Rethinking the spoiler: how knowing the outcome can enhance gameplay
This article ends with a reflection on Mass Effect 3 and how, though I knew the ending, it never really cheapened my experience with the game. Now no-one really needs to read this thing–I’ve told you how it ends. What follows is exposition, a few details, some elaboration, and a defense of my argument. But you don’t need to read it. You know where I’m going to end up.
Last spring, I was nearing the end of a nine-month preparation period for my PhD qualifying exam. I had a list of 300 books, poems, films, dramas, and graphic novels (give or take) to read/watch and take two written tests on, followed by an oral defense of my answers in front of a committee of my professors. While I had planned to take the test before the release of Mass Effect 3, it didn’t happen. Instead, I bought the game and let it sit in its wrapper for a week or two, vowing not to play it until I passed my exams. As anyone who follows video game news can guess, the fallout from the game’s ending led to countless rants from critics and gamers alike, and, as much as I tried to stay away from it all, a post on my Facebook news feed revealed in terse, clear detail how the game ends. Royally brassed off, I shut my computer down and went back to studying.
It was during this time of extreme textual immersion that I began to rethink what it means to have a story spoiled. After all, I had been reading books on such a massive scale that I found it easier to read summaries and then the actual novel, helping me move through them more efficiently. But it did not hit me until I was re-reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood that I understood how a text can build suspense despite the reader’s knowing the outcome. The novel tells the true story of the murder of the Clutter family that took place in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959 and the ensuing manhunt and eventual trial. In Cold Blood works on a technical level because Capote, by playing with novel structure and by withholding information, builds suspense even though the audience knows that the perpetrators were caught and executed. And people lapped it up.
It’s called the “paradox of suspense,” and, depending on which theorist you believe, it may or may not actually exist. The concept deals with the question of whether suspense can survive certainty. First-time readers and viewers have the luxury of not knowing what will happen in the text, but people still come back to read books and watch films regardless of knowing the outcome. We all knew the ship would sink, yet we saw Titanic. Despite several re-reads, Cormac McCarthy’s stark prose in Blood Meridian still terrifies and mystifies me. I can’t help but be elated when I re-read the battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers, and Gandalf makes his triumphant return. And, to this day, I still get chills at the end of The Six Sense when M. Night Shyamalan reveals that the creepy kid’s psychiatrist was Bruce Willis the whole time…spine-tingling.
I enjoy these works (except Titanic–just don’t like it) because they are well-made and offer more than just a story. We enjoy the visuals, the direction, the acting in a cinema masterpiece. An author’s use of language and form can elevate an interesting (or uninteresting) plot into a powerful work of art. These great works use the individual components and techniques unique to their respective media to create a cohesive whole that compliments or facilitates narrative in ways that make the final product more than the sum of its parts.
Great games operate on a similar level by putting the narrative in service to the gameplay, and gameplay by its very definition, cannot be spoiled. Experiencing a game is completely subjective (even more so than viewing a film or reading novel) because gameplay affords every player a completely different experience. My time with Commander Shepard, Dovahkin, Mario, or any other game character was precisely my time. I lined up her crosshairs. I made my character swing his sword. I controlled the jumps. All these experiences could not be explained to or spoiled for me simply because a game requires player input to be fully enjoyed. Saying that revealing a game’s narrative spoils the game is akin to saying that because someone describes to you the taste of a steak dinner, you cannot enjoy eating it. Well, in my experience, whether someone describes the flavor or not, a steak tastes damn good to me.
Knowledge of a game’s narrative conclusion, though, most certainly changes the way we experience it. For instance, knowing that John Marston dies at the end of Red Dead Redemption shrouds the narrative in a darkly humorous irony about a crisis of masculine toughness found in the closing of the frontier. My second playthrough invested in Marston’s actions a sense of melancholy, a sad elegy for the West as Marston’s transgressions become understood as a a brutal inheritance he passes to his son. In another example, foreknowledge of Joker’s death in Batman: Arkham City allows the player to pay close attention of the dynamics between Batman and his arch-nemesis, looking for subtle clues about the ending to come. The result is a game the player can view in its totality instead of focusing on a purely narrative-driven experience.
When I finally got around to playing to Mass Effect 3 after a night of drinking to my success after the exams, my initial disappointment over finding out about the game’s final moments evaporated. I engaged not with the narrative itself but with the concept of knowing that any control I had over the circumstances would be undone. Mass Effect 3 became a meta-commentary about game design, an activity we engage in by believing we can manipulate worlds and stories, but our characters (and ourselves) are always bound by the developers’ designs. I felt like I was playing an exercise in nihilism, a game that would lead me to victory and slap me in the face. When the credits rolled, I didn’t feel cheated or upset because the ending didn’t disappoint me. I knew what to expect.
I’m not so naive as to think that people should not be upset by having the stories they cannot wait to experience spoiled because someone decided to blab about plot twists and narrative surprises. But lamenting a revealed plot that appears in a medium that require subjective gameplay represents a misunderstanding of how games function. Focusing attention on spoilers neglects the facets of games that allow for appreciation and criticism of the medium because it detracts from that which sets games apart from other media–play. Instead of looking at spoilers as annoying problems or cause to bitch about injustices on message boards, we should use the foreknowledge of a game’s ending or its major plot twists to open our eyes to the particular ways games facilitate narrative through gameplay. And if you continued to read this article despite your foreknowledge of its ending, I hope you did so because you found its content worth reading–because God knows you didn’t do it for the plot.