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Discussing Spoilers: Does It Ruin the Game Experience?

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Friday, Feb 19, 2010
Despite popular opinion, I don't think any kind of spoiler can truly ruin your experience with any game.

Before I ever started playing the original No More Heroes I knew all that it had to offer. I knew it was one giant joke, a playful jab at the entire medium and those who love it. I knew about the purposefully empty open world, that Travis Touchdown was a blatant otaku, that he fought with a “beam” saber, and that he was a parody of the stereotypical gamer. I knew about the over-the-top action, the insane bosses, and the game’s embrace of a retro 8-bit style. I thought it sounded awesome and expected to enjoy it, but I hated it. I hated the jokes, I hated Travis, I hated the side jobs, the open world, the Lucha Libre masks, and grinding for cash.


I’ve often wondered what made me hate the game so strongly in those first few hours, and I believe I hated it because the game was spoiled for me. Much of the game’s charm stems from the joy of discovery. Not “discovery” as in environmental exploration but rather the discovery of an unexpected gem of a game. That experience was spoiled for me by the expectations that I had going in. Most talk of spoilers center around plot twists but even a discussion of the experience can spoil a game. And yet, after the wonderfully anti-climatic battle with Letz Shake, I started to warm to No More Heroes. By the time that I heard that robotic voice announce my impending fight with Harvey Moiseiwitsch Volodarskii, I was enjoying myself. And by the time I finished the game, its crazy charm had made me a fan. Despite that joy of discovery being taken away from me, despite all the hate I had for the game, I still came to love it, and I believe that speaks to just how inconsequential any kind of spoiler is to video games.
  
Other media have more emphasis on story. Books, movies, and theatre are primarily driven by their narratives. Anytime that the narrative takes a back seat in these mediums that particular work is considered more abstract than its peers. Therefore, spoiling the story has a far more devastating effect on the audience’s overall enjoyment because it’s their main focus of interest. (Of course, there are other reasons to read a book or watch a movie or a play: the acting, directing, dialogue, prose, etc. but all those pieces are usually working in service to the narrative.) For games, story is, at most, half of the overall experience. The other half consists of gameplay, and if the gameplay is good, no spoiler can truly ruin the experience.


As a kind of cursory “research” for this post, I dug through the archives of multiple game websites looking for preview coverage of Mass Effect 2. I remembered hearing how such coverage contained “tons of spoilers,” and I avoided it months ago specifically because I wanted to avoid spoilers. Going over the coverage now, I understand why so many fans feared this information: Many sites went over the first hour of the game, spoiling that shocking intro. Each video that introduced a new member of the crew stole a little bit of surprise from the final game and even the last cinematic trailer contained some spoiler scenes. To illustrate just how much was shown before the game was released: I’m nearly 40 hours in with just one member still missing from my crew, and thanks to this preview coverage, I have a good idea who this last member will be. I’m slightly disappointed, but watching all these supposed spoilers with 40 hours worth of knowledge of the final game allows me to see just how little is actually spoiled. There are still major twists not even hinted at. Often times what is hinted at in the preview coverage isn’t what actually happens, or it’s just a possibility. But most importantly, no amount of spoilers can take away the satisfaction that I feel after destroying a merc squad with one shotgun blast and a few perfectly timed biotic powers. Spoilers can’t ruin the fun of gameplay.


Of course, some games have a story with a single twist that is so integral to the overall experience that spoiling it would take away much of the suspense, tension, and excitement building up to that climactic revelation. BioShock, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, and Silent Hill 2 are prime examples. They are stories that build up to a single big surprise, one that makes you reconsider all your actions up to that point in the game. But these kinds of stories are rare. For the most part, knowing what’s coming in a game doesn’t ruin the experience because games are so much more than their story.


Every experience that a player has with any game is a singular experience unique to that player. No matter how linear or scripted a game may be, each person brings their own set of mental baggage to the game. For example, a preference for offensive tactics rather than defensive tactics or vice versa or high or low expectations for the game or an expertise or no knowledge of this specific genre. Because we participate in the action, the experience will always feel unique to us. A game that has branching paths will only amplify this feeling, but the feeling is there regardless. Knowing what’s going to happen an hour from now doesn’t change the second-to-second action. That’s why if a game is enjoyable to play, if it’s something that I want to play then no spoiler can ruin my enjoyment.


I’m looking forwards to Heavy Rain, and for the past few months, I put myself on a media blackout. I don’t want to know what happens or even what could happen. I want to start the game fresh, unaware of the potential consequences for my actions. I also downloaded the demo the day that it came out, and now I’m more excited than before.

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