On spoilers


I think I’ve had some of the best experiences with things when I thought everything was spoiled, and I keep getting signs that half of this is gonna be stuff I at least sorta expected

But then

This one thing happens that I was completely not expecting
and I’m totally blown away because that, that was not supposed to happen.

It’s kinda like programming.

You go along programming, and when you run the code for the first few times, you’re bound to find little unexpected bugs. Many of them. Nearly every time, there are going to be unexpected bugs.

They’re ‘unexpected’ in that you don’t know what the specific bug will be, but the fact you more or less know they’re gonna be there makes them very unsurprising and you just go ‘eh that happened I guess, but I don’t really care, there are so many of these little bugs I’ve already forgotten what the error message was’.

But when you test the code a lot and you iron out all the little bugs and it’s worked a thousand times

When you absolutely know the code backward and forward and the exact sequence of steps in it, the exact “story” of the program’s execution

When you’re absolutely sure it won’t break

And then it breaks for literally no reason

You’re gonna be really shocked.

“What? No!! It’s not supposed to do that! I tested it all these times! There’s literally nothing that could have gone wrong here!“ you say.

And spoilers can be the same way. While they can sometimes spoil, they can also enhance.

Sometimes it’s spoilers that really get you to appreciate something. Sometimes, without any spoilers, there are things you—well, I—would never even consider checking out, and might ultimately miss out on, because the knowledge of what was actually cool about it would never reach me, buried too deep in the unexpected. “How could that thing possibly be interesting?” I might say, passing it over with no expectation it could prove me wrong.

This is the big problem of art, in a way. How can you possibly hold anybody’s attention enough to get them to buy your product, literally or figuratively, without giving them any clue as to what they’re getting? With any other type of product, surprise is very undesirable. And even in art, people still don’t have infinite time, money, or attention to gamble on products that they may or may not have really wanted.

But explaining the product is also a gamble. Depending on the product, there’s some chance they might be willing to dump money on you even if they’ve seen the whole thing, in order to revisit it later, give one to a friend, or whatever. But there’s also a chance that experiencing it once may just be enough. You might feel like moving on to other games after watching a Let’s Play; when given too full a synopsis of a novel, you might decide it doesn’t sound worth your time to actually read, when there’s the possibility you might otherwise have picked it up while bored in an airport and read it, to discover it was actually all right if not necessarily great art. How can you draw in the audience just enough to get them to bite without explaining absolutely everything?

Well. A strategic spoiler can do the job.

Marketers know this. Sometimes previews for movies contain critical action sequences. Sometimes in a more linear story, where the story has already been outlined by describing the premise, you throw in a brief shot of the shocking entrance of the villain near the end. Music marketers often toss out an entire song as preview for an album, even though it’s on the album, so this “spoils” the song.

It strikes me as nothing short of weird that some people go to lengths to avoid every single spoiler they can, insisting in their field of choice that fewer is always better and a life without spoilers is a perfect one.

Without expectations, we can’t tell what’s really surprising or exciting. We can only guess in the most subjective way what we think about something. This could be what’s “up” with nostalgia: things seem better than they were because you thought they were surprising and new and innovative, when really, compared to what you learned later, they weren’t that special. And there’s no way to remedy that, really. But for current things, if you really want to know whether they’re good or people are just hyping them, spoilers can help to put in perspective whether a given snippet in its original context is as good or bad as it seemed out of context when somebody decided to spoil it and by extension how good the unspoiled part of the work really is.

Finally, consider what happens to works that become really famous or infamous: usually, after a few decades, a bunch of major stuff about them becomes spoiled. Exhibit A:

No, I am your father.

That’d be considered a big spoiler if the movie just released last week, right? But now, it’s the main thing we all know about it, having watched it or not. There are some things (perhaps a good number of things) whose spoilers have outlived the original, people not even remembering its name. Which may be just as well for things that weren’t that well made in the first place, that somebody found and spread around value that originally just wasn’t there.

Whether we like it or not, there is value to spoilers.