Spoiler Etiquette: Can We Agree On What a Spoiler Is?
Do you want to know what happens in the season premiere of Game Of Thrones? Because I can tell you. Are you ready? Well, you see–
What, you don’t want to hear any spoilers? That’s understandable. We all want to experience our favorite books, TV shows, films, and video games as they unfold. We want to appreciate the goodness of the thing as the artists, writers, performers, and developers intended. So that means absolutely no spoilers! The purity of the experience will be wrecked forever, and we’ll never be able to regain that if we know what’s coming. Who wouldn’t be angry if that happened?
Yeah. Well. There’s something about that mindset we need to discuss, you and me. We’re friends, right? We like the same things. We’re cool. So please answer honestly when I ask you, what do you consider a spoiler? How severe is your aversion to them?
Some people have a low bar for spoilers. A very, very low bar. Just knowing that there is a twist in a story seems to make them livid, because now they’ll have to expect one, and they didn’t before. You ever see The Sixth Sense? Pretend you never saw it if you did, and imagine me telling you there’s a HUGE twist at the end. One you won’t see coming, and it totally makes the movie. Well, I guess we should consider that story spoiled. It’s totally ruined because when you sit down and watch it you’ll be… what, exactly? Angrily searching the screen for clues? Huffing and puffing that the story isn’t a straight line with no conflicts? Stamping your feet, waiting for that inevitable twist, just so you can say you were angry that you knew it was coming?
There’s so much more to experiencing a good story than just being surprised at what happens.
Think about all the stuff you’ve wanted to experience a second time. You’ve already seen it, read it, or played it, so nothing will surprise you. But still you open that first page and start anew. Why? Because it was good enough for you to come back for another pass, that’s why. The quality of the experience spoke to you somehow. Now maybe there was something major you missed and you don’t want to leave the experience without all the vital bullet points, but I’m betting that most people come back to relive something in that story that resonated with them. The thing is, it still resonates after a second, third, or one hundredth viewing. That’s what good stuff does.
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I can sit down to a new game of Final Fantasy VII and still get goosebumps up my arm as the opening cinematic plays, twenty years after I first played it. I’ve marathoned Firefly several times, because Joss Whedon is a masterful writer and director and I love how he can twist a story on a dime. I’ll rewatch an episode of How I Met Your Mother and still laugh at the same jokes, because they’re still hilarious.
It’s easy to forget when reading a book, watching a show or a movie, or playing through a game, that the people responsible for bringing it to you did so with a purpose in mind. That purpose is always there, embedded into the fabric of the thing, to be appreciated, cherished, debated, or even hated for as long as it exists. That will remain the same whether you experience it one time or a thousand.
So I said all that to get to this question: how important is it to you that the story you experience is actually good? Because depending on your answer, you may be confusing “interesting” with “exciting.”
Story time. I had a friend. His name’s… uh… Kevin. Let’s go with Kevin. Anyway, Kevin went to go see the Michael Bay Transformers movie in the theaters back when it was a new, shiny thing. He came back and told me he loved it. There was action, humor, and a lot of cool stuff, he said. I had seen the trailers and was skeptical, but his excitement won me over. I went to see it under his recommendation… and it turned out to be the most disappointing movie experience I’ve ever had. Not because I’d built it up in my head– it was the opposite, actually– but I because I followed the movie from beginning to end and I can tell you that objectively it is a terribly written, terribly acted, terribly directed piece of junk. The only thing that kept my butt in the seat through that whole mass of random explosions disguised as storytelling devices were the mental notes I was taking on how not to write a story. Kevin has since relented that maybe it wasn’t as good as he first thought.
I wished I had dug a little deeper and learned some things about that movie so I didn’t have to waste my eight bucks on what is essentially a 147 million dollar squeaky toy. I was angry because my standards for a good story are actually not all that high; I understand that there only so many types of stories in the world, so I appreciate the variances when I see them and bow down to the truly original ideas that really make me think about shit.
See, spoilers are the enemy of poor quality. Poor quality books, TV shows, movies, and video games only have one way they’ll be able to make money: by hiding the fact that they’re bad.
Sometimes, like in the case of Battlefield: Earth, it’s quite obvious (Roger Ebert once said about it, “the director knows that better filmmakers sometimes tilt their cameras, but he doesn’t yet know why,”). Others are a little more difficult to spot because they can trick you into thinking it’s good just by surprising you with something every few minutes (like, say, a random explosion in a movie starring gigantic transforming robots). But essentially, if you pay money to experience a thing without knowing much about it, your chances of getting anything more out of it than a couple of surprising moments are at best 50/50.
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Look, we’re all trying to find good stories to attach ourselves to, to identify with. Stories that have meaning to us, stories that we cling to as a reminder of what is most important to us. Those things don’t come from being surprised, and aren’t ruined by spoilers. If anything, if you really care about the quality of the stories you experience (or even just value the money you would spend on them), it might be worth checking around and seeing what people are saying about them. If you learn that a character dies, or something explodes, or some time-travel shenanigans happen in the finale, or whatever, the experience of that thing doesn’t have to be ruined for you. Knowing that it’s coming doesn’t actually mean shit compared to what it means when it comes.
Bad stuff masquerading as good stuff can be defeated by allowing yourself to be a little less sensitive to spoilers. If you know what’s coming is not something that will resonate with you and it causes you to back off, that’s a little less money that thing makes; conversely, if you know that a thing is going to resonate really well, that should just make you want to experience it that much more. Think about it this way. If poor quality stories stop making money, and good quality stories start making more money, what kind of effect do you think that will have on publishers, studios, and game developers who make these stories for us? If we only watch, read, or play good stuff that really resonates with us, then good stuff is what we’re going to get more of.
Now I understand if you still don’t want to know what Daenerys does when she lands in Westeros, or whether Thanos will kill Captain America in Infinity War like he did in the comics. But maybe if you hear about it in passing the day before you actually tune in, you might remember to not be so mad about it. In fact, it might just make you look forward to experiencing it more.