Video Game Spoilers Are Good, Actually

Video Game Spoilers Are Good, Actually
Image: Square Enix / Kotaku
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For the most part, the internet is a screaming void where nobody can agree on anything — not even what to scream about. But there is one unspoken rule that a remarkably large number of people hold sacred: no spoilers. Is that for the best, though, or is it limiting our ability to talk about games (and other pieces of media) we love? On this week’s Splitscreen podcast, we discuss spoilers. Then we spoil some stuff.

To kick off our episode about spoilers and twists, Ash, Fahey, and I discuss the role spoilers — or a lack thereof — plays in the discourse around video games, as well as our own conflicted feelings about having things spoiled for us, personally. Then we move on to a historical recap of my favourite video game twist of all time: Metal Gear Solid 2‘s big reveal that velvet-skinned anime boy Raiden, not gruff war dog Solid Snake, would be the main player character. Everyone knows that twist today, but in 2001 the gaming landscape was radically different, allowing Hideo Kojima to pull off the wildest triple-A gaming deception of the decade — if not all time. Finally, we end on a rapid-fire quiz/discussion of nine of video games’ most (in)famous twists. Did you know that in the most recent Bionic Commando game, the guy’s arm is also his wife? Truly groundbreaking stuff.

Get the MP3 here, and check out an excerpt below.

Nathan: But OK so, while games are obviously different and in many cases longer than movies and even TV shows, I’m still a bit looser with spoilers than other people, because I think that our ability to really discuss something in-depth — and especially games that are more narrative-driven or whatever — hinges on our ability to use specific details. Being able to do that is useful in multiple ways, for one because you can discuss a work in its totality — including themes and what it’s trying to say — but also because that leads to more engaging writing and criticism. Like, if I say, “This game is bad or good for reasons X, Y, and Z,” people are going to be like “Well that’s vague,” but if I can be like “Here is something that demonstrates that,” then already that’s a better piece of writing that’s more convincing.

Ash: I can feel where this conversation is going, and I’m already dreading it.

Nathan: Can you… spoil it for me?

Ash: So, we occupy a unique perspective specifically when it comes to spoilers, because sometimes when we write about video games, companies are telling us “This is what you can and cannot write about in terms of spoilers.” I’m inevitably, inexorably, unfortunately drawn to the discussion about The Last Of Us 2, because when people were writing their reviews, the entire back half of the game was not allowed to be spoken about because Naughty Dog said, “No, you can’t.” And yeah, it would be a big spoiler, but thinking about it now in context — you know, hindsight and all that — I don’t think it was too big of a spoiler to mention that you could play as a different character. And as I say this, it’s funny because I’m intentionally dancing around being specific, because I’m afraid there are people out there who are looking at that copy of The Last Of Us 2 on their digital PS4 shelf like “One day,” and then I’m gonna ruin it for them.

The big to-do about that was that for the second half of the game, you play as someone named Abby. You don’t know who Abby is. I think being able to mention that in a game review wouldn’t have been too big of a deal in terms of spoiling specific plot beats. But people were hamstrung in being able to talk authentically and authoritatively about this game in a review for people who were interested, because they were so tied up by Naughty Dog. So it’s like, what is a spoiler, what isn’t a spoiler, what should we be able to talk about so we can talk about things authoritatively? Because that’s why people want to read reviews: They’re authoritative.

Nathan: Even taking it a step back from that, I think the other thing to keep in mind here — and the thing I find compelling about being able to use spoilers in discourse around video games — is that the current status quo prioritises just writing about whether a game is a good product or not. And I think part of that is because a lot of games are expensive, and people want to know if they should buy them. But I think the other part of it is that we’ve spent so long having this weird set of unspoken rules around spoilers that the discourse around video games invariably does not end up focusing on things like themes, or what a game is trying to discuss, or what a game is about.

Instead, in the absence of people’s ability to talk about particular story content, they are instead like “Well, let’s talk about mechanics. Do the guns do the blammos good? Cool. That’s video games, y’all.” But I think games can be a whole, whole lot more and can tell much more compelling stories, or we can discuss the stories they try to tell — whether or not they are compelling — in much more compelling ways. That expands the medium, as well as the way people view it. But as long as we have this ironclad rule around spoiling things and people being really worried about that, then we can’t really do that.

Fahey: First off, a lot of the publishers only embargo spoilers until launch day. They just want to make sure nothing gets out before players get their hands on it, which I can understand. Then after that, you can go in there and say, “Here’s spoilers, spoilers, spoilers. Let’s talk about this.” I hate writing about spoilers because I hate having to demarcate spoilers. Inevitably, you get someone on Twitter going “You spoiled the thing that’s behind 20 spoiler warnings.”

Ash: Do you not like that because inevitably someone will not listen, or do you just not like doing that?

Fahey: I just don’t like the process.

Ash: But I mean, that’s become part of polite conversation. We’d do that if we were talking about anything. Just in a casual conversation, it’d be like “Oh hey, wait a minute, this is spoiling a particularly big point. Plug your ears or something.” I don’t think that’s too onerous. But I understand your frustration, because inevitably somebody will be like “You spoiled this,” and it’s like, bro, you had every opportunity. We took every painstaking means to let you know this would happen, and then you still let it happen. It’s not our fault, at this point. So I get that.

Is there a way that you guys have been unfortunately spoiled? Like, do you care about spoilers at all? Have you had an experience where you were really let down because either you yourself or somebody else inadvertently spoiled something for you?

Nathan: So this is the weird thing for me: Ideologically, I do not care about spoilers and think everybody should just be free to talk about games as they please. But then when it comes to particular games I intend to play, I’m always like “No, don’t tell me about it.” Like, my partner is playing Yakuza: Like A Dragon right now, a game that I intend to start. Any time she’s playing it in our living room, I steer clear, because I want to experience it on my own terms.

So I get not wanting to be spoiled, but at the same time, there’s actually even science that backs the idea that people like spoilers. In a lot of cases, when you have something spoiled for you, you end up in this position where you experience that piece of media differently, but it’s not necessarily worse. You know this specific part is coming, so you can kind of look around at that game or whatever and see the ways it’s foreshadowing what’s going to happen. And also when it gets there, you get to predict it. Predicting things feels good. People love to predict shit. That’s part of why pop music is popular: It engages the parts of our brain that can predict things.

Ash: Huh?

Nathan: Yeah, it’s cool! There is a mechanism in the human brain that likes to predict things, and pop music is formulaic, so in many cases before a song even reaches the thing it’s gonna do, you can already kind of feel it going in that direction.

Ash: You mean, like, melodies and shit? Oh, cool.

Fahey: Yeah, choruses, or you can feel like “Oh, I know what word they’re gonna rhyme with this.”

Ash: Is that why dubstep is so popular: Because you can tell when the beat is gonna drop?

Nathan: Build ups and drops and stuff like that? Yeah, definitely. I mean, dubstep is kind of old now — and we’re all old, too.

But I think that if we were to exist in a more spoiler-permissive world, people would find that they enjoy that, too. They’d be like “This is fun. This is neat. This is a fun way of engaging with media. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”

Fahey: You know, my spouse actually will start a TV series, watch a couple episodes, and then they’ll be on Wikipedia reading about everything else that happens.

Ash: I’ll do that.

Nathan: My partner does that too! Every single thing we watch, she always looks up the ending. So again, I’m conflicted, because I really like to show her things I’ve seen so I can see her react to big moments she’s not expecting — but she is expecting them because she’s read about them on Wikipedia. So that’s a letdown, but it’s also the way that she likes to engage with these things. It’s fun for her, and I get that.

For all that and more, check out the episode. New episodes drop every Friday, and don’t forget to like and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher. Also if you feel so inclined, leave a review, and you can always drop us a line at [email protected] if you have questions or suggest a topic. If you want to yell at us directly, you can reach us on Twitter: Ash is @adashtra, Fahey is @UncleFahey, and Nathan is @Vahn16. See you next week!

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