This is an article about spoilers, though there won't be any spoilers in it. This is a piece about Grand Theft Auto V but really about what we—what you—want to know or not know.
This is a piece about knowledge, about information. It's about that seeming law of physics that guarantees that secrets can and will eventually emerge into the sunlight no matter how much concrete is poured on them.
We live in a moment that makes a mockery of secrecy, a moment of Assange and Snowden, of A-Rod and Anthony Weiner.
This is an age when it seems that, like it or not, secrets are going to break through—faster now than ever with the Internet as the ultimate enabler. It's a minor miracle that J.K. Rowling was able to publish a book under a pseudonym this past spring and not be outed until the summer. These days, the veil of secrecy increasingly is merely prelude to the inevitable failure of secrecy.
These days, the veil of secrecy increasingly is merely prelude to the inevitable failure of secrecy.
This past weekend, Grand Theft Auto V's secrets started to emerge almost four weeks early thanks to what appears to be a disastrously bungled bit of pre-order planning by the people at PlayStation. The leak brings to mind some big questions about what's worth knowing, what kind of good or harm this kind of thing does and how it affects both creators and gamers. Given that this appears to be something of a new status quo—last October's Resident Evil 6 leaked last August; last November's Halo 4 was being widely played last October—now is a good time to think hard about what we all really want to know just before a game comes out and what's worth panicking about if we know it.
The GTA secrets that started popping up this past weekend weren't vague hints or reporters' wisps of information. They weren't a rumormonger's lies. These were videos, audio files and facts pulled from actual copies of September 17's Grand Theft Auto V. They weren't pulled from a pirated copy of GTA V but from one released in a presumably inoperable state on Friday by an apologizing-on-Saturday Sony.
Sony's idea had been to give European PS3 owners a chance to avoid long download times for the apparently-18GB game. Instead of being stuck downloading the massive game on the 17th of September, gamers would be able to pre-load most of the game onto their consoles in late August. (Curiously, just days before Sony offered this, GTA V's creators at Rockstar seemed to indicate that they weren't going to be offering a pre-load option).
Within hours of Sony offering the pre-load version of the game, enterprising computer users began to comb through the game's files and see what GTA V was about. We're talking about a series known for its in-game radio stations and TV shows, for long skits and colorful dialogue, much of which would be stored among GTA V's source files as audio and video clips. Soon enough, some of that stuff was online.
The result was a game laid more bare than expected this far out.
The result has been that GTA V is being chopped to bits and then flung online, piecemeal.
The result is a mess that has sent GTA fans scrambling, swerving down an information superhighway that now seems treacherously billboarded with things they'd rather not see.
Much of what has leaked actually has been removed from the websites where they were originally posted. Links that once led to various leaked videos and images are now dead, though this kind of material can't fully be erased from the Internet (I found a clip about burgers in GTA V after hitting half a dozen dead links). Impressively, fan communities dedicated to GTA V are going to great lengths to keep their fellow fans unspoiled.
The moderators of Reddit's r/grandtheftautov, for example, have recommended that spoiler-wary fans unsubscribe to their subreddit until after the game comes out with a promise to e-mail those users a reminder to re-subscribe shortly after the game has released. One of them also announced a plan to block anyone from starting a thread on the subreddit unless they'd been a member for a year.
An admin at the bustling GTA Forums, the premiere unofficial message board for the series' fans, said on Saturday that "Rockstar have asked us to keep the forums clear of leaks and spoilers. Out of respect for the work they've poured into GTA V, and respect for users who don't want the storyline to be ruined for them (and lordy there are a lot of ya), we'll be honouring this request."
With the GTA V leak and with other major gaming leaks, two impulses are in conflict.
The secret-spillers play into the desire many gamers have to know anything and everything about a game as hotly-anticipated as Grand Theft Auto V. The closest thing to having a game is knowing about it. When a release date seems far away, plenty of players will settle for being in the know.
And then there are the spoiler-blockers who want to do right by those gamers who hope to experience Grand Theft Auto V's biggest (and even smallest) surprises simply by playing Grand Theft Auto V.
Both groups serve different constituencies of fans. It's only the latter group that seem to be factoring in the wishes of a game's creators.
To what degree do fans owe the creators of the games they play the courtesy of not spoiling their game? What does spoiling do to the art?
That's worth asking: To what degree do fans owe the creators of the games they play the courtesy of not spoiling their game? This feels like a somewhat new question. We discuss the potential impact of piracy on creators. We discuss what it means if, say, a million people download a leaked copy of a Wolverine movie a month before it's out and who that hurts financially. What does it do to the art?
Imagine a painting set to be exhibited for the first time in September. A month before its debut, a dozen square swatches of it are traded on Instagram by the painting's fervent fans. Have they wronged the painter by picking the painting apart early? Or does their enthusiasm to share parts of the work leave unblemished the experience of eventually experiencing the work as a whole as it was meant to be experienced, in the proper room, in the proper frame with just the right light upon it? The answer at the GTA Forums, appears to be that creators are owed some spoiler-secrecy as an act of respect.
There's an oft-cited study that the spilling of spoilers actually enhance people's enjoyment of a creative work. Having reached the end of another Rockstar game, Red Dead Redemption, without knowing what that game's conclusion would be, I find that study a hard one with which to agree. I would not have wanted to know that ending before I played it. I doubt that knowing it early would have made me like the game more. As a gamer, count me as someone not wanting to know. And count me as someone who feels somewhat bad for creators whose works are picked apart on the eve of their release.
You also need to count me as the editor-in-chief of a gaming news site that has often spilled the secrets of games and game creators. I suppose we set some standards at Kotaku about what's fair to spoil and what's not.
We draw our own lines and, to be clear, we probably don't draw them exactly where all gamers or game creators would. We do our own balancing act of reporting what we feel is in gamers' interest and what we believe the truth dictates.
When verifiable information falls into our lap regarding the setting of, say, GTA V, we run it.
When images and plot points of an unannounced Call of Duty similarly show up at our virtual doorstep, once verified, we run it (though we omit the biggest spoilers).
When we're told by Arkham City's developers in front of the game's public relations people what turns out to be a fake-out plot-point from the first act of a game, we run it (though regrettably we learn the hard way that we'd better off not spoil the act-one fake-out in an unavoidable headline—sorry!). We tend not to hunt for plot spoilers and devote our reporting energies to less inevitably knowable things.
Any pause we have about divulging secrets is reduced when the secrets we're publishing involve things the powers that be don't want gamers to know but that we feel gamers would want to know—the status of a troubled video game, the likelihood for an unprecedented online requirement for an upcoming console.
We tend not, however, to be in it just to spoil stuff. We try to keep you from finding out the ending of The Last of Us or BioShock Infinite before you want to know it. And yet we, too, feel the encroachment of more and more secrets that won't stay secret. We are faced daily with the challenge of what to know, what to ask about and what to hold back. And we all expect that we're going to know more and more about the games we cover and review long before we even get our hands on them.
We're all going to be dodging a lot more spoilers from here on out. The spoilers for games are only going to get more abundant. Look what's coming. The next Xbox and PlayStation will both let gamers record and share gameplay moments. What do you think is going to happen? Sony has indicated that its video-sharing features can block some spoilers, but it seems inevitable that more parts of more games will be getting out there through those consoles, on YouTube, and who knows where else. The media, ourselves included, are also less constrained than we were before, and often with good reason, so as to better inform readers. We're a far cry from the days of Metal Gear Solid 2, for example, when major outlets reviewed the game without flagging to readers that the series' long-term protagonist was barely in the game.
It seems to me that there are two things to do, going forward.
First, gamers will need to come to a consensus (yeah, right... maybe?) about which spoilers are the spoilers that matter. After the GTA V leaks this past weekend, a Kotaku reader wrote: "I think it's impossible to 'spoil' GTA V. A huge percentage of the game is exploring - you can't really spoil that." That's true and gets to what's special about games, about how, unlike a movie, a game can't be spoiled just because its script leaks. Should a soundtrack be a secret? A boss battle? The location of a level? Is the secrecy around any of that a bit silly? Is the secrecy around some of that essential? There is already consensus, I think, that big plot twists and endings are parts of games that people should have a choice about being spoiled on. They're best not blurted out. But how granular should things get? How much or how little should a gamer know about a game?
Second, as the widespread spoiling of games becomes something that is more in more in the hands of regular gamers and not merely the press, the community of gamers will have to develop their standards of what's fair to spoil, when to spoil it and how. This ties into questions of respecting the work, respecting creators, satisfying each other's curiosity, sharing knowledge and building a happy community that can get excited about a new game without having it ruined for them. Spoilers have long been restricted by developers, marketers and the media. What happens when the control of spoilers is largely in the hands of gamers?
Fandom drew a line about a spoiler. They held back, if not out of respect for the network or the creators, then at least for each other.
It's easy to despair that we're just going to get spoiled about every big game from now on. But have some hope. Look back to this spring and the culmination of the third season of HBO's Game of Thrones. The penultimate episode depicted one of the most shocking scenes in TV drama history. Those fans who had read the books upon which the show was based knew that scene was coming. They knew it for years. And, for years, they could have ruined it for everyone else. Collectively, they did not. The book fans somehow decided en masse that the TV fans shouldn't have the moment ruined. They kept it to themselves (and/or set up hidden cameras to watch their unwitting friends' reactions). Fandom drew a line about a spoiler. They held back if not out of respect for Thrones creator George R. R. Martin or HBO then at least for each other.
It's going to be harder to avoid spoilers with each major release and each passing year. To keep every game from being ruined, it'll have to be a group effort. You're part of that group. So what's it going to be?