Ian Bo­gost sticks some go-faster stripes on the side of games

Hard game crit­i­cism

EDGE - - SECTIONS - IAN BO­GOST Ian Bo­gost is an au­thor and game designer. His award­win­ning A Slow Year is avail­able at www.bit.ly/1eQalad

Taken in the pop cul­tural sense, a spoiler is in­for­ma­tion about a work that, if en­coun­tered, will re­veal key el­e­ments of the plot. But there’s an­other use for the word ‘spoiler’ that’s found in the world of au­to­mo­tive and avi­a­tion de­sign. In its au­to­mo­tive sense, a spoiler is a de­vice that al­ters (or spoils) the move­ment of air as a ve­hi­cle passes through it. Its pur­pose is to in­crease the stream­line flow of air over a car to re­duce drag. Such a mech­a­nism of­fers sev­eral benefits, in­clud­ing im­proved han­dling and in­creased fuel econ­omy.

The two senses of ‘spoiler’ do have some­thing in com­mon: they di­min­ish the value or ef­fect of some­thing. In the case of an au­to­mo­bile, air tur­bu­lence is spoiled by the ap­pa­ra­tus. In the case of pop cul­ture, the en­joy­ment of a work is spoiled by di­vulging key el­e­ments of its plot. But the dif­fer­ence be­tween aero­dy­namic and nar­ra­tive spoil­ing un­der­scores an im­por­tant distinc­tion be­tween games and other forms of me­dia. The best games are sus­cep­ti­ble to spoil­ing in a way more akin to the air­flow around a car than the post­ing of a fi­nale on an In­ter­net mes­sage board. In fact, be­ing spoil­able-like-a-race-car (let’s call it ‘spoi­ler­ing’) might be a good acid test for a game’s qual­ity.

Some games share so much in com­mon with tra­di­tional nar­ra­tive me­dia that they spoil more than they spoiler. Games such as BioShock, Bat­man: Arkham City, Red Dead Re­demp­tion or Gears Of War 3 – or any num­ber of other games driven pri­mar­ily by sto­ry­telling – tend to be sus­cep­ti­ble to be­ing di­min­ished when facts about their more-or-less com­mon plots and end­ings are re­vealed.

But th­ese me­dia can be spoiled mostly be­cause their ex­pe­ri­ences are so sin­gu­lar. When a key plot point of a show, film or game can be de­scribed by an or­di­nary viewer or player in such a way that evis­cer­ates oth­ers’ abil­ity to en­joy the work, per­haps we should blame the in­di­vid­u­als who do the spoil­ing less than the struc­ture of the me­dia ecosys­tem that makes spoil­ing pos­si­ble.

By con­trast, an au­to­mo­tive spoiler or wing does not pro­vide an­swers or res­o­lu­tions. In­stead, it of­fers tac­ti­cal benefits that must still be put to use by an adept op­er­a­tor to make a dif­fer­ence. In other words, it of­fers a sec­ondary ben­e­fit that is only valu­able when put to use in a pri­mary cir­cum­stance. Un­less you’re al­ready amid a pack adept at per­for­mance driv­ing, adding a spoiler will hardly help you win a race.

Spoi­ler­ing is a fea­ture com­mon to games with depths of struc­ture and longevity of play that ex­tend be­yond a one-time rev­e­la­tion. Con­sider games such as chess, go, poker or black­jack. Prob­lems, puzzles, tech­niques and ap­proaches are com­monly re­vealed in th­ese games. But the work of ex­e­cut­ing those tech­niques is more like the per­for­mance driver than the film watcher: with­out flu­ency, know­ing the re­sponse to white’s 1.d4 open­ing in chess or whether to dou­ble down in black­jack when the dealer shows an ace can­not be adeptly in­cor­po­rated into a game, but only car­ried out blind, as tac­tics ab­sent a strat­egy.

One way to think about spoi­ler­ing is as tac­tics made ma­te­rial. In col­lectible card game (CCG) com­mu­ni­ties such as Magic: The Gath­er­ing or Netrun­ner, fre­quent re­leases of new sets of cards al­ter the game­play, since play­ers mix th­ese new ma­te­ri­als with older ones into valid decks. Early ver­sions of th­ese re­leases are some­times posted as ‘pack spoil­ers’ be­fore of­fi­cial cat­a­logues of­fer a full ac­count­ing of their con­tents. In th­ese cases, re­veal­ing an in­di­vid­ual card’s ap­pear­ance and abil­i­ties does not spoil a game so much as it spoil­ers it through in­stru­men­ta­tion.

Of course, nar­ra­tive me­dia has some­thing equiv­a­lent to spoi­ler­ing when it with­holds the man­ner of rev­e­la­tion of plot. While spoiler warn­ings abound for tele­vi­sion shows such as Game Of Thrones or films like The Hunger Games, th­ese se­ries are adapted from popular nov­els whose read­ers al­ready know what hap­pens. The plea­sure of the view­ing comes from see­ing how the TV or film­mak­ers car­ried out the plot, in­clud­ing de­vi­at­ing from it, as adap­ta­tions al­ways do. Less com­mon is the spoi­ler­ing of nar­ra­tive me­dia: in­stru­ment­ing it with new in­for­ma­tion that pro­vides a strength­ened, rather than ru­ined, ex­pe­ri­ence.

Per­haps that’s be­cause spoil­ered games of­fer some­thing im­pos­si­ble in lin­ear nar­ra­tive: the recog­ni­tion that no amount of in­side in­for­ma­tion can ever ruin the ex­pe­ri­ence of a game. In­stead, it can only deepen it, make it more pro­found.

Be­ing spoil­able-like-a-race-car (let’s call it ‘spoi­ler­ing’) might be a good acid test for a game’s qual­ity

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