Editorial: When Is It OK To Spoil A Mechanic?

Now and again, a game comes around whose experience is so vulnerable to spoiling, that it seems merely whispering a single detail could annihilate sales. Reviewers and enthusiasts who would ordinarily wax lyrical about a beloved game find themselves in the awkward position of trying to recommend the game without, uh, mentioning what it’s about. You’ve probably heard of Alexander Martin’s Starseed Pilgrim, right? Or maybe you haven’t, considering we’re not supposed to talk about it. Shhhhh.

But what if something exists beyond those spoilers, something else that we should talk about?

Michael Brough’s Kompendium is a suite of nine competitive two-player games released to little fanfare two years ago. I’d heard good things about it, but only recently played it for the first time. It doesn’t need controllers as players duke it out on the same keyboard. I can confirm Kompendium is clever, crafty fun but there’s something special in its design which gives me pause about whether I should tell you anything more about the games themselves.

The thing that makes Kompendium a bit different is that it doesn’t really care about whether first-time players understand what to do. In some cases, the instructions are borderline gibberish. Behold, an image example!

Some games explain themselves pretty quickly and the players will have no need to recall the instructions. But others are like the ruins of an ancient civilization and you’ll be struggling to divine understanding from what unfolds on the screen. I remember talking with my friend Gregg about what he remembered of the instructions of “Ora et Labora” because it seemed kind of pertinent. Here is what Ora et Labora looks like.

We were locked in a duel with unknown rules – so we talked rather than competed, exchanging theories about what we were supposed to do. Even though each game in Kompendium is a fight to the win, the ambiguity of its rules means players often start out in a cooperative struggle against a common enemy: the opaque system.

Of course, there’s a dangerous point after this where the fog lifts more quickly for one player than the other and they acquire the knowledge to win. I figured out “March Eternal” before Gregg did and had to consider whether to explain to him what I had figured out. I considered it and then I destroyed him. That underhand upper hand wouldn’t last of course and eventually I educated him on what I had learnt, feeling pretty pleased with myself. There’s a question mark, then, over whether that “cooperative” phase is actually a race to see who can attain enlightenment first.

Sure, all multiplayer games involve a struggle of improving skills and figuring out tactics, but Kompendium is more like being given two bats, a net and a ball and being told to work out Tennis as the umpire keeps score of your floundering about in the rules-space.

If I told you how my favourite Kompendium game plays, I would be robbing you of the joy of unravelling Kompendium’s rules with a friend. That’s the kind of thing that was written about Starseed Pilgrim in article after article. (Except for John Walker’s I Cannot Figure Out What To Do In Starseed Pilgrim.) Reviewers were clearly in some distress trying not to tell you anything about the game or its final goal. I wrote a non-spoilery something about it myself at the time, to partially lampoon the art of the reviewless review, but then I followed up with the ultimate death by spoiler: everything you wanted to know about Starseed Pilgrim but didn’t know who the Hell to ask.

It’s possible that long-time readers will sense something a little Groundhog Day at this point and that’s because a little-known writer called Kieron Gillen brought this up on Rock Paper Shotgun four bloody years ago. He pointed out that revealing how certain mechanics work can negatively impact the experience for the first-time player. He had no fast answers about what constitutes a spoiler that reviewers should walk away from, although ended on this note: “If you’re writing a buyers guide, I’ll urge writers to bear in mind – if only in a passing thought – that people still have to play the game after reading your review.”

Obviously revealing the story of games that are principally about story is a bad thing. If I tell potential players the story of David T. Marchand’s When Acting as a Wave or where everybody went in Gone Home, I’m no doubt going to wipe out the motivation to play those games.

It’s also clear cut when the very rule-fabric of the game is a spoiler like in Ian MacLarty’s short jam game Booot. But there’s life in both Starseed Pilgrim and Kompendium beyond the spoiler. Knowledge does not destroy those games.

The thing about Starseed Pilgrim is that so much word-blood was shed over trying not to spoil the experience of exploration that little was devoted to what happened next. At times, Pilgrim makes a player feel like they’re inventing arbitrary goals, like it’s the player’s own game. That’s all very special and the more I spoil, the more I take those moments away from you. But once you’ve figured out what Starseed Pilgrim expects you to do, your goal switches from exploring its systems to mastering them.

Yes, it turns out the biggest secret of Pilgrim is that it is a difficult, brutal game. I came close to calling it quits many, many times for fear that it was going to bring on a cerebral haemorrhage. It’s arguable that I spent more hours trying to defeat it than exploring it. In this light, a review that described Pilgrim purely as a game of wonder and gardening would be incomplete. Beyond the spoilers is something else.

Now let’s turn back to Kompendium. What do you think happens once two players have figured it all out? Do they walk away bored and consider the game “finished”? If Kompendium is only interesting when players are exploring its systems, then I should label it more of a mystery a la Terry Cavanagh’s At A Distance rather than a “two-player competitive game”. But the truth is Kompendium is more than mystery.

I think in cases like these where secrets give way to systems that are challenging to master, it’s okay to spoil a little here and there. Even more so in the case of Kompendium – because veteran players will want to introduce the game to fresh blood and it’s going to be impossible to let that new player wrestle with mystery while the veteran wins every game.

I feel quite comfortable telling you “Chang Chang” was my favourite game of the pack, best described as speed chess, except that some pieces have orientations, you can move them anywhere you want, the piece you get to move is chosen randomly and the board is a lot bigger than 8×8. Oh, and you can’t move through your opponent’s laser beams. Pretty much speed chess, though.

I used to despair at any spoiler and was never particularly happy with writers arguing that we were all so post-spoiler in the age of the permanent electronic connection. But I’m mellowing in my old age. As long no one reveals who dies in the next series of Game of Thrones or the existence of Kompendium’s secret tenth game, then I think we’re okay.

Kompendium is available as a free download. The rest of Brough’s back catalogue can be viewed on his homepage.

31 Comments

Top comments

  1. Trillby says:

    I am thoroughly disappointed by this article. Although it provides interesting and thought-provoking insight into how games with opaque design systems should be described, I was lured in by the headline expecting to find out when and where it is ok to spoil a mechanic.

    I know a car mechanic who works down the road, and it is my wont to occasionally bring him a little treat, or invite him out for drinks. I was actually hoping to find out some pertinent information as to when it is and, more importantly, when it is not appropriate to do so without him getting, as I am obliged to avoid, spoiled.

    Alas, game journalism corruption and misinformation with clickbait headlines rearing their ugly heads once again. For shame.
  1. ventricule says:

    This heavily reminds me of Jason Rohrer’s game Between. For people enjoying discovering a game with a good friend, it is really a must try.

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    DantronLesotho says:

    I’m of the opinion that the amount of obscurity in mechanics should be proportionate to the amount of content unlocked by figuring it out. Case in point with Starseed Pilgrim. I got the game and figured out how to actually proceed through the hub worlds and solved about 3 of them, but because there wasn’t really any new content to discover (IMO of course) once you’ve gotten that far, and only MORE challenges remained, I got burned out on it. Whereas games like Candy Box, Gridland, or even Minecraft have loads of content to discover once you figure out the various mechanics of the games. But I’m not really a “challenge-focused” gamer so Starseed Pilgrim and similar games probably aren’t 100% suited to my tastes.

    • valrus says:

      Yeah, agreed (with both Joel and DantronLesotho) on Starseed Pilgrim. It’s not really what it appears to be at first, and most talk about it (including nearly all articles) concentrated on the aspect that’s over very quickly. That, I think, spoils more than a “spoiler” — it sells the game a bit short and sets the reader up for some disappointment.

      Not that that’s unjust, exactly. I love the basic mechanic of Starseed Pilgrim but I didn’t really like the game flow; it’s a game with a very long slog of challenge, but its most compelling reward is spent after a few hours. From comments it sounds like a lot of players figured out the basics, said “well, that looks like it”, and didn’t slog through the rest. There’s more to discover, but it’s a lot of work for a trickle of reward, whereas the beginning of the game is a flood.

      I think SP deserves an “HD” treatment like Spelunky, with a reworking of the flow and reward structure.

  3. Trillby says:

    I am thoroughly disappointed by this article. Although it provides interesting and thought-provoking insight into how games with opaque design systems should be described, I was lured in by the headline expecting to find out when and where it is ok to spoil a mechanic.

    I know a car mechanic who works down the road, and it is my wont to occasionally bring him a little treat, or invite him out for drinks. I was actually hoping to find out some pertinent information as to when it is and, more importantly, when it is not appropriate to do so without him getting, as I am obliged to avoid, spoiled.

    Alas, game journalism corruption and misinformation with clickbait headlines rearing their ugly heads once again. For shame.

    • AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

      I think that it’s OK for the answer for that question to be “We dunno ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ “. It’s a difficult question with a difficult answer, if said answer does exist.

      I don’t see what’s clickbaiting about the headline, especially if you admit it did lead to an interesting article.

    • Niko says:

      I don’t know any car mechanics as of the moment, but I’m also outraged at what passes for “games journalism” today. It is truly appalling to see the oldest PC gaming magazine in this state. Think I’ll go read my collection of Rock Paper Shotgun articles from year 1875 now.

  4. eggy toast says:

    Personally, I hate the idea that deliberate opaqueness is somehow excusable. If your game is fun to play, let me know how to play it so I can have fun. Making it a challenge to even know how to play isn’t creative and clever it’s obnoxious and high handed.

    • tetracycloide says:

      I would actually go even further and say that if a game can be rendered unworthy of purchase or participation merely by finding out more about it it’s probably not a very good game and should have done a better job than to have one twist or quirk.

      • Ross Angus says:

        I see this as an aspect of games, which I’ve never been particularly interested in. I’m much more interested in character, place and narrative over gameplay. I bought Far Cry 3 on the strength of the reviews of it here, and was underwhelmed. I suspect the high reviews were due to emergent narrative and gameplay.

        I think most journalists are drawn to interesting gameplay above all – which is fitting, as it’s what differentiates games from other art forms. I often treat gameplay as something which is endured, in order to get to the reward.

      • Ditocoaf says:

        But some people (like me! I’m one of those people) really, really enjoy that sense of mystery and discovery, especially when a game is designed around it. Just because it’s not an interesting experience for you, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have worth to another audience.

        When someone urges others to play a game with the warning “I can’t tell you why”, to me that’s the most exciting and compelling recommendation there can be. I know I’m usually in for something interesting and satisfying to uncover. I don’t mind that there’s nothing to do with the game afterward; I don’t have that much free time to kill anyway, and I already got my enjoyment from it. For you, that same recommendation might sound meaningless and unappealing — and that’s fine.

      • gwathdring says:

        I think whether or not a game is “ruined” by this sort of thing depends more on the player than the design.

        Further, I think throwing the joy of discovery out as a part of the game-designer’s toolbox seems incredibly foolish to me. Why is surprise an experience gamers shouldn’t be offered? Why can’t it be central to the experience?

        In any case, I dislike spoiler-averse culture immensely. I despise the idea that because some people haven’t watched The Sixth Sense, I’m not allowed to talk about it. That said, it takes very little effort for me to say something like “One of the core conceits of the film is that Bruce Willis’s character isn’t what he seems; namely, he’s dead.” I’m ok with being expected to put little note at the top of the article or in it’s tags or something, too … but assessing when I’m ok with that expectation gets a bit complicated.

        I don’t think the idea of preserving the user’s purity of experience is worth the lack of communication that attitudes favoring that purity create. It’s really quite dismal. I think it goes both ways; if you’re particularly sensitive to spoilers, you have an obligation to be aware that not everyone is like you and to avoid things that could reasonably be suspected to contain spoilers or otherwise not complain. If you’re reviewing a work that is particularly dependent on surprise and uncertainty in order to function *well* (as contrasted with “order to function *optimally*”; basically, does it go from a good to bad or amazing to mediocre when you spoil it?), you have an obligation to indicate that the incoming content may or may not make the work less enjoyable in a reasonably clear way.

        That rough guideline made clear, I’m generally of the opinion that consuming media criticism isn’t coercive or compulsory; you don’t have to read articles about something, you don’t have to read reviews. All else being equal, I think it’s your job to avoid reading spoilers since and our job to avoid blurting out spoilers in non-consensual conversation. But the “if you’re writing a buyers guide, think about the fact that you’re suggesting people play the game after they read your article” point is well taken.

    • LogicalDash says:

      Then you’d best play every game with the strategy guide open, I guess. The idea that a game might want to hide secrets, or the solution to a puzzle, isn’t new or controversial, and there have been puzzles in adventure games (the last one in Riven comes to mind) that were far eviller, and required the player to guess a lot more than Starseed Pilgrim’s opening did. If you’re not saying that puzzles are bad design (and you might be — “adventure games aren’t real games” is a thing I’ve heard before) then apparently you’re just mad that they might be put at the start of the game, which I mean, I can understand why a person would find that frustrating, but therefore the puzzle is not creative? Wot?

    • valrus says:

      Hmm, well, I’d say that figuring-out-the-rules is one of the many categories of “challenge” or “fun”, but it’s one the designer should approach with a lot of care.

      If I’ve got a feeling that the designer has carefully set it up so that I can discover things on my own without handholding and so feel like I’ve “managed it myself”, then thanks sir or ma’am and here’s a beer for your clever hard work. If I’ve got a feeling that it’s deliberately obtuse in a childish way and smirking the whole time, then sorry, I’ve got a big queue of other games to get to.

  5. psepho says:

    Is this an opportune moment to mention that Brough’s Corrypt is one of my favourite games? The whole experience is one of uncovering mechanics and feeling your relationship with the game shift as a result. It is something he does amazingly well. I really enjoyed writing about the game on my blog last year.

    Edit: this was what I wrote – link to psepho.me

    • Dinger says:

      Heck, you can say they’re all awesome games. Corrypt is just the only one that’s accessible to us unwashed masses. The big problem I have with Brough’s games is that they’re WAAYYYY too expensive. I mean, sure, I can handle $6 a game, $20 game. I’d even shell out $50 to try *one* of his more for 868-Hack or Helix, or whatever that hot new thing he’s got going now. But buy an iPad? Dude, that’s way too much cash, and Brough won’t get any of it, anyway. I get it; he does what he loves, he produces some damn enviable titles and he gets enough to live on. The Roberts Space Industries fans can support him, they seem to be price-insensitive. Until Apple pays him directly, I ain’t buying.

      • RobF says:

        In the case of Helix, it really wouldn’t work without an appropriate touch screen device. The iPad is, for better or for worse, pretty much perfect for it.

    • kwyjibo says:

      Everyone should just fucking play Corrypt. It’s MAGIC.

      Download it from link to mightyvision.blogspot.co.uk

  6. Ditocoaf says:

    Starseed Pilgrim is an interesting one, for sure. Once you’ve figured out its systems, it’s actually a really satisfying action-puzzler. It’s a game you can practice and get “good” at, and eventually beat. But the process of figuring out its systems is also incredibly well done, for the sort of person who likes that sort of thing.

    Both of those attractions (challenging systems to master, mysterious systems to uncover) are great, but many people only really enjoy one or the other. Which is why it’s so hard to talk about the game, unless you know what kind of person you’re talking to. Articles are to the public at large, so end up stuck dancing around, missing one point or the other.

    • Joel Goodwin says:

      I also had a suspicion that, considering the pressure on writers to turn around reviews quickly, some reviewers may not have had enough time to break into Pilgrim’s tactical game. Also some players never quite realised what the uber-goal was in the game which does make it seem primarily about different modes of exploration.

    • horsemedic says:

      Spot on. And I’m noticing a bias among many game reviewers to focus on systems, story and exploration at the expense of gameplay and challenge. Shadow of Mordor got sky high reviews based on its emergent storylines and freedom of exploration. Great. But almost no big review site thought to mention that its combat becomes trivial before the main plot’s midway point. Ditto for jewels like Dishonored and Divinity Original Sin, whose glowing reviews barely mentioned their nonexistent difficulty after the beginning stages.

      It’s as if reviewers have forgotten there are people who play games to master a challenge, not just explore a narrative or innovative system. And when a game like Starseed Pilgrim comes along that ticks almost every box, it gets reviewed as an exploration game, with not a single word about its fantastic gameplay.

  7. Heliocentric says:

    I never did figure out Starseed Pilgrim, and that okay. I enjoyed what I learned alone.

  8. Baines says:

    An unaddressed issue is when refusing to talk about the mechanics of a game keeps people from learning about the mechanics.

    Would Frog Fractions have taken off the way that it did if everyone who played it had refused to spill any of its secrets, including the key secret that it was more than a cheap math game? Its popularity didn’t just come from people saying “You need to try Frog Fractions”. It came from various people in various places giving away different amounts of information, from vague mentions that the game was more than it seemed, to little hints of what to do to really get started, all the way through full blown descriptions of later parts of the game with included screenshots.

    There are after all a lot of games out there. Games where people are reluctant to spoil some mechanic aren’t even necessarily uncommon. The majority of people aren’t going to play these games, even upon hearing about them. At least if the mechanics are spoiled in the reading, the person can think “Well, that was an interesting idea”.

    One can argue that spoiling Starseed Pilgrim would kill its sales. But the counter issue is how many sales Starseed Pilgrim may have lost by being a game driven by mechanics that no one wanted to spoil. Starseed Pilgrim wasn’t a free game. It currently sells for $6 on Steam. In a world where reviews are hit or miss, rave recommendations even by someone you tend to agree with won’t necessarily pan out. And in a world where sites, at least for the brief period after the release of an Aliens: Colonial Marines or Duke Nukem Forever, remind people to not pre-order or buy games site unseen, you have the same people saying “Buy this $6 game that I won’t tell you about, but I’m almost certain you’ll like it unless of course you don’t.”

    • gwathdring says:

      Well put. :)

    • Geebs says:

      $6, you say? I used to have to spend £40 to find out that I didn’t like a game.

    • DrollRemark says:

      To be fair, the only real spoiler you need to provide for Frog Fractions is “press down” – the rest of the game pretty much plays itself.

  9. ebyronnelson says:

    I believe that “spoiler-free” culture is actively detrimental to how we understand art, fiction, and game design.

    First, it is high first-world-consumer entitlement that motivates statements like, “I have a Right not to be spoiled.” What this statement really says is “I have a Right to experience the twists and surprises of my purchased entertainment fiction of choice with full intended virginal freshness– within the limit of a certain expiration date, I concede– just as I have a Right to be served my Chablis at precisely 51 degrees Fahrenheit.”

    Second, and more importantly, by worrying over spoilers, critics enable and abet bad storytelling, and in the case of games, bad design, by creating a space in which deliberately ephemeral works can thrive. Of course the wonder of mysteries is and should be central to any good work of fiction, interactive or otherwise, but if a work depends on the ignorance of its audience for its basic effect, I would say that that work has been less well crafted than a work that continues to astonish long after its plot details or rule set has become public knowledge.

    No matter how many times I see Psycho, I will always be stunned when Lila spins Mrs. Bates’ corpse into the light. The scene in which Othello strangles his wife has shocked millions of people for hundreds of years and will always do so. Similarly, a classic game design (Go, Chess, Ms. Pac-Man, The Oregon Trail …) allows the player to discover its mechanics anew each time with the same wonder of the first game. Ephemeral design in itself is not bad, nor should experimentation with it be in any way discouraged, but I think that a spoiler-filled world, or at least a spoiler-anxiety free world, would be an environment that would force writers and designers to create better, more enduring work.

  10. Smigulp says:

    I remember playing many games, both cooperatively and competitively, with my brothers and friends, whom did not know almost any English. It was both frustrating and funny, watching them try to do something as easy as pull a lever, climb a ladder etc, only because they simply couldn’t understand what was asked of them (some of them still don’t understand English properly).