Video Game Twists

(*Spoilers for Braid, Heavy Rain, Red Dead Redemption, Metal Gear Solid 4 and Spec Ops: The Line*)

A few weeks back on IGN, Michael Thompson wrote an article how spoilers and the fear of themselves spoiling the experiences games can give us are a problem. They no longer serve the audience because people become wrapped up in the minutia of detail rather than what any of those details mean. Thompson frames it as twist endings. There are different types of problems that his basic thesis covers, but I’ll run with it. He then goes on to propose 5 games that would have been better by having their “spoilers” up front rather than be twists.

It’s a good point, a point made a few months ago by Andrew Levigne over at Gone To Strange Country blog about Mass Effect. How people’s obsession over continuity and lore have undermined their ability to appreciate a work as a work rather than a method for the player to be apart of the universe as some mediator. The player connects more the fictional universe like some history textbook than as a piece of artistic expression. (Personally I would love to watch these catalogers try and do this to something like Mulholland Drive and watch them lose their minds.)

I do have a problem with Thompson’s piece, not because of thesis, but because of the examples he chose. They aren’t good ones and in fact most make the exact opposite point. Actually I just looked it over again, make that ALL of the examples are poor ones.

First, Braid. Braid’s concealment of Tim’s true nature isn’t as big a deal as a revelation (though the first time through it is a very powerful moment) because the game still works on replays. Braid puts the beginning of what ostensibly is the plot at the end of the game, after all the contemplation has taken place for a reason: structure. The game needs an arc and the revelation ending is the climax. It wouldn’t have worked if put at the beginning of the game, because you have no fucking clue what the game is about. The game has to teach the player about time rewinding and the player has to understand it as a metaphor. The whole point of having the revelation done in rewind is to show the break in Tim’s reality and conception of himself. Also, it is set up as a mystery, because that is the only story structure that can have the inciting incident before the story opens and explained at the end.

The revelation is locked behind a ladder that only opens when you’ve assembled all of the puzzle pieces. After all the contemplation of the metaphysical happens you are allowed access to the memory of the triggering event itself and contemplate that to reveal the truth.

If you want another reason, the game itself is inside out. The text passages before each world make no sense before hand. However, if you read them after you have completed the world it suddenly makes sense. Why? Because the game is about time manipulation and the game has put the contemplation results before the actual contemplation. They make no sense without the work put into them to reveal their meaning. Kind of like how the player has to put the work into the rest of the game to understand the final level.

Also, say we did it your way and revealed Tim was a creeper at the very beginning and the rest of the game moved on from there. Why would the player have any incentive to continue on? The game would peter out after a while with no climax and no real resolution for the player. Tim doesn’t get any resolution, but that’s kind of the point. That’s who he is. The player, on the other hand, isn’t Tim and is observing things, while paradoxically interacting with them. But the interaction is all staged; the end result will always be the same. The puzzles are there so the player can understand by doing rather than by reading or watching.

Braid is probably the worst example he chose by virtue the structure Jonathan Blow chose to work with. It’s there for so many reasons other than having a twist ending. It’s there as a story arc structure, there as game design teaching methodology, there as subtle metaphor, there as an observational break and, least of all, there as a dramatic surprise.

Heavy Rain is a poor choice because its structure is the least of its problems and I don’t think knowing who the killer is before hand would have helped. Thompson even admits that it would have made the ending “even more untenable.” I think he is falling into the territory of continuity briefly outlined above, where continuity is more important than the drama. The game would have to be so different to fit the new structure that it wouldn’t have been the same game. Quantic Dreams were making a mystery and knowing who did it before hand kind of defeats the purpose. Also, David Cage already made that game with Indigo Prophecy.

Would it have been better if they went for a cat and mouse approach? I think it would have revealed the man behind the curtain even quicker because the player wouldn’t purposefully be able to have the killer caught before the climax. That limitation would always been in place. It’s in place for Heavy Rain as well as is, but it took a while for people to realize neither Scott Shelby nor Ethan Mars could die before the climax.

Red Dead Redemption – what? This is rather baffling because the ending isn’t a twist. It’s a continuation of the story. Marston goes back to his family and spends a few days with them before the American Government come to tie up loose ends. Ignoring that in real life the government issued everyone pardons so they all could move on with their lives and say it’s for the sake of drama. This is pretty well telegraphed throughout the game in the main missions, side quest and the general themes of the game. Following up with his son for what happens next is not a twist. Just because no other game had done it before, does not make this a twist. It’s a continuation of the story. It also opens up some interesting possibilities with regard to Marston’s character.

I’m going to quote Thompson extensively on his proposed difference.

The most interesting part of his story is not revenge, but in following the awful trail of consequences that come from one man’s violent action. A much more interesting and tragic game could have been wrought from killing off Marston in the first third and spending the remainder following his young and incompetent son around the wastes trying to live up to his father’s evil and violent legacy, an innocent struggling with the uncomfortable fit of his violent new role. Instead, the game is just another self-pity simulator making up lachrymose excuses for the psychopath driving the action.

See, the problem is while the son would have a reason to follow up on Marston’s killing, we don’t. We don’t know his father’s legacy and have no end goal. It also changes the themes of the game drastically. The game is about your past coming to haunt you. Marston’s son has no past. It wasn’t the legacy that influenced Jack so much as the government soldiers coming and killing his dad. To him, Marston was a good man because of the story that we had just played through, not Marston’s unseen, only talked about, past.

Metal Gear Solid 4 is a baffling choice, because in the end there was no story altering twist. Yes, there were plenty of twists revealed in that final overwrought cutscene, but none of them would have changed what happened if they were known ahead of time. The Patriots are a bunch of old, decrepit or dead people. Well since Liquid Ocelot is the big threat and the big bad, so what? Big Boss wasn’t the corpse used to do some science thing to take over Arsenal Gear. They still used a corpse and it worked, again so what? Big Boss is still alive. Well he never did jack shit in the game and other than asking why he didn’t, so what? Snake isn’t going to become a walking pathogen dispenser and can live on. This neither takes away the urgency of the situation, nor the end result. In fact, this is considered the biggest cop out of the game, so what?

MGS4 is interesting with its twits, in while they explain lore, they don’t actually change or affect anything that happens or would happen in the game. Right from the start it’s a hit. Snake even says so. This is a contract killing to stop a megalomaniac war criminal from taking over the world. It ends, with Snake stopping the world domination machine and beating up the war criminal with his fists. Can’t say I see where exactly things would change in light of the above revelations.

Now, I don’t own Spec Ops: The Line unlike the other games, but I have read a lot of criticism and watch the recent Extra Credit’s two part video essay discussing the game. I think Thompson may have missed the point. It’s not about how Walker is the bad guy; it’s about how you, the player, are the bad guy. And to be the bad guy you have to do bad things. You have to commit terrible acts and play through Walker’s psychotic break. Many people knew long before the ending that Walker wasn’t a good person or at least there was something seriously off about what was going on. Finding out that Konrad was dead is just the final nail in the coffin. Plus, knowing he was dead ahead of time kind of negates his voice taunting you over the headset.

Games like Spec Ops: The Line are trying to reinforce their meaning with the mechanics and play of the game. Sometime they try to have the players emotions mirror the characters or via mechanical metaphor. Plus, it’s a Heart of Darkness adaptation. The character has to descend into hell and keep going. He can’t start there.

Now games, but more often players that put emphasis on spoilers and plot points as opposed to their context or meaning are an issue at the moment. Players don’t know how to “read” games because they haven’t been taught to do so. So they focus on the surface level matters missing the point behind those surface level things. But putting endings at the beginning of games isn’t going to fix that, because if you didn’t get the end at the end, you sure as hell weren’t going to get it at the beginning without any context. The problem is when a work has a twist for the sake of having a twist. Or when the game puts heavy emphasis on this being the biggest thing ever and it has no point. Some plot twists are great. The Empire Strikes Back has one of the most famous, most quoted twists in film history. Spoiling it to people who haven’t seen the movie would annoy them, but it wouldn’t ruin the film. The twist has meaning and implications both for the plot and the characters. It puts things in a whole new light. A good plot twist survives knowing about it.

Then there are games that provide twists at the end in such a comically rapid fashion that they cease to have meaning in and of themselves, but highlight the ridiculous nature of the situation. Binary Domain comes to mind here. The twists also don’t change the core, but rather emphasis what the game was about on its various levels.

There are bad games, with bad endings. Sometimes they hide information that would have been better knowing sooner, but these 5 games aren’t them. To all writers out there, choose your examples wisely.

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