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The Final Stretch
We were in the final stretch of the experiment of using the video game Gone Home as a senior English text. Of the four remaining classes, two were reserved for students to work on their reviews and group presentations, and then the unit would wrap-up with their presentations.
I introduced the work periods with some tips on how to create effective slide presentations, particularly emphasizing the importance of favoring image over word and avoiding too many bullet points. This wouldn’t be too tough, since Gone Home was a predominantly visual experience, and their tracking notes were complimented with an abundance of screenshots. The challenge was to choose the best images and order them in a way that would allow them to effectively deliver their topic.
All fifty-seven students in the three classes had finished playing the game (or so they assured me!). The work periods were abuzz with productive activity, as groups assigned roles, discussed strategy and exchanged screenshots and notes to build their slide shows. A few went off to work individually and polish off their reviews. As they worked, I heard a lot of informal banter about the game, discussing plot points, the realism of certain characters, missed items or clues and some stray murmurs about a purple basketball Easter egg. I even caught a few disgruntled accusations that so-and-so had “spoiled” some aspect of the story while they were playing. Ah yes, the infamous spoil.
If I’m discussing a novel or play in class and make the fatal error of revealing a plot point in advance, there is often a collective groan followed by accusations of having “spoiled” the story. I ritualistically remind them that it’s about the journey, not the destination and that good stories don’t rely on surprises. Despite my best efforts, they rarely seem convinced.
What’s Past is Prologue
In Shakespeare’s day, entertainment value did not rely on plot twists and surprise endings. English renaissance audiences were usually familiar with the stories, as plots were freely recycled in an age before copyright and intellectual property. Even if they were unaware of the intricacies of a certain plot, the label tragedy revealed that the play would end with the death of all major characters, and a comedy would happily conclude with matrimonial bliss. If that wasn’t enough, many plays began with a built-in spoiler called a prologue that summarized the piece in advance. For the Elizabethan theatre crowd, entertainment was not so much derived from plot as from execution (in fact, Queen Elizabeth often ended plots with executions!). Bad puns aside, what the story was about was not as important as how the tale was told. I say it again: it was about the journey, not the destination.
The Prologue to “Gnomeo and Juliet”
Going back even further, the basic plots and characters in tribal myths and legends tended to remain constant. The tribe gathered around the proverbial fire and heard variations of the same stories that had been recounted over and over again from earliest childhood. The repetition was not for lack of imagination, but because these tales preserved the tribe’s collective knowledge and memory, playing a crucial role in defining and maintaining cultural identity. Again, despite the unchanging plots, the storyteller was prized for their flourishes and embellishments, or how they told their story.
The Birth of the Spoiler
Today, copyright laws and a consumer thirst for novelty and cliffhangers (the binding glue of serialization), have created a modern emphasis on plot as surprise. We can also attribute this to the sequential and generally linear narratives of film and television that defined popular 20th century storytelling. When watching motion pictures, we sit in a roller coaster car, and are mechanically sped along to the end, with little opportunity to stop and take in the view. The form lends itself to surprise, bestowing thrills from the twists and turns. Typically, after being pleasantly ambushed by the unexpected the first time around, there is a sense that the entertainment value has been drained and we don’t tend to revisit the story. On to the next one! Perhaps our disposable or “throw-away” society is reflected in our disposable stories. That is why, to reveal key plot elements or spoil a film or book is to commit the cardinal sin of consumer entertainment. I know people who have been defriended on Facebook for ill-timed revelations about Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad. There is even a story of a teacher in Belgium, who’d read the book series that the TV series Game of Thrones is based on and threatened to give away the deaths of major characters if his students didn’t behave.
The rise of the spoiler is tied closely to the advent of the Internet. As Henry Jenkins notes in Convergence Culture, spoilers started because US network TV shows would air at different times according to their time zone, and there would be months of delay before broadcasting in international markets. This wasn’t really a problem until the arrival of the Internet, where plot reveals could be quickly posted and spread faster than the show…and thus the spoiler was born. Information and communication has become increasingly centralized in the digital collective consciousness or shared global brain we call the Internet. Plots that hinge on suspense must adapt to a new reality where they might collapse under the burden of collective knowledge, as noted by Steve Gaynor, the creator of Gone Home, in a Kill Screen interview.
Any passing temptation to read a plot summary or get the inside scoop on the latest episode of The Walking Dead can be instantly gratified. Even if you don’t want to know, your friend might accidentally dish on social media, or you may not avert your eyes in time from a Google search accident. As a matter of policy, Wikipedia reveals all and makes no attempt to warn you that the spoil is coming. As we navigate our digital highways we encounter “Spoiler Alert” signs at every turn, offering an equally tempting option to deviate our course, or partake in forbidden knowledge. It begs the question: what is more blissful, ignorance or information?
As an English teacher, I most feel the all-knowing and all-spoiling power of the Internet in that any major work I teach is now completely dissected on the web. Students can find essays, summaries, questions, responses, explanatory videos, etc. – everything they need to succeed in the class without reading the novel. We can choose to ignore this and continue teaching English like our venerated predecessors, but we now have a responsibility to adjust to the new reality and rethink our practice. This might include a reconsideration of not only how we teach, but what we teach. The amalgamated, monolithic and digitalized Library of Alexandria known as the interweb challenges traditional instructional strategies, but also changes how we receive and respond to narrative, how stories are told, and how we contend with intellectual property. This is why disruption is the word of the day.
Any story worth its salt should be re-readable, re-watchable, re-playable and, yes, Internet-proof. A well-told story simply can’t be spoiled. Children seem to know this, as they can retread their favorite bedtime stories and films ad nauseam. I’ve read Hamlet and Othello many times each, and never tire of them. A discussion of what makes a work timeless and re-readable is beyond the scope of this post. Instead, I’m interested in new narratve forms with the potential for spoiler-resistant storytelling, specifically video games and interactive fiction.
Gone Home drives to a single suspenseful ending that, according to the wisdom of the day, can be spoiled. Accusations of spoiling by my students imply that knowing how it will end detracts from their ability to enjoy the game. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I completely disagree. That’s right – I’m going to tell them how they really feel! I believe that their expectation of surprise in plot as the key to entertainment is culturally conditioned, rather than a true measure of their enjoyment of the game. I’ll go even further to say that if the game relies on the ending or a few plot twists for its entertainment value, then it really isn’t a very good game or, more to the point, a very good story. Interestingly, a 2011 study from the psychology department in UC San Diego points to a need to rethink how we are being entertained. It determined that greater enjoyment is derived from absorbing a narrative that has in fact been “spoiled”, or its surprised ending was revealed in advance. The potential reasons are numerous, and this article, that sums them up quite nicely, and is well worth the read. Funny to think that science has to tell us how to be entertained.
Fans of the Choose Your Own Adventure series or Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch know that the idea of choice based narrative is not a novel concept. In the case of Gone Home, there’s plenty of latitude during the gameplay journey, as it combines a blend of the linear and non-linear. Much like a myth, one story is being told, but it can be encountered and recounted in a variety of ways. I believe this points to the new (or very old) face of stories. Non-linear narratives, especially those with high audience agency and choice (video game, anyone?) are non-perishable goods. The more narrative flexibility that is built into the game, including variable endings and the ability to assume different perspectives, the more spoiler-proof the story becomes. Even if you know the general plot or story, the telling will be unique based on the choices you make and the avenues you choose to follow. Gone Home’s allegiance to a single ending costs it some replay value in a surprise-ending oriented culture, but it can still be replayed and enjoyed. Even after one full run, it keeps secrets that can be discovered in successive tours of the Greenbriar mansion.
Participatory, nonlinear, choice-based narratives are the emerging storytelling form of the 21st century. If we hope to keep our classes relevant and our students engaged, we should probably start adding more of these to the mix. That way, they’ll be less likely to spoil the journey by being overly fixed on the destination.