Continuing my look at storytelling in gaming, I’m taking a look at what I feel are the best plot twists in games and why I think they work so well.
One of the biggest storytelling devices in any medium is the “plot twist” where the script gets flipped and everything you thought you knew is turned on its head. Video games are no different. While there are plenty of plot twists that don’t work, or leave you rolling your eyes, some manage to stick with you years later and keep you talking.
There are so many to choose from in this list, so inevitably I’ll end up leaving some off other would have included. Regardless, though, I feel the ones listed below (in no particular order) are the most memorable.
There's no way you can do a list of plot twists without mentioning one of the largest in the last couple generations. Bioshock impressed everyone when it first arrived for a number of reasons. It's presentation was cinematic, coupled with solid FPS gameplay, and a compelling setting/story that gamers had to see through to the end.
We're thrust into a world filled with mystery, getting only bits and pieces of the story behind Rapture and its downfall. We're a stranger in a strange land when we arrive and latch onto Atlas, who seems to be helping us along. When we finally confront the "enemy" we've been chasing the entire game, Andrew Ryan (the creator of Rapture), the story is flipped entirely on its head.
Turns out, you're nothing more than a tool, the illegitimate son of Ryan himself, smuggled away and conditioned to be a weapon for Atlas to use at a later time. All along, you've been a slave, compelled into action by the phrase "would you kindly." Not only is it shocking and unexpected, its Soap Opera level melodrama gives you plenty to think about long after you've set the controller down. Even better, it gives all new context to the game's earlier levels, offering something different on another playthrough.
It's possible to consider this the earliest plot twist in gaming, even though it may not seem like it these days. What's come down to nothing more than a nostalgic joke, imagine the first time you every played the original Mario game, especially if you were around when it first launched.
Games back then weren't known for being incredibly long, and many were still accustomed to the quarter feeding play style of arcades. When you battle your way through a few levels in the first world and tackle Bowser (or at least think you are), you expect some sort of big reward, right? Wrong! Instead you get Toad telling you that the Princess is in another castle and your journey is far from over.
Obviously it's early on in the game, and you've got a few more fake castles to get through, but the first time you saw the message it was a "wait, what?!" kind of moment. While it's not the most shocking twist, it's age certainly gives it a spot on this list.
Knights of the Old Republic
Star Wars games don't get much better than this, at least in terms of storytelling. One of the primary reasons KOTOR was so well received and continues to endure as such a beloved title, is the story it told. It's cinematic storytelling made it feel like you were watching/playing a Star Wars movie in a way that no other game had been able to do before (though plenty tried).
As we followed the story and endeavored to defeat Malach and his Sith followers, the smaller story at play is your (the character's) own history and mystery surrounding him. While you gather friends and make choices that affect your relationships and the larger story, you're hit with the mother of all plot twists near the final act.
Turns out, the evil Sith Lord that kickstarted all the problems you're currently facing, was you all along. Not only are you having to contend with the fact that you were once a notorious Sith Lord and you’ve been battling your former apprentice this whole time, but you also have to face the idea of how the Jedi Council stripped you of your memories and connection to the Force.
These are lofty concepts that left me sitting back and staring at the screen for a LONG time before I began playing once more. It’s a big revelation with interesting consequences that paint the story up to that point in a brand new light. It makes for one of the most shocking moments in Star Wars in general, with some fans putting it right up there with, “I am your Father.”
Red Dead Redemption
You'd expect the grizzled hero of a wild west story, complete with shootouts and backstabbing, to see our hero ride off into the sunset...Welp, we were all wrong. Instead, after Marston is allowed to return home to his family (who've been held by some Government meatheads), we're treated to a taste of the quiet life of handling chores and raising a family.
The action slows down significantly and for a handful of missions, you're done dealing with wild outlaws and killing rogues. It's a drastic change of pace, but it serves the story nicely and makes the plot twist all the more heartbreaking. When a group of corrupt lawmen show up on your doorstep, things take a drastic turn as Marsten is horrifically gunned down.
While this in and of itself is pretty shocking, it's more surprising that the game doesn't actually end at this point. Instead, we jump ahead a few years and take control of Marston's son who's out for vengeance. It was a bold move that made for some powerful storytelling and still hooks people in to this day.
SuckerPunch's open world game inFAMOUS allowed gamers to play with a unique set of superpowers as they could choose to use them for good or evil. It's not exactly an original premise, but the execution is amazing. The game itself is a ridiculous amount of fun, really making you feel powerful and giving you all manner of neat ways to use them in the open world. Couple this with fun, comic book art styled cutscenes for the story, and you've got a hit game on your hands.
The story sees you as the survivor of a strange terrorist attack that seems to have given you super powers. As you begin using your powers and attract the attention of a powerful criminal organization, First Sons, a bigger story unfolds. As you grow your powers in an attempt to save (or rule) your city, you inch your way closer and closer to a final showdown with the First Sons' leader, Kessler; the same man who triggered the attack that gave you powers.
During the final battle, as Kessler lies beaten, it's revealed that Kessler is actually YOU. Hailing from an alternate timeline ravaged by a entity known as the Beast which has destroyed the world and his/your family. He traveled back in time to develop your powers earlier in the hopes of building you up to the point of being able to defeat the Beast and secure a better future.
While this twist doesn’t have the same replay impact as some of the others on this list do, it’s a neat twist that plays out completely in the second game as well. It was definitely unexpected and blew my mind when it all went down.
Some of the other great plot twists in gaming over the years can be found in these titles:
Braid - You're not the hero, but the villain chasing the Princess throughout the land.
Shadow of the Colossus - Ultimately, you come to figure this out along your journey, but the finale of ending up a monster is still gripping.
Silent Hill 2 - There's almost too many twists to count, but finding out just how messed up you are is shocking.
Metal Gear Solid Series - I could fill up this list with all the twists in the Metal Gear franchise. Some of goofy, some are shocking, and others just make you all that more invested.
Final Fantasy X - Learning that you're not a real person sure is one Hell of a way to mess with your mind!
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare - Gamers are used to charging in with guns blazing and saving the day in epic fashion. So when you're suddenly unable to do anything but watch the Nuke explode over American soil, it's pretty shocking.
Obviously there are plenty more that I could discuss, but these I've gone into are the ones that have stuck with me the most over the years and keep me thinking about them time and time again. What are some of your favorite video game plot twists?