Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
Spoilers are something of a perennial annoyance in online communities. Most people like to read or watch things without knowing about any twists or secrets beforehand, and there’s a sense that knowing the ending in advance can somehow “ruin” a book, movie, or game. Temporary prohibitions on spoilers in the period following the release of something popular—the most recent Avengers movie, for instance—are common.
The idea of “spoilers” is an interesting phenomenon. If you look at literature that’s more than, say, fifty years old, knowing the outcome in advance typically becomes considerably less of an issue. In some cases this is, of course, because the “twists” are such common knowledge that everyone has already been spoiled—no one reading Romeo and Juliet in the modern day will be surprised when the two die in the end, for instance—but even in cases where a typical reader might not already be familiar with the work, knowing the outcome in advance doesn’t meaningfully impact the enjoyment of a work. Something like Huckleberry Finn is just as strong and engaging no matter how much of the plot you know going into it.
An argument that occasionally pops up around spoilers is that if a work is strong enough, spoilers shouldn’t diminish its value. Put another way, if the only merit in reading something is to experience the twists and surprises, the work is probably hackish and not worth reading anyway. The great works of classic literature don’t rely on heavy-handed plotting and gimmicky twists to be good, so spoilers can’t damage an already strong work, right?
There is an element of this that’s true, I think. Even in the case of modern works that are most vulnerable to spoilers—mysteries, for instance—the best ones are worth reading even if you know the twists in advance. Danganronpa V3, for example, is full of major twists and surprises just waiting to be spoiled, but the game has such thorough narrative and thematic strength that even with the element of surprise entirely removed it would be worth playing.
The issue with this is that it implies the existence of once strength (strong writing independent of plot twists) negates the possibility that there might be value in the elements of the experience that are lost when a work is spoiled. Spoilers are most problematic in cases where a reader’s first experience with a work will be measurably different from subsequent experiences and where (most crucially) that first experience is intentionally cultivated by the author such that it plays into the thematic message and core strength of the overall work.
In fairness, there aren’t many works for which this really holds true. In order for spoilers to meaningfully diminish the value of a work that is strong beyond its surprises, the work’s author needs to have created the work with careful attention to the likely expectations and beliefs of the audience. There has to be a set of intended assumptions that color audience interpretations of the work, and the spoilers must subvert those assumptions in such a way that the meaning of the work becomes obscured.
Danganronpa V3 is, again, a good example of this. Without going into detail (for fear of spoilers), the game carefully manipulates player expectations in such a way that the resolution of the game’s mysteries calls the player to question certain core assumptions that extend beyond the literal plot of the game. The game tricks the player into accepting certain fallacious lines of thinking and then later reveals that thinking to be false, drawing attention to the ways it tricked the player in order to get the player to examine other instances outside the game where similar fallacies might color perception.
If a player goes into the game knowing in advance what will happen, the player never experiences getting “tricked” and therefore never has the opportunity to think on the broader implications of the game’s misdirections. As the game uses its plot twists to advance its thematic ideas, spoiling the plot weakens that first experience with the game.
Moreover, that first experience colors and contextualizes subsequent readings of the game. Having had that blind first experience, the player is better able to appreciate the nuances and tricky intricacies of the game’s writing. To spoil the game is to permanently deny a player the full range of experience the game is meant to provide. In this sense, at least, spoilers are absolutely damaging to an extent that is neither the fault of the player nor of the work.
Additionally, there are plenty of works meant solely to entertain where spoiling certain plot elements seriously diminishes the work’s entertainment value. This is in some cases a sign of weak plotting, but in others it can be a result of structural or narrative creativity, especially in works that center on subverting a set of audience expectations in a crucial way. To spoil such a work is to do a disservice to anyone who wishes to experience it as intended.
Generally speaking, authors assume their audiences will experience their works in a particular order and write based on that assumption. It is entirely fair to want to respect the author’s intent and to avoid coloring perceptions of a work with prior knowledge. It may not matter for everything, but for some things it matters a great deal.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition