27 January 2012

Spoilers, and why you should love them

There's this idea that you should avoid spoilers in reviews. Or rather, if you do spoil something, legions of drooling imbeciles assault you in staggering waves, foaming incessantly at the mouth with rage at your vile transgression. One might almost get the impression that spoilers are a bad thing!

Now if you've read even a bit of this blog, you'll know that I don't care if there's spoilers. I tend to make the token rejection of spoiler etiquette and just get on with my spoiling. Well, good news is, I've decided to actually explain myself! Bad news is that I never realized what an awful decision that is... But anyway, spoilers.

Spoilers usually means narrative spoilers. You can spoil other things. The chaps over at RPS think you can spoil mechanics. Personally, I find that silly. Car maintenance is a difficult, thankless job, with plenty of stress, dirt and physical labor. Calling these working class men spoiled is quaintly bourgeoisie... Oh, what? Oh! Oh. I see... But seriously, it's a legit class of spoiler they've found, and a nice concept. But in practice spoil-able mechanics are very rare, and ones which matter if spoiled are rarer still.

So what was I saying? Right. Spoilers? That means narrative spoilers.

And with regard to narrative spoilers, there are two kinds of stories: The whodunit, and everything else (let's call those "hedunnit"). What is a whodunit? It's a logic puzzle in narrative format. It's a story which is written such that the primary enjoyment is derived from trying to guess the ending. The name comes from, well, those books where you have some guy kill some other guy, and this guy tries to find out who's, well, done it.

Why is it special, the whodunit? Because there is only one reason to read the whodunit, and that reason is eliminated by a spoiler. I say read, but it can easily be a movie, or a video game, or any kind of narrative medium. It doesn't actually have to be a narrative, either. Any logic puzzle with a non-obvious solution is also, in a sense, a whodunit, because the point is to figure out the mystery, and once you know the mystery, it's no longer interesting.

That's my point in a nutshell; it has two parts:
  • Spoilers are bad only if it's a whodunit
  • Whodunits are crap (for this reason) and you shouldn't read them anyway
This, of course, implies that I should always spoil, and if you're not upset, it's okay, and if you are upset, I've done you a service: I've spared you from hours of reading the whodunit just to find out that one bit at the end.


By virtue of my definitions, it's already okay to spoil non-whodunits, or "hedunnits", as it were. Because a hedunnit is not written with the assumption that the mystery is enough of a draw, it will have other positive qualities. Perhaps the narrative style is unique and revolutionary. Perhaps the characters are fascinating. Perhaps the analysis of the events and moral dilemmas that come up is insightful. Perhaps the story is simply told in such a way that it's exciting even if you have heard it before.

You know, all those positive qualities that we are used to look for in real books (snap). The draw of any book is a combination of the mystery plot and the literary merits. You could theoretically have a book which is evenly split between the two: it would not be rendered worthless if spoiled but would lose significant power. In fact, I might say Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was such a film. (I keep talking about books, but that is for convenience's sake; if you pay attention you will see this is applicable to works in any medium which tells a story) However, in practice, this doesn't happen often- partly because there's no reason to try to do it. You either write a whodunnit, in which case it makes no sense to bother with serious literary pretensions when you could get the same bang for less buck and simply add lots of mystery, or you write a serious book in which case any mystery aspects are superfluous- you have to assume that your book will eventually become famous, the plot will become common knowledge, and yet it should still have the same value even then.

Thus people crafting stories will either make a whodunnit and focus on mystery, or ignore the mystery and focus on the other positive aspects, because no matter what your aim, it is always counterproductive to try to do both at the same time.

I mean, think of all the great literature that are regarded as classics. Does any of it really become less interesting after you learn the plot? If that was the case, they wouldn't be regarded as classics in the first place. (The season finale of HBO's Rome is one of my favorites. It's the one where -spoilers!- Brutus murders Caesar. If only those asshole historians hadn't spoiled it, huh?) And what about people who will hear about something, read the plot synopsis on wikipedia, and then decide that it's interesting and they want to read the whole thing? Obviously some books (and film, and games...) are spoiler-immune.

So if you know for sure that you have something with artistic value, there's no question that spoilers are fun. To claim otherwise is to suggest that this thing has no artistic qualities besides, and is only interesting for its mystery value (hence not being interesting to people who have read it, quite paradoxically).

Moreover, as I will show next, there is no reason to read whodunnits in the first place. Not only are they artistically bankrupt, they are bankrupt, period. When you have a whodunnit, it is still okay (and better!) to spoil it, because once you spoil, the uh, spoilee will no longer be compelled by their curiosity to waste time reading a book which becomes worthless the moment they finish reading it. You're doing them a service. Regardless of the situation, you should always spoil everything.


That's all well and good, but how is it that a whodunnit is objectively bad? People enjoy reading them sometimes, don't they? Then, by spoiling it, you are taking away their enjoyment, aren't you?

Well, true. However, we need to consider what a whodunnit is. A whodunnit is not great art, as established. In fact, it's not even a matter of degree; whodunnits are fundamentally different than other stories. Hedunnits tell a story as a way of artistic expression. A whodunnit is not art at all, and has no such pretensions, it is essentially a logic puzzle which just happens to be exist in narrative form.

Now, looked at in comparison with puzzles (and math problems) in general, I think whodunnits don't measure up in that way, either. They are the simplest, most worthless kind of logic puzzle. My reasoning is similar to hedunnits: A really good puzzle is good, because its solution is not a gimmick- it's a genuinely intellectually enriching thing, and even after you know the answer, the solution (or how that answer was obtained) is still very interesting by itself, and thus the puzzle loses almost no value even after being spoiled. The whodunnit as a puzzle is the worst kind of puzzle- there is just one simple trick to it and if you've seen it solved you know how to solve it, and the solution is so simple that you gain nothing from knowing it. It's a waste of time.

If you complain about spoilers on the basis of liking whodunnits, which you can only like as logic puzzles anyway as I earlier explained, then you are still better off just not bothering with them at all- if you like logic puzzles, there are far better logic puzzles out there and those are still interesting even after you spoil them.


So, in the end, for people who have no interest in whodunnits, a policy of casually spoiling things is perfectly fine. It's better than not spoiling, because if they realize that their interest wanes as they find out about the plot, they can safely deduce that it's a whodunnit you're talking about and it's not worth their time.

On the other hand, the people who like whodunnits, can only possibly like them for the logic puzzle aspects, and thus if they see their interest being diminished by spoilers, they can also safely say that it is a shoddy puzzle you're speaking of, and know that they can easily find much more worthwhile ones.

Once again, I've spoken mostly in the context of books, but obviously you can talk about a whodunnit film (just take a whodunnit novel and make a movie out of it... Not that a movie of a whodunnit book is not precluded from having artistic value- it's perfectly possible, otherwise no one would see a Sherlock Holmes movie). You can talk about a whodunnit video game. In fact, the whodunnit is most defensible in books, where the story is more central. It is far easier (as if it wasn't already easy) to think of a game that remains enjoyable after you know what happens. Hell, there's a whole class of games without any plot to begin with!

As an aside, since I mentioned mechanical spoilers in the beginning: I think Kieron's example is that in Amnesia, you don't die from being insane, although it sort of seems like you would. This is nonsense. For one, it make no sense for you to not save the game as soon as you encounter the insanity mechanic, and see exactly how much of it you can take before dying. As a player consciously attempting to beat the game, you are being stupid (ie strategically inefficient) by not doing so. There's nothing to spoil. And incidentally, for me anyway, the mechanic was still kind of creepy after figuring it out- it distracted me and enhanced the feeling of danger because I couldn't properly see what's going on.

I mean, it makes perfect sense if you believe in not spoiling things, to avoid spoiling mechanics. It seems like a slippery slope, really, where you can't talk about anything for fear of spoiling, but whatever. The point is, I don't believe in spoilers, and to me the "mechanical spoiler" is equally irrelevant.

PS: Actually, it seems spoiling a thing, even a whodunnit, makes it even more enjoyable, according to science.

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