Argument: Spoilers Aren't What Everyone Says They Are

Without spoiling things, let's talk about spoilers. Specifically, let me share with you the reaction I got for my "Killzone 2" (sorta) review, which some people say has a spoiler in it -- and explain why I strongly disagree.


On Monday I wrote up a (kind of, sort of) review of the single-player mode of "Killzone 2." I avoided mentioning things that I thought would ruin the experience, and yet I was shocked to see some people accuse me of spoiling the game.

So let's talk about this, and maybe I can even get some of you to side with my apparently loose definition of spoilers.

Playing games is partially motivated by the thrill of discovery. We don't want to know everything right away. We want to be surprised.

The value of a game is primarily defined by what you do in it -- the interactivity and the controls, the level design and skill progression, the character-crafting and dialogue system. Graphics are important, too. For many games (most games) those elements I just mentioned trump matters of plot.

It is therefore easy to understand why someone might want to know how well "Killzone 2" plays and not want to know what happens in "Killzone 2."

Where I split the difference is in the discussion of what kinds of things happen in "Killzone 2" or any other game. That "Killzone 2" echoes tropes used in other action games is important, and if the only valid way to say that is in the vague words at the beginning of this sentence, then what have I really told you?

Jump over to my "Killzone 2" piece, if you dare.

Read the paragraph beginning with "It's got multiplayer..."

That contains the alleged, offending spoiler. Like the example above, my alleged spoiler is an allusion to a type of thing that happens in the plot. It is not an explicit statement detailing when it happens, how it happens, where it happens, why it happens or which character(s) are involved. Spoiler?

Let's try a few hypotheticals to see if we agree.

Should I tell you who falls in love with whom in "Final Fantasy XII"? Maybe not. But should I tell you that I think the romance is hackneyed or sophisticated, that it deals with (hypothetically) same-sex relationships or (also hypothetically) dating violence?

Should I say who bombs what in "Call of Duty IV"? Maybe not, but shouldn't I at least flag you to the idea that "Call of Duty IV"'s aerial bombing mission is more chillingly realistic than its ground combat? Or did I just spoil that the game has an aerial mission?

If I play the sixth action game in a row that has a bad driving sequence, I will warn you. If I play the sixth action game in a row that introduces a civil war between its enemy factions, I'll try to be discrete but I think I should call that out.

Let's try other media:should I tell you whether Hamlet or Darth Vader or Ishamel dies in their play, movie and book if I'm writing about them before you've seen or read them? I'd be shocked if revealing those details made the work any less interesting for you, but I'd still not tell you in advance. However,  if I said that "Hamlet," "Return of the Jedi" and "Moby-Dick" each explore how obsession can be a slide that slopes steeply toward death, well I think that's quite fair.

I do have standards.

When writing about a new or unreleased game, I avoid spelling out major events. For example: that 2008 game that ended with the death of its main character? If I had known, while writing about that game, that such an event was going to happen in the end, I wouldn't have mentioned it -- without warning. Had I known about that event, I would have felt comfortable and obligated to remark that the game's plot-writers dealt with death in an interesting way. And I'd feel comfortable writing such a line without a spoiler. After all, it's not like I'd be saying: Hey, the main character dies in the end. How could I not acknowledge something like that? It's a major part of the fiction.

In a recent Lunchtime Video I discussed the rules Microsoft sent our for reviewing "Halo Wars." The rules state:

Please avoid including plot spoilers in your reviews and features. If you have questions around what is or is not a spoiler, please contact PR representatives.

I'm not consulting PR reps about this today. I'm barely even consulting you, as I'm sure I seem to have my mind made up. But let's talk about this.

I believe that writing about games is overly careful. I believe that game scripts, game plots and game endings have been given a pass because critics tend to avoid them or address them with the most ginger touch.

I'd at least like the discussion about spoilers to cease being so binary. There is room between avoiding mentioning a plot event and reporting its main details. There is value to addressing anything and everything that is most interesting in a game, and value in doing it with words that express meaning rather than those designed to mask it.

Where do you stand?

(More great discussion about spoilers is happening over at the Brainy Gamer blog. Give it a read too!)

Related Posts:

‘Killzone 2? - It May Look Too Good (A Review, Of Sorts)

Lunchtime Video - The Rules For Reviewing ‘Halo Wars’