Thursday, 5 February 2009

In reply to Clint Hocking and Michael Abbott

An issue that’s been floating around the videogame blogs recently is that of spoiling a game’s story for other players, whether or not that’s important, and similarly whether or not it’s possible to spoil a games actual mechanics for another player.

The issue was first raised by Michael Abbott in his post, ‘The spoiler ball and chain’ in which was pointed out that if you’re going to talk seriously about a game and what it means, what it says, how it says it, then you’re probably going to have to assume a certain level of knowledge on the part of your reader.

And then in the comments thread CLINT HOCKING showed up to spoil the party. (I kid! Clint is a consummate professional) The point he was making was that ‘story’ or anything the player doesn’t actually have control over isn’t really part of the ‘game’. Here’s the important part of what he said, in full:

Here's a more pertinent question though - why are we even really concerned with giving away details of the PLOT in a video game. Elika doesn't die in PoP. There is no Elika, there is no Death of Elika, because there is no choice, there is no GAME there. The villain in CoD4 doesn't get his arm sniped off by a BAD SHOT, he gets his arm sniped off by an imposed narrative. The weakness of Passage is that the death of the wife is purely narrative, and the moving elements of the experience of Passage are the narrative ones. Telling the player these 'plot secrets' does nothing at all to impact the experience of the GAME in my opinion (you may still find these things moving, but they are not games, they are stories).

What I really like about this idea is that it is reflective of the school of thought that says games are interactive and everything else is secondary to the ‘game’. Which is a perspective I can see has a lot of validity – however on the other hand, you have Michael Abbott who steadfastly refuses to believe that story has necessarily be ‘tacked on’ to a game as some kind of garnish, which also seems like quite a sensible idea.

My initial sense is that it comes from conceptions of ‘game’ somewhat running at cross purposes. Specifically, differing conceptions of what is and is not extraneous to the actual ‘game’, which is an issue that Jesper Juul discusses in depth in his book Half-Real. In it, Juul offers a view of games as pared back as they come – essentially describing them as rule systems. However, he also acknowledges that equally important is the aesthetics or ‘fiction’ placed on top of those rules, which often have as much an impact on the actual end-user experience as what the X button on the controller does.

An example: If I were to rip out the music portion of Far Cry 2 and replace it with nothing or something completely irrelevant and jarring, is that not going to change the experience of the game? Of course it is! But has the underlying mechanics of Far Cry 2 actually been changed in any way? Not really, and yet the experience will fundamentally not be the same.

What Hocking says next, after this his initial comment, is quite challenging. He says,

I propose that we put this 'spoiler challenge' to the test - I'd like to see someone write a spoiler that was about a MECHANIC or a DYNAMIC of a game - something that is part of PLAY not part of the STORY, that *actually spoils the game* for me.

Go ahead, try it. Find a game, explain the ways in which the mechanics and dynamics moved you, and write it up so that it ruins my own subjective experience of the game.

I think on this point he’s actually bang on the money – I have never, and don’t ever expect to in the future, have a mechanic spoiled for me by a write up. Why? Because mechanics are truly best experienced, and there is no replacement for first hand experience. Gonzalo Frasca wrote about this issue in his paper Simulation vs. Narrative back in 2003, and he concisely outlined the difference between a simulation and a narrative thusly,

To an external observer, the sequence of signs produced by both the film and the simulation could look exactly the same…but simulation cannot be understood just through its output.

In other words, mechanics (here fungible with simulation) can really only be experienced and any attempts to describe them will be, at best, second hand descriptions without being truly evocative and therefore leaving our imagination with the task of ‘filling in the blanks’ with respect to the actual experience.

As a side note, I think my belief in this idea partly explains why I love New Games Journalism and the whole movement around subjective games writing so much, since I feel it sidesteps the clunky ‘descriptions’ of mechanics and, via the vehicle of creative writing and anecdote, actually gets closer to the mark than even the best of dry mechanical breakdowns. So I believe that Hocking is right in that you probably can’t spoil a mechanic any more than you can replace the experience of white water rafting with a story about it. Even if that story is a cracking good yarn, it’s never going to be able to get you wet.

The ironic part in all this is that while Hocking seems to really get the ‘experiencing mechanics’ issue, he seems to have (with this comment at least) ignored the fact that no matter how trivial the ‘fiction’ (as Juul would put it) or ‘content’ (as game developers would put it) of a game may seem in comparison to the mechanics it still remains important. Exactly how important, I have a hunch, is probably different from person to person as evidenced by the strong reaction provoked in Michael Abbott at the announcement of the somewhat “tacked on” nature of the narrative component of the latest downloadable content for the new Prince of Persia title. And that’s actually a feeling I can somewhat empathise with – the few extra missions released to add more story to my favorite game Far Cry 2 were more than welcome additions, and I wouldn’t want to see the story ruined or altered seriously like Michael seems to is the case. But since it’s also probably a bit less important for me, I’m not sure I’d see it as the ‘betrayal’ he feels it is.

So that’s what I think – Hocking’s right in that mechanics can’t be ruined because, like they say, there’s no substitute for the real thing. But on the other hand, story isn’t irrelevant to videogames either – it’s obviously not the core of them and there’s certainly plenty of future potential for growth in the area of making interactive stories, but I wouldn’t want to cut the idea off entirely. Then again, is it really a story if it’s interactive? Actually, I’ll leave that kind of discussion to the Corvus’ of the 'sphere, I think.


dhalgren2882 said...

I'm not sure if it counts as a mechanic or not, but I feel like I wouldn't have enjoyed the cellphone aspect of No More Heroes as much if someone had spoiled it for me.

Michel (callguinness) said...

I find it interesting that you open with a screenshot of Far Cry 2. I found the Far Cry 2 loading screens to be incredibly inconsiderate and actually spoil parts of the game for me. Your screenshot isn't so bad, but the game has some more revealing ones like the huge waterfall in the first area. The game is about exploration, discovering beautiful vistas, etc. and 15 minutes into the game you'cve probably seen all of them in static loading screen images. When I finally do come upon the waterfall it's not wonder I feel but "oh here it is". Fallout 3 doesn't have screenshots for loading screens and I actually am awed by some of the things I see. Tenpenny tower, for example, drew me across the wastes towards it out of curiousity, sidetracking me from my actual mission. This effect would not have been achieved if there had been a loading screen of Tenpenny Tower with some BioShock-esque quote "The most civilized tower in the capital wasteland!"

Alex said...

I didn't read Hocking's comment as a call to end narrative in games, just a call to end narrative-centric discussion in games. Games are about mechanics, about PLAY, as Hocking put it. And should be talked about more in the context of PLAY than STORY. But, really, it's understandable that most of us discuss STORY before PLAY. We're coming from centuries of cultural conditioning where STORY was the major element. Games are unique in that they can make PLAY as important and in some cases, more, than STORY. Tetris, for example.. what story? Superhypercube? what story? Awesome PLAY, though. But those are puzzle games. I'm struggling to think of a AAA title that was more PLAY than story.. maybe Katamari Damacy? The forthcoming Noby Noby Boy?

Michel (callguinness) said...

Wii Sports, Rock Band, Guitar Hero, Portal, L4D, every multiplayer game ever.

Spencer Greenwood said...

Where do we draw the line? At what point does a game mechanic become a story element?

As Samus regains more of her suit, we're shown more of her abilities and of Zebes. Here, the gameplay and the narrative aren't just in harmony. They're synonyms.


Ben Abraham said...


I think that if I hadn't read about it my level of surprise would certainly be higher, but I still feel that my reactions to it would only be slightly subdued and I would still 'get' what they were doing with it anyway. That may just be "me" though.


I'll admit that this may potentially also be a more "me" thing than anything else, but I think it would take something special to "spoil" Wii Sports, et al. for me. I don't find that words can adequately replace the sensation of flapping my arms about in the living room of a mates place, alongside three other grown men all trying to hit a tennis ball on a giant screen in front of us, and I think that's what Clint was getting at.

The fact that you felt 'spoiled' for the set-pieces in Far Cry 2 by the loading screens is interesting. I'll be the first to admit that the environment is critically important to that game in a very unique way, but I felt that learning them inside-out and how to traverse them was the more important feature, more than just simply seeing them. As Sun Tzu would have said "Know your environment to survive!" =)


Yeah I highly doubt that the brilliant CLINT HOCKING is really arguing that we get rid of narrative in games, or even that it's irrelevant, but like you say that we should be more concerned about the play experience itself which often is a WHOLE lot more dependent on mechanics than the story. At least, until we make story's that react and adapt better.


I must admit my shame in that I've never played a single Metroid title. I do doubt, however, that if you took the "story" away of Samus regaining her suit it would render the mechanics invalid. At best it would seem like a 'Deus Ex Machina' and would make you question "Why am I getting more powers now?" but the end result would still largely be the same. The reverse would not be as true, take away regaining the powers and just see her getting more of her suit back and the game becomes stratospherically different, I would imagine. Does that make sense?

CrashTranslation said...

I believe that CLINT HOCKING is wrong. I can understand why, and I think the way he uses the term "spoiler".

What does it mean to spoil a story? Foreknowledge of the outcome doesn't change the story itself. Even if I know the fate of a particular character that fate is still going to befall them. What changes is not the story but our experience, our interpretation of the story.

Using spoiler in the same way it is possible to spoil a game mechanic; in fact it happens so often I feel we are almost immune to it. If we are told of a game mechanic before we play it doesn't change the way the mechanic is implemented, but it will change our experience of and reaction to that mechanic. It might still be entertaining in the same way that a story you known the ending of can still be entertaining as often the journey is more important than the destination. But foreknowledge of any kind means that your personal experience of a game is different to that intended by the designer.

We live in an era of previews and pre-release trailers that detail so much of the game mechanics that it is very difficult to start a game we know anything about without knowledge of a lot of the mechanics. We have mechanics spoilt for us so frequently that I doubt we are even aware of any other way to play games. Pick a game you know nothing about and play it, the experience you have will be markedly different to that you get playing a game you’ve been hearing about for months.

Rob LeFebvre said...

Hey, Ben! I was having the same inner dialogue/discussion while listening to the latest Brainy Gamer Podcast. It's two valid perspectives coming together into one media: games. There's what I see as the film/theater perspective that story is key and important and should be treated as such. There's the other perspective, maybe from more of a developer/game designer point of view that the key element is the mechanics and gameplay.

Both are valid, and both are "key" elements. I don't think you can have a game without a little of both. Even an old board game, like Monopoly, uses metaphor and mechanics to create a type of story. Film and Television use story to entertain and advertise. Current videogames use story to engage players in the mechanics of the game.

It's all important, I guess, was my thought. It's like claiming that the peanut butter or the chocolate are teh most important element of a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.

Ben Abraham said...


I don't think you quite understood what I was getting at in the post, and maybe that's my fault for not being clearer, but my central argument was that TOUCHING and USING a mechanic/simulation could never be the same as reading it, hearing about it or even watching it. Yes, it's certainly possible to be primed for it but until you've actually done it, you'll never REALLY know what it's like.

Bear with my strange and twisted metaphor, but it's kind of like losing your virginity - no matter how much pornography you've watched in your life and no matter how hard you try you can't lose your virginity that way, it's just not the same as the real thing! ;-)

Similarly, I can look at all the gameplay trailers and read the intimate details of a games mechanics all I want, but until I get my hands dirty I really have such a one-dimensional understanding of how they work, of what those mechanics actually do and feel like to interact with.

@Rob LeFebvre

Good summary of what's happening in the discussion between Hocking & Abbott. I guess what I'm probably most interested in is that elusive "unique" aspect of games, and so I gravitate towards examining and being interested in the mechanics and design, as there's already plenty of film and narrative theory out there already. That said, I'm increasingly interested in the synthesis of the two, and that's probably where the truly uniquely interesting things lie.

Nice analogy with the Reese's, but sadly they're too rich for me so I'm going to claim I'm not a huge fan! =P Too much chocolate AND too much peanut for my tastes, I wonder if there's a gaming analogy in there somewhere? ;-)

CrashTranslation said...

I'm not going to argue that experiencing something is different to being told about it; of course it is.
But consider what it means for something to be a spoiler. It doesn't change the event itself so much as our perception and reaction to that event. That's what happens when a story is spoilt the events still occur but our reaction to them is alerted.

To use your metaphor consider your perception and expectation of sex and losing your virginity if you knew nothing out it verse if you'd been watching pornography? The event itself will not change but your perception and attitude towards it will be altered. The experience itself will be the same but the texture of it will have been dramatically altered.

I guess a better concept is a surprise birthday party. Even if you know about it it’s still going to be fun even if everything about it is described to you beforehand, though going in not knowing is going to lead to a dramatically different experience.

Foreknowledge always alters our perception of an event.

CrashTranslation said...

Hmm... No edit.

I think my issue with your original post is that it implies the reason white water rafting is enjoyable is the same reason that playing a game is enjoyable. One is a physical activity the other is a largely mental one. You brought up Wii Sports but again focused on the physical, social, aspect of it not the mechanic aspect of it.

We experience game mechanics with our mind and therefore interpretation and perception is of far more import than it is in any primarily physical acitivity.

zeech said...

I guess one way to "spoil" someone's experience of a mechanic is the case where a certain gameplay element is broken/unbalanced, or can be abused?

"Oh, you can just kill enemy X by doing this pattern over and over, using weapon Y."

Or alternatively, if a certain gameplay element is somewhat fun for a while, but ultimately is disappointing later?

"Dont bother leveling your Fire skills, they all suck in the endgame."


In either case such knowledge would kill your anticipation and exploration of those features. Even if you vowed to not abuse, or to use the underpowered feature, in the back of your mind you already know that you're taking the suboptimal path.

How that feeling affects you depends on your personality, I guess. Some people enjoy deliberately taking the suboptimal path.

Daniel Hindes said...

Totally agree with you on the point of writers simply describing game mechanics. It drives me nuts. I disagree with you on their immunity from being spoiled though - There are a number of mechanics in Far Cry 2 that I would have much preferred to have no knowledge of prior to playing the game for the first time, but all were described in pretty good detail across various reviews.

It's unfortunate that most people need to know the nitty-gritty of how a game works before they decide to purchase it.

Ben Abraham said...

Thanks for the comments Zeech and Daniel.

The more I think about it the less I'm less convinced about the "unspoilability" of mechanics, and a number of people have brought up good arguments here and elsewhere as to why. Still, description of the event or the mechanic/system will never replace actually interacting with it, so I'm not sure how that all works out.