Narrative Analysis: Next Steps
Game Discussed: Final Fantasy VII (Square-Enix, 1997), Metroid (Nintendo, 1986)
The Do's and Don'ts of Suberting Expectations
Laying the Foundation
Game Discussed: Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (KONAMI, 2001)
There are as many types of plot twists as there are games for the Playstation 2, but some are more effective than others. To write an effective plot twist, author K.M. Weiland says: “The plot twist must be organic to your story, but it shouldn’t be the point of your story. Make sure your tale has some enduring value beyond the twist itself.”3 In other words, the writer can’t expect one plot point to carry the entire narrative; they must pay equal attention to the rest of the plot points, as well as the characters, setting, and themes. The most compelling twists will integrate these elements, letting characters drive the action while playing up the unique aspects of the setting and theme. However, twists still need the surrounding material to stand on its own, as they won’t hold up under repeated readings/viewings if the rest of the story isn’t equally satisfying.
When it comes to plot twists in gaming, Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid series has more than any of its competition by a wide stretch. From the very first Metal Gear (1987) to the climactic Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, subverting expectations has been a core narrative feature. The reason these twist-heavy stories work is that the twists integrate character conflict, utilize the unique elements of the setting, and emphasize the story’s theme. One example of a series twist that demonstrates these elements occurs in Metal Gear Solid 2 (2001), when the protagonist, Raiden, discovers that his mentor has been an A.I. all along. In a vacuum, it’s a ludicrous turn, but it hits all the notes it needs for success. The reveal plays into Raiden’s crippling self-doubt, as well as his fear of abandonment. It also reinforces the growing threat of digitization that has been looming in the background of the narrative, tying in both setting and theme. Most stories could never survive the reveal of an important character as an A.I., but because Metal Gear Solid 2 lays a solid foundation, it works.
Walking a Fine Line
Game Discussed: Conker’s Bad Fur Day (Rareware, 2001)
It’s easy to write something audiences won’t expect; it’s harder to write something they’ll accept. There’s a fine line between surprising and stupid, and writers sometimes cross it without knowing it. Sometimes, this happens when a twist betrays the story’s tone—say, a tragic death in a lighthearted tale, or a cartoonish betrayal in an understated narrative. Other times, it happens when the writer solves a character’s problem too easily, such as through a deus ex machina. Literally meaning ‘god from the machine,’ the Latin term ‘deus ex machina’ refers to a Greek theater tradition where gods would appear to solve a problem that was otherwise unsolvable. While this trope was popular in the ancient world, modern audiences typically dislike twists that rely on deus ex machinas, as they rob the characters of the opportunity to grow by solving their problems themselves. This trope can work when it’s played for laughs, however, so long as the laughs are in keeping with the narrative’s tone.
To see a deus ex machina in action, players can look to the divisive Nintendo 64 platformer Conker’s Bad Fur Day. During the final boss fight, just as Conker is about to lose, the game ‘locks up,’ and Conker uses the opportunity to appeal to the developers for help. Like the earliest gods from the Greek machines, the programmers agree to intercede, providing Conker with weapons that turn the tide of the battle. This results in a rare successful example of the deus ex machina twist, as it’s both in keeping with the game’s tone and preserves the protagonist’s agency while playing to his personality. It’s Conker who has the idea to appeal to the programmers, and it only occurs to him because of his genre-awareness and his eagerness to break the fourth wall. The gods of the game may have saved the day, but without Conker, they would have never appeared.
Being Honest with the Audience
Game Discussed: Bioshock (2K Games, 2007)
There is another way a twist can fail: if it doesn’t fit the pre-established facts of the narrative. “Readers expect us to play fair,” says Weiland, “which means any so-called unexpected twists have to be built of existing story elements that make sense within the context of the plot.”4 When a plot point defies the rules—say, a player character supposedly doing things off-screen while the player was in control—it’s a misfire of setup and payoff. If earlier scenes establish one thing, the twist can’t be based around contradicting it. This type of inconsistency can often be found in mysteries, as audiences are encouraged to scrutinize the rules of the world and pick out logical errors they might have otherwise missed. Whether these errors occur because the author didn’t notice them or didn’t believe the audience would notice, they drag the whole story down when spotted and make it difficult to recover. Conversely, twists that are internally consistent from start to finish are much more likely to win audiences’ hearts, as they reward the people who go back and check if the logic works out.
One of the most well-regarded, logically sound twists in gaming occurs in BioShock (2K Games, 2007), the first-person shooter set in an art-deco dystopia beneath the sea. In BioShock, players take on the role of Jack, a slow-witted man trapped in the undersea city of Rapture. As Jack searches for a way to escape, he gets help from Atlas, a voice on the radio who knows the city of Rapture better than anyone. He treats Jack in a friendly manner, giving him helpful advice with the words: ‘would you kindly?’, but his intentions are anything but kind. In reality, ‘would you kindly?’ is a trigger phrase, one that forces Jack to be totally obedient to Atlas’s commands. Players who go back and review all of the dialogue with Atlas are rewarded by a string of seemingly-innocuous ‘would you kindly’s?’ that have been controlling Jack since the beginning of the game. It’s a level of consistency that enhances both the pre-twist scenes and the twist itself, and adds to the satisfaction players feel when they put it together themselves.
Every story plays on audience expectations in some way, but not every story has a compelling twist. The twists that withstand the test of time are the ones that stay true to tone, encourage character agency, integrate the other elements of the narrative, and stick to the rules of the story. Writers who wish to add powerful twists in their own work should keep these concepts in mind as they think of ways to defy their audience’s expectations without resorting to tricks and gimmicks.
1-2 Yorke, John. Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story (p. 29). Harry N. Abrams. Kindle Edition.
3 Weiland, K.M.. Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story (Helping Writers Become Authors Book 3) (p. 126). PenForASword Publishing. Kindle Edition.
4 Weiland, K.M.. Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story (Helping Writers Become Authors Book 3) (p. 161-162). PenForASword Publishing. Kindle Edition.
* Reference Footage (Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty): SourceSpy91. Metal Gear Solid 2 – Normal Difficulty Walkthrough – No Commentary. YouTube, 2016.
*** Reference Footage (Conker’s Bad Fur Day): Levan. Conker’s Bad Fur Day Longplay [720P]. YouTube, 2016.
*** Reference Footage (BioShock): Gamer’s Little Playground. Bioshock Remastered All Cutscenes (Game Movie) PC 1080p 60FPS. YouTube, 2016.