infantilizing. Babies, after all, do not like surprises.
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