We expect video games to follow a simple pattern – they tell us what to do, we do it, and the day is saved. It’s a formula that’s the basis of countless great games.
But every now and then a game comes along that messes with our heads. When doing what we’re told destroys the world instead of saving it, we’re left wondering whether we’re playing a game, or the game’s designers are playing with us. The following are the best examples of games that gave us far more than we had anticipated when we first picked up the controller.
MAJOR SPOILERS ahead, obviously.
Despite its gorgeous, haunting setting, the first half of BioShock isn’t much more than “Go there, kill those guys, press that button, repeat.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that – the story, where you team up with a fellow who appears to be the only other sane person left in the underwater city of Rapture and search for a way to escape, is compelling enough to keep us pushing forward. It therefore comes as a bit of a shock when your buddy turns out to be Fontaine, a ruthless gangster using a control phrase to make you help him take over Rapture.
Plot oddities aside (if Fontaine could control your mind, why make up an elaborate fake story about a family in peril?) it’s a powerful moment because we, as gamers, feel personally betrayed. It’s not just that our mute hero was stabbed in the back – it’s that every action the game made us take was a lie. The climatic speech about the difference between men and slaves that merely do what they’re told hits a little harder when you realize that description applies to you, too.
BioShock isn’t the first game to use this twist (its spiritual predecessor, System Shock 2, pulled the same trick), but it’s arguably the best example. It’s deftly executed, it makes us think about why we blindly follow orders in games, and it pisses us off so much we want to keep going and get revenge. Ironically, that’s probably what the designers intended.
6. Prince of Persia
The 2008 Prince of Persia reboot received mixed reviews – complaints about repetitive gameplay weren’t unwarranted, but some gamers were willing to overlook its flaws to drink in the stunning visuals. Lost in the debate was the fact that the game’s story took a common gaming trope and turned it on its head.
For most of the game, the story is typical. The Prince and a Princess, Elika, team up to rid Elika’s kingdom of darkness. It all goes swimmingly right up until the end, when Elika has to sacrifice her life to seal away an evil god.
At first you think it’s a fake out, because how many video game heroines have “died” in the final battle, only to miraculously come back to life? But nope, they’re not screwing around – Elika is dead as a doornail.
The Prince doesn’t accept this, because what gaming hero has ever let the princess get away? Luckily, he can bring Elika back to life – the only catch is that he has to cut a deal with the deity you just banished. So you spend the final few minutes of the game undoing what you accomplished over the last 10 hours.
It’s a clever set piece – you need to reach the top of platforms that would be a cinch to climb if Elika was alive, but are tedious when you’re going it solo. No wonder the Prince is willing to sacrifice everything to bring her back.
But is it worth it? It seems a bit lopsided to plunge the entire world into darkness for the sake of a single girl, especially when she’s upset with your decision – but saving the girl is what games like this are all about, right? Maybe, but after playing Prince of Persia you’ll never look at a “Save the Princess” plot the same way again.
Braid put a different spin on the idea of rescuing a princess that would rather you just leave her alone. The puzzle platformer revolves around a dude named Tim, whose princess was snatched by a monster. You search for her by controlling the flow of time to collect puzzle pieces, because video game logic.
We don’t know much about Tim’s relationship with the princess, but there are hints that they aren’t the happiest of couples. The only thing we’re explicitly told is that Tim is hoping to correct a mistake. Otherwise, all we get are allusions to emotions like frustration and desire.
So after getting all the pieces you head to the final level to rescue the girl. Time behaves by different rules in each level – in the final world time flows in reverse, while your normal ability to rewind time does the opposite. You move along the bottom half of the screen while your lady flees from the monster on the top. The fact that the monster is a knight in shining armour is a little weird, but whatever. You work with the girl to get her to safety.
But that was with time moving in reverse, remember? Once the princess is safe and sound the flow of time flips to its normal state, and now the opposite of what we just saw plays out. The princess isn’t fleeing from the knight, she’s fleeing from Tim. In a twist worthy of The Twilight Zone (or at least The Scary Door), the real monster is you.
Braid was intended as a deconstruction of modern games, and thus its resemblance to Super Mario Bros. is not coincidental. With its critique of gaming staples – Braid doesn’t punish you for dying, features no cutscenes, and has minimal instructions and hints – it makes sense that you’d be creeping on the princess instead of rescuing her. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t take us by surprise.
(Oh, and Braid may or may not also be about the Manhattan Project. You know, just in case it wasn’t confusing enough.)
4. Shadow of the Colossus
There’s something special about a good boss fight – the anticipation, the unique gameplay and the sense of triumph that comes with winning a hard fought battle all come together for a memorable experience. So when a game like Shadow of the Colossus comes along and offers nothing but spectacular boss fights, who could resist?
Not that you need an excuse to tackle enemies that are, well, colossal, but the game is about a young man named Wander taking his dead lady friend to a forbidden land where she can be brought back to life if he knocks off the sixteen colossi. The storytelling is minimalistic – the narrator doesn’t reveal much, there are only a handful of characters in the entire game, and even the lack of a HUD and any non-combat music makes the game feel bare. But gamers don’t need much of an excuse to save a girl, so away you go.
Shadows of the Colossus delivers on what it promises – the battles are breathtaking. Yet while you ride around killing colossi, you can’t help but notice that something is amiss. For starters, the mysterious disembodied voice helping you out, Dormin, isn’t always too friendly. And the colossi are just minding their own business, some of them not even attacking you until you strike the first blow. Just why do these things deserve to be killed, anyway?
The bad vibes grow more explicit over time, as killing the colossi takes a physical toll on Wander. Whenever something you’re doing makes you look more evil, maybe it’s time to stop and think twice – not that you have a choice, as the long horse rides between fights were designed to let the player reflect on their actions.
It’s eventually revealed that the Colossi contain bits and pieces of Dormin, and by killing them you’ve let Dormin enter your body. At this point you’re looking maniacal as all hell, and the narrator and his buddies arrive to put you down. It’s a bummer of an ending.
But hey, at least you saved the girl. All you had to do was trespass on forbidden land, murder a bunch of giants who were just doing their thing, unleash an ancient evil, and get killed for your efforts. Good work!
It’s not unusual for a video game hero to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Mass Effect 3, Fallout 3 and BioShock 2 are just a few recent games that end with the hero offing themself to save the world. It sucks to see the avatar you’ve been controlling for hours and hours get knocked off, but whatever. Everyone in the game will remember what a badass you were, and it’s not like you had to give up something personally, right?
The developers of Nier thought about that and decided that, dammit, if gamers want the good ending, they’ve got to earn it. So if you want to save both the world and the girl, here’s what you’ve got to do. First, beat the game three times. That alone is demanding, because even the most hardcore gamer likes to go outside now and then. But nope, you’ve got a marathon ahead of you if you want to be the hero.
At the end of your third playthrough, you’re given the option to sacrifice the titular hero’s life to save an ally, Kain?. You’re asked four times to confirm your decision, because you don’t just die – you’re erased from existence.
What does that mean? Well, in story terms, everyone forgets Nier was ever alive to begin with. So that sucks. But it’s what you have to sacrifice that stings – the game goes through the menus one by one, deleting everything you’ve collected over dozens of hours. After you’ve watched your save file get cleared out, it’s deleted from the hard drive. For good measure, you’ll never again be able to create a profile with the same name.
Damn. So, how much do you like Kain?? It’s one thing to erase your character from the story, but quite another to wipe out your own accomplishments. It’s a tough decision, and we’d sympathize with anyone who walked away from it. Nier found a way to make gamers feel the personal pain of being the hero, and made some realize that there’s no hero in them after all.
2. Super Columbine Massacre RPG!
Few games have generated as much controversy as Super Columbine Massacre RPG! because, well, just look at the title. Made by film director Danny Ledonne in RPG Maker 2000 over the span of six months, SCMRPG! is amateurish and would have languished in obscurity had the media not picked up on it, launching a firestorm of debate and negative press.
Chief among the many, many criticisms is that the game is insensitive to victims of the Columbine shooting, while supporters argue that most of its critics misunderstand the game’s intentions because they haven’t played it themselves. There’s some truth to that, because the game isn’t fun – it’s emotionally exhausting. The violence isn’t graphic, but mowing down virtual students is nevertheless an uncomfortable experience.
Ledonne poured through thousands of court documents to ensure accuracy, using actual dialogue and writings whenever possible and even making sure the inventory of the shooters was accurate. But other parts of the game are hyperbolic for the sake of social commentary. Most of that comes in the game’s second half, which finds the dead shooters in Hell, battling the demons from Doom and talking about how awesome it is to spend eternity in their favorite video game. Video games were quick to be blamed in the wake of the shooting, and SCMRPG! doesn’t pull any punches when mocking that theory.
So whether you agree that the game has artistic merit or side with the folks who call it tasteless, you have to admit that Ledonne had a specific vision in mind when making SCMRPG! What many dismissed as a repulsive murder simulator had a serious message about why mass shootings happen, how we react and gaming’s uncomfortable relationship with them, and that’s far more than anyone expected when they first heard there was a video game about the Columbine massacre. Just make sure you don’t take it as nothing more than a shot at a mainstream media quick to blame games for tragedies – the fact there are Let’s Plays on YouTube where people praise the shooters and brag about how many students they’re killing should get us thinking about gaming culture, too.
1. Spec Ops: The Line
You wouldn’t expect much from a revival of a mediocre shooter franchise that hadn’t seen the light of day since 2002, especially since the ad campaign made it look like every other shooter on the market. But hidden beneath the generic veneer of Spec Ops: The Line is one of the cleverest takes on the shooter genre ever made.
The Line starts like you’d expect – your character and his two sidekicks crack jokes as they gun down generic Middle Eastern terrorists while searching for survivors in a ruined Dubai. But then everything goes to hell, Heart of Darkness style. First you end up fighting rogue American soldiers, although you’re still confident that you’re doing the right thing. Then this happens:
You know those levels in Modern Warfare where you’re dropping bombs on enemies from a safe distance? It’s the same deal in Spec Ops, except afterwards you have to walk through the slaughter you committed and discover that your white phosphorous attack accidentally killed civilians, too.
It’s a brutal, devastating moment in what until then had seemed like a standard shooter. The Line is far from the first shooter to try to shock players, but it’s the first to make you responsible. Instead of driving home how evil the bad guys are (like in the melodramatic schlock of Modern Warfare 2’s No Russian level), Spec Ops scares you by showing you what you’re capable of.
It all goes downhill from there. Your character continually tries to justify his actions, but everything you do just makes the situation worse. As the story spiral outs of control the game itself starts taunting you – the loading screen’s helpful tips are replaced with messages like “How many Americans have you killed today?” and “Do you feel like a hero yet?”
In the end, that’s what the game’s about – your character wants to play the hero, so he denies reality and pushes on. And so do you, hoping against all odds that if you keep playing you’ll somehow be able to make things better. If a person slaughtered hundreds of enemy soldiers in real life they’d be a psychopath, but in games that makes them heroes. The Line makes you realize how uncomfortable that fact is. I’m not saying you should stop playing shooters, but a shooter that makes us question why we love the genre so much gives us food for thought the next time we pick up Call of Duty.