It’s hard to know the exact the origin of the term “spoiler.” The idea that learning some plot points in advance can ruin a work seems at least somewhat absurd. The Godfather is no less rich for knowing Michael will eventually take his father’s place. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is no less charming and puzzling when you know Gannon will arrive at the end.
Yet there is something irresistible about the impulse to fear total deflation from knowing a story’s surprises, something that likely stems from geek culture. The Awl traces the first popular use of the term to a Usenet discussion about Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, and since then avoiding spoilers has become an unspoken rule. It’s especially prominent in videogame communities where articles, forum posts, and conversations are regularly punctuated with spoiler alerts. What is really at risk of being lost by knowing the ending in advance? If a game can be so easily ruined, could it have been worth that much to begin with?
“We try to maintain a fairly high level of secrecy regarding what the specific plot and story beats are for an upcoming game,” Justin Richmond, Game Director at Naughty Dog, says. “When making the Uncharted games, we try to build them as much like a roller coaster as possible, so the player is constantly off-kilter and the game is a rush to play.”
In this way videogames, like the storytelling media that precede them, are most cherished when they deliver surprise. To forgo this surprise and its consequent gift of reflection untouched by anyone else’s theories is to have spoiled a work entirely.
“I myself hate to be spoiled,” Dino Patti, CEO and co-founder of the Limbo developer Playdead, explains. “I really like to be unbiased. If there’s a movie I want to see, I stop the trailer before it starts because the best experiences I’ve had are when I didn’t know anything in advance.”
In some ways, the desire to experience a story without any prior exposure is a way of adding play into something inherently non-interactive. You cannot change the course of a movie or a novel, but in trying to decipher what will happen next you have some small way of investing yourself in an otherwise didactic platform.
“You’re supposed to be going along not knowing what’s going to happen, you’re supposed to be beguiled just like the main character,” Jason Rohrer, developer of Sleep is Death, Primrose, and Passage, says “That experience is very powerful, the revelation. It gives you chills and makes your mind reel, but maybe it’s not as rich as some of the other things we can do with these media.”
Earlier this year, Rohrer released the New Gamist Manifesto, a list of principles that challenge common thinking about games. The first tenet is “Games do not have spoilers.” Rohrer acknowledges that some of his earlier games could have affected players differently without the element of surprise, like knowing your spouse would die in Passage or that your child will leave when you start taking him for granted in Gravitation, but would these experiences really be ruined by knowing in advance what was coming?
“That line of thinking was more a way of railing against linear story-structured games, which are very popular and prevalent,” Rohrer says. “There’s going to be something hidden in the game that you don’t want to find out about because you want to find out about it in the linear pre-scripted way that it’s going to be delivered to you in.”
In games like Shadow of the Colossus and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, there is some cross-over between linear storytelling and linear game design. These games both have significant mechanical changes towards the end, a transformation into a colossus in one case and a switch from stealth control to an analog stick-based sword fighter in the other. To create surprise at a dramatic moment in the game fiction, the game must sacrifice some mechanical intensity by introducing new controls, movement speed, and orientation.
“The ability to fly, or shoot fireballs late in the game might be a surprise if I hadn’t heard about it beforehand, but doesn’t really affect how much or little I think of a game,” Richmond says. “In fact, I usually find the reverse is true in games. Introducing mechanics late in a game without enough run up or training on how to use them is a much more damaging, and unfortunately common, proposition.”
This falls in line with another of Rohrer’s tenets, that playing games is more like learning a new language. In this analogy, surprise may well be present, but generally irrelevant to the real process of absorbing the scope and personal capacity of the language. If the real value of a game is as an expressive system designed to empower abstract interaction between people, introducing a surprising new twist obscures its truest purpose.
“Games themselves are not a storytelling medium, rather they are a space for gamers to create stories themselves,” Peter Zackariasson, a researcher at University of Gothenburg and partner in the game consultancy CIN, explains “If you look at a game that has both gameplay and storytelling, like Mirror’s Edge, the gameplay didn’t really fit with the storytelling.
“I think most gamers that completed Mirror’s Edge enjoyed running and jumping and solving puzzles, but the story was just in the background leading the player forward. The game would still be enjoyable without a story,” he continues.
Indeed, Mirror’s Edge is a series of simulated physical experiences without arbitrary tool upgrades or stat boosts. It draws players through a constructed environment that gradually asks them to do more and more with the mechanics they’ve had from the beginning. Knowing that you’ll end up on a skyscraper rooftop at the end of the game doesn’t ruin any of that sensorial exhilaration.
“For Limbo, there were spoilers out early,” Patti says. “There were speed runs out three days before the game came out. One of the reviewers had speed run it. He asked us if he could release it. I said, ‘I can’t stop you, but I would really appreciate you waiting until it’s out.'”
Limbo is a game built around puzzles that generally possess only one possible solution; knowing how that solution in advance would deflate much of the meaning of the experience for the player. Similarly, Braid is a game that seems especially vulnerable to mechanical spoilers. Jonathan Blow published his own walkthrough when the game was released, in anticipation of all the others that would threaten to diminish the experience of his creation. The twist was that Blow’s walkthrough only described the most elementary parts of the hub, and players were chastised for clicking on the link for the next section. “Braid is about the journey, not the destination,” Blow wrote in the walkthrough’s conclusion. “If you use a walkthrough to bypass some of the puzzles, you will be robbing yourself of that journey.”
The reason puzzle games can be spoiled so easily is because they lack mechanical ambiguity. In fictional terms, they’re like mystery stories whose function is entirely dependent on surprise. Once you know how everything is done there’s a palpable reduction in the experience. They work best as a one-way experience, like a serial that compensates for its lack of thematic richness by withholding its literal secrets for as long as possible.
Games are at their richest and most ambiguous when played with other people, as simultaneous acts of expression and interpretation. “When you think about chess and why it works, people will talk about it as a puzzle generating system where you and the other player are posing micro-puzzles to each other,” Rohrer says. “Each new game is a whole new set of puzzles for you to face. Seeing games as puzzle generating systems as opposed to containers or capsules or vehicles for delivering puzzles is a more interesting way to look at games.” In that light, the only way a game can truthfully be ruined is if one side declines to contribute anything.
This still leaves the question of story spoilers open. Someone’s experience with BioShock might be different if they knew Fontaine’s secret in advance, but an effected experience is not at all the same as a spoiled experience. When I played BioShock I already knew that I was a puppet, so when I reached the shocking reveal I appreciated its cruelty and simplicity. I knew it was coming, but I had time to absorb how thoroughly the groundwork had been prepared for it. There was such a rich context for that turn that I feel I got more out of BioShock precisely because it had been spoiled for me. What I’d sacrificed in that split second shock, I gained in hours of enriched experience tracing the theme of free will through every in-game experience.
I still struggle to understand why people invest so much in the idea of spoilers. In a spoiler-free world anyone could have been Luke Skywalker’s father. Ahab might have outlived his whale. Henry IV could still be drinking in a pub. Clarissa Dalloway might have walked out on her husband. Choosing to remain in this world of uncommitted possibility feels dishonest to me, favoring the momentary excitement of revelation over a confrontation with what those final, fixed moments mean. It’s like a child wanting to live in a world where the presents under the Christmas tree are perpetually wrapped and they all have her name on them. The moment of discovery is not the end, but the beginning. If the gift is worth having it won’t need any wrapping at all. The shiny paper only prolongs the reconciliation between what you were hoping for and what you got.
Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. He is a Contributing Editor to IGN and The Faster Times, and has written for the ABC World News, Nerve, Edge, Gamasutra, EGM, and others. You can follow him at www.manoamondo.com.