Spoiled Marketing: Assassin’s Creed III

This week has been another big one for video games. Not only did the Halloween sale start over on Steam but we are also unquestionably overflowing with new releases. It started off with another adventure for Professor Layton and carried on with a few high profile indie releases with dinosaur-laden Primal Carnage and alien-themed Natural Selection 2 while Might and Delight’s inaugural title Pid waits for its Halloween launch.

Today, however, is especially noteworthy. Today will see the beginning of the end of Desmond’s saga in Assassin’s Creed III (with a little Templar-ridden sojourn to New Orleans in Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation) as well as what is essentially a sequel to Burnout Paradise in Need for Speed: Most Wanted, which you’ll recall is somehow the second title of this console generation with that exact same title and similar premise. Both titles also sport a single player and multiplayer component. The difference is that the consensus seems to be that for Most Wanted, the game really finds its bearings with other players while AC3 shines as a solo experience.

And that shouldn’t really be any sort of a surprise given each game’s heritage. Need for Speed games (and racing games in general) excel at head-to-head competition, not in highlighting the drama of taking down Razor Callahan. Assassin’s Creed games have always been propelled by the underlying need and urgency to solve the modern day dilemmas of Desmond and the remaining assassins and Templars. While both have solid components of the other’s camp, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say Most Wanted thrives on multiplayer and AC3 makes its money with its continued narrative.

Which is a problem when it comes to the marketing for AC3. Arthur Gies, reviews editor at the recently launched Polygon, has been adamant about how his review of the game will be completely, 100% spoiler-free and that it is absolutely vital that anyone interested in enjoying the game should avoid anything even remotely revealing about it. In fact, he went so far as to offer that if anyone wanted to read a review or watch a video or anything while ensuring purity for the retail release, he would check for them first that it was free of ruination.

His tweets have been quite damning, going so far as to say even the Amazon product description is a spoiler. And then when the launch trailer dropped, shit kind of hit the fan.

And he wasn’t alone. GamesRadar reviews editor Sterling McGarvey called the trailer “Spoilerville.”

But the problem wasn’t that it ruined portions of AC3‘s story but that it didn’t do it explicitly. It wasn’t that it wasn’t labeled as a spoiler trailer (though that was also a problem) but that it ruined things “you can’t know is a spoiler until you play it,” making it seem innocuous when really it’s a plague laid dormant.

Only once the moment is upon you will you realize that you’ve spoiled parts or even the entirety of the game for yourself. Just before each momentous act break will it dawn on you that you know what happens next, but not because it’s been spelled out for you that this happens and then this happens. It is more like you can see where the dominoes are lined up so you can see how they will fall from a mile away. It is worse than having everything spelled out for you. You have instead tied your own noose, a far worse fate than being strung up by the hangman.

There is a link floating around out there—some piece or pieces of the Internet—that says spoilers actually enhance your enjoyment of a story. The reason behind this twist is unknown, but common speculation lies somewhere in the “because it makes it easier” territory. Once you know how a story is supposed to unfold and where the twists and turns are, you can more easily appreciate the story on a deeper level, applying analysis that is usually reserved for a second or third read. The story opens up to become something new, something meta to the narrative itself.

But that’s just it: it’s about the story. In books and movies, that holds up. You can nitpick the meaning of each individual word in every sentence of a novel or poke and prod at new theories you’ve formed on the fly watching each scene, but that breaks down in a medium where each plot advancement is interrupted by minutes or hours of largely inconsequential gameplay.

When you have to spend upwards of two or three hours resolving a single intermediate plot point, jumping between rooftops and stabbing dudes in the neck, a tedium sets in. This has been proven true of the past four Assassin’s Creed titles and doesn’t appear to have changed for AC3. It’s a problem where a gameplay mechanic that can solidly support 15 hours of story goes on to cover more than 20, but it’s less a problem about rote refinement and more of one of ambition. Whether you believe the games reach far beyond their grasp, it’s hard to deny that the series—much like most other games—have a third-act problem. They usually drag and bog and much like the hero in his moment of doubt and pain, you will have to decide if it’s still worth continuing the journey.

And given that your sole impetus now relies on you discovering for yourself the ending that has been spoiled by a seemingly harmless launch trailer, that leaves you with whether your sheer willpower can overcome the tedium. You will have to decide if your human spirit can slog through just to see if it was worth it in retrospect on the other side. Will actually seeing the ending be better than speculating and reading the Wikipedia plot summation? Guaranteed, even though today is the official release date, someone will have uploaded the ending to YouTube by the end of the day. Is it within your resolve to finish the game even though you know where it’s headed?

Maybe. Maybe not. An inadvertent spoiler screenshot on a friend’s Steam page ruined a crucial turn in Episode 3 of Telltale’s The Walking Dead to the point where I put off playing it until Episode 4 came out. Just watching the trailer for Duncan Jones’ debut feature film Moon almost completely ruined the movie for me (luckily, repeated viewings have cemented it as a personal favorite). I’ve now sworn off most movie trailers and previews, though that’s not something I can entirely do as a member of the games press. I’m sure you’re the same way where you can’t miss a trailer or press release and still feel totally within the news cycle.

In the case of Assassin’s Creed III, though, I can tell you that the game—no matter what you’ve read or seen—is much, much bigger than you think, maybe than you could even imagine. Short of someone sitting you down and forcing you to watch someone play the ending, it may be impossible to completely ruin. Every major system or story beat you think you know goes so much further than your surface evaluation.

But that trailer might be just enough to make you think twice. So don’t do it.

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