When publishers send out early copies of a game for review, especially if it is a Big Important Game, they typically attach a rider of things the media may and may not discuss, in an attempt to avoid that cruelest of modern bales, the spoiler. As game companies have not yet become paranoid enough to forbid discussion of the forbidden, I can disclose within my rights that the first item in the section titled “Do Not” on the rider for the new Sony blockbuster The Last of Us is:
“Talk about the events of the prologue.”
Now I am not a lawyer, but in my reading of this rule, which I believe to be reasonable, I am permitted to reveal that the game features a prologue, and that this prologue may or may not feature events. I’m not saying either way. Nevertheless, we may infer from the rule that if the prologue does in fact feature events, Sony does not want you to know about them. And we may infer from this fact that these events, if they do exist (and it would be a good guess that, given the nature of storytelling, the prologue does feature events), are in same way, shape, or form, surprising.
Having established the existence of a prologue, I would like to report that (again within my rights), I was surprised by the prologue of The Last of Us. But I was not surprised that I was surprised. This is for two reasons.
Reason 1.: For the last three weeks, ever since the nabobs of the games media started talking about how they can’t talk about a very-much-in-their-possession unreleased game, they have been excitedly Tweeting about the surprising first thirty minutes/hour/two hours of this Game That Dare Not Speak Its Name.
Reason 2: At some point, the game prologue has become the M. Night Shyamlan of narrative gaming. In the past few years, it has become increasingly prevalent, even common, to start a game with some misdirection, dramatic change, or character-shaping prologue. And for knowledge of this starting twist to be concealed.
In November, the game Assassin’s Creed 3, which the entire gaming world believed to be about an American Indian assassin wearing buckskin and eagle feathers, was released with a four-hour prologue in which you play as a white British assassin wearing a tricorner hat and pantaloons. This was nothing new for the series. In 2008, when the original Assassin’s Creed came out, it shocked gamers by featuring a prologue starring not a Middle Ages assassin in shadowy robes but a 21st century schlub in Armani Exchange. Similar, though less dramatic “surprises” begin the recent hits Dragon Age 2, Mass Effect 3, and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.
(The inspiration for this trend is probably the prologue of 2001’s Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Libery, which famously features the apparent death of the series’ iconic hero, Solid Snake, though game reviewers certainly didn’t shrink from discussing that bombshell at the time.)
But, wait: how can the very first thing that happens in a story be a spoiler? Doesn’t the idea of a spoiler require some knowledge of the narrative to spoil? (The third item on the “Do Not” list: Talk about the fate of any of the characters. Right.) Of course, the only way in which a prologue can be a spoiler is if the audience has acute expectations for the content of a narrative. If that describes any audience, of course, it’s the gaming audience. And the surprise gaming prologue may, in this context, be seen as an attempt by game creators to create a sense of newness in a medium that gets previewed to death.
Still, it’s strange. Imagine a blockbuster film or a novel with a surprising prologue, perhaps featuring events — ok definitely featuring events — that motivate and/or shape the personality of the main character. Can you picture a movie or book critic writing around the prologue? “Indiana Jones may or may not be very afraid of something because of events that may or may not have transpired in his childhood. I am bound by a sub-legal agreement not to fully disclose the details.”
If there’s a bigger problem here, it may be that AAA game designers are focusing on subverting player expectations through narrative chicanery rather than mechanical novelty. This is particularly galling when the game in question has no real aptitude for storytelling. In the case of Naughty Dog, which made The Last of Us and has established itself as the best teller of cinematic stories in gaming, it’s probably more forgivable. Because those first twenty minutes/hour/two hours of The Last of Us are totally killer. I mean, if they happen.