Sunday, 24 January 2010

Chill Out, Brah(About the Spoilers)

Consider this a reply to that
Edit: Just to be clear folk, that link contains spoilers for Bioshock specifically, other games if I recall and some literature. Be careful.

If there is one utterance more likely than any other to drive me into rage its "just chill out". It's insulting on several levels. First, it implies that you're some incontinent rage-slave without an adult capacity to control your emotions. Second, it suggests that you're an idiot for feeling the way you do, that if only you chilled out, brah, you'd see there's no fuss here, no reason to get all worked up. Third, and worst of all, it implies that you're really a bit of a square, the kind of person who reads the Daily Mail and tuts at the young folks having fun with their rock and their roll. Cool people are relaxed, cool people don't get angry, they just lean.

But you know what, chill out man? Fuck you. Fuck you and your entire genetic heritage right down to the primordeal ooze.

So what does this have to do with video game spoilers. Well, a strong undertone of Bissel's argument is "just chill out, brah(about the spoilers)." Now, to be fair, I'm being a dick. It's a good argument trying to poke at a slightly more nuanced understanding of why we enjoy games. I'm down with that. To an extent I agree. I was going to bring up the ending of Half-Life episode 2 as a counter example: of a point where spoilers would live up to their name, but then I remembered I'd actually had that spoiled for me, and it was still exceptional. On further inspection, this wasn't an isolated case. The finest moment of Battlestar Galactica comes at the end of the episode 'Revelations'. It is, quite simply, one of the best pieces of television I've ever seen. The Guardian spoiled it for me. How many games, I had to wonder, would really be ruined by knowing their endings, how many times had I genuinely been affected by that final cutscene?

This said I'm going to argue a little that his core argument makes a couple of mistakes.

There's No Time Like the First Time

One of the primary joys of video games is the virgin world, the sense of freshness and possibility, the sheer power of potential experience. Anyone who walks out of vault 101 and doesn't feel some flicker of wanderer's glee at the vast expanse of wasteland before them is dead inside. Bissel talks about the "mere act of revelation" as though the point of revelation was a childish thing, but each point revealed chips away at the games potential whole. As I've written on here before, part of what made Fallout 3 so fantastic was that I knew so little about it going on, that the game constantly brought something fresh to the table, that there was always just that little bit more to discover. A friend of mine felt the need to inform me of a certain interesting points in the wasteland, and couldn't understand why I didn't want him to show me where they were. He couldn't get it into his head that the discovery was the joy, that "mere act of revelation" was a point upon which considerable pleasure was riding. I was at one stage captured. I don't consider that a spoiler. He however, told me precisely when it was going to occur. My reaction was not "what's going on!", but "Oh, this is what he was talking about."

I'm not saying that there's never any good to be had from a second playthrough, but rather, that the first time, that experience of discovery has a distinct quality to it, a deeply special one. My reaction to Children of Men was a powerful thing, something I can never recapture. Knowing how it ends would neuter it of much of the tension that drives it, much of the emotional weight. There are so many powerful, shocking moments throughout. Any spoilers would have made my first screening like a second. I would have still enjoyed it, but I would have been robbed of the magic that was my first time. When you spoil any work of art for someone, you bring in the boundaries of possible experience, you limit how strong their reactions will be.

Bissel writes: "Knowing these facts beforehand did not take one iota away from... playing Bioshock" Now, is that really a truth apt statement? How can he possibly know that? Surely it would be more accurate to say that he "knew these facts, and still enjoyed bioshock" which is to say something else entirely. I'm a big believer in not telling people they're wrong about their own reactions(because it's colossally stupid) so I'm not arguing that he's wrong when he says it, only that its not something he's ever going to be able to prove. What's more, well, that's him, innit. Going back to my examples of Half-Life and Galactica, yes, I enjoyed those moments, but I think it would be fair to say I'd have enjoyed them more if they hadn't been spoiled. My response to the end of BSG season one was to leap out of my chair. I'd never done this before and haven't since. I'd love to leap out of my chair again one day, and I might have done, if not for the sodding Guardian.

The How and the What.

This appears to be the crux of what Bissel is saying, that we should surrender our simplistic "what" and embrace a more nauanced "how". Only, is that such a safe delineation? Can we really pry those two appart? Surely the how and the what are intertwined for the most part? Isn't a story just the hows of some whats?

Some times, yes, yes of course. Lots of literature is fairly unspoiled by knowing the what. It really is the how of Nineteen Eighty Four that makes it what it is. You can have every plot point of that book explained to you and still not grasp what the text is getting at. If I'm honest, the more I've thought about Bissel's argument, the less I disagree, but it just seems too sweeping, to keen to raise up certain kinds of narrative against others.

However, the what, sometimes, is everything. Remember that bit from Call of Duty 4, the one at the end of the American campaign? The what of that was spoiled by watching zero punctuation. And you know what? It ruined it. Once again my reaction was "oh, that thing is happening" rather than "wait, they can't do that!" Surprise, shock, horror, these are powerful things, immediate things, and I don't think we should dismiss them as "lizard-brain surprise[s]"

I suppose that's what I'm saying here. Don't dismiss the what as irrelvant, as simple or basic. Bissel uses several literary examples and Bioshock, arguably one of our few vaguely literary games. Literature is often a thing of the how. But literature is just one form of art. If we concentrate on it we might loose Stephen King, we'd certainly loose Battlestar Galactica. Most popular art swings between the how and the what, and I think this is how it should be.

I'm goin to spoil that first season ending of Battlestar Galactica now, so if you're a what kinda person, look away.-NO REALLY LOOK AWAY-

Sometimes how doesn't mean a damn. Who pulled the trigger, why they did it, these things are secondary to a titan of a man, who seems so much smaller now, lying in a pool of his own blood, his loved ones screaming in shock, in horror.

I shared that shock, that horror, and it was fantastic.

1 comment:

  1. You pretty much nailed it I think. The original article assumes, firstly, that all art in all mediums works in the way he prefers (in which how & why is always more important than what), and secondly that everyone experiences any given piece of any medium in the same way, or if they don't that they should.

    It's not so much that what he's arguing is absolutely wrong, it's just not right 100% of the time for 100% of people. And, ultimately, it's up to the viewer/player/watcher/reader/consumer to make that decision for his or herself, which is why we have spoiler warnings, which says to the reader "I recognize that you experiencing what happens in a story for the first time may or may not be important for you, so I've given you the knowledge necessary to choose to experience it or not experience it through my second-hand account, based on your preference." Including a spoiler warning doesn't denote spoiler-worship so much as general courtesy.