About a week ago, Tom Auxier over at Nightmare Mode posted an excellent article about “mechanical spoilers,” in which he argues that the massive amount of pre-release press for AAA titles robs any surprise or mystery from the initial play experience; there may be unknown plot twists, but every design feature has already been publicized. His example of Skyrim is particularly telling:
“Look at Skyrim, a game we haven’t played but know a lot about. There are dragons in Skyrim. This has been the major marketing push of the game: like Oblivion but with dragons. I’m sure this excites some people, dragon fetishists mostly. Personally, I would have been happy with “Like Oblivion, but better.”
Here’s the place where the modern “ruining” of games comes in. There are dragons. We know that. When you play Skyrim for the first time in November, and you first see a dragon, think about your thought process. Is it going to be, “Holy shit that’s so fucking cool!” or “Man, I’m going to get me some cool dragon powers!” It’s going to be the latter. By revealing the dragons as part of marketing, they’ve been codified as a feature for the player to exploit rather than as a truly wondrous new thing. They’ve never bee allowed to exist as a new feature; now they are something we expect with the package. In another alternate world where Skyrim was just released in stores without publicity, with mysterious box art and absolutely no information, the first random dragon to attack you would have been a magical moment.”
Damn straight. But Auxier’s article stops at identifying the problem. He does not suggest any solutions, and in fact declares that there are none. “We can say we won’t look at promotional media for games, but even the things we read about them can color our expectations into odd directions and paint the novel as old hat,” he explains. I’m not so sure.
First, Auxier seems to view reading some pre-release information as a necessity (he differentiates “promotional media,” i.e. trailers, from the things we “read,” i.e. gaming blogs and news). But I don’t see why it is. As far as I can tell, there are three reasons for reading up on a game before actually playing it:
1. To gauge whether it’s worth playing at all.
2. Social capital. If you’re in a gaming-focused social group, there’s an advantage to keeping up with the latest buzz.
3. Plain impatience. You really, really want the game, and since you can’t have it, you’ll take what trailers you can get.
These are compelling, but are not unavoidable. The first one is, in my mind, the most important – but only matters if you’re still undecided. I already know I am going to buy Deus Ex: Human Revolution when it comes out, and so I don’t need to find out more about it. And the recognition that more information would spoil my play experience is enough to overcome my impatience (usually – I already know a little too much about DX:HR thanks to a few slips).
So I think it’s the social element that really presents a problem for most people. I happen to not have many offline gaming friends, so this isn’t really an issue for me, but I certainly sympathize with those who do. They can sacrifice the surprise of their play experience to make conversation, or they can avoid spoiler-filled discussions (and perhaps lose some of their social capital in the process) to ensure the best initial playthrough. It’s a hard choice, but it ultimately IS a choice. We are not beholden to the marketing arms of publishers. I regularly engage in successful media blackouts, and usually enjoy the games more as a result.
So for those acclimated to this media-saturated age, I’d say: give the blackout a shot. Find a game you’re sure you’re going to get, and ignore everything about it. If you read a gaming blog, skip anything with that game’s title in the headline. Don’t talk to your friends about it. When you finally get your hands on the game, you’ll be able to enjoy the luxury of a fresh perspective.