*NO SPOILERS for The Last of Us Part II. All images or screenshots are from official press materials, and I do not have knowledge about the specific information revealed from the leaks.
Imagine that the year is 1994. You’re a young kid whose school just got out for the summer, and you’re excited to spend all of that time hanging out with friends. However, nothing excites you more than the fact that The Lion King is coming to theatres on Friday! You’ve been begging your parents to take you to the movie theatre to see it as soon as possible, and they graciously set up a playdate with the rest of your friends to see it on Saturday afternoon.
Unable to hold in your excitement, you spend your Friday morning and afternoon playing outside with a couple of your best friends. All of you are chasing each other around the front yard, playing with The Lion King toys you all got from Burger King. It couldn’t be a more perfect afternoon.
Then Butch the Bully shows up with his gang of troublemakers.
He grabs the Pumba toy from one of your friends and shoves him down on the grass.
“What’s up buttholes? You all playing with your stupid toys again?” Butch roared in his intimidating fifth-grade voice.
Then he glances over at you. You find yourself frozen in place, clutching onto Mufasa for dear life. He takes note and sends the ultimate dagger to the heart.
“Idiot, you can’t be Mufasa. Scar kills him in front of poor little Simba!!!”
He laughs uncontrollably as he commands his goonies to retreat to the local park to terrorize some more kids with spoilers. It turns out that Butch had gotten one of them to watch The Lion King that Friday morning, and then relay it back to him.
But it doesn’t matter anymore. You find yourself crippled on the ground, devastated by the information. All your excitement for The Lion King has disappeared in a flash. What’s the point of seeing it anymore when such a great moment has been ruined?
Try to imagine how you would feel in that situation today. Would a movie like Avengers: Endgame have been an exciting finale had you known everything going into it? Does that information distract or detract from your viewing experience?
Spoilers are a sensitive matter within the entertainment space, and the discussion is propping up once again with the debacle around The Last of Us Part II. After suffering multiple delays, one of the most anticipated games of 2020 is finally heading to PlayStation 4 on June 19th, albeit with the majority of its contents spoiled on the Internet for everyone to uncover. This post will provide a brief overview of the situation, before diving into the consequences of spoilers in the context of The Last of Us Part II, as well as the entirety of media.
Some Background Knowledge
On April 27th, videos were posted online from an unknown source that contained significant plot details, gameplay, and spoiler-filled cutscenes. While the videos were targeted for removal, users managed to download copies of the video before spreading it across various social media outlets. There was speculation that the leaker was a disgruntled Naughty Dog employee who had a pay dispute within the company, which might align with a previous report about the working conditions present at the studio from journalist Jason Schreier. However, Sony has identified the leaker and claims that the leaker was not associated with Sony nor Naughty Dog, and multiple sources claim that hackers exploited a vulnerability from a past game to gain access to the contents of Naughty Dog’s servers.
As the leaks continued to spread, Sony and Naughty Dog proceeded to take actions to mitigate their virality, which included targeting YouTube content with copyright claims and disabling comments on promotional material.
Regardless, there is currently a vicious cycle amongst fans regarding the revelations of these leaks, with Sony and Naughty Dog also going to the offensive to censor and remove. One of the driving motivations behind the prevalence of the leaks seems to be specific plot twists that are controversial.
Do Spoilers Ruin Media?
Before I proceed, I want to acknowledge that my anticipation for The Last of Us Part II could serve as a personal bias that fuels my passion on this subject. The Last of Us is amongst my favorite games of all time, and I was eagerly awaiting the chance to dive into the sequel for years.
Despite this, my stance on spoilers is unaffected by this. Overall, I find that spoilers ultimately detract from the value of media and are often a lose-lose scenario for the parties involved.
The main reason for this lies with the impact that spoilers can have on that first experience. Knowing major details about a story primes one to interact with it differently. Most of the time with spoilers, the audience’s attention is diverted to other aspects of the story or preoccupied with the curiosity about when something happens rather than if something occurs. That alone undermines the original intention of the creator, who has purposefully constructed the story to include specific narrative devices that foster intrigue, suspense, and engagement. This can strip away some of the immersion that accompanies a first experience, since the construction of the story is placed under greater scrutiny.
This in itself is not the greatest issue, since it is helpful to experience stories again with knowledge of its events in order to assess how effective it was in its execution. Rather, it is the fact that an experience with spoilers and without spoilers is fundamentally different.
This more so translates to the economic value of media. Let’s use a modern masterpiece that’s getting a remake pretty soon as an example (NO SPOILERS!):
For the unaware, Xenoblade Chronicles is a massive role-playing game that has Shulk and his friends going on a quest to get revenge against the Mechon after a violent attack on their village. As a game that will require dozens of hours to complete, there are a plethora of plot twists and secrets to be uncovered.
For this example, we will use the game’s price of $60. Now imagine two people: one of them has never played Xenoblade Chronicles before, and the other has been spoiled of every single detail and story beat that happens across the game. With that in mind, who is getting the most bang for their buck?
Unless the latter person seriously does not care about spoilers, the former person gets the most value from their purchase on one basis: they get the opportunity to experience the game fresh without spoilers, and then replay the game with that information for two distinct playing experiences. Unfortunately the other person is deprived of that same opportunity, and they might feel less inclined to do a repeat play-through.
And that scenario assumes the second person purchases the game at all! Just as it is happening with The Last of Us Part II, there will be some that choose to forgo their purchase because they know what they need to know and/or are dissatisfied with the contents.
Unjustified Action and Response
Let’s make one thing clear: the fact that the leak occurred is nothing to be happy about. However, I have focused on outlining the damage that it causes to the people that were interested in playing The Last of Us Part II. In reality, the true victims of the leak are the people that poured countless hours into creating the game in the first place, across six years no less.
All of this occurred amidst an article that I alluded to earlier concerning the “crunch culture” at Naughty Dog, in which developers work extremely long hours to get a project completed. It is unimaginable how pained those same individuals feel about their contributions getting undermined by the negative response online. Keep in mind that the team behind The Last of Us Part II did not exclusively consist of writers: there were designers, programmers, animators, engineers, artists, quality testers, producers, actors, musicians, and so many others that allowed this game to come to fruition. Yet a story leak is muddying the excitement that should be accompanied from completing such a project. And if the crunch culture is as described in the report, I cannot help but feel sorrow at the circumstances that befell the entire studio. Once The Last of Us Part II releases, it is imperative that these issues at the studio be addressed immediately.
With that said, there are two major parties to discuss that are contributing to a cycle of pure chaos that exacerbates the pain of these leaks.
As noted before, Sony has been vigilant in removing and censoring content that contains tangible footage of the leaked game. However, those efforts had also extended to content creators who simply discussed the nature of the leaks without including any footage. While I sympathize with the pandemonium that the leaks caused, it does not excuse that Sony is going after innocent people with copyright claims and legal threats that are undeserved. There are individuals who make their livelihoods off of online platforms, and Sony’s attempts at damage control are extending to places that it should not.
However, those going out of their way to spoil others bear a great deal of the responsibility for the current predicament. The only motivations that I can reason for engaging in that behavior are nothing but hostile; they are people who gain satisfaction from instigating negative reactions and ruining experiences for others. There is nothing good or heroic from their conduct. Their actions lack any decent justification for sending negative comments towards people, while also going so far as to demean them for wanting to go into The Last of Us Part II with an open mind.
There is no problem with spoiling yourself about the game if you have no interest in it. At the end of the day, it is your decision to learn what you want to learn and spend your money how you want to spend it. But taking it a step further to spoil people who are trying to play the game with a fresh mind is quite pitiful.
There’s a fantastic quote from the late film critic Roger Ebert that warrants consideration:
“The characters in movies do not always do what we would do. Sometimes they make choices that offend us. That is their right. It is our right to disagree with them. It is not our right, however, to destroy for others the experience of being as surprised by those choices as we were.”
-Roger Ebert (2005)
As gaming has pushed the boundaries for storytelling in interactive media, the standards once applied to film and television now hold just as much weight in video games.
While the opinions expressed here about spoilers were strong, I aimed to provide a fair overview of the circumstances unique to The Last of Us Part II. Even after reading this, some might label me a “fanboy” regardless. Rather, I want to experience The Last of Us Part II for myself and come to my own conclusion.
Not to mention, most of these leaks have nothing to do with the quality of the gameplay. There’s been enough goodwill and intrigue spurred from other aspects of The Last of Us Part II that is deserves a fair shot before I pass my judgement.
And if I love or hate this game, you’re going to hear my honest opinion next month. With a spoiler warning for the reader’s consideration.