Thursday, March 14, 2013


Ahhh, the plot twist, how many times have we read a book or watched a movie thinking we know all that is going to happen? Only for the plot twist to rear its head and suddenly, we the audience, no longer have any grasp on what to expect. Depending on the story (and how it is presented) plot twists can have different effects on the audience. If it is foreshadowed enough, we may have seen this important change coming a mile away or it can catch us completely by surprise. From my understanding, a good plot twist is foreshadowed with subtlety, enough to make you realize that all is not what it seems, but is just mysterious enough to keep you from figuring it out until it is finally revealed. Then of course there are plot twists that come right out of nowhere, but while those are shocking, they never really seem to improve the story and are just there to confuse you. To me, what makes a plot twist really work is that it has always been present in the story, but the audience fails to recognize it before it is too late. Some best examples of a plot twist like this would be Agatha Christi’s “And then there were None,” and need I forget one of the most infamous movie plot twist, the revelation in Star Wars that Darth Vader is Luke’s father (The latter was definitely hinted at throughout Empire Strikes Back, take a look if you don’t believe me). As great as this literary device is in books, movies and television shows, there is a medium that takes the plot twist and makes it much more personal. That’s right, you guessed it. Video games.

Video games have been using plot twists in their narratives for as long as they have been creating stories around gameplay. A majority of plot twists I’ve seen in classic games and even some modern titles are used to level up the drama creating a new sense of urgency to finish the game or trying to provoke a certain emotion in the player. Heck, a majority of jaw dropping plot twists from my early gaming experience came from the Final Fantasy series, six and seven to be specific. Since RPG’s were always the more story oriented games, it was all the more likely that a few unexpected revelations/events were bound to occur for any of the reasons above or simply just to flesh out a character. However, while the use of the plot-twist in video games can be just as good as a film or book, I know it can be much more than that. Video games are designed to be an interactive medium, where the audience can be more involved with a story and characters than ever before. With that in mind, how can a video game make a plot twist in a story so much more personal to the player? Simple, by making the player a part of the story.


Now the game that I grew up watching, not playing, that really gave me intense sense of shock and awe through plot twists was Metal Gear Solid. Gamers should know the infamy this series has with its plot twists and how crazy they can be. However for the gamers who become familiar with the series through this game should know what I am getting at here. For those of you who don’t know, I’ll get you up to speed. Metal Gear Solid is a game where the player takes control of a super spy, codenamed Solid Snake, to sneak through a huge military base that has been taken over by terrorists that are threatening to launch a nuclear missile through the use of a gigantic walking battle tank (Metal Gear Rex). Snake’s mission, as well as the players, is to sneak into the base, rescue two hostages and sabotage the terrorists. Pretty straight-forward right?


Every time Snake comes close to satisfying one of his objectives, a new complication arises that not only shocks you but leads the player to doubt their actions in some way. For example, you find the hostages, they share what they know about the goings on in the base, you get ready to get them to safety…only for them to die right in front of you from what seems to be a heart attack. I remember being the tender age of 9 when I watched my older brother play this game, and that these moments straight up terrified me. Yet, as scared as I was, I wanted to know what had gone wrong, a mystery that would continue to stay that way until later in the game. Metal Gear Solid is a game that handles its plot-twists with a genius level of expertise, yet even still takes it further than anyone ever thought possible of a video game at the time. Throughout the game, Snake communicates with a support team stationed from a sub far away from the military base. One member of this team is, of course, Snake’s direct superior. Once things start going wrong with the mission, he begins to behave differently, like he knows much more about the situation than he lets on. Now as a person, the player knows something is not right making them uncertain about continuing, but as a video game, the only way to beat it is to continue to follow orders.

This involves more sneaking around the base, eliminating all threats in your way. From the guards that spot you to terrorist leaders, former members of an elite mercenary unit codenamed FOXHOUND. Through all the surprises and hardships, Solid Snake is able to destroy Metal Gear and prevent the nuclear strike. That means you beat the game right?


Miraculously, the terrorist leader is still alive and kicking, eager to have one final showdown with our protagonist. But it is here where the culmination of all of the player’s doubts of events leading up to this point comes to ahead. (First 3 minutes of this video)

The cutscene is shot from Snake’s POV looking up at the terrorist leader, Liquid Snake (There is a reason for that code name but that is beside the point), as he gives his “I want to create a world of war” monologue. Snake denies wanting to live in a world like that, only for Liquid to call his bluff. Liquid looks directly at the camera and asks, “So why are you here then? Why do you continue to follow your orders while your superiors betray you? Why did you come here?”

Snake doesn’t answer, only for Liquid to answer for him.

“You enjoy all the killing! That’s why….haven’t you already killed most of my comrades? I watched your face as you did it. It was full of the joy of battle. There’s a killer inside you, you don’t have to deny it.”
It was at this point, even as a nine year old, that I turned to my brother and said, “I think he’s talking to us.”
In a matter of a few seconds, Metal Gear Solid had torn the fourth wall wide open, blaming the player for all the deaths that had occurred in the game thus far. This includes the death of the hostages, guards you may have killed along the way and the members of FOXHOUND. Being the goodie to shoes that I was as a child, this entire scene left a huge impact on me and how I saw video games. Not to mention it continued to make me question on how “good” I really was. I could have stopped watching the game at any point in time because I didn’t agree with the killing that can occur or just because there was plenty of things that scared me. Yet…I continued to come back. I wanted to see what else was going to happen and how the story was going to end. Did that make me a bad person? Was it wrong for me to just watch all these bad things happen and just accept it? Did that mean I actually enjoyed it?

Even long after the game had been beaten and turned off, these questions still lingered in my head. Being as young as I was, I really didn’t know what to make of it. Again it wasn’t until much later in life that I realized what I had experience and its importance in a story. Due to this experience however, I will always remember that first plot twist. That moment where my perception of events was completely thrown on its head and taken for a spin, leaving me to question not just the game but myself as well. Its interesting to think, that I may not have had the same reaction if my brother and I did not have the same level of control throughout the story.

This is how far video game plot twists can go if handled right. I know Metal Gear Solid is not the only game to do this (I’ve heard there is quite a big one in Bioshock), but to my understanding in a huge array of games that use the plot-twist use them simply as other mediums do. Although it has its place, I think it is much more important to give kids and even some adults the idea of what to do when a preconception is found out to be false. A mature life lesson on how the unexpected can affect you on a deeper level. I will not be so bold as state a video game can teach you how to handle a feeling or situation like that better than real life experience (since honestly it hasn’t been done yet), but it is important to teach kids through either their parents or school on how to react to it and sort through those feels through discussion. Like I have stated before, kids feel these mixed emotions just as adults do, the problem is (like it was with me) that they are not sure how to say it. Talk to your kids, get an understanding of what they understand and what they don’t understand about the stuff they experience on a daily basis, whether it is through media or everyday life and try to fill in the gaps.

On an ending note I'd like to put out the thought of homework. A discussion of sorts in the comments below. I'd like to ask you my fine ladies and gentleman. What was the biggest twist for you in your childhood gaming experience?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Anti Hero in Video Games

Anyone who has seen/read or played any kind of narrative should have a good idea as to what an Anti-Hero is, a character within a story whose motivations or actions that is not easy to define. From the classic such as Hamlet or Heathcliff to the modern examples such as Wolverine or Vegeta, these characters work by their own set of rules and dare to tread the grays of morality. Video games in particular use this character type a lot with varying levels of success. But I’m not here to discuss which video game antiheroes are better than others. What I hope to share through my incessant ramblings is how important this character archetype is to video games as a method of storytelling (in its own way).
While the evolution of video games has led to a wider acceptance of games meant for an older consumer, there has been an equally strong push to create games for kids that inspire creativity and most importantly educational value. I’m all for games being educational. Hell, I’m convinced there should be games like that for adults thanks to Assassin’s Creed. But I am a bit perturbed by how the industry defines an educational experience or tool by the fact that it teaches you how to spell or helps you practice your multiplication tables.
That stuff has its place, but I feel that developers really need to look beyond that. Or in this case look back, but I’m getting ahead of myself. What I’m hoping for are games targeted to kids that broaden their perspectives a bit. Something that makes them more receptive to certain concepts when they start learning about it in school. Since Anti-Heroes are the topics for many a literary analysis and have become more common in video games, I figured this would be a good starting point to show how a game can pull off being “educational” without having to explicitly advertise it. Keep in mind that I’m drawing on my own experience as a lifelong lover of fiction and avid gamer, so feel free to disagree with me all you want or be productive and just point out the flaws in my logic. 

Also since this rant is semi-inspired by fawfulsminion&rabbidluigi’s top ten video game anti-heroes list, I’m going to be using their #1 pick, Shadow the Hedgehog, as my example. So if you haven’t seen it already, I recommend checking it out, if only to see who else made the list.

Now to get things started, I need to get into some of my personal history. Growing up, I was raised well enough to know what was generally considered to be right and wrong. Whenever I did something considered right such as being nice to someone or helping out, I was praised for it. If I ever did something wrong like telling a lie or acting like a selfish little brat, I was punished for it. Though the mere threat of punishment was more than enough to make me regret my actions. This is in hindsight how you would want your kids to grow up, so they do get that distinction between right and wrong. The media I consumed also added to that distinction. For example I would always cheer for Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, the hero who was brave and good (role model material) while I would boo Darth Vader and the Emperor (clearly portrayed as villains through appearance and actions).


I guess you could say that emphasis on the distinction between good and bad lead to a bit of a black and white perception of the world, which is not uncommon for kids, at least when they are as sheltered as I was. However it was around the age of 9-10 that this black and white world of mine began to rip apart at the seams. Why? Because I was given a window into stories of characters who I couldn’t define and in short blew my mind in a metaphysical sense. Some of these stories came from, take a guess, video games or more specifically Sonic Adventure 2 Battle and the anti-hero co-star Shadow the Hedgehog.

Even before I ever picked up a controller, I loved Sonic the Hedgehog. My brother and I would play 2 player mode on Sonic 2 and obsessed over Sonic Adventure whenever we visited our cousin’s house. The games were always a ton of fun to watch as much as they were to play. I also enjoyed Sonic the
Hedgehog as a character, his cool demeanor, enthusiasm and care-free nature just popped off the screen and always cheered me up, and still does to this day.

Being such a fan, I was totally hyped for Sonic Adventure 2 when it came out in 2001. However, I was…unsure how I was going to play the game.
Not only because I didn’t have a Dreamcast at the time but also because Sonic was not the only playable character. Shadow the Hedgehog, Sonic’s black and red double was advertised as a sort of evil twin if you will that you could control along with two other characters aligned with the side of evil. (Shadow’s introduction in the game)

Me, the goodie to shoes that I was, scoffed at the idea of playing an evil character. I wanted to be a hero and save the day, since that is what I had been raised to like.
However, once I had a chance to play the game and fully complete the hero’s side of the story; I was still left with the “Dark” story before beating the game. The desire to finish the game eventually won over my hesitance and I started to play the villains side of the story. Doctor Eggman, the Sonic’s series primary antagonist, played out like I thought he would. Mad scientist? Check. Wants to take over the world for no reason? Check. Cliched evil laugh? Double check. Rouge the Bat on the other hand, while not truly aligned with the villain’s goal is still selfish and manipulative, both traits that I had been taught to perceive as bad and not to be imitated (Though Rouge was still fun to watch). Then that left Shadow…
Where do I even begin? Well, the beginning of course.

Shadow, while Sonic’s near double, is also called the Ultimate Life Form. Created by Doctor Eggman’s grandfather and then sealed away by the military due to its potential destructive power. This, of course, prompts Eggman to break into a military base to take this living weapon for himself in his new take over
he world scheme. He releases Shadow from his prison (despite his initial shock due to Shadow’s appearance).

At first, Shadow looked and behaved how I thought he would. Totally opposite from Sonic, Shadow was cold, serious and angry, and more than willing to assist Eggman conquer the world (or so it seemed). However within less than a minute of cutscene my opinion of this character not to mention my preconception of morality, changed. In just a few seconds, the player is given a glimpse of Shadow’s past and how the military invaded the space station where he was created and his only friend, a human girl named Maria, was killed by gunshot but not before she risked her life to save his. Suddenly, Shadow’s behavior didn’t seem so unjustifiable anymore. Forcing me to consider what I would do if I had a loved one taken away from me like that. Shadow’s struggle had become relatable, I still disagreed with his methods but I wasn’t so nervous to see how his story ended. In the end, I’m happy I did. It was a tragic but uplifting ending that, in my opinion, no other Sonic game has been able to match. With Shadow realizing that Maria’s dying wish was for him to protect the Earth and its people instead of seeking vengeance for her death. As a result, he sacrifices his own life in order to save the world from destruction that he had help set in motion (Ironically, he was the true hero in the end). Not exactly the ending I was expecting from a game about a blue anthropomorphic hedgehog capable of running at supersonic speeds but it left a huge impact on me regardless. I was not alone, Shadows actions in the game resulted in a skyrocketing popularity among fans. This popularity lead Sega to revive the character in following installment Sonic Heroes. Whether or not this was a good decision is still debated by fans of the series, but to me, Shadow's influence on the narrative of Sonic Adventure 2 made the experience enlightening on top of enjoyable. That even characters that act like villains can have justifiable motives for their actions, adding to the complexity of the drama. It also helped me break down some childhood behavior such as not looking beyond a person’s appearance or label.

Now how does this LONG example, work into my topic of education? Well, it is simply this. Sonic Adventure 2 was my first experience seeing an Anti-Hero, though I didn’t know it at the time. It wasn’t until I started learning about them in school, that I found out this type of character actually had a name. Upon realizing that Shadow was in this category with other famous literary characters, I desperately wanted to share my thoughts through what I had experienced playing Sonic Adventure 2. I was never allowed to though, due to the perception that video games like Sonic the Hedgehog are not “educational”.

Even if games are not accepted to be used to help educate kids in school, I still hold out hope that games like Sonic Adventure 2 will get more attention for presenting these concepts in a form that kids can comprehend. The existence of anti-heroes in video games is a good step in the right direction but I feel a lot more can be expanded on if the industry is given incentive to do so. In my opinion, the best we can do as consumers is to talk about our experiences with others, especially with parents who have little to no knowledge of video games.

The parents will appreciate it because it will give their kids a jump start on critical thinking on top of avoiding M rated titles, while kids will enjoy the game not just through game play but also due to the fact that the main message/lesson is not being shoved in their face. We’ll have to see what the future holds for the video game industry and the educational community. I think, however, there is a potential profit for both groups to gain in creating a prominent partnership. For now though, let’s stick to getting the word out.

“A new day brings a new adventure. But for now, rest easy heroes.” –Sonic 2 Adventure Battle Credits