This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us Part II and Knives Out. The article may or may not subvert expectations.
We live in an age of spoilers and leaks. It’s reached the point where actually experiencing a piece of media wholly as intended can be a genuine triumph. Faced with the difficult task of giving audiences what they want, subverting expectations to surprise fans is harder than ever, especially of late.
We’ve reached a point where marketing for many major franchises actively lies to us, constructing fake scenes and misdirects that leave us with expectations on falsehoods. Many including me were greatly disappointed at Star Wars Battlefront II’s campaign for not only abandoning the premise offered in its trailers, but outright revealing several of the most iconic lines and scenes were fabricated. The very moments we wanted to see in full, that promised Iden Versio as a powerful and controversial new Star Wars protagonist, were emotes taken out of context.
The same trick, if you can call it that, has spread beyond just games. Avengers: Infinity War had several major differences between the trailer and final release, both with alternate scenes and misdirection by reframing moments out of step with how they occur in the film. Rogue One’s teaser trailer used footage for nonexistent plot points and set pieces that marketing knew wouldn’t be in the actual movie — as if the reshoot mangling weren’t bad enough already.
And yes, The Last of Us Part II was actively presented under a false pretense too. In interviews and marketing, we were told it would be a considerably different experience than the one received — one where you would play only as Ellie, and there was a now infamous scene involving Joel in trailers when he is completely absent from this moment in the final game. Those in favor of the game argue that this was necessary for the game’s many powerful twists. The game’s critics call it outright lying, an abuse of trust between the fanbase and developer Naughty Dog.
In my opinion, both parties are right and wrong, with regards to The Last of Us and other media that has resorted to such product facsimiles to avoid spoiling anything. Absolutely, you can’t just tell your audience everything. If Bungie had told fans that Halo 2 co-starred the Arbiter, how many would’ve thrown up their hands upset without even trying it? Or how about if Captain America: The Winter Soldier had revealed that SHIELD, not Bucky, would serve as the real villain Captain America would go up against? The impact would be utterly lost.
However, there’s also something to be said for frontloading expectations. Let’s not forget Metal Gear Solid 2’s infamous protagonist swap, something some Metal Gear fans still haven’t gotten over. The reason it stung wasn’t that changing to Raiden was impossible, but that there was no real lead-up to anticipate it. Similar things could be said for The Last of Us Part II, which takes a very abrupt turn that could easily have worked if introduced better.
Any good mystery establishes all the important pieces out of the gate. Every question mark is a puzzle waiting to be solved, some connecting together in a web of obscured truth. Just think back to Knives Out. The true nature of Chris Evans’ Ransom Drysdale was shocking. Yet, no one complained about it because it didn’t come out of nowhere. Pay close enough attention, and it becomes obvious that he’s the one man who can slip between the gaps of everyone else’s story. As soon as a certain someone has an alibi, it’s a process of elimination, connecting the dots logically.
As for what that means for something like The Last of Us Part II, well, what if one were to swap the order of events between the first two acts of the story, swapping around the shift in protagonist? You’d actually have a much more natural progression of reveals. We were promised to see where Joel and Ellie ended up, but what if players had to wait to find out? What if that burning question were kept out of arm’s reach, as several more mysteries grew out from there? Instead of dozens of tangled threads with conflicting emotions, we’d have a smooth rise, fall, and ultimate gut punch that answers our biggest question — how and why does it all play out this way?
That wouldn’t make everyone happy. It’d still be a depressing slog of a game, but it would establish the emotional and narrative stakes more clearly for the audience. You have to give your audience just enough to work out the next few steps down the path. Pivot wildly off course and you’ll leave them scrambling in the dark. Mislead them to expect a blue sky only to make it black as night and they’ll struggle to comprehend it or turn away in frustration.
This is why some people hated Star Wars: The Last Jedi. They didn’t want to imagine Luke Skywalker could grow cynical or have certain aspects of the universe subverted. While I’d argue The Last Jedi at least has some reasonable setup from preceding films for why it does what it does, a handful of moments or details could’ve eased some of the reveals — and I say that as a fan.
Yet it’s also this very same franchise that contains one of the best twists — anyone who’s watched The Empire Strikes Back clearly remembers that fateful duel between Darth Vader and Luke on Cloud City. We were misled as to Vader’s true nature, though this was more due to script rewrites. However, George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan found a way to turn this in their favor. The right gaps in one lie primed us for one of the most famous reveals in modern cinema: “No. I am your father.”
How could we know that Obi-Wan was telling the truth? What benefits Vader claiming Luke as his son if it’s a lie? He’s easily dispatched everyone else in his way. Powerful or not, Luke’s continued existence is a threat, unless Vader has genuine motivation to convert his son as his apprentice.
Again, if you look at everything in A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, it all fits. You can’t say it doesn’t make sense or cheapens either character’s arc. We’re informed precisely enough at the right time to feel the exact emotions intended. It’s a tremendous feat and not easily replicated, especially now in a world with 24/7 analysis of every trailer, interview, preview, and leak.
It’s not hard to imagine how difficult it would be to keep this sort of surprise under wraps in today’s media. Everyone expects something to slip out at some point. That doesn’t mean the solution of outright deceit is the best or even easiest alternative. Resources are being wasted to fight a war that’s already lost — those who seek to be spoiled either don’t care if the surprise is revealed out of context or will piece out the truth regardless. It’s like fighting piracy — the only people who typically lose are those playing fair.
With The Last of Us Part II, it’s not simply that we were left in the dark about its twist, but that those involved actively sought to insist otherwise. The Empire Strikes Back wasn’t advertised under false pretenses — nor did it reveal its most chilling moment before release.
Knives Out and Halo 2 equally set the table, offering precisely what was intended, but never unveiling a card up their respective sleeves. Out of every example we’ve looked over, The Last Jedi is actually the most blunt, making it quite clear that the galaxy is on the verge of being swallowed by darkness, along with any hope of reigniting the Jedi. At no point are we given indication it’s going to feature Rey as a Sith Lord or pretend like a major franchise icon might die just to get you worried. Instead, there’s setup and payoff.
Whether in the text itself or the metatextual narrative of the marketing in concert with the final product, it all has to click. You don’t tell a joke without a punchline that fits, so why would you sell a thing one way when it’s another beast entirely? There are obviously unpleasant answers to that question, but what warrants actual discussion is how to walk back from objectively falsifying a product in marketing far beyond the point of even hyperbole.
It’s not that The Last of Us Part II or Battlefront II or any number of pieces of media that relied on this tactic couldn’t have been sold on their own merits. Emphasizing a product’s own strengths should intuitively work best in a piece of media’s favor. You know, like how Skatebird is just “What if Tony Hawk, but birds?!” or how Gears 5 lays everything out yet still has enough surprises to leave you champing at the bit for whatever Gears 6 will bring, especially after its game-changing ending.
We’ve even seen this realization slowly dawning upon at least some studios and IP publishers. Star Wars: Squadrons keeps giving us more details on the way to release, yet we are only beginning to know how the two campaigns will work, what we’ll be doing in each, and how it’ll all work in depth. We have the setup, with room for plenty of payoff.
That’s really what all of this comes down to — lining up the pins and knocking them down just right. That isn’t easy when every project is different, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. What I do know is forcing surprises and relying on overt means of deception is a hell of a bigger risk. I think in the last few weeks, that much has been made obvious. Now more than ever, the world is a hotbed of tension. We feel like we can hardly trust anyone. The last thing we need is more distrust.