We live in an era of extreme spoiler-phobia. Be it television, movies, novels, or video games, the speedy connectivity of social media has conditioned us to live in fear of ruining one another's fun. We add spoiler warnings to even the most mundane details, even when the subject of the discussion is years old.
I know I've blocked and unfollowed plenty of folks for their inability to refrain from gushing about Breaking Bad or Lost, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. Even right this moment, I feel an abundance of pressure to assure you that in this article about spoilers, there will not be any actual spoilers.
But according to a new study by the psychology department at UC San Diego, people actually enjoy spoiled stories more than stories that they hear fresh.
The study, performed by UCSD's Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt, was performed three separate times and involved 12 short stories. The stories themselves were written by literary luminaries like Agatha Christie, John Updike, and Anton Chekhov (whose now-famous "Chekhov's Gun" rule for storytelling was, fittingly, a bit of a spoiler-warning catch-all). Each story was categorized as either "ironic-twist," "mystery," or "literary." The stories were then presented to at least 30 test subjects with a paragraph out front that spoiled the plot. Thirty other subjects read the story unspoiled, with the same paragraph inserted later so as not to ruin any surprises.
Afterwards, all subjects were asked which stories they liked most, and the majority preferred the spoiled versions. From Science Daily:
Subjects significantly preferred the spoiled versions of ironic-twist stories, where, for example, it was revealed before reading that a condemned man's daring escape is all a fantasy before the noose snaps tight around his neck.
The same held true for mysteries. Knowing ahead of time that Poirot will discover that the apparent target of attempted murder is, in fact, the perpetrator not only didn't hurt enjoyment of the story but actually improved it.
Interesting. Christenfeld, who is a professor of social psychology at UCSD, goes on to postulate that "Plots are just excuses for great writing. What the plot is is (almost) irrelevant. The pleasure is in the writing."
That argument applies equally well to movies, television, or even games—take Christenfeld's statement and replace the word "writing" with the word "play," and you get: "Plots are just excuses for great play. What the plot is is (almost) irrelevant. The pleasure is in the play." Sound familiar?
Of course, that isn't what Christenfeld said, but I've seen the "Games are games, not stories" argument voiced plenty of times by plenty of smart, convincing people. That conclusion feels overly simplistic—I believe story is a valid, important part of many games—but I'm not certain I can say that unspoiled twists are a valid, important party of many stories.
When I think about spoilable games like Bioshock, Red Dead Redemption or Knights of the Old Republic, I must acknowledge that as cool as their respective twists were, it was the challenge, the progression, and the journey that stuck with me most. (That said, I still skipped over Crecente's spoilerriffic breakdown of the major events in Modern Warfare 3, though based on the numbers that post scored, many of you didn't.)
Back in 2010, Tom Bissell wrote a terrific op-ed for Crispy Gamer entitled "Spoilsport: On Gaming's Unhealthy Obsession With Spoilers." In it, he states the following:
To me, what happens during the ending of a game is not that interesting. What is interesting is the manner in which the ending of a game is framed and the constellation of detail that accumulates around an ending. As a gamer, I am most affected by the how.
(…) The novelist John Gardner once said that there are basically two stories: someone comes to town; and someone leaves town. I would agree with that. I would also argue that there are basically only two twists: they are not who you think they are; and this is not where you think you are. Storytelling is an ancient art, and human beings have been exposed to it long enough by now to know most of the storyteller's tricks. Good storytelling manages to convince you that you have forgotten the tricks, even — and perhaps especially — when you are perfectly aware what is coming.
Whenever I talk with Tom about a game he hasn't played, he is quick to brush off any fear I might have of spoiling him. He truly doesn't give a damn. It's refreshing, but still feels a little bit dangerous. "Really? You don't care if I tell you… about the… okay then! It turns out they were all fish the whole time."
Gawker's own Brian Moylan wrote a heated manifesto wherein he voiced a similar sentiment to Bissell's, laying out the various statutes of limitations he believes apply to different types of TV shows and movies. "If you're three-quarters of the way into a review of a show's second season and you don't expect details from season one to be discussed," he wrote, "you're an idiot. It's like being pissed at the people in your book club for talking about the ending just because you didn't read the assigned book."
Tom's and Brian's arguments are largely directed at critical discussion, and there I agree—if we're going to talk about a game (or a movie, or a season of television, or a whathaveyou), it is impossible to talk about it with out, you know, talking about it.
Common conversational courtesy is more of a grey area. It is very difficult to shake the feeling that big third-act moments are an important part of what makes some stories great, game or otherwise. Two of BioWare's classics come to mind—if I had known the twists at the end of Jade Empire and KotoR, I would have missed out on two enjoyable jaw-on-the-floor moments, which would have been a shame.
But the more I think about it, the more I realize that knowing how some of my favorite games end never really diminishes my enjoyment on subsequent plays—indeed, that knowledge makes some games much more enjoyable. (Bioshock, in particular, comes to mind). Though I'm not sure whether I would feel that way had I not experienced that first, unspoiled playthrough.
I was chatting about this topic with one of my Kotaku colleagues, and he mentioned that Square Enix's Nier has a spectacular twist that arises during the game's second playthrough. He asked if I wanted to hear what it was. I haven't played Nier, and despite my intent to give it a shot one of these days, it could be a good long while before I do so. All the same, I found myself saying, "Nah. No spoilers, please."
I laughingly realized what I had just done. Screw it, I thought. "You know what, go ahead and tell me." And so he did.
It's a pretty cool twist. I doubt I'll enjoy the game any less for knowing it.