Plot Twists – Nothing’s the same anymore
One thing I am a huge fan of in games is a well-executed plot twist. I’m not just talking about stories that finish with a massive reveal or a whodunnit where the villain is unmasked at the end – although there are some great examples of those out there. I’m talking about those moments in games where something happens that comes as a complete surprise but makes you think about everything you’ve done up to that point and any clues that you may have missed.
If these moments happen partway through a game then so much the better, and for the rest of the time you’re dealing with the outcomes and consequences of those moments. They’re the moments that completely change the course of a game and leave you genuinely wondering how things will end up. I should say at this point that I will be talking extensively about Bioshock, System Shock 2, Halo, Life Is Strange, Final Fantasy VII and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, so if you haven’t played any or all of those games there will be spoilers ahead. I could have done others but these are the ones that really stand out to me. Oh, and by the way, I will be using images from other websites throughout this article – sources will be provided under each picture.
Usually articles like this would start with a lesser example and build up, but we’re going to jump straight in with one of the most famous twists in a game. In Bioshock, you play as a character who survives a plane crash and finds himself in a mysterious city, completely out of his depth as it were. As you try to make sense of your surroundings you are aided by someone over a radio. This mysterious benefactor asks you to perform tasks with the natural-sounding phrase “would you kindly”. Now, at a certain point in the game you enter a room where those same three words are plastered on a wall. It’s the start of the revelation that you are not some random person, you are a genetically engineered agent designed to blindly obey orders. And the person you’ve been obeying is actually the main villain of the game.
This changed everything and made you think back about all those times you were asked to perform an objective with the words “would you kindly” and how you just obeyed. It could be seen as a commentary on the role of goals and objectives in games and how we try to achieve them to progress without asking why. Of course, this is let down somewhat by the fact that you are then given a completely new set of objectives by a different person, which of course you then have to fulfil. Nevertheless, it was an amazing moment and is probably the first thing people will think of when someone mentions the game.
System Shock 2
Of course, Bioshock wasn’t the first game to pull that sort of twist on the player. Years earlier, System Shock 2 did nearly exactly the same thing. In the original System Shock, you were a hacker who had been paid to remove the restraints from an AI, giving birth to the game’s iconic villain SHODAN. The rest of the game had you trapped on board her space station fighting to survive and to destroy her. Needless to say, you succeeded. System Shock 2 on the other hand had you play as a marine assigned to a deep space exploration ship. You awake from suspended animation to find that everything has gone wrong and everyone is dead. Your only contact is a survivor, Dr Janice Polito, who guides you through the game’s early sections.
When you finally get to meet Polito you discover that she’s been dead some time. Even worse, the person you’ve actually been in contact with is none other than a reborn SHODAN! And she’s just as evil as she was the first time around. The game then puts you in the interesting situation of having to work with her, knowing that at any moment she could betray you and you would have to fight her. It was powerful stuff, or it would have been except for one thing. SHODAN’s face was on the box the game came in. The surprise that SHODAN would return was completely ruined. It’s a real shame because the game is fantastic in nearly every other respect.
Halo: Combat Evolved
Possibly a lesser example now but still a very well known one. Nearly every gamer is familiar with the Master Chief of the Halo series and the war against both the Covenant and the Flood, but at the time the game was released no-one knew what was going to happen. Halo starts with a ship on the run from an alien aggressor and the discovery of a giant ring floating in space. We’re all settled in for a war story between humanity and the Covenant while learning about the Halo. Then we discover that it’s been used to store a parasitic lifeform – the Flood – that attacks both sides.
From there the twists keep on coming. First we learn that Halo was used to research the Flood, then we learn that Halo is a weapon to defeat the Flood, so we go on a mission to activate it. Then, we learn that Halo defeats the Flood not by destroying it, but by destroying its food source – that is, all sentient life in the galaxy. We learn that we’ve been played like a fiddle and the rest of the game becomes a huge pileup between the Master Chief, the Covenant, the Flood and the Halo’s own defense forces led by Guilty Spark. And this carries on through the rest of the series. I found it to be a really well constructed story, and I wish they had ended it at Halo 3.
Life Is Strange
A more recent example of a plot twist now. Life Is Strange is an episodic game about choice, consequences and time travel. As Max, you learn that a tornado is going to destroy the town in four days’ time and you use your new-found powers to try to prevent it. But that’s only one side of the story. The other side is a missing girl and a culture of abuse and humiliation, all connected with one of the students at the game’s main setting – Blackwell Academy. Throughout the game, you’re led to believe that this particular student – Nathan Preston – is involved with an underground organisation dealing with drugs and other illegal pursuits.
Then the end of the fourth episode rolls around. You’ve finally found what happened to Rachel Amber, you’re about to solve the mystery and bang – your friend is shot in the head. Out of the shadows steps not Nathan Preston, but Mark Jefferson, the photography teacher who up to now had been completely trustworthy. Looking back there were some clues that pointed to him as the villain, and there are many people who claim to have figured it out beforehand, but this caught me completely off guard and I waited for the fifth episode genuinely concerned for the characters. The fifth episode let the entire series down, but up to that point it was an amazing experience, and seeing Jefferson’s face looming down over a helpless Max was a really incredible moment.
Final Fantasy VII
For most gamers Final Fantasy VII was their first taste of the long running RPG series. It was pretty much the game that everyone who owned a Playstation played. The characters were complex, the world broad in scope and the story deep and philosophical. There are two moments that I want to focus on however. Throughout the first part of the game the main character Cloud comes across as a brooding hero. He tells the story of how he worked with the mighty Sephiroth to aid his home town of Nibelheim. And we believe him. Then, later on we learn that no it wasn’t Cloud, it was someone else and Cloud was not in fact there. This raises the possibility that Cloud is a clone or experiment with false memories, and it pretty much destroys his identity.
Then, much later on we learn that actually Cloud was there. He was one of the rank and file soldiers who you didn’t pay much attention to the first time. This restores him and gives him a new sense of purpose, and he spends the rest of the game living up to that purpose. There have been other emotional plot twists in the Final Fantasy series but this was one of the first times we saw what these games could do. Seeing Cloud realise who he really is, especially after the darkness of the middle act, was a really triumphant moment and still remains one of my favourite of the entire Final Fantasy series.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
We finish with one of my all time favourites. In Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic your character is sent on a journey around the galaxy searching for lost artifacts that point the way to an ancient weapon. You gather allies and in time learn the ways of the Force. All the while there is talk of Darth Revan – a Sith Lord who was defeated on the brink of finding said ancient weapon. You learn more and more about him and learn that you’re following in his footsteps as you draw closer to your goal. Then it happens. You learn that you yourself are in fact Darth Revan!
Again this is something that came as a complete surprise to me and caused me to re-evaluate everything that had happened up to that point. The reveal was masterfully done, recapping the main plot points up to that moment and showing Revan unmasking himself to reveal your face. The first time I saw it I was utterly shocked, my jaw on the floor. Afterwards you have to decide how you will act – will you continue on the path you’ve already be travelling, either on the light side or the dark side of the Force, or will the revelation change your character and send them down a different path? Sure, it may be a bit dated now, but at the time it was amazing and the lead up to it sent chills down my spine. This is why Knights of the Old Republic is still the greatest Star Wars game of all time and one of the greatest games ever.