Three Awesome Plot Twists in Three Awesome Video Games
For those of us who probably spend too much of our time playing video games, it has probably been pretty obvious for a while now that books, film, and television aren't the only places to go for an entertaining story. Long-time gamers would seem to have been somewhat vindicated in recent years, with the increasing acknowledgement offered to the quality of story-telling in some of their favorite games. It's far from perfect, of course – you can, after-all, make the perfectly reasonable claim that just about every game ever made would fall into the action genre, and so wouldn't be any more worthy of the title of 'art' then an action film. But, that's really beside the point – Die Hard was an action film, after-all, and it is one of the best movies ever made (I dare you to disagree!). Video games may, by simple necessity, focus mostly on the action (with the exception of the occasional experimental game, of course), but the best video games can easily compare to the best action films in a variety of ways.
Take, for example, that classic story-telling device known as the plot-twist – that sudden moment of revelation intended to catch you by surprise, and to completely change the feel of the story. In books and film, a well-done plot-twist can become the main talking point for fans. And, in the world of video games, there have been some that were just as good as anything you can find in any other medium.
Below, I intend to discuss (and blatantly spoil) three of my personal favorites. So you know... spoiler warning, and all that.
Bioshock begins with a plane-crash, and an innocent man who finds himself stuck in a strange underwater city – or, at least that is how it is made to appear at first. As it happens, the game's silent protagonist is actually much more important to the fate of the mysterious city of Rapture than the player was given any reason to suspect. The protagonist is actually a key component of a long-term plan to wrest control of the city away from its eccentric creator – Andrew Ryan. Not only is the protagonist actually Andrew Ryan's illegitimate son (a fact which allows him to make use of some of Rapture's more outlandish technology – which had been designed to only function for Ryan. An early hint which slipped by players), but he had also been kidnapped as a child in order to be used against his father. Subjected to experimental conditional, the child was turned into little more than a slave for Ryan's enemies – his conditioning activated by the use of the simple phrase "would you kindly..."
The moment of reveal comes at the same time as the inevitable confrontation with Andrew Ryan himself. It is a tense and unsettling scene where complete control is taken from the player. And, where you can do little more than watch while you are informed that you are really nothing more than a programmed slave, and then forced to watch while Ryan uses the phrase against you to force you to kill him, in a round-about form of suicide. All while maintaining that same first-person point of view.
The best part of all, though, would have to be going back over those early hours of game-play and picking out the uses of the phrase. What made the reveal particularly clever was the way in which that the game was able to use commonly accepted game-play practices against the player. At one point, early on, the phrase is used as a part of request that the protagonist lower his weapon, which he promptly does. However, rather than cluing in the player to the fact that something weird was going on, this little detail went right over the player's head. Games simply have a long-running tradition of taking control away from the player in this way, whenever it is necessary for plot-progression, so when it happened here you simply accepted it without question. It was not until much later that player's realized it was actually an early clue.
It's really almost a shame that the game continued for a few hours after this point, in the end. Because, it was never quite as good as that moment.
Silent Hill 2
In the Silent Hill series, there has always been a fair amount of built up lore concerning the town of Silent Hill, and exactly how and why it became the source of horrific nightmares that we all know and love. In the second game of the series, though, none of that really matters. The first and the third concerned themselves mainly with the mysteries of the small town – but, the second stood on its own as a sort of side-plot. This could be a part of why it is commonly considered to be the best of the series. In Silent Hill 2, the town is simply a terrifying place where terrifying crap tends to happen, and where visitors have a tendency of being pulled into some alternate nightmare world – that's all you know, and that's all you really need to know.
Silent Hill 2 begins with James Sunderland receiving a letter from his wife, Mary, telling him that she is waiting for him in Silent Hill – the only problem is that Mary is dead, and has been for some time. So, James decides to make the trip to Silent Hill, anyway – to find out where the letter actually came from. And, once he arrives, he promptly finds himself pulled into the nightmare version of the small town – a place filled with horrific monsters who all seem determined to kill him.
The twist here is not so much a single moment of revelation as it is a gradual process of discovery. Throughout the game, James meets others that have also found themselves pulled into this same nightmare – each of whom seems to carry a sense of guilt for something they did in the past. The clear implication is that, for them, Silent Hill is a personal hell and they are there because they deserve to be – or, at least, they believe they do. But, what about James? He's only in Silent Hill to find out how he could receive a letter from his dead wife. He's completely innocent, isn't he?
Well, no. No, he isn't.
As the player eventually learns, Mary's death wasn't quite due to natural causes. She was terminally ill, with no hope of recovery, and she was suffering. But, it wasn't the illness that actually killed her – it was James, himself. It may have been an assisted suicide that the two may have agreed on – but, the act still had a deep enough affect on James that it triggered an emotional breakdown, ultimately leading to him suppressing the memory entirely. In the end, the player learns that James is pulled into the alternate nightmare version of Silent Hill for the same reason the others are.
It is really the perfect reveal for a surprisingly sombre and emotional game. And, the fact that it all works so well in spite of some very average voice acting is really pretty remarkable. Just as remarkable as the fact that, even today, the game that has probably had the deepest emotional effect on me is a Survival Horror game.
Dragon Age 2
This one may be a little controversial. There were many players who disliked the second game in the Dragon Age franchise for a variety of reasons, most of which aren't really worth getting into here. Perhaps the most compelling reason, though, was the way in which the player, in the role of the game's protagonist, Hawke, was so often pushed into more of a reactive role throughout the game. Cast as little more than a refugee trying to survive in a foreign city, Hawke was often left struggling to keep up with all of the various plot-lines taking place around him (or, her) – to the point where she (or, he) occasionally felt much more like a side character in other people's stories.
It's a fair point to make, of course – but, whether it actually counts as a criticism you can hold against the game is another matter entirely. Some players were put off by it, but others found the break away from a typical protagonist-focused story to be refreshing – the characters of Dragon Age 2 felt like a genuine ensemble cast in a way that few other games manage. And, there is nowhere that this lack of protagonist focus is more evident than in the games final moment.
In the wold of Dragon Age, it is a well-known fact that any magic-user is at particular risk of demonic possession, and that a mage possessed by a demon becomes an Abomination – a creature so feared that it is often the source of horror stories. It is for this reason that it is commonly accepted that mages need to be kept separate and protected, under the care of the Templars. However, in the final section of the game, the growing tension between the mages of Kirkwall and their Templar guardians seems to be heading directly toward open conflict – and, as Hawke, you find yourself stuck right in the middle. You can either openly support one side or the other – or, you can do what I (and many other players) did, the first time, and desperately try to keep the peace.
In the final hours of the game, it seems as those these efforts may actually be rewarded during a tense stand-off between the leaders of the two faction – until Anders, a mage and your companion who has been with you since the beginning of the game, steps forward and takes the decision out of your hands. Anders sees a peaceful resolution as little more than a return to Templar oppression – and, he doesn't want that. So, instead, he launches a surprise attack that makes compromise impossible. In spite of your best efforts, outright war breaks out between the two factions – all thanks to the last minute betrayal of one of your closest companions. From that point on, the situation devolves into complete chaos, as the choice of which side to support is suddenly forced on you – and, you are left just trying to survive.
It was a sudden twist that caught me completely by surprise, and left me feeling stunned and genuinely angry. But, here's the important part for me – I wasn't angry at the game for not letting me have things the way I wanted, or at the writer's for creating such a frustrating situation. I was angry at Anders, a fictional character, for ruining what my version of Hawke, another fictional character, had been trying to accomplish. Later, you are given the opportunity to decide what to do with Anders – and, I never had a single play-through where Anders managed to survive that conversation.
© 2012 Dallas Matier
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