No-one wins when video game spoilers are leaked

And no, there are no TLOU2 spoilers here. Honest.

If you’re a fan of The Last Of Us, you should avoid being online right now. Spoilers – massive, hulking, heavy, heartbreaking spoilers – are out, and they’re gunning for you, my friend. Mute those keywords. Trim down your follow lists. Or just avoid social media – or the internet entirely – until June 19 (you’re not going to miss much, let’s face it – it’s a garbage fire most of the time).

The problem with leaks isn’t just that they spoil a storyline or the fates of your favourite characters. It’s not even that they breed mistrust between developers, reporters and influencers, although let’s be honest here – it doesn’t fucking help, either. When studios control their message with scheduled trailer drops and press releases, yes, there’s a certain amount of hyperbole and glossy PR polish, but that’s because the developer and its partners are doing whatever they can to make this new game look the best it possibly can be.

Saints Row The Third – Remastered
Information regarding Saints Row: The Third – Remastered was leaked multiple times before the game’s confirmation. Credit: Deep Silver / Koch Media

Leaks, conversely, often do the opposite, and even accurate ones can not only spoil an experience for its fans and creators alike, but they can be wholly misleading, too.

Video games go through countless – countless – iterations before we play them. The game you’re playing tonight is likely very different from the game first pitched many months, if not years, ago. Everything – story, characters, gameplay mechanics, style, writing, dialogue, character design, environments; I could go on, but I have a word limit here – changes. Those changes vary from a spitshine and polish to a complete, from-the-bottom-up rewrite – and a leak can occur at pretty much any stage in that process.

This is why leaks that come during development are wholly unreliable. Unless a game’s very publicly gone gold – the term used to describe a game as ready-for-release – so much remains subject to change that by the time some blurry photograph of concept art is doing the rounds online, it may already be outdated.

Hate the hairstyle the protagonist is sporting? You probably weren’t the only one. Worried about the animation quality of the NPCs? Maybe they’re just placeholders. Enraged because X character is wearing the wrong clothes in a remake? Perhaps the original outfit is a hidden, unlockable bonus. Scraps of information, especially from games still in development, can not only ruin storytelling surprises: they can also be flat-out misleading.

Pokémon: Let's Go, Eevee! leak
Pokémon: Let’s Go, Eevee! was leaked on April’s Fools 2018. Credit: Alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

The source of the leak can be significant, too. Our ability to gauge the accuracy of rumours depends on a lot of things – the integrity of the source, their past track records, the evidence smuggled out into the public domain – but for the most part, leaks come via two ways: a broken non-disclosure agreement or a grainy photograph or screenshot.

A surreptitious photo of a video or a document is unlikely to be good quality. It’s also unlikely to release with much context. Consequently, it’s outrageously easy to take one tiny scrap of information and run with it… only to find you were utterly incorrect.

As for leaks that come via someone violating their NDA? It’s important to bear in mind that we don’t know the motivation of a person who wilfully breaks a confidentiality agreement. Revenge? Greed? Clout? Lolz? Is anyone choosing to intentionally and maliciously spoil an experience – upsetting a game’s creators and fans alike – to be trusted? And is it possible that the tiny nugget of information you’re getting has been specifically chosen to piss you off the most?

Last Of Us Part II's Ellie
Credit: Naughty Dog

Naughty Dog, the creator of some of the world’s most compelling, character-driven games and one of 2020’s most eagerly awaited sequels, The Last Of Us Part II, is grappling with just such an incident. What’s thought to be a disgruntled former employee angered by alleged “crunch culture” – long, punishing working hours mandated by management that exploits the passion of artists – has leaked vital plot points for The Last Of Us Part II. For good measure, they also released footage which neatly confirms their assertions.

The spoilers ran rampant across the internet, and though Sony is desperately clawing to take the spoilerific content down, its efforts come too late for thousands of fans. In this particular case, it’s very likely the leaks are accurate; The Last Of Us Part II is scheduled to release in just a couple of months, which intimates few, if any, of the story beats will change.

In light of the spoilers, some fans are very, very angry indeed.

Trouble is, the summary they’ve read, whether they intentionally spoiled the game for themselves or not, in no way compares to uncovering such plot-points through organic play. Reading the spoilers, without context or storytelling, can in no way equate to the emotional investment we’d have playing the game. Words on a screen can be cold and concise, but the game may take hours readying you for just such a moment. Knowing a game’s outcome in advance sucks for all involved, including the people who made it, but knowing who lives or dies before you play a game shouldn’t be a factor in choosing whether or not to support a studio or franchise.

Half-Life 2 leak
The source code for Half-Life 2 was leaked five months before the game’s release. Credit: Valve

Of course, spoilers aren’t an issue confined to video games, and many fandoms, movies in particular, suffer a similar fate. But unlike a film, gamers toil with the characters of these fictional universes for days and weeks, not hours. Unlike a movie, we physically manipulate them, sometimes even choosing what they want to say or how they should respond. Gaming has the power to emotionally tether us to fictional characters in a way other media simply cannot.

Is it likely that the leaker behind Naughty Dog’s recent woes has every right to be angry? Yes. Of course. But ruining an unreleased game impacts the players and creators more than top brass management. And while it’s tough to argue with those who feel aggrieved at the polished promise of PR spin – we’ve all, at one stage or another, been misled by a bombastic E3 cinematic teaser – the truth is, spoilers hurt everyone but the bank balances of management.

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