There are innumerable strong stories throughout the history of video gaming. From the complicated intrigue of a properly set-up RPG to the simple, yet strikingly well-done storytelling of the Half-Life games, there are a great many interesting tales to play out. While many techniques exist to improve these stories, one of the most memorable and prevalent ones is the plot twist. Taking a moment to reveal a shocking truth and turning a story on its head in that instant can leave a profound impact on the player that is unlikely to disappear anytime quickly. In order to celebrate the strongest impacts the gaming world can offer, we’ll be counting down the top 10 plot twists in gaming. Yes, I did say we. As I feel it would be inadequate to simply offer my singular opinion on such an important part of gaming narrative, my fellow contributor Gabriel B. will be joining me to describe why these moments work so well. Gabe, if you would be so kind…
Thank you, Robert. Plot twists in video games have practically been around since games could actually have plots. From the early days when Sierra fans discovered the true identity of the main character in King’s Quest III to the big reveal about Stocke in Radiant Historia, plot twists have been making players go wide-eyed and slack-jawed for decades. For this list, Robert and I have decided to focus on twists that not only shocked player’s expectations and made us re-examine the plot but also left a punch to the gut that has stayed with us. Some of these twists made us cry, some of these made us cry out ‘NO WAY” but all of them left an impact and were expertly crafted into their respective plots. Without further ado, I’ll hand it back to Robert so we can get going…
Alright then. Before we start, it should be obvious that this list will involve extremely heavy spoilers for all games involved. Just in case however…
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Now then, Gabe and I will be switching off on our writing with each entry, so let me start it off…
10.) Metal Gear Solid
The Metal Gear Solid series is one of the most plot heavy in the entire medium, so it’s no surprise that one of the best twists in gaming comes from the mazelike story therein. As you progress through Shadow Moses Island in the original adventure, you must eventually use a special key to deactivate the Metal Gear Rex weapon and end the nuclear threat it poses. After managing to shut down all the locks for the system, you are rewarded … by hearing an announcement that Metal Gear Rex has been armed. Directly afterward, a call comes through the codex from Master Miller, one of your support team on the mission, thanking you for activating the weapon. After describing how his group used you after they lost their only reliable way to obtain the code, your call is interrupted by your Colonel to bring terrible news. As it turns out, the real Master Miller has been dead since before your mission started, and, the entire time, you were really talking to the leader of the terrorist organization; your genetic twin, Liquid Snake.
This twist is quite effective in that Liquid’s explanation shows how numerous oddities throughout the mission become far clearer as a result of learning the truth. The organization chief with the code dying suddenly after finally meeting him makes sense considering it was actually an imposter susceptible to the virus Solid Snake carries. The reason why Master Miller was never really acknowledged as a resource by your superior reveals itself by the fact that he was never meant to be there in the first place. A good twist should always change the way you look at previous scenes, and that’s definitely the case here. Also, the simple change from Miller to Liquid is a shocking moment, even if you had previously guessed the truth. Seeing an ally change to a hated villain in an instant is almost chilling, and, like all aspects of this twist, is executed well. The only reason the twist is so low on the list is because it was hinted at too heavily and this kind of twist has been done before, with this simply being one of the best executed instances.
Braid’s twist, that the princess is running away from you, became so well-known after the game was released that what the princess actually is has become much more discussed. Still, that’s not to say the twist isn’t a good one. Throughout the game, it’s clear that Tim has obsessed over the princess, staking his happiness and health on finding her/it again. So when you finally reach the last level after finding all the puzzle pieces in the other levels, it’s a great feeling as you and the princess work together to escape the black knight …till you reach the end and time flows normally (if you pay attention, you notice enemies moving in reverse). Turns out the Princess was actually trying to escape from you and was throwing obstacles in your way so she could get to the safety of the knight, who takes her away to where you can’t harm her. You then get to see the epilogue, which shows both Tim’s perception of the world and the truth: that he was shallow, selfish, and cruel. It’s a great example of seeing the world through more than one vantage point and is a great way to end the brain-bending work of art that is Braid.
So why is not higher? Well, mainly due to the lack of emotional investment. While Braid’s ambiguity and artistry is certainly clever and creates an interesting emotional state, Tim’s problems are hard to relate to and since we don’t know what the princess really is, it’s hard to get too invested. Not to mention, it’s not like the game said Tim was a good guy. It openly admits he was anti-social, made a mistake which lost him the princess, and abandoned someone who loved him to go after the princess. Revealing he’s a monster doesn’t mean that much when we didn’t see him as that great of a guy in the first place. This twist is still great from a visual and story-telling perspective but it doesn’t have the punch to the gut that later entries will have.
8.) Persona 4
As the regular battle theme will remind you incessantly, Persona 4’s mystery plot all comes down to “reaching out to the truth” and looking past any falsehoods put in front of you. This is no more evident than on the final day of the game, where everything possible is done to dissuade you from finding that truth. Numerous times as you walk around the town of Inaba on this last cycle, talking to all your completed social links and going over your stomping grounds one more time, the game tries to get you to go back to your house and end the day, saying that everything has been solved and the true murderer, Adachi, had been caught. Continually refuse every one of these attempts however, and your party realizes there are still some unanswered questions about the entire incident. A quick investigation eventually leads you to the ultimate culprit: … the unimportant gas-station attendant you met on your very first day in Inaba and never had to talk to again. In actuality, the gas-station attendant is truly the god Izanami, who gave mystical powers to three people in an attempt to judge humanity’s true desires.
This twist may seem like it comes out of left field, to say the least, but it was hinted at throughout, even though it was still hard to figure, going along with the theme of the game. There was an odd pulse of energy when you first met the attendant that was never explained, but the game cleverly doesn’t bring much attention to it and it was forgotten in the events following. The attendant also only appeared at the station on rainy days, which is when the monsters appearing in the alternate world of the Midnight Channel would be at their most powerful and kill people if not taken care of. The true enemy is perfectly consistent with the story of Persona 4 and even managed to avoid an easy interface spoiler by not giving the attendant a character portrait, unlike every single other important character in the game. While a true surprise is always something good to see when a story changes your perspective like this, it means nothing if it doesn’t impact the story in a meaningful way. Thankfully, Persona 4 avoids that issue and instead delivers a genuinely logical and interesting surprise at the 11th hour.
7.) Phoenix Wright- Justice for all
While I consider Justice for All the weakest game in the Ace Attorney franchise that starred Phoenix Wright, it definitely had one of the best cases in the entire franchise. To give the set up for this case, Phoenix is defending an actor in a murder case after an assassin kidnaps Maya and uses her to threaten everyone’s favorite lawyer to get the actor found not guilty. At first, the evidence makes you believe that the victims’ assistant is really to blame and that your client is innocent, but things quickly start going another way and you confront him with your suspicions. Suddenly, the airheaded celebrity who couldn’t get off his phone to talk to you flips his hair back, grabs a burgundy glass out of nowhere and transforms into Matt Engarde, the true employer of Shelly D. Killer, the assassin holding Maya hostage. You now must now defend a man who is guilty of hiring a merciless assassin to kill a rival…and there’s nothing you can do.
Matt Engarde’s true personality is a great twist because, for the first time in the series, you are defending a guilty party and, not only is he guilty, he is completely evil. Matt Engarde revels in the pain he puts Phoenix through, laughs as you’re forced to build a case against a young woman who did nothing wrong and chuckles as every attempt you make to get out of your dilemma fails miserably. Not only does this twist put you in charge of a clearly guilty man’s case, it asks the question that is at the core of the game’s message: what is the true purpose of a lawyer?
Just like Braid, I’m sure every last one of you saw this one coming from a mile away, but there is a good reason for it being as synonymous with the title as it has become. The sharp turn that accompanies your inevitable meeting with Andrew Ryan, the leader of the underwater city of Rapture, is more or less a perfect example of how to properly set up and reveal a plot twist of this nature. Throughout the entire game, a man named Atlas has been helping you through radio contact to get face-to-face with Ryan and save the ruined “utopia” from his control. After finally reaching the elusive leader, he reverses the situation by very calmly and chillingly revealing how you have been manipulated and forced to do as Atlas wished from the beginning. He then abuses the same control mechanism to force you to kill him, proving his point. However, it all comes back to three simple words: “Would you kindly?”
This simple phrase turns out to be a trigger for mind-controlling indoctrination implanted in the psyche of the protagonist, forcing him to obey whatever command accompanies the request. Over the course of your journey, Atlas has included the phrase in a good number of the instructions he’s given. The genius of this twist is that you simply don’t register how often “Would you kindly” came up until it’s pointed out by Ryan, at which point you are stunned by the realization that he is completely right and Atlas was manipulating you all along. It even manages to affect the player directly by presenting the idea that the player was not actually in control of Jack’s actions. You were just as forced to follow the instructions as the protagonist was. It’s a very clever idea, and the revelation is delivered in such a way that you only realize things just as the protagonist would, immersing you completely into the scene and making the player punch feel so much harder than it would otherwise. I’ve never forgotten the impact of this scene, and when a moment is presented strongly enough that it can forever change my perspective on a simple turn of phrase, it deserves every ounce of credit given.