The video above is how writers feel whenever they sit down to write a piece of criticism. As more people joined different social circles with people all over the world (and in different time zones), our sense of what our cultural community was expanded exponentially. At the same time, people’s media consumption fell into deeper and deeper niches, and the monoculture that surrounded media consumption fell thanks to things like DVRs, Redbox, Netflix Instant, iTunes and other forms of consuming/purchasing media. It’s entirely possible now for people to find television shows years after their heyday and fall in love with them. Many series, such as The Wire, have found a tremendous uptick in cultural awareness years after they’ve gone off-air.
Games are the same way. Thanks to Steam sales, HD-rereleases, Sony’s PSN Classics, Nintendo’s Virtual Console and services like GoG, the library that a new gamer has to choose from is almost limitless. Also, due to the length and cost of games, more gamers than ever are playing games well after they’ve released, sometimes years after.
These two diverging scenarios have given rise to the spoiler, which is the idea that it is possible to ruin a piece of media by revealing major plot points, thereby “spoiling” the experience.
For people discussing media at a water-cooler, spoilers aren’t that big of a deal. They simply ask the person they’re talking to whether or not they’ve experienced the media they’re about to spoil, and forge ahead based on the response.
Writers have it different.
Writers also have it so much harder.
Game plots have grown in complexity to the point that we are able to write entire pieces dedicated to one game’s ending, something that certainly wouldn’t have been possible in the 8 or 16-bit era, as game stories didn’t really start to exist in their current state until the Playstation. Sure, games such as Final Fantasy and other RPGs have always had story elements, but a game’s story wasn’t at the forefront of most gamers’ minds until the past 10 years. As writers, we want to examine these stories on a deep narrative level. We want to talk about what works and what doesn’t, and we want to talk about where future stories in a series may go.
We can’t really do that, though, because you won’t read it, unless you’ve played the game(s) in question. Examining a game’s story on a deep narrative level is probably one of the most time-consuming things a writer can do, and most times the return on that time investment is limited due to a fear of not having it read by a spoiler-phobic public.
In a way, the fear of spoilers is harming game criticism more than any other form of criticism, because of the length of games and the way the public consciousness moves. If a writer received a copy of Dead Space 3 two weeks before release and had a review and critique of the game’s themes and narrative decisions ready on release day, only one of those pieces is going to be read. However, once enough people have finished the game and can read something without the fear of spoilers, the “iron”, so to speak, would no longer be “hot,” and the public at large would have moved on to something else.
Why do we care about spoilers so much? If anything, a fear of spoilers is actually disrespectful to the content. We used to not regard the reveal of a plot point as more important than the characters or journey, but the obsession over spoilers disregards the journey of a story and instead boils it down to a handful of closely-guarded secrets. Shows like Lost ratcheted up the pressure of spoiler-guarding by keeping most of its secrets hidden away from viewers, even after the finale. Since then, there’s seemingly been a “Lost-ification” of most popular media, thanks to creators like JJ Abrams and Damon Lindelof (both Lost alumni). Even the new Star Trek films are shrouded in a secrecy befitting a grand mystery. Why? In the long run, the good guys always win, so why be so secretive about certain specific plot points? Who cares? It’s easy to understand why certain types of media (competitions come to mind) would not benefit from being spoiled, as in those cases the result is usually what’s most important. Boiling down a story to just the final result and not the journey it took to get there is harmful to storytelling. Why do you think that Prometheus and Mass Effect 3 were such disappointments from a storytelling perspective? It was because the stated purpose of those pieces of media were to provide answers, not to necessarily tell a competent story. The creation of the Xenomorphs in the Alien series has no bearing on enjoying those films. It doesn’t matter one bit, because the first two (maybe three?) films in that series were about tension and atmosphere and about building a world around a strong central character in Ellen Ripley.
It’s time for us as consumers of media to decide what’s really important to our enjoyment of stories, because it’s affecting the creators of stories, too. Most people think that the most recent M. Night Shyamalan films have been terrible, but they haven’t seemed to learn the lesson of why those are terrible films. The idea that a film relies on its ending to bring a swerve to the audience is something straight out of Vince McMahon’s WWE playbook. That’s not what stories should be about. They should be about themes and strong characters, none of which are impacted by some hidden plot point.
Alfred Hitchcock created the term “MacGuffin” when discussing his classic film Psycho. It’s the idea that there’s a plot point that is the impetus of the story, but has no bearing on the story at large. Psycho opens with the theft of a large sum of money by Janet Leigh’s character, who dies in the famous “shower scene” about 20 minutes into the movie. Today’s moviegoers would obsess over the money as a “plot hole,” without realizing that it never mattered in the first place.
The dissatisfaction of audiences with certain stories moves almost lock-step with how fervent the audience and creators are with spoilers. Those who want answers more than anything else will always be disappointed in them. It’s like Morgan Freeman’s character in Seven (Detective William Somerset) said near the end of the film: “If we catch John Doe and he turns out to be the devil, I mean if he’s Satan himself, that might live up to our expectations, but he’s not the devil. He’s just a man.” These secrets are ultimately created and answered by people who, in many cases, never had any intention of answering them. The ending of Lost, which held so much importance to its fans, was basically figured out on the fly. Certain characters who would have featured into the series’ larger mythology (hello, Eko and Walt) were written out of the show due to extenuating circumstances, such as an actor not wanting to live in Hawaii or another aging faster than the show could be filmed.
Game stories suffer the same fate in most cases. The story is written around what is possible from a technical perspective, and entire sections of games which might be thematically relevant are left on the cutting room floor because the story in them doesn’t make for good gameplay, or isn’t technically feasible.
None of this is to say that game stories aren’t important (they are); it’s to say that worrying so much about specific plot points damages your appreciation of the reason why stories are told.
So, embrace the spoiler. Read everything you can, and understand that the worth of a story isn’t in what secrets it’s hidden from you, but in the strength of its characters and theme. Only by embracing the spoiler will we destroy the death grip the creation and protection of them has on us.