Saturday, 15 April 2017

Three Great Plot Twists In Three Great Video Games

While there has always been a large number of video games that have been entirely focused on action and spectacle, or simply on pure entertaining, it would also be fair to say that there has also always been video games that have attempted to explore the possibility of telling engaging stories within this interactive medium.

It's an aspect of our strange little hobby that might not be appreciated by those who do not share it, of course. But, for those of us who have devoted too many hours to playing video games, there are bound to be any number of video games that have impressed us with the quality of its writing, or its cast of characters, or the basic structure of its plot. There may even be examples of video games which affected those who played them in a much more profound way than simply providing a few hours of entertainment.

Sure, you could make the argument that none of this would make necessarily allow video games to be classified as 'art' (although, even on this point, it might be possible to come up with a list of games that would suggest otherwise) - but, that's hardly the point. As a medium for story-telling, video games have always had the same potential as films, books, and television.

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 are examples that are just as good as anything you can find in any other medium - three of which I fully intend to blatantly spoil below, so consider yourselves warned.


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, himself. An early hint which slipped by many 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.

Almost as interesting as the moment, itself, as the fact that it it then became possible to go back over those early hours of game-play, in order to pick out the various uses of the phrase - particularly, with the way in which these early clues were rather cleverly hidden behind some fairly standard game-play practices. At one point fairly early on,
for example, the game's silent protagonist is asked to lower his weapon for what seems like purely narrative purposes, so that a bit of exposition can be given.

Since games have a long-running tradition of taking control away from the player, in moments like this, it seemed like a perfectly ordinary moment. It was not until much later that the player was able to realise that the way in which the request was made was actually a very important plot-point. It was a moment of realisation that still counts as one of my favourite moments in a life-time of playing video games.

It's really just a bit of a shame that the game continued for a few more hours after this point. Nothing that took place in the game's final act was quite able to match 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 third game in the original trilogy may have concerned themselves solely with the mysterious nature of that small town - but, the second seemed to stand on its own, as a sort of side-plot. In Silent Hill 2, that small American town is simply cast as a terrifying place where horrifying things happen to the people foolish enough to visit. Honestly, as far as this game is concerned, that's really all you need to know - and, that might be a part of the reason why Silent Hill 2 has always been my favourite game in the franchise.

Silent Hill 2 begins with its protagonist, James Sunderland, receiving a letter from his wife, Mary, letting him know that she is waiting for him in Silent Hill. The only problem, as we quickly learn, is that Mary is dead - and, she has been for some time. With no way of knowing what he is about to be dragged into, James decides to make the trip, anyway. His goal is simple enough - to find out where the letter came from. But, once he arrives, things start to go bad for James Sunderland. Soon enough, he finds himself trapped and isolated - and, surrounded by horrific creatures 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 - but, that doesn't make it any less meaningful. Throughout the game, James meets others who have also found themselves pulled into this same, surreal, nightmare - each of whom is clearly deeply affected by the guilt that they carry of some past action. The clear implication is that, for them, Silent Hell has come to represent a very personal hell - and, that they are only there because they deserve to be (or, at least, they believe that they do). But, what about James? He is only in Silent Hill to uncover the mystery behind the letter from his deceased wife. James is entirely innocent, isn't he?

Well, obviously, the answer to that question is 'no'.

As the player eventually learns, Mary's death wasn't quite due to natural causes. She was terminally ill, with no real hope of recovery - and, she was definitely suffering. But, it wasn't actually the illness that claimed her life, in the end. Instead, it was James, himself, who took her life. It may have been an act of assisted suicide, and something that the two had ultimately agreed on, but the act still had a deep enough impact on James that it triggered an emotional breakdown - ultimately leading to him suppressing the memory, entirely. So, in the end, the player learns that James is pulled into this surreal nightmare for the same reason that everyone else is - because he believes that he deserves to suffer, and because the supernatural force at work in this quiet little town is happy to oblige.

It is really the perfect reveal for a surprisingly sombre and emotional game. 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 impact on me is a Survival Horror game.

Dragon Age 2

It may have been a few years, now, but this one may still be a little controversial. After all, there were, at the time, many people who disliked the second game in the Dragon Age franchise, for a variety of reasons - none of which are really worth getting into, here (though, for what it's worth, I have always agreed with many of the criticisms that have been leveled at this game - I just disagreed on the extent to which those issues spoiled the game, as a whole).

The most compelling reason why some disliked this game actually is relevant, here - and, that concerns the way in which the game's protagonist, Hawke, was so often pushed into a more reactive role throughout the game. Cast as little more than a refugee trying to survive, and built a new life, in a foreign city, it often felt as though Hawke was often struggling just to keep up with the various plot-lines taking place around him (or, her) - to the extent that she (or, he) occasionally felt much more like a side characters in other people's stories, than the protagonist of his (or, her) own.

It had been a fair point to make, of course - but, whether it actually counted as a flaw with the game is another matter, entirely. Some players were very put off by this aspect of the game, while others found the break away from a typical 'protagonist-focused' story to be rather refreshing - and, I was definitely in the latter group. Arguably, there was nowhere that this lack of focus on the protagonist was more apparent than in the game's final moments

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.

In the role of Hawke, you quickly find yourself stuck right in the middle of this escalating conflict - and, in fact, trying to manage this increasingly chaotic situation forms much of the game's final act. Depending on your preferences, you can openly support one faction over the other - or, you can do as I did, and constantly try to push for some sort of peaceful resolution.

If that is what you were working for, then it may have even seemed like your efforts were about to be rewarded during the game's final moments, with a tense stand-off between the leaders of the two opposed factions - until, of course, Anders (a mage, and your companion throughout much of the game) steps forward and takes the decision out of your hands. Anders sees peaceful resolution as little more than an inevitable return to Templar oppression - and, he doesn't want that. So, instead, he takes the opportunity to launch a surprise attack that makes compromise impossible. In spite of my best efforts, up until that point, outright war broke out between the two factions - all thanks to the last minute betrayal of one of my closest companions. From that point on, the situation devolved into complete chaos.

It was a sudden twist that caught me completely by surprise, and which left me feeling stunned and, I have to admit, genuinely angry. But, I wasn't actually angry at the game for not letting me have things the way that I wanted them to be, and I wasn't angry at the writers for creating such a frustrating situation. Instead, I was angry at Anders, a fictional character, for ruining what my version of Hawke, another fictional character, had been trying to achieve. I was fully immersed in the moment in a way that I rarely have been - and, the fact that the game was able to catch me by surprise, to that extent, struck me as genuinely impressive.

Obviously, that entire ending sequence would feel very different if you had been playing a character who openly supported one faction, or the other - but, it was that first play-through which had the biggest impact.

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