How I Learnt to Love The Spoiler
Ah the spoiler, chances are you hate them, but maybe you shouldn’t.
That being said, before you read this piece, please be warned that there are spoilers for the plots of the following games:
Bioshock | Metroid | The Last of Us | Silent Hill 2 | Heavy Rain | Detroit: Become Human | Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain | Fallout 4
Andrew Ryan knocks a golf ball about his office like a CEO with too much time on his hands. As you approach his city, which he has committed his life to building, crumbles around him. He no longer cares, he simply wants to prove himself right, you and your trusty navigator wrong.
‘What separates a man from a slave? Money? Power? No. A man chooses; a slave obeys’
You’ve spent the entire game in control of your character even during scenarios which could have easily been cutscenes, until now. The game takes a cinematic approach not seen since the opening and reveals that not only did you hijack and crash the plane that brought you to Rapture but that your thoughts, memories and motivates haven’t been your own for the entire game.
‘Stop, would you kindly’.
You thought you were directing the actions of this story, controller in hand, but it was never you. At best you’re the pawn of Atlas/Fontain. At worst you’re the game designers fool, being convinced you have some modicum of freedom. You are little more than a conduit.
‘A man chooses; a slave obeys.’’
You are handed the Golf club
You’ve been tricked, the rug pulled out from under you, you no longer want to kill this man. You don’t know if you wanted any of this, you don’t even know who you are really playing as. It is too late. You strike Andrew.
‘A man chooses!’
Another sickening thud of thick metal on skull.
‘A slave Obeys!’
He can barely get the words out anymore. You’re disgusted, but that doesn’t matter.
You embed the end of the club in his head. What will you do now, be a slave or a man, or do you even have a say at this point? Is the game just going to tug you along its predetermined path with you a willing voyeur? Bioshock has just pulled off one of the most notorious twists in gaming.
But you probably already knew that. It is much more likely that it was spoilt for you, as it was for me. Either you are reading this with a vague recognition of the themes, plot and reveal or you played the game, read this opening and quickly realised. I’ve never beaten Bioshock. I played its opening hours twice, I’ve completed Bioshock Infinite, but I have never reached this scene myself. However due to the nature of commentary and media around games I am familiar enough with it to quote back to you the majority of this moment with a relative accuracy.
Back when magazines were the main source of gaming news, they could pull fast ones like this all the time. The classic example is the revelation at the end of Metroid, if the game was completed fast enough, that Samus is a woman and not the grizzled space marine many excepted. Due to the difficulty of these tasks and limited access to capture devices on the consumer end, endings and secrets like this spent months as little more than hearsay. The knock-on effect of this was a lore and uncertain mystique being constructed around many games. Character unlocks in fighting games were a common rumour, where if certain requirements were met you’d be granted access to playable boss characters. More often than not these rumours were bogus; ranging from the elaborately staged (where a magazine would fake screenshots to fuel April Fool’s beliefs) to the childish (everyone’s uncle worked at Nintendo at some point and knew a secret in a Mario or Pokémon game). Some theories would prevail until they seeped into the games themselves in the cases of Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and more.
This is no more though and we all know why. From meme-ing moments to YouTube thumbnails telegraphing the finales of almost every game, the internet has proven itself to be a capable tool in deconstructing artists’ visions of their game’s story. However, I’d like to argue that this isn’t a bad thing. Far from it. In the case of gaming, often it is objectively better to know what you’re getting into.
While I used to mute game titles on Twitter and stay away from any articles pertaining to their story at the outset of any new game’s release, lately I’ve thrown caution to the wind and allowed myself to bask in all reactions, impressions and even just the revelations of a plot itself with little in the way of spoiler-self-preservation.
Why? Because it’s not worth the hassle. The time and energy I spent trying to dodge all this information began to detract from the experience of the games I was trying so hard to preserve.
There have been studies and research which claims that knowing a plot twist allows us to enjoy media more. However, I don’t believe this is often the case with wider media (film, books etc.) but I’m willing to recommend you learn to love the burden on knowledge when it comes to our fiction of choice. Let me prove to you that in the vast majority of cases at worst knowing a twist for a game doesn’t matter and how it often time can enhance the game playing experience.
1) Gives moments more impact:
One of the main reasons cited in studies for why knowing spoilers is better is that it can give these moments more impact and weight. In the case of Bioshock, I’ve gone back and replayed the first few hours and the sense of dread created by knowing what your doing is out of your control and your motivations are a lie is incredibly impactful.
Finding out you don’t have a choice in letting the world go on without a cure at the end of the Last of Us meant that upon a second playthrough I fully appreciated just how much Ellie managed to endear herself to Joel and demonstrated just how far their relationship had come.
While knowing that the town is a manifestation of James Sunderland’s guilt for his heinous acts before Silent Hill 2, Fallows for a more critical viewing of the enemies, surroundings and imagery throughout the game.
Knowing the destination in many cases makes the journey more impactful.
2) Gives you a new form of entertainment, especially when the game just can’t deliver:
There are good games, there are bad games, there are serviceable games, then there are Quantic Dream games. I appreciate these games, what they strive for, the tech that powers them and the actors that (sometimes) give their all to portray their character. However, I, like many others, hate these games. I’m not going to drag David Cage’s writing (there are funnier/more intelligent people who’ve already done that). Instead I’m just going to inform you that it is infinitely more entertaining to see the bending over backwards which his scripts do when you know the designated possible end points of his games going into them. When you know Scott Shelby is the Origami Killer and you can force him to act like a bumbling oaf, when you know that Alice is an android so you start treating her like dirt and when you know that Markus is meant to become a Martin Luther King-ian figure but you make him a selfish ass at every turn, Quantic Dream Games become much more entertaining when you treat them as comedic gems they can be.
However, this rule also can apply to, you know, not awful games. Telltale’s games and Until Dawn wove similar narrative tapestries as the commendable efforts of Quantic Dreams games but I’d argue are much more successful in conveying narrative arcs. You only really see the sheer extent of these webs of dialogue and information when you know the points at which the story must end and the beats it’s going to try to hit in order for it to make sense.
Moreover, it can relieve of the suspension of disbelief that games struggle to maintain. Look at Metal Gear Solid V knowing you’re not really Snake. This allows you to create a much more ‘liberal’ head cannon. Crawling around and tackling your fellow soldiers becomes a much more acceptable way to pass the time at Mother Base, when you allow yourself not to act like Big Boss because you were never really him to begin with.
So that last example might be a stretch, but I’d still argue that when it comes to games with complex narratives or the presence of choice-based mechanics, it can often be more fun to see the cogs turning than just letting it play out in a traditional sense. Games are an interactive medium, after all, and there are few things more interactive than a game reacting to you, getting to examine that can be a pure joy if you let it.
3) A surprising amount of twists detract from games:
a. Get in the way of gameplay:
Borderlands, Diablo, Destiny, The Division and Anthem(?) are all games with deep lore, incredibly storied characters and feature twists to varying degrees of success. But it’s not like you care when you’re looting and shooting with friends. So why not research the great stories outside of the game where you’ll be able to give them the attention they rightly deserve. You should listen to Borderlands’ audio log and you should get into Destiny’s Grimore, just not while you’re comparing shotgun stats with a teammate.
b. Bad twists:
Bionic Commando, Inversion, half the modern-day content in the first three Assassin’s Creed games, Far Cry 3, God of War 3, Final Fantasy *Insert whichever one you don’t like here* and Mass Effect 3 all attempt valiantly to shock players. All of them fail to live up to their promises and fall flat. The reason I bring this up is that games are a much heavier investment in both time and money than most TV shows or movies and when they pull the rug out from under you after 10s of hours it’s a lot harder to be forgiving if it feels like you’re being conned.
4) Keep you from being burnt:
I know I already talked about games with bad twists but what about when you’ve already trusted a game with your time? What happens when you’ve become invested, only for a last-minute reveal to throw dirt in your face, showing a complete lack of respect for your time and intelligence, souring you on the game itself?
Learning of Shaun’s true identity and the hollowness of your decisions was the straw that broke the camel's back when it came time for me to decide if I was really enjoying Fallout 4’s storytelling. When I learnt this is how your original personal quest culminated in Fallout 4 I bowed out, why would I get further involved in a campaign that made so few efforts to make sense or fulfil any player catharsis.
If I had had knowledge of Far Cry 5’s ending, and its implications of how little your actions mattered, or Bioshock Infinite’s weak attempt to evoke the feeling of the original I would have likely chosen to invest my time into more rewarding pursuits. Rather than try to leave my mark on worlds which ultimately decided I didn’t matter.
These twists are different from Bioshock 1’s brilliant subversion as the game tries to empower you as a player giving you guns and toys to play with, treating you like a hero making a difference, only to reveal none of it matters. Whereas Andrew Ryan’s reveal is about disempowering all your previous fantasies and allows you to question your motivations going forward. Fallout, Far Cry and Infinite want to have their twist but don’t want it to impact your approach to the game itself, making them feel pointless.
While learning of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided’s lack of a conclusive ending and sequel bait may have meant I didn’t get to experience the final few twists of the campaign for myself, I’d say it was worth it. I missed the twists that were designed for halfway through a narrative but were retooled as an unsatisfying end point for what amounted to a vague promise of a sequel and consequences someday.
Ignore me I’m an idiot:
For every rule, there are exceptions. By no means assume I’m recommending you seek out spoilers. Games like Bioshock, Red Dead Redemption (1 and 2), Braid, The Return of the Obra Dinn and The Walking Dead can only be experienced for the first time once. However, for as much as we deprecate it, the gaming community tends to be surprisingly good about staying schtum when it matters.
Certain communities have prided themselves on not giving away their game’s twists and turns. The Dark Souls Community for all its curates guides rarely goes out of its way to tell you how to reach or beat a boss unless you explicitly ask. The Warframe community hides the revelation of The Second Dream mission, which lies about 40 hours into the game, behind the lore which the game launched with, doing their best to allow all players to experience the shock this mission entails for themselves. While in recent years games like The Messenger and The Witness have obfuscated mid-point reveals before their launch and gamers have taken it upon themselves to aid the developers’ narrative pursuits and not spread the truth about these games. And yes, while epic narratives like Red Dead Redemption 2, Spider-man and God of War can all have incredible moments spoilt by as little as a thumbnail, it is rare that players spread these videos with malice, algorithms are usually the main culprit.
For the amount of stress you can place yourself under to avoid any twist or turn in something you may soon play, I can tell you first hand it isn’t worth it. You’d be better off saying ‘ce la vie’ and just enjoying the ride because that is what most games are, adventures. Incredible spectacles of story, gameplay and visuals. You shouldn’t allow your enjoyment of them to be pinned on being completely ignorant of any details before you were intended to discover them. They are journeys to be taken on alone or with friends. Games are experiences defined by more than a singular moment. Like I said, games are a reactive medium, which means you can approach them however you want, so don’t be afraid to experiment with how you consume them and see what the reaction is like.