Mechanic Spoilers: Beyond I Am Your Father
Spoilers have been on my mind. Not the Darth Vader is Bruce Willis in the Sixth Sense way, but whether the way we think about and talk about spoilers in reviews are actually appropriate for the form. In short: we spend a lot of time debating about things which barely affect our experiences at all while tearing other things free from the still living torso of a game which absolutely alters what everyone who reads then plays takes away. The first question I'm wondering is "why is there is this double-standard?" The second question "is there anything we do about it?" And the third is "should we"?
For those who've never read a comment thread, the sort of spoiler which is always debated are the plot based ones. This causes problems for reviewers, creating a dilemma of how much to talk about the games' specifics when discussing its narrative. You walk a series of lines. You're careful about showing screenshots of baddies too far into the game (while simultaneously trying to get grabs far enough into it to show you have actually played the thing). You're careful to choose the smallest specific examples to illustrate larger themes, a couple of willing spoiler-sacrifices to make sure something is properly illustrated (To look at the previous Planescape piece, choosing a couple of vignettes and the ability to defeat the end of game boss by talking). Your plot synopsis is kept at the high level (themes, structure, etc) or - if dealing with specifics - limit to the level of the back-of-the-box synopsis and initial set up. You're also aware that some people will always be over-sensitive to this, and roll with the punches when they choose to throw them.
But for all but a handful of games, the plot's complete gibberish. Who gives a fuck what happens to Princess Pooble's forbidden love in the kingdom of the mushroom racers? The game's about the mushroom racing. Which makes me wonder... why are we so happy to let a review destroy the mushroom-racing?
Let's give an example. It's the one which started me actively thinking along this line. It's Anthony Charles' review of Amnesia over at Beefjack. And it's a perfectly fine review. All my peers and I have written reviews of similar character. But one bit stood out, when discussing your failing sanity in game...
(And, to state the obvious, some of the following are going to be what I'm going to start calling a "mechanic spoiler". Spoiler!)
The effect is similar to how many other games simulate inebriation, and it works to heighten your sense of vulnerability. However, in the course of my play through I never once died, directly or indirectly, from insanity. It’s even questionable if being in a lowered state of sanity is any hindrance at all. At some point towards the middle of the game, the effects of insanity start to feel like all bark and no bite.
This is true. I never once died from going mental apeshit in Amnesia. I suspect you didn't either. However, the game at its best, for those opening four hours, you were unaware of that. You were afraid of the dark. You were excited by the possibility of your eyes bleeding and biting out your own tongue while crouching in a darkened corner. However, if you've read the review, you're pre-armed that it's a paper-tiger. You will be less afraid having read the review. The game will be considerably less effective.
However, let's push it an inch further. Can you actually die of insanity in the game? I'm not sure if you can. Part of me actually suspect it is impossible to die from fear, and it's a lie to increase tension when hiding in a darkened shadow. The eye-distortions are problem enough without actually just having the player keel over. For the sake of argument, let's assume that's true. You really can't die from fear.
In which case the question becomes - do you mention it? Because it strikes me as going to a magic show and reviewing it, explaining how every single trick was pulled off. Reviews as a buying guide are, at their best, about giving you the information you need to decide whether you want to buy the game or not. And me revealing something that makes the horror game openly less compellingly scary strikes me as much worse than revealing the dark secret that lies in the bottom of Amnesia's dungeons. That narrative spoiler is a minor thing to breaking the whole game.
It's a spoiler, but not as we know it. It's a mechanic spoiler.
There's another problem to this. We're judging whether the game is any good. That the card-trick illusion falls apart half way through the game makes it undeniably worse, and if we're reviewing it, we have to include it. But how? I suspect reviewers, in a standard review, could do with being a notch more elusive... but the second you don't put an example, the point becomes foggy and easy to dismiss. But the second you do put an example, the game is hurt. Let's choose another recent review, from Comrade Walker's Mafia II Wot I Think.
But evasion is ridiculously simple. The easiest trick is to brake to a halt, wait for the cops to get out of their car, then drive off. You’ll lose them in five seconds.
I've just played through Mafia II, as I wanted to chew it over for something else I'm planning on writing. But every time I got in a police chase, from the first time, I find myself thinking "shall I just do the stop-pull-off trick?" As bad as driver AI is in Mafia II, reading John's review made it worse as I didn't even have to figure it out for myself. Learning a game's limitations and flaws is actually part of the pleasure of a game. When you don't entirely grasp the model a game uses, it's more alive than when you've processed the simple rules beneath it. Saying specifically the limitations transforms the review into a walkthrough, and supplants the players' own experience. We should strive to explain the games' faults without ruining others' experiences with it. Easy, right?
No. It's not that easy. I'm not sure I wouldn't have written exactly what Walker wrote. It's a small example which illustrates a larger point.
Let's choose one of the most famous mechanic spoilers ever. In Rise of the Robots, the 90s fight game rusty abomination, you could famously complete the game on most difficulty settings by holding the joystick up and to the right and holding down the attack button. That is an absolute cast iron proof of why the game's remembered as a laughing stock. It's just broken. It's also a game which was terrible in lots of other ways, but as a single example, that sticks in the mind. When a game is that bad - and Rise was a 5% game if there ever was one - such absolute game-annihilation spoiler is surely merited.
Okay, let's go a bit more borderline.
Empire: Total War.
It got quite a few good reviews - including, for shame, one of mine - until someone realised something: on release, the AI simply can't "do" fleet invasions. For a game based in the age of sail, that's fucking fatal. The computer couldn't play the game you were playing.
The problem is... well, as a conquering, exploration and general piece of atmosphere, the game kind of works. You can go and fight battles and conquer the world. There's a reason why the first reviewers didn't notice it, and it's because they're just one mind playing a complicated game. When released, an enormous net-mind of gamers were put on the task, only one of whom needs to actually notice something for everyone to notice it - because they post on the net, and the cat's out the bag. And the game becomes instantly worse for everyone who hasn't noticed it yet. It's a total mechanic spoiler. It's almost impossible to play Empire after you've realised it, even if you were digging it before. And it was possible to dig it before...
Still, you've got to say that one, yes?
All of which goes around my head and makes me drum my fingers on the table for far too long. I haven't got a hard, correct solution to this one. I've just got a few rules of thumb which I'm going to try and include in any review I write from now on. They're a little like the rules for more traditional narrative spoilers. The sooner a problem in the game is visible, the more justified you are in exposing it. The further into the game it comes to light, the more I'll try to soft-foot around it, making sure that the problem is noted without saying how to actively exploit it. Equally, the more likely anyone will want to play the game is - as in, it's acceptable-if-iffy Mafia II rather than heinous-and-hateful Rise of The Robots - the more I'll go soft and choose a less game-influencing example. And if the flaw fundamentally breaks the game rather than just reduces its appeal - as in, Empire rather than Amnesia - it has to be exposed. Is it a flaw which the game lives through or dies by? If it dies, you're justified in killing it And all the while, you're aware that if you reveal too much, you're spoiling the game, and if you reveal too little, you're leaving yourself open to accusations of just missing stuff.
Man! Reviewing, eh? I'd rather be back on the building sites (Note to Prod - Please check this - Ed).
That's all I've got. Except the reason why this isn't something which is in common discussion is obvious - narrative spoilers are an idea which are common in the wider society, and applies to all narrative media and a few non-narrative non-media (e.g. Sports matches). Mechanic spoilers are the number one way a review can hurt someone's own experience of the work, but they're unique to games. They're our problem, and ours alone. So we've got to find a solution, or at least find a sensible way at looking at them.
Yeah. Tricky. I suspect one line we could draw between criticism and reviews is that the former is basically for people who've played the game and the latter is for people who haven't. As such, the hardest of the mechanic spoilers should form the core of criticism. 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.