For those unaware, some major spoilers for The Last of Us Part II hit the web recently. For those immediately backing out of this article, wait! I’m not going to talk about their specifics. For those ready to hunt them down immediately, wait! You might want to hear this first.
Obviously, these spoilers set the Last of Us fandom ablaze. Whoever leaked these scenes did so with a seemingly calculated intent, picking and choosing controversial moments designed to cause the most chaos among fans who saw them. To be clear, we still don’t know the plot for 90% of the game. These spoiler scenes show off about 90 minutes of a 20-30-hour game. We know how it opens, we know a major kicking off point, we know some in-between scenes, and we have glimpses of two ending chapters, without knowing what the actual ending is. It’s basically three plot points set loose into the wild to trample us all and make us argue.
And argue the fandom has. With every new “plot leak” crafting compelling but fictitious summaries of the entire game based on the major points we know, many people have poisoned the well with their own spin on what the ending will be that they push as “real,” causing the fans to lose their minds even more. At this point, there is no constructive conversation to be had about these leaks. Alt-righters are launching sexist and homophobic attacks at characters, fans of the first game are refusing to accept any idea of liking the sequel, while some are refusing any idea that Naughty Dog might be over their heads and fail in their execution.
Unbridgeable battle lines have been drawn. It is a familiar pattern becoming increasingly common as spoiler culture becomes increasingly prevalent.
Back before Avengers: Endgame released last year, a major spoiler hit the internet that pretty much detailed everything important about the movie’s plot. Internet culture largely blasted the movie in the aftermath. The leak was proof that Marvel had bungled the film, ruined the climax of the MCU’s magnum opus, and would ruin the brand forever. There was no possible way to make all the time travel and character appearances work the way they were presented in the leak. Expect the worst, because the worst is what we would get.
That is, until the movie came out and everyone loved it. All the points that people hated on paper became memorable on film. Even many of the unretractable haters now admit how different it was to see the spoiled events play out on screen. Endgame was, of course, a juggernaut of a film that successfully continued Disney’s plan to rule the entire entertainment world. It had its flaws, for sure, but there was no denying the success of the film or the generally positive reaction of the fans.
What made the difference? Context. Context always makes the difference.
Lost in huge leaks of major plot points in a story is the context surrounding those plot points. We don’t see the way a scene is executed, how the actors play it, what mood the moment goes for. We don’t see the conversation in the first half of the story that sets the moment up. We don’t see the entirety of the effect moments have on the characters involved. It will always be these moments that make stories truly work or not.
With Endgame, the context made the film. It’s one thing to see a time travel plot summarized on the internet. It’s another to see the actual movie, where a tongue-in-cheek tone makes those time travel flaws feel less relevant to your enjoyment of the film. Seeing how characters interact, or the emotional swell when the climactic battle brought back basically everyone in the MCU to battle Thanos’s army, made most fans not care at all about the plot’s inconsistencies and flaws. They were never the point. The point was seeing characters receive fitting ends to the character journeys dating back a decade.
With The Last of Us Part II, we really know so little about the game, despite what most people want to believe right now. There is so much work in between the major moments causing so much controversy. We don’t know how these moments come about or what specific plot details are involved. We don’t know what the ending actually is. None of the emotional impact before or after anything has leaked. One character has immediately been written off by many fans without knowing anything about her.
In fact, once more scenes leaked after the initial leak, many of the most rash, immediate reactions were taken back because we did get a couple of scenes characterizing said character.
It has become increasingly clear how people rush to judgment with leaks, seemingly wanting to be the first to say, “I knew this would be trash” or “I knew this would be good.” People want to lord their knowledge over those avoiding the leaks and suggest how they know everything there is to know, so buy/don’t buy that game or see that movie or watch that show. We’re so quick to be right that we don’t care if we are.
Lost in all of this is context.
As a dedicated seeker of spoilers who almost always prefers to know a story going into it, I understand the craving. There are certainly instances where a leak is irredeemable for you, personally. Certain plot developments just won’t interest you, or character turns will go a direction that loses your interest. Really, I don’t have a problem with this consumption of spoilers and the effect it has on a single person’s opinions about a story. I would be a massive hypocrite to tell someone not to let spoilers affect them.
The problem is how no one wants to limit spoiler culture to their own personal opinions. The problem, especially within an internet fandom, is how we immediately use spoilers to shape the opinions of everyone around us, either positively or negatively. We try to shape the narrative about a narrative before anyone else can experience it.
Lost in our own perceptions of a story is the differing ways that any story affects different people. We all see different things and react in different ways. Everyone is guilty of this bias, and of letting it affect how we discuss stories with other fans. Sometimes these disagreements stay civil, such as the ship wars during The Legend of Korra, which in my experience typically remain playful and respectful. Too often, though, especially with leaks, things get hostile. Fans refuse opinions that are not their own and refuse any idea that the story will play out better than they think the leaks can.
And maybe that is true some of the time. It may be true most of the time. However true or false, it doesn’t change that we don’t KNOW until we have the finished product in our hands, and even then, it doesn’t mean everyone will react the same way you do.
It isn’t just the context of stories that is increasingly lost due to spoiler culture, but the context of fandom and how we all react differently to those stories. We all come to different fandoms for different reasons. Some of us may watch The Legend of Korra because we love Korra and Asami. Others may not care about the relationship, but love Lin, Tenzin, and others. Some watched Game of Thrones for the medieval politics, while others watched for the fantasy storyline.
This larger context that exists within every fandom is often lost when debates begin, and nothing seems to erase context quicker than spoiler culture. There must be a uniform, single-minded reaction to the spoiler, or else you are not really part of the fandom. This splits fandoms into separate sides who have no interest in reconciling with each other. Some fans feel completely cut off from a fandom.
Just look at /r/freefolk on Reddit. It’s an amazing meme machine, but it was literally created from spoiler culture.
We too quickly lose sight of our many different reasons for joining a fandom when heavy spoilers hit. Spoilers inevitably bring controversy, because they give fandoms an incomplete picture to react to. We’re all so determined to be right about spoilers that we simply ignore each other. We so want to be right that we don’t care to complete the picture before deciding the quality of a story.
And to be clear, sometimes spoilers do paint a pretty accurate picture of whether we will like a story or not. When The Rise of Skywalker’s plot leaked months before the movie, and then the movie itself proved those spoilers to be true, many people did not like the movie for the very reasons the leaks suggested they would not enjoy the movie. The same was true for seasons 5, 7, and 8 of Game of Thrones.
However, whatever I may think of season 6 of Thrones, it was by far the best-received season of Thrones of the last 4, despite the hated leaks being true in every way. People enjoyed the context missing from those leaks.
Game of Thrones, and George RR Martin’s yet unfinished A Song of Ice and Fire series that it was based on, are great examples of how spoilers need context to be understood. Let’s disregard the earlier seasons, and how the differences in the details, or even major events, led the adaptation to be considerably different from the source material. As the show passed the books, the former began to “spoil” the latter. We were told that Stannis burning Shireen is a spoiler. “Hold the door” was a spoiler. Bran becoming king is a spoiler.
This led many fans to give up on the books because of their hate for the show’s spoiled events. They know what’s going to happen, there’s no way Martin can make it work. It’s the exact same story, after all, right? Why should we care? It’s yet another example of how context is completely disregarded. These are not the same stories, and we don’t know how Martin would reach these plot points.
Let’s look at Stannis burning Shireen. Yes, this will almost definitely happen. We have no reason to doubt Benioff and Weiss when they say this plot point came from Martin himself. We cannot ignore the fact that the context around Shireen burning will be entirely different in the books.
It is a fact that the burning won’t happen the same way as in Game of Thrones, because Stannis has already been in the position he was in during the show’s version of events, and he did not burn his daughter. He has no way of burning his daughter. This raises the question of how he can again be in position to burn his daughter. From there we must consider numerous theories and possibilities which all lead to the same conclusion; Stannis’s eventual burning of Shireen will have to play out considerably differently. The world around him will have to be completely different as well. The context is completely different.
Now follow the logical assumptions from there when considering late season spoilers like Bran being king or Dany’s supposed demise. Do we really know how this is going to play out if we don’t have the slightest idea what series of events will take us into Martin’s final book? Just think about how differently A Song of Ice and Fire will play out compared to Game of Thrones if Aegon is king. We genuinely do not know what Martin is going to do with his series.
But we must have a firm opinion as soon as possible that must be proven right, and so everyone must rush to pick a side and condemn whoever disagrees. Dany will either be exactly the villain Game of Thrones made her or a hero who the show made up a downfall arc for. There is no room for middle ground, or some kind of context that Martin could use to make the situation easier to accept, or even drastically change the presentation of the event so that Dany is not the villain.
When every story depends entirely on context, and we refuse to take context into consideration, all that is left are black or white proclamations that make fandoms miserable while missing the point of stories entirely.
This has very much happened with the Last of Us fandom in the aftermath of the leaks.
Initial reactions to the leaks quickly grew extreme as differences in opinion deepened into something uglier. Criticisms have turned into sexist, transphobic, and homophobic attacks dominating the negative discourse. Anyone with legitimate worries is immediately lumped in with that extreme side of the fandom. Any social media post about The Last of Us II is bombarded, and the most recently released trailer had all comments and ratings turned off on YouTube.
At this point it is basically a given that the game will be another The Last Jedi; the general public will be unaware of the leaks and the game will be a huge critical and commercial success, but the online community will obsessively try to tear it down and portray it as a failure, with real criticism being drowned out by the influx of bigoted hate. You can already see this effort in the myriad collection of fake leaks being pushed as absolute truth, even when they are exposed as fake.
All of this is based on 90 minutes of a 20-30-hour game. The damage has basically been done, and it’s hard to imagine the online conversation changing at this point.
And to be clear, I have made no judgements of the game. I don’t know if Naughty Dog will make these moments work or not. Again, we have absolutely no context for any of this. We don’t know how the story ends, we don’t know what exactly sets up the major spoiled moments, we don’t know the journey these characters will take. We can reasonably assume some things, but that’s all. Until the full story is in our hands, we are all left to simply guess and wonder. The problem is how so many have made up their minds already.
The Last of Us II is just the latest example of how spoiler culture reduces entertainment down to a collection of plot points rather than full stories. The internet has made spoilers so much easier to both leak and find, and easy to wield as “power” over others. Martin’s readers held those spoilers over the heads of not just fans, but the actors involved in Game of Thrones. Star Wars fans did the same with The Rise of Skywalker. Every time a major leak occurs, fans are basically forced to avoid fandoms if they want to have an unspoiled experience.
It’s all so…stupid. I can’t think of a better way to put it. Spoiler culture completely loses sight of what makes a story work and what they are meant to be. Any story that can have its impact accurately reduced to a series of plot points was never a story worth spoiling in the first place. So much goes into making a story memorable to an audience. Characters, plot, atmosphere, presentation, and style all blend together, compliment and enhance each other, and all serve as integral components of a larger experience. Again, they are the context of the story. Remove even component and the entire machine fails.
Judging a story based solely one an incomplete portion of only one of those components plainly makes no sense. Yet that’s what spoiler culture causes us to do over and over and over. The Last of Us Part II is just the latest example of the trend.
As one last example, from way back in 2001, the gaming world saw a sizable controversy erupt when Metal Gear Solid 2 released and the Raiden character switch was released on the world. The internet was not nearly the presence in everyday life that it has become today, and so this twist caught most gamers entirely by surprise. That didn’t last long, though. Fairly soon after release, just about every Metal Gear fan knew about the twist.
It made for a heavily controversial gaming moment that played something of a role in the game’s mixed reception among fans. Even with the entire game in our hands, opinions about the game often boiled down to what you thought of playing as Raiden instead of series icon Solid Snake. The larger story, Raiden’s place in it, the message within, all of this paled in comparison to the Raiden controversy.
Years passed before gamers began truly looking back on the story and analyzing the larger picture. These days, Metal Gear Solid 2 is remembered fondly for a truly remarkable video game story predicting internet culture as it would not become for a solid decade or so later. Even still, if you bring up the game these days, typically the first thing people mention is the Raiden twist. It still defines the game.
I can’t help but imagine how much worse the backlash would have been if Metal Gear Solid 2 released in 2021 and the Raiden twist was spoiled half a year before release. I can’t help but imagine how much larger the controversy would have been, especially considering how controversial it is still considered to be today. Gamers reacted poorly despite experiencing the twist with full context. I can’t claim innocence here. I loved the game but hated Raiden as much as anyone. How bad would our reaction have been with no context?
Funnily enough, what was the reason the Patriot AI gave for creating Arsenal Gear, and the goal behind their intended digital information control? To create the missing context prevalent among the influx of digital misinformation in an uncontrolled digital age. Now, this was more about government control than anything about truth or stories, but it is interesting nonetheless.
It seems like a simple thing to ask, for consumers to simply experience a story as a whole and know the full context of a plot point before judging both. Unfortunately, every new example seems to make this ask increasingly impossible. We are seemingly transitioning from a point where spoiler culture was something to publicly attack to a hobby we all participate in. If being spoiled is so inevitable, why not get it over with? And since we already “know what happens,” why both waiting to judge whether something is worth praising or not? What does context matter?
I can’t imagine this changing anytime soon. Best case scenario, spoiler culture has reached its zenith and will continue for some time. It’s possible the worst is yet to come. We may reach a point where spoilers are openly discussed and judged by every website, and spoiler tags are a thing of the past. The rush to judgment may breach the internet fandom barrier and become something casual audiences participate in.
I worry about the effect this will have on storytelling as the audiences growing up in spoiler culture. Will they also boil their stories down to the plot points? How will their efforts to combat spoiler culture affect their storytelling process?
I don’t want to see the context of fandom and storytelling lost alongside the context of stories. Unfortunately, context increasingly matters less and less.