Given the content of this article, it should be clear from the get go that this is going to be a spoiler heavy article. I’ll be sure to mention the name of a particular game IN BOLD before giving away it’s twists to give enough time for you to hit the emergency close button should it need to be utilised.
Everyone loves a good twist right? A turn in the tale that nobody (save a few smart alecs) saw coming. If I were to pose you the question of “what are your favorite gaming moments?” I’m sure that there would be a few good twists in there. The same can be said of TV shows and movies.
Like all good things however, they can turn sour when used too much. Both the first Saw movie and The Sixth Sense had big twist endings that were very popular. So in an attempt to recapture that particular lightning in a bottle, the rest of the Saw series, plus a lot of M. Night Shyamalan’s later movies, followed in suit with big shocking reveals in the final reel. However, they were usually criticised for feeling forced, unnecessary and simply being a twist for the sake of a twist.
This brings up a few questions: What makes a good twist? Are there set rules or parameters to follow?
Lets take a look at one of my favorite twists (from one of my favorite games) of all time as a case study. STAR WARS: KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC. You play as a simple soldier in the republic who eventually becomes a Jedi. Your masters marvel at your skills and you’re set out on a mission to save the galaxy. So far so basic. Just past the halfway point, however, you come face to face with Darth Malak, the enemy of the game, who reveals that you are actually Darth Revan, the evil Sith ruler whom people have been talking about the entire game and was thought to have died years ago but has had their memory wiped and their connection to the force severed.
A massive twist you didn’t see coming? Sure. However, simply being unexpected isn’t enough to leave a lasting impression. Learning about your past changes the way you look at everything. You can start the game form the beginning and see characters reacting differently and what their hidden agenda could be. I even started behaving differently, why shouldn’t I? I’m not some nameless Jedi anymore still trying to find their way in the galaxy, I’m Motherloving Darth Revan, the Sith Lord who single-handedly brought a galaxy to it’s knees!
There is a slight parallel between KOTOR and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK in the impact their respective twists have on the story. Upon learning each twist, you almost expect, or at least wouldn’t be surprised if the hero should suddenly decide to turn evil, either to take revenge on the Jedi masters trying to manipulate you or to join your once thought dead Daddy to rule the galaxy together. Hell, an alternate ending to Return of the Jedi was going to have Luke putting on his father’s helmet and assuming the role of Sith Lord. The best of twists aren’t just pieces of information withheld from the audience, they affect perceptions and viewpoints.
Lets move even further from video-games for one moment. Look at GAME OF THRONES. The reasons I love the twists in this series so much is that they almost act like tonal check-points. No matter what happens, no matter what you’re told, you’re always expecting the same thing to happen right? Ned Stark would weed out the corruption, Cersei Lannister would be killed/driven from King’s Landing and the good guys would win. Which of course doesn’t happen. Though even after Ned gets a sudden pain in the neck, you expect the Starks to rise up against the Lannisters and avenge him. Of course they would, that’s essentially what the show is about now, right?….. right?
Time and time again these twists in the tale keep cropping up to remind us that no, this is not how the world of Westoros works. Simply being good isn’t a protector from evil. It forces you to view the show and it’s characters differently and realise that the unwritten rules you were previously following don’t apply here.
My point is that the twist has to be more than a nice decoration to hang on the wall, it fundamentally changes your viewpoint, maybe even your character. Going back to KOTOR, I had one friend who choose the light side, then changed their mind after realising they were already a Sith Lord. Even I, goody two-shoes whom I always play as, found myself yelling “I’m Darth Revan, watch your tongue or I’ll pull it out” at stupid Sith disciples trying to hassle me on Korriban.
Conversely, I’m always a little surprised when people talk about how great the twists in BIOSHOCK INFINITE, and to a lesser extent, BIOSHOCK are. I simply don’t understand the realisation that Elizabeth is your daughter and you also being Comstock are such shocks to the system. Unexpected, sure, though I just found myself shrugging, saying “Oh, OK sure”. I would actually argue that having Booker find out about Comstock earlier may have actually added more weight to the story and give Comstock some necessary presence, as he mostly comes off as just another bad-guy. No need for hype and drama, Booker could have just been informed of it earlier.
Bringing it up as a huge twist at the end simply didn’t accomplish as much. What does it add to the narrative? What does it change? For me it only brought up questions; why doesn’t Booker remember having a daughter? Wouldn’t seeing a girl with half a pinky missing be an obvious clue? While I’m sure that some flowchart, audio log or a convenient case of memory loss easily explains away a lot of the plot holes, that just feels more like a plaster added to remedy the problem later.
Woops, this is starting to sound more like a rant on Bioshock, wasn’t intentional I swear! The point I was trying to make is that the twists in Bioshock Infinite don’t really seem to change anything. At the end of the day, they don’t matter. Like in THE VILLAGE when it turns out that they are living in the present day as opposed to 200 years ago, who cares? Even in Bioshock, does realising that you’re Andrew Ryan’s son really matter? Sure, learning about Atlas’ deception is interesting, although I’d like to bring up a side note at this point; “hypnosis” in and of itself is not a twist, it’s a cheap device. This was also an issue I had with the ending of OLDBOY, whenever they need something explained, they wave it away with hypnosis.
Playing Bioshock a second time and hearing “Would you kindly” is certainly quite fun and the way it interacts with the level design is well done as you literally have no choice in the matter, but at the end of the day, it’s still hypnosis and as such is quite cheap.
It may be strange to call out convenient memory loss and hypnosis when just a few paragraphs ago I held up KOTOR’s twist as a prime example of a twist which essentially consists of both these things, which I suppose is a fair point. I was all set to write an arbitrary list of rules that twists must follow, but I suppose the most important rule has already been stated; for a twist to be effective, it must change our view of the characters, the world, the setting or all of the above. Otherwise, you’re just telling us stuff we didn’t know.
Look, I get it, twists are fun. They get us talking and they leave a lasting impression, but it’s hard not to feel that after a while it has almost becomes a money grubbing, bean counting tactic to gain publicity. CALL OF DUTY 4: MODERN WARFARE had a jaw dropping twist in it’s nuke scene and the reaction was so positive that for it’s sequel CALL OF DUTY: MODERN WARFARE 2, they had even more, bigger twists, even when they made no sense in terms of story or design. Sure, wait until after an intense battle sequence before having the General suddenly show his true colors and murder you after AN HOUR OF PLAYING THE SAME SEQUENCE OVER AND OVER AGAIN I HATE THIS LEVEL!
Ahem, sorry. To conclude, a ground shaking twist is not a means to an end. Like everything else in your arsenal, it’s a tool. A tool to be used, or not, to the best of your abilities, to best tell your story, whatever it may be. Oh, and by the way, Rosebud was his sled.