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Plot Twists in Video Games: Out with a Bang or a Whimper?

Be advised, I am going to spoil major plot points for several games here. If you don't want to have these stories spoiled for you, do not read on.

There are few things more immersive and riveting than a good, well-told mystery. Being given a lot of pieces and trying to put the puzzle together can be so much fun and add so many more layers of entertainment to a game than the gameplay itself. Where are all of these plots going to lead? Where do they converge? When will it all make sense? Answering these questions for yourself is an experience that can hardly be replicated anywhere else, and when all of these questions are brought to a satisfying conclusion, the feeling it can bring to the player can be deeply shocking and effective. But what happens when the writers try too hard to stay ahead of the player, to the point where their own narrative stops making sense? What happens when you are given a puzzle piece that doesn't fit with the rest of the puzzle, and at the end you sit there, frustrated, wondering why it doesn't fit? A twist can either wrap up the story in a profoundly surprising and resonating fashion, or it can make the story fall flat and give a sour aftertaste in the player's mouth. What exactly makes a good plot twist, or a bad plot twist, and should they be employed as often as they are today?

It's obvious why writers and developers want to end the story with a twist. If you end the story in a shocking fashion, it'll have people talking in awed whispers about your game, promoting others to purchase it to see for themselves. It also leaves a sense of surprise in the player and a, perhaps smug, sense of intelligence to the writers for being able to fool the player long enough to pull the rug from underneath them. There are so many positives to having a twist ending that sometimes writers apply one where it's not necessary, and it ends up being forced. Sometimes mysteries don't have to be convoluted and twisty in order to be effective or well-made. Sure, playing with an audience's mind makes the experience fun and memorable, but there's a point where it becomes a little too much and the quality of the story drops as a result. In some cases, it suffocates the story preceding it to a point where nothing except the terrible, inexcusable conclusion is the only thing left of the experience, and that's all the fault of a risk-taking writer. There needs to be some balance here, and I'm going to try and find where that line sits.

Now, to start off, there isn't really just one type of "twist" is a story. There's the obvious type of twist where characters and motivations are not what they seemed to be, and the type of twist that you didn't expect the writers to have the courage to present. One type of the latter is a pretty obvious one: Call of Duty 4's nuclear explosion. This one has been talked about ad nauseam, but that's because it's a pretty colossal twist of the knife. When you go to rescue a fallen soldier, you're injected with feelings of hope and triumph. When Vasquez proudly announces, "Nobody is left behind!" you're left cheering for your USMC heroes and their imminent victory. The last thing you expect is to have your entire crew nuked and killed, yourself included. It's not every day that a script has that much courage to kill off your character and all of their allies, but Call of Duty 4 had the guts to do it. As a result, what was left of your feelings of patriotism and hope are transformed into a sense of disturbance, dread, of nihilism. Now that you know that you're not invincible, what's left to come of all of my S.A.S. friends and Soap?

Another instance of this type of twist is the conclusion of Red Dead Redemption. Since the whole game is about, well, a redemption, one would think that it would actually come for John Marston. Considering he spends the entire game scrambling to put his life together and fix the future for himself and his family, it seems fitting that the conclusion would be a happy one for Marston and his clan. Unfortunately, the cops show up at Marston's door, and the game has you put up one last gunfight. Since it encourages you to win, there's a sense of optimism, like Marston is going to blow all of the baddies away and return to his family. There is, however, no chance of you winning, and Marston's death is a scripted event. The game builds up so much hope for John, so much development and such high stakes that it can't come off as anything but a devastating blow when he lifelessly falls to the ground.

These two twists are particularly effective because it brings a sense of vulnerability to the game and they are both very compelling in their own rights. Call of Duty 4's nuke happens in the middle of the campaign, and it sets up the stakes for what's coming in the second half. Nothing is off the table now. A city was just nuked to bits, and you and all of your USMC buddies fell down with it. What's at stake for Price, Gaz, and Soap now that the game has proven to you that it's no-nonsense and willing to end the life of you and your allies? It induces a sense of urgency and awareness that, at any time, you could die. It's difficult to bring out that effect, and when your character is killed so many times and their life means as much as a simple respawn, watching yourself die and not return is deeply unsettling. With the death of John Marston, it elicits a feeling of despair and sadness in the player, since the character they have watched develop and grow into a better human being collapses in front of them, dead. All of their efforts, transgressions, and aspirations mean absolutely nothing now. John Marston and all of the things he had to live for died in that one moment, and to twist the knife even further, the game keeps going on without him, to propel forward the idea that all of what he's done means nothing. Both of these twists grant their respective games immense absorption and captivation, as well as unique senses of dread and vulnerability that aren't found in most games.

Another type of twist is the kind that wraps a story up in a nice, shocking, satisfying bundle that will be memorable to the player. It's pretty easy to bungle a twist and ruin the entire story; it's much more difficult to craft one that's coherent, makes sense within the context of the story, and is shocking all the same. There are plenty of games that go the "it was all a dream" route or the "this character was actually bad!" route, and sometimes the latter can even be effective. There are plenty of examples of good story-ending twists, and abhorrent story-ending twists.

Two examples of what I believe to be some pretty effective conclusions are BioShock and BioShock Infinite's twists. BioShock's twist ending calls into question the idea free will and the morality of the everyday FPS protagonist. While it doesn't do it as effectively as another game (which I will get into later) BioShock's use of mind manipulation and control is compelling to the point where you question the free will of yourself, as you enabled all of these actions to occur. BioShock Infinite's ending is infinitely (pun not intended, but I appreciate it nonetheless) more well-crafted than its predecessor's. While the original game questioned your philosophical ability to think, Infinite's ending is able to tug at the heart-strings seamlessly, delivering an ending that is simultaneously heartbreaking and nihilistic. In the vein of Red Dead Redemption, BioShock Infinite's use of multiple universes to convey a sense of futility to the player is absolute genius. All of the efforts you've put Booker through in order to stop Comstock and save Elizabeth will always, no matter what, prove itself to be useless and inconsequential. Somewhere out there, Comstock will always win, unless you stop Comstock from the source, which is your birth. Adding in Booker's necessary death only furthers the heart-wrenching dread that the ending puts forth. Not only were all of your efforts as Booker useless and laughable, but your death that precedes the events of the game would have been the only thing to stop it. Not only were your efforts meaningless, you are the antagonist of your own story.

One of the most compelling twist endings of all time, however, is that of Spec Ops: The Line. I hinted I would get at something about morality, and boy, does this game have a heavy dose of making you feel awful. Spec Ops: The Line's entire story hinges on the classic trope of mowing down nameless baddies in the sake of "justice," or whatever your allies have told you. For the whole game, you struggle to rationalize the actions you have been forced to perform, and in the end it turns out everything was just an illusion; a justification for your horrible deeds. Your actions were so terrifying and immoral that you created someone in order to justify those things to yourself. Ultimately, the true ending is yours to decide since there's four possible conclusions, but no matter what you can't avoid facing the physical manifestation of all of your actions. This twist ending provides some incredibly powerful symbolism, breaking down the human being back to its savage elements and forcing the player to face it for their own. It's a profoundly disquieting use of FPS tropes to present the player with a harsh reality: What are you really doing when you're mowing down nameless enemy after nameless enemy in a game like Modern Warfare 3? What are your true motives here?

Now, while a twist ending can be effective and face the player with some horrifying realities of the human condition, other twist endings can exist simply for shock value and nothing more. When twist endings are forced, they have the potential to be pretty awful. I'm not going to bother to get into "it was all a dream" endings, because those are objectively bad for obvious reasons. They are a cop out to end the game on a weak note, and end its respective world with a quiet, meek whimper.

I started the best with Call of Duty, so let's start the worst with Call of Duty, eh? That was a good segue, right? Anyway, Black Ops 1's ending. Reznov was a pretty uninspired and pointless addition to the game, and the discovery that there's an entire twist ending dedicated to him is really silly. The fact that Reznov was dead for years is kind of irrelevant and honestly didn't do anything real to effect the story. Sure, Mason isn't mentally stable. We've known that for a while. However, this twist didn't bring any of the emotions that Call of Duty 4 or World of War's endings did, and I know that it was trying to emulate that sort of effect. Reznov isn't developed and his relationship with Mason is paper-thin, so Mason's motivations for imagining him aren't entirely clear, and his effects on the story aren't terribly compelling. Sure, it gives a brief moment of self-realization for Mason and his moral compass, but it's short-lived and ultimately pretty inconsequential. Mason's moral code was questionable from the beginning, so it's not like there are any real revelations or discoveries here that made it memorable or shocking. It's really just sad to watch the effort of Call of Duty's campaign begin to drain in front of you.

Another pretty pathetic attempt at an emotional ending is that of God of War 3. All though the game, Kratos is a no-nonsense, machismo-heavy protagonist that is deeply flawed and who is deeply ashamed of all of his faults. His character-driven motivations make the story pretty powerful, but the ending kinds of makes it fall apart when it's revealed that Pandora's Box contains hope. Yup. That's it. Hope. While an entire fisticuffs and muscles-oriented narrative drove God of War 3, the sappy and hokey ending makes it feel like Steven Spielberg hopped in the director's chair for a second and said "let me handle this." Not only is it tonally inconsistent with the rest of the game, it is a definite letdown for anyone who was expecting the stakes to be risen after the opening of the Box. Hope is definitely not a relevant part of God of War 3 and the lack thereof is drives Kratos to do the things he does. Kratos should have nothing to lose; he should have nothing to hope for. It's a colossal part of his character. Nevertheless, his character arc is subverted and he openly receives hope out of Pandora's Box. Boo.

Wanna know a secret? Heavy Rain isn't a fantastic game. It's not bad, and is sporadically effective in certain parts of the game. You want to know what part isn't effective at all? Well, you read the title of this article and the past eleven paragraphs of it, so if you don't know by now, it's time to give up on life and go pursue a promising career as a hot dog vendor. Anyway, Heavy Rain's ending is pretty awful and unforgivable. With a plausible and character-driven story behind it, making one of the protagonists the Origami Killer is a really cheap and forced twist. There were entire segments of the game that make Shelby being the Origami Killer (Manfred, anyone?) make absolutely no sense. It's obvious that the writers of the game didn't have an ending planned going in, and they panicked and decided that a twist ending was absolutely necessary. No, we can't end the game by completing the characters' arcs and providing satisfying conclusions to the player. No, screw the characters, we need a twist! It's an inexcusable bungling of what could have been an incredibly potent conclusion that revolved around its characters and their respective faults, and how they learn to cope with them and move on. No, nobody learns anything, and nothing can be taken away from the story besides "Don't be a killer, kiddos!" This ending upsets me so much because there could have been so much more, and instead the conclusion of Heavy Rain takes away all of the powerful elements and replaces them with a paint-by-numbers twist. Shame, really.

What should we take away from my relentless ranting and sermonizing? What should we do with twist endings? Well, we certainly shouldn't do away with them, otherwise gems like BioShock Infinite and Spec Ops: The Line would lose so much of the potency they possess. While Spec Ops: The Line is a mesmerizing journey through the decay of a soldier's psyche, it wouldn't be anywhere near as compelling without its brilliant conclusion(s). Twists, however, are seen as a trick to end a story and not as a narrative device. Twists should be employed in order to achieve a certain effect, and not be a twist for the sake of being a twist. Twists aren't always necessary and shouldn't come package-wrapped with a certain genre of game. Twists should elicit an emotional response out of the player, whether it's anger, sadness, or anything in between, twists are, at heart, a device to propel the narrative into a more powerful place. If they are abused and treated as a cheap trick to spark word-of-mouth and attention, then they are, more likely than not, going to be forced, muddled, and ineffective. Twists get a bad reputation because of things like Heavy Rain, and that's not fair. Twists can be brilliant and elevate a story to a near-transcendent atmosphere. Your twist is only as good as the writer crafting it.

Hey guys, did you know that this article doesn't exist? Yeah, it doesn't. You just read thirteen paragraphs of air. What a twist, right? Actually, Se7ensins doesn't exist. Nope. Just a fabrication. All an illusion. Why? Beats me. Oh, wait, your house doesn't exist. You don't exist. But wait, what about life? Is it nonexistent? Is this world nonexistent? Does anything exist? Oh God, my body, it's fading! Quick, Doc Brown, something about lightning strikes! I WANT TO BELIEVE!
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