Video game storytelling is still in its infancy. Few developers really play to the interactive strengths of the medium, instead relying on narrative tricks borrowed from film and TV. And the one they love the most is the reliable sucker-punch of a plot twist or unexpected revelation.
Even a bad story can become infinitely more compelling when it does something you didn’t anticipate or defies your expectations. Here are some of our favourite shocks, twists, and turns from the history of PC gaming.
WARNING! This article contains MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS for the following games: BioShock, Silent Hill 2, Final Fantasy VII, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Resident Evil, Mass Effect, Deus Ex, Metal Gear Solid, Assassin’s Creed III, Braid, Halo: Combat Evolved
Perhaps the most famous video game plot twist of all time. Atlas turns out to be villain Frank Fontaine putting on a bad Irish accent. Jack is his unwitting pawn, being controlled by the trigger phrase “Would you kindly?” And, to top it all off, Jack is actually Rapture founder Andrew Ryan’s illegitimate son. A revelation that was a real (Bio)shock to the system, as well as a clever comment on the FPS genre, where blindly following the orders of strangers is something you normally never question.
Silent Hill 2
James Sunderland receives a letter from his wife, who died of an illness years earlier, luring him to the town of Silent Hill—their ‘special place’. Sunderland finds the town foggy, deserted, and crawling with hideous creatures. He fights his way through them, witnessing unspeakable horrors, until he discovers the truth. There was no illness: Sunderland smothered his wife to death on her hospital bed to put her out of her misery. Silent Hill is a hell of his own making, and he’s been drawn there to be judged by the evil forces that haunt the town. Learning this, you suddenly feel dirty. You’ve been sympathising and protecting this seemingly bereaved husband for hours, and all that time he’s been harbouring a dark, twisted secret.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Throughout KOTOR you learn about an evil Sith lord called Darth Revan, master of the game’s villain, Darth Malak. “What a jerk” you think, before realising that it’s YOU. You’ve been brainwashed to forget your past, and depending on your alignment, you can either reclaim your status as a Dark Lord or renounce it.
Final Fantasy VII
Aeris is a pivotal character in the story and the party’s best healer, then they go and kill her. Villain Sephiroth plunges his blade into her stomach, and millions of people across the world weep salty tears. This famous moment is on par with The Sixth Sense and “I see dead people”—it’s so ingrained in gaming culture that you’ll probably know about it even if you haven’t played the game. Because of this its impact has been diluted somewhat, but when I first saw it happen back in ‘98, it genuinely tore me up.
In a twist that no one saw coming, Wesker, the guy who wears sunglasses indoors, is actually a villain working for Umbrella: the evil corporation who started all this zombie business in the first place. In hindsight this is a twist you can see coming a mile away, but when Resident Evil was first released, it was a betrayal that hit players hard. Wesker went on to become a ludicrous pantomime villain with inexplicable Matrix powers, but here he was just a wonderfully hateful, back-stabbing bastard.
In the Mass Effect universe, The Citadel is a giant city shared by all the galaxy’s spacefaring species. It’s like London, but in space. Or New York City, but in space. You get the idea. It was built aeons ago by some unknown precursor race—or so people thought before Shepard came along. It’s revealed in the first game that it’s actually a giant mass effect relay used by the Reapers to facilitate their cycle of galactic genocide. Of course! That aside, it has some really nice futuristic bars to drink space-booze in.
JC Denton annoys the wrong people and is captured and imprisoned in a sinister Majestic 12 facility. He hacks and sneaks his way out, only to emerge in the offices of UNATCO—the very organisation he used to work for. This is when you realise that every government organisation in the world of Deus Ex, even if they seem trustworthy on the surface, is a puppet of a shadowy Illuminati-like group. I hate it when that happens. It’s a brilliantly crafted moment, turning a location you’re fond of, and familiar with, into somewhere dangerous and filled with enemies. Deus Ex is just too good.
Metal Gear Solid
Solid Snake has infiltrated an Alaskan missile base in order to stop a group of terrorists who’ve taken it over. Sounds pretty straightforward, until he realises later that the group’s leader is actually his cloned brother, Liquid Snake. Don’t spend any time thinking about why he didn’t notice this straight away when he realised they both had the exact same face: just go with it. It’s Metal Gear. It never makes sense. Solid and Liquid, and a third ‘brother’ called Solidus, were creations of Les Enfants Terribles: a secret project that attempted to make a perfect clone of legendary soldier Big Boss, who you play as in MGS: Ground Zeroes and the forthcoming MGS V: The Phantom Pain. Yes.
Assassin's Creed III
In the opening chapters of AC3, you play as a posh English chap who’s like a sort of historical James Bond. You go around Boston doing the usual Assassin’s Creed-type stuff: following people, sneaking, getting shot at for trespassing on roofs. Then it’s revealed that this guy, Haytham Kenway, is actually, GASP, a Templar. The bad ones! The enemies of the Assassins! I HAVE BEEN DUPED! But it’s actually a shame when the story advances and you’re suddenly in control of the real main character, Connor, who has all the charisma of a skirting board. I wanted to play as Haytham for the whole game. He is, as far as the AC series goes, a great character. Alas, it was not to be. As the series has gone on, I find myself rooting more and more for the Templars.
This time-bending platformer was one of the first big indie hits, and is famed for the sinister plot bubbling beneath its colourful visuals and beautiful, relaxing music. It’s open to interpretation, but the most accepted theory is that the ‘princess’ actually represents a nuclear bomb, and hero Tim is its guilt-ridden creator. Yes, it’s actually a game about the invention of the atom bomb. Now we are all sons of bitches.
Halo: Combat Evolved
Master Chief, hero of the Halo series, is tricked into activating the Halo itself: a picturesque ring-world that’s actually an ancient, deadly weapon. He thinks it’s going to stop the spread of a deadly parasite-like alien species called the Flood, which is true, except it turns out Halo stops them by wiping out their food source: i.e. all sentient life in the galaxy. Oops! As far as mistakes go, that’s pretty major. It’s at this moment we realise just how powerful, and dangerous, the weapon is, despite those pretty beaches.