As I played through Remedy’s thriller Alan Wake (check out our review of the game here), I kept thinking about the gaming community’s paranoia over inadvertently reading plot spoilers.
Just a few hours before the board of CrispyGamer.com sent the most talented editorial team in online game journalism packing, a feature by journalist Tom Bissell went up on Crispy’s homepage entitled “Spoilsport: On Gaming’s Unhealthy Obsession With Spoilers.” At the Game Developers Conference earlier this year in San Francisco, Crispy’s former managing editor Elise Vogel shared with me the urgency she felt in getting this particular piece up on the site before the decision was no longer in her hands.
Bissell’s feature was a triumphal editorial coda for Crispy Gamer, questioning the rancor elicited whenever a game critic divulges any plot detail—however insignificant—without extensive cautionary “spoiler ahead!” arm-waving. Bissell reminds us that the how of a game is infintely more important than the what. His comment is essentially a different application of the old travel proverb about the journey being the destination. If all you want is a picture of yourself standing at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, hire a bloody helicopter.
“To interact with any creative work, whether a videogame, an album, a book or a film,” writes Bissell, “is, in a very real sense, to be its co-creator, to pull from its core your own personal meaning and significance. To worry about spoilers is to cede this co-creative power; it is to make oneself a bystander in an active imaginative process. With videogames, we have nothing less than one of the most involving and potentially powerful forms of art in the whole history of the world—a form of art whose interactivity has everything to do with the how rather than the what.”
Alan Wake reinforces Bissell’s assertion about spoilers via one of its secondary gameplay objectives—finding and collecting the loose-leaf pages of a horror manuscript. These pages are unsettling for a number of reasons. The typewritten words are Wake’s, though he has no recollection of ever writing them. Not to mention, the chilling events described in the pages inevitably play out in the game's world, though not immediately after you find the page. Each glowing white sheet you stumble across is essentially a new plot spoiler.
For example, one manuscript page describes an auto mechanic named Stuckey who is possessed by The Dark Presence and in the midst of a Shining-esque, axe-swinging rampage. Immediately you start asking yourself, “Have I come across Stuckey in the story yet? The name doesn’t sound familiar. When is he going to show up? Oh my god, the manuscript page says he’s got an axe. I think that’s a car garage at the bottom of this hill. Is that Stuckey’s garage?”
Instead of surprising you with the axe-wielding psycho, the manuscript spoiler ratchets up the sense of anticipation by flat-out telling you what’s going to happen, albeit without spelling out the particulars of how the events will come about.
One of the hypothetical questions I enjoyed pondering as a teenager was whether I’d choose to know the time and cause of my death, if I had the opportunity to find out. I’m still not sure. On one hand, it’d be reassuring to know I had, say, 41 years left to live. But on the other hand, I'd have the creeping dread of fate’s countdown clock ticking infinitely louder in my ears from that day forward. Foreknowledge creates anticipation.
To cite one of the spoiler examples in Bissell's essay, knowing BioShock’s third-act plot twist ahead of time shouldn’t ruin the game. If anything, it should enhance the experience because you get to appreciate how skillfully the plot builds toward that revelation.
I haven’t heard a single person lament the plot spoilers in Alan Wake’s collectible manuscript pages. Maybe we’re gradually outgrowing our obsession with spoilers after all. Then again, as games become even more procedural, the whole argument could become increasingly moot. No one will be able to tell you how your game's story will play out, not even the developer herself.
(You heard me right. A few years from now, the vast majority of game developers will be female. Sorry to spoil the surprise.)
Jason Killingsworth is Paste’s games editor. He is based in Dublin, Ireland, and writes about music, film, tech and games for a variety of outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @jasonkill or drop him a line at jason [at] pastemagazine.com.