“Watching any E3 coverage?”
The question was inevitable. In this case, it was an IM from a co-worker, but anyone who knew my interest in video games would have asked the same rhetorical question. Of course I was. What game journalist doesn’t watch E3 coverage?
“I’m just sort of burnt out on E3,” I said, dodging the question. “Most of what happens there is just not relevant to me, because it tends to be dominated by AAA sequels.”
Immediately after writing this, I realized it wasn’t true. I’m excited by the continued expansion of independent gaming, and I suspect that the rise of Kickstarter will be this year’s signature event, but I’m not actually a gaming hipster. Dishonored is near the top of my wish list, and I still didn’t watch any coverage of it.
I tried again. “I guess I’m just focused on working through my gaming backlog.”
Technically accurate, but still not it. Sure, I have a huge backlog, but in the age of endless indie bundles and massive Steam sales, who doesn’t?
No, when I was being completely honest with myself, the answer was much simpler: I didn’t want to know. In my ideal world, I wouldn’t know the details of a video game until I was actually playing it. I desperately wanted to recapture the joy of discovery — something that is increasingly difficult to experience in an age when social networks and game journalism conspire to let us know the plot and systems of every game before we even touch it.
There’s This Thing Called Television
I’ve always been wary of “spoilers,” but that traditionally just meant avoiding details of a story’s plot twist or big reveal. Given that most games either have threadbare plots that are basically irrelevant to the experience of play, or generic stories that telegraph their turns so far in advance that the “surprises” are anything but, I usually didn’t have to worry too much about this. It wasn’t until a recent revelation that I realized the value in avoiding all information on a game, including not just its story but its setting, systems, and challenges.
It struck me during a marathon bout of television viewing. Six months out of college, I managed to land my first job, and experienced the universal discombobulation that comes with moving to a new home and desperately trying to adapt to the working life. My chief coping mechanism, my bastion of stability in this time of great change, was Star Trek: The Next Generation.
It wasn’t that the show was the greatest thing I had ever seen. But it combined predictability with genuine surprise in a way that I had almost forgotten existed. Made at a time when truly serial plot lines were a rarity in television, Next Generation followed the original Star Trek’s lead, featuring the starship Enterprise visiting a new place and encountering a new culture most every week. And while I came to adore its cast of characters, the true draw was that I could join the crew in venturing into the unknown with every episode. I had no idea what was going to happen after I hit the play button.
It may seem that I’m just stating the obvious. That’s just how television works, right? But in an age where we read the Netflix episode description before viewing, and every episode ends with a “Next time on…” montage, true surprise has become an unusual experience even in the long-running, episodic narratives of this medium. Encountering unpredictability in television reminded me how much I hungered for it in video games.
A Case for Ignorance
In the book A Theory of Fun for Game Design, game designer Raph Koster argues that the chief component of fun is learning. Young children enjoy playing tic-tac-toe, but once they master the game’s mechanics and understand that the first player cannot lose, it ceases to be entertaining. There is nothing left to learn. I’d expand this to say that – on average – the less we know about something going in, the more potential for fun there is. When I played Skyrim, I actively avoided completing my visit to every major city until over a hundred hours in, because I knew that as soon as I had gained “mastery” of the game’s geography and resorted to using the fast travel system, the sense of discovery would be gone. The process was far more enjoyable then the conclusion.
The obvious problem with avoiding information on video games (or movies, or books) is that there is far more media than we have time or money to engage with. Every buyer wants to have confidence that they’ll get their money’s worth out of a product before they buy it, and even free to play games can suck up valuable free time. We all have our particular tastes, and it makes perfect sense to try to figure whether we’ll actually like a game before investing in it.
The thing is, this isn’t as universally applicable as it first appears. Sure, we need to learn about original IPs from an unknown developer to figure out what the hell they are and if they’re worth our attention. But almost all of the games covered at E3 are, in some way, known quantities. Most of the people who buy Assassin’s Creed III will do so because they like the previous Assassin’s Creed games and want more. Since they’re going to play it anyway, why bother spoiling its construction beforehand? Just imagine how awesome it would have been to go in not knowing what the new setting was, something that almost no player will do thanks to the media blitz surrounding its announcement.
And this argument doesn’t just apply to franchises, but to developers. I’ll buy anything Double Fine Productions comes up with, because I like what they do and have faith that they’ll continue to make games I enjoy. Again, what’s the benefit to reading up on Ron Gilbert’s The Cave when I know I’ll fork over my money the day it’s released?
The answer lies in the social value this information has. Most conversations in the gaming community take place about games that have yet to come out, and if you don’t follow the trending news, you won’t be able to participate in these dialogs. I think this is the chief reason why gamers flock to E3: it’s the most-watched event in the industry, and discussions of the games revealed and debates about the “biggest trends” of the show will dominate gaming websites and Facebook alike for weeks to come.
For the person who wants to preserve the surprise of games, there’s no easy solution to this conundrum; ultimately, they’ll have to make a sacrifice one way or the other. And this year, I chose to sacrifice the conversation. Later in the week, the same co-worker contacted me again, asking if I’d watched the trailers for The Last of Us or Far Cry 3. “Not yet,” I said. “Maybe I’ll get to it this weekend.” But the weekend has come, and I ultimately think that it will be more rewarding to go into Far Cry 3 with an open mind than with pre-conceived notions from a trailer that may or may not accurately represent the experience of playing it. Games have a unique capacity to amaze and disorient us through the unexpected, and if preserving that experience means playing a few more games I don’t like and missing out on some conversation, then it’s a price I’m more than willing to pay.