Where Do You Draw the Line on Spoilers?

What are we worried about having spoiled? (No spoilers for The Last of Us here)

The following post completely avoids any spoilers from the recent leak of The Last of Us Part II.

Around five years ago I saw my first opera, Don Carlos, at the Metropolitan Opera here in New York City. Flipping through the Playbill, I was surprised to see the entire synopsis of the story right there in print. Beginning, middle, end: it was all there. This made me reconsider the knee-jerk reaction against “spoilers” that is rampant particularly in gaming/nerd culture.

Social media blackouts leading up to a major film or game release are not uncommon. I myself tried my best to avoid YouTube and most gaming sites leading up to the release of Final Fantasy VII Remake, but it wasn’t necessarily because I was trying to avoid knowing about any story changes, but because I didn’t want the experience to be spoiled.

My experience at the opera taught me one thing: it’s not necessarily the particulars of the narrative that I’m trying to avoid having spoiled, but rather the joy of the experience. And that if the entire experience might be “spoiled” by knowing certain things ahead of time, what worth is there in the entirety of the experience overall? Knowing what would happen in the narrative of the opera wouldn’t and didn’t change hearing the music, seeing the set design and other elements of production all for the first time.

This is why as soon as trailers for Final Fantasy VII Remake started showing the scenes of Tifa and Cloud as children in their hometown, I officially checked out of watching any promotional material and tried my best to avoid anything else. I knew the story (though not some of the changes Square Enix had in store) but I wanted to experience Remake’s presentation for the first time on my own television, controller in hand, and progressing through the actual story, to see how they were recontextualizing these moments and reframing them.

The big story of the day, of course, is the massive leak of cutscenes and story content from The Last of Us Part II. Though the gameplay of the original was certainly enjoyable, much of the appeal of this title, of course, is the unfolding story of Joel and Ellie–which makes avoiding these leaks pretty essential to keeping the “first time” experience of this game pretty essential. Though I can’t say I’m overly enthused about this upcoming game (more like marginally interested), I do plan on avoiding these or any serious discussion of them on this site.

Still, it seems interesting to note that the knee-jerk reaction to spoiler “culture” might be a little too much, especially when it causes us to censor our opinions on certain products and leads us to treating narrative and plot like some kind of religious revelation that can only be revealed in the right time and place.

Such was one of the main points of a recent Jim Sterling video, where he pretty accurately describes the problem in that it robs us of talking about the actual cultural impact of various works, while also guaranteeing that we commit to giving a corporate entity money before we discuss what the product is.

If the experience of an entire work can be ruined by knowing one tiny aspect of the plot, what is of worth in the experience to begin with? Though I’m avoiding The Last of Us Part II spoilers, it isn’t necessarily because I don’t want to know “what happens,” but rather because I’m more interested in experiencing the breadth of the art in its proper context. The kind Naughty Dog has become known for over the last decade. Knowing the synopsis of the opera I saw a few years ago didn’t ruin anything for me, but perhaps seeing elements of its production or hearing its score out of context would’ve.

Given that many of us re-watch the same shows and movies, re-read the same books, and re-play the same games time and time again, knowing the information beforehand certainly doesn’t mean that we won’t enjoy the work. It in some cases enhances it. Before watching The Mandalorian, I actually read through the entire synopsis–deciding the plot didn’t seem too absurd to put up with (I prefer to know if something is going to be worth my time before committing to it, these days), I watched the entire first season and loved every minute of it (well, most minutes). The pacing, storytelling, soundtrack, and visual presentation of the show were all worth watching despite my having known, more or less, everything that was going to happen.

It leads me to wonder whether we desire media experiences for these bite-sized reveals, character deaths, or other minute plot movements, or for the breadth of the experience which can be effectively “spoiled” by seeing portions of it out of context? What, exactly, is being spoiled by knowing something ahead of time?

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