Go Dark for Halo

Curator's Note

Panic over spoilers is not new, and certainly not new to games. ***SPOILER ALERTS*** are like red flags on the information highway. And the danger reaches beyond the tight corners of the Internet. This past summer NBC apologized to US audiences for revealing in its own promo spots the outcome of tape-delayed Olympic events yet to be aired on television. Oops!

In the case of Halo 4, the spoilage started with a leak. Unauthorized images of the game discs surfaced on reddit and NeoGaf on October 11. Soon thereafter, game files were available on torrent sites, and gameplay videos were posted on YouTube. Microsoft responded by warning players that consoles with pirated copies of Halo 4 would face permanent bans of their XBox Live accounts. Regardless of Microsoft’s swift response, in less than a week the Internet was a minefield of Halo spoilers.

In considering the damage done by spoilers, sports competitions like the Olympics deserve protection, but other media experiences do not. A UCSD study found that spoilers don’t actually spoil the fun. In fact, they may enhance it. Tom Bissell wrote about games, “interactivity has everything to do with the how rather than the what.” I would add that long in the tooth game franchises like Halo deserve even less spoiler protection because the universe is so well known, and Halo 4 is hardly a reboot. Furthermore, the technical capabilities of the aging XBox 360 console have been exhausted. While I don’t completely agree with Ubisoft’s Yves Guillemot statement that the industry requires new consoles in order to spur creativity, I wonder what could possibly surprise us about Halo gameplay? I’ll concede that playing Master Chief again might be worth an hour, but seeing him on YouTube won’t ruin that for me.

The availability of the game three weeks in advance of the official release has only heightened spoiler panic. “Go DARK. Now.” recommends a forum thread at Waypoint, the official Halo news site. Videos like Ready Up Live offer tips to avoid spoilers, including how to change settings in social media apps (protect your Twitter!) and which forums are "safe." Spoiler panic serves industry anti-piracy efforts and pre-release hype for yet another sequel, but their warnings sound like desperate abstinence-only campaigns. Guard yourself against spoilers: Stay Off the Internet! Yeah, that'll work.


Digital game enthusiasts are an odd bunch when it comes to getting information about the games they most anticipate. On the one hand, they can be ravenous about every little morsel of news concerning the next big game in a franchise. News sites and blogs want the early leaks to drive hits, and eager fans flock to these posts in mass. On the other hand, this community is paradoxically highly adverse to "spoilers" about the games they look forward to. The conflicting ideas of early access to details and the desire for complete avoidance of level and narrative spoilers seem incommensurate but nonetheless exist side by side. Perhaps these are two factions of fandom and they do not necessarily overlap except in their anticipation of the game's release. However, I have a hunch, as I explained above, that many players have to negotiate these dual impulses leading up to a game's launch. While hungry for information, certain players still want to go into the game experience "fresh," for lack of a better term. The politics around "spoilers" for games coverage are especially interesting in this regard as critics and game writers have to carefully tread the line between providing relevant preview information but not crossing the ever elusive line that separates "appropriate" coverage from spoiler territory. And the boundaries are never quite clear, are they? So it's interesting that the various parties involved - game designers, PR agents, game critics, and fans - all have to negotiate the issue of "spoilers," so much so that it can become an obsession, a fetishization of "not knowing" the game rather than mastering it. For my own part, I am on board with Bissell's comments. The experience of play cannot be reduced to narrative elements or prior knowledge of level developments or gameplay features. While I understand and in some ways sympathize with folks who want to be "surprised" when approaching a game, I find value in the process of play, a process where "discovery" is but one of many moving parts.

Great post, Nina. I wanted to pick up on your mention of spoilers serving industrial interests, here framed as a byproduct of the horrors of piracy and part of the PR hype cycle. While John's post focuses on the long tail of games like Halo and strategies to extend the lifespan (and cash flow) of these products, there still is a large emphasis on a filmic opening-weekend model. A large proportion of sales still occur in the first twenty-four hours and first month, and even for free-to-play or service-based games that don't have to worry about sales, there is the issue of capturing that initial influx of players. The sheer number of games released these days means that it is crucial to find space in the crowded PR and release cycle before journalists and gamers quickly move on to the next big thing. This extends to the extremely chaotic games marketplace now dominated by rapidly fluctuating prices. As a cash-strapped grad student with limited time to play games these days, I almost never buy a game on the day of release because I know that the price will drop dramatically if I wait even just a few weeks. A "spoiler culture" encourages people who would otherwise wait to go out and pick up the game on day one, knowing that, as you conclude, it is basically impossible to avoid spoiler-ish information these days.

Sorry I've been silent until now. Dealing with a whole different kind of spoilage at home from lack of power post-Sandy. Thank you both for your comments. To respond briefly, it is evident from the forum videos, like the one I posted, that there is an element of fun for fans in negotiating spoilers and sharing duck and weave strategies to avoid leaks. I didn't acknowledge as well as I might have the pleasure gamers enjoy from the hide and seek game of chasing new release news and running from too much information. I can only agree, Steven, with your comment about industrial incentives. Especially between mid-October and the end of November, with triple-A titles hitting the shelves one after another, the window for "opening weekend" gross is getting shorter every year. This release cycle crunch isn't good for the industry (or gamers), as the recent down turn in overall sales has shown.

I wonder how much of this emphasis on “spoiler avoiding” is an attempt by Microsoft to heighten the artistic credibility of their video game franchise by drawing attention to the story elements. The Forward unto Dawn miniseries and the David Fincher produced trailer for Halo 4 suggests a deliberate attempt to play up the narrative elements of the game over the actual gameplay. And as John pointed out Monday the Spartan Ops content adapts methods used in television to extend the plot to multiplayer game play. As graphics get pushed to their limits, these narrative elements become the best way to separate Halo 4 from other games with similar playing styles and comparable graphics. However, I think it’s important to note that Microsoft has a tenuous relationship with the film industry. There is also the ongoing argument between video game fans and movie fans about whether or not video games should be considered “art.” By taking a term often associated with the film industry Microsoft is promoting the idea that the story of Halo 4 is just as “spoilable” and therefore just as good as any cinematic experience to come out of Hollywood. Here is where my lack of video game knowledge might show: When I think of why Halo was such a great game, I don’t think about the story. What was revolutionary about Halo was the way it changed game controls for first person shooters. Does this recent emphasis by the video game industry on “story” lead to less importance placed on enhancing game play experience by developers?

Nicholas, you're definitely on to something with game spoiler-frenzy seeming like an almost desperate attempt at gaining credibility or legitimacy. In this case, Microsoft isn't just trying to push "Halo as art," but also trying to establish 343i's legitimacy as the new studio in charge of that universe. Microsoft is at a weird and crucial crossroads right now trying to assert that they can govern an IP that they own, but that was created and run by a now-independent studio. The pre-release PR and marketing material devotes an awful lot of attention to talking about how much 343i tried to emulate exactly what Bungie had established, yet at the same time that they have to do something new to keep things fresh (especially, as Nina points out, in this extremely extended console cycle). If they were largely constrained mechanically (players expect it to "feel" like Halo), then maybe emphasizing the story gives them a place to redirect focus.

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