5 Of The Best Narrative Twists In Video Games

If I had a nickel for every time a video game twist left me speechless and unable to sleep at night, I’d have… well, not a whole lot of nickels, but enough that people would probably wonder why I have any nickels at all. There’s no shortage of twists in a video game, but there certainly is some variety on their level of impact and if the twist actually works out; there have been plenty of times where I saw a twist coming, either due to bad writing or simply because I am such a difficult to fool literary genius. However, there have been a few gorgeous twists over the years that I certainly didn’t anticipate, and left me feeling a certain type of way when that truth bomb metaphorically dropped.

I tried to compile a handful of games that show a range of twists, from the explosive truth bomb revelations to the more subtle “oh sh–” moments in a compelling narrative. The best twists don’t have to leave you slack jawed on your couch, they just need to make you go back and rack your brain in a way that forces critical thought. So here’s a few games that do just that, some more recent, others legends of their genres. Also, in case it wasn’t obvious; spoilers for these respective games abound from this point forward. Consider yourself warned!

The Last Of Us Part 1: Ellie needs to die to create a vaccine

Joel with Ellie behind him, smiling at someone off screen.
“I swear.”

Originally released back in 2013, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us has gone down as one of the greatest video games of all time, and for plenty of reasons. But what made The Last of Us so memorable is not just the gameplay, or the mushroom zombies, or even the heartbreaking minutes of the game itself, but the muted revelation towards the game’s ending.

The game tells the story of Joel, a hardened survivor of the cordyceps infection which has decimated the planet and civilization, who is tasked with escorting teenager Ellie across the country to a militia group trying to find a cure for said infection. It turns out Ellie is the only known person to be immune to the cordyceps fungal infection, and it is believed that her immunity is the key to reverse engineering a vaccine. It turns out that in order to research the cause of her immunity, Ellie must be killed and her brain examined. By the time this is revealed, Joel and Ellie have formed an inseparable bond, and the great moral dilemma of the game is suddenly loud and clear; do you save the one you love at the expense of the world? For Joel, it turns out the answer is a resounding “Hell yes!”

The personal and moral consequences of Joel’s actions are painful and uncomfortable as the player, but also entirely relatable if you’ve ever loved anyone so deeply that you’d do anything for them. It makes the game’s ending, even in its subtle and quiet tones, so unsettling, and it lingers long after the credits roll.

Spec Ops: The Line: Konrad has been dead the entire time

“Do you feel like a hero yet?”

Back in 2012, military shooters were a dime a dozen. So when Spec Ops: The Line came onto the scene, there was nothing on the surface that was particularly remarkable about it. It isn’t until you actually get several hours into the game that it starts to sink in that you’re not just playing your average run of the mill shooter: this is a story that slowly leeches onto your conscience and leaves you squirming.

In an alternate timeline, Dubai is decimated by a series of sandstorms. US troops, including the famous “Damned 33rd,” led by Colonel John Konrad, are sent in to rescue survivors and attempt to restore order to the city. However, after the 33rd defies orders to evacuate the city and go radio silent, Captain Martin Walker and his Delta squad are sent on a recon mission to determine the status of the 33rd, and immediately radio for extraction. However, Walker knows Konrad from having served together in Afghanistan, where Konrad saved his life, and he becomes committed to finding Konrad by any means necessary.

As you traverse the ruined city and realize the horrors and atrocities that have taken place, you, playing as Captain Walker, steadily grow more unstable and volatile in the heated search for Konrad. When you do finally discover his whereabouts, it is revealed that he has been dead for weeks, having committed suicide after the failed evacuation, and that all the atrocities that you committed in search of Konrad were your own fault, having just used Konrad as a scapegoat to avoid taking the blame. The game forces players to reflect on the idea of being “a hero,” and what “heroism” actually means in a world that has none. It’s a horrifying realization, and whatever “choice” you make upon the game’s ending has little bearing on the question, and the depravity of the choices made to get to that point.

God of War Ragnarok: Odin was pretending to be Tyr the entire time

The fact that the Norse god of war was such a pacifist should have been the first clue that something was sus.

Following the highly successful reboot of the God of War franchise back in 2018, the sequel released in 2022 was highly anticipated. As it turns out, it had every reason to be, and has arguably one of the best narrative twists I’ve seen in a game in over a decade. One I absolutely did not see coming.

Following the events of God of War, Kratos and his son Atreus ally themselves with the forces of all the Norse realms against the Aesir gods at Asgard, headed by the malicious and manipulative Odin. To try and turn the tides in their favor, Kratos and Atreus seek out and free Tyr, the Norse god of war that has been imprisoned by Odin for centuries. Throughout the game, Tyr is a constant character back at Sindri’s house, who provides counsel and advice as our heroes navigate Odin’s machinations and try to avert the coming of Ragnarok. Then, in a twist that left many with their jaws on the floor, Tyr kills ally and dwarven blacksmith Brock when he begins to question him. It is then revealed that “Tyr” was really Odin in disguise the entire time, spying on Kratos, Atreus, Freya, et al as they worked to try and avert war.

Upon replay, there are so many “moments” in interacting with Tyr where his behavior is suspicious. These clues, on replay, are very clear and well placed, an excellent narrative tool that certainly can raise eyebrows if the player is sharp enough (I definitely was not). It makes Brock’s death painful, like there must have been a way to avert it. But it also serves as a powerful lesson in the story about trust, a lesson that Atreus failed to grasp throughout the story in his endless quest for answers. And it’s one that, as the player, forced me to actually pause the game to reflect, and honestly just be angry that I didn’t see the signs.

Bioshock: Atlas is Frank Fontaine, and was controlling your every move

Adam Ryan, founder of the underwater city of Rapture, and one of the chief antagonists of the game. 

Back in the mid 2000s, horror games used the same old shock factor mechanics and abundant amounts of blood, guts, and jump scares to keep players on the edge of their seats. Irrational Games’ legendary Bioshock burst onto the scene with a lot of the same things, but with one very particular addition; a powerful narrative. Set in 1960, the game follows player character Jack, the survivor of a plane crash in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Following the crash, Jack finds himself in the underwater city of Rapture, a self proclaimed utopia by founder Adam Ryan. Though by the time the player discovers it, the city is embroiled in civil war and infested with mutated people and monsters alike. As you navigate Rapture, you are guided over the radio by a friendly Irishman named Atlas, who is asking for your help to save his family and he in return will protect you from the forces of Rapture.

Of course, many know the great twist by now; it is revealed that you are actually the son of Adam Ryan himself, genetically modified and rapidly aged to become a sleeper agent and weapon used against him by his chief adversary, Frank Fontaine. Most shockingly, you realize that you are compelled to follow any orders followed by the phrase “Would you kindly,” the very phrase that Atlas, revealed to be Fontaine himself, has used every time he has asked for your help.

The shock of this reveal on that first playthrough is a memorable one. As players, we didn’t hesitate to follow the instructions that Atlas ordered, a very natural aspect of simply playing a video game. But the moral conundrum presented by “Would you kindly” has persisted in the years since Bioshock’s release, and will no doubt continue to stand the test of time. It’s hard not to feel the slightest twinge of discomfort when remembering Ryan’s famous line, “A man chooses, a slave obeys.”

Outer Wilds: You can’t stop the time loop nor save your solar system

Characters playing instruments around a campfire.
The end of one universe giving life to the next.

I’m sure you probably saw this coming. I try to make a point of not spoiling Outer Wilds, so again, if you have not played the game, I will be spoiling it and essentially rendering it unplayable for you. So, run! Run away!

Mobius Digital’s nonlinear Outer Wilds tells the story of a tiny solar system and a race of amphibious four-eyed creatures called Hearthians, and their early space program. You play as a character known only as “the Hatchling,” a young Hearthian astronaut who is launching into space for the very first time. It is soon revealed that you are caught in a time loop of the last 22 minutes of your solar system’s existence; at the conclusion of those 22 minutes, the sun explodes in a massive supernova, wiping out you and your entire solar system. However, you are able to recall everything from those 22 minutes, and wake up once again at the campfire in the moments before your first launch.

As you explore the solar system and unravel the mysteries of an ancient race called the Nomai, the objective appears as though you are meant to unlock the secrets of “the Eye of the Universe” in order to stop the time loop and save your solar system. However, it’s only upon finally making it to the Eye that you realize your place in the universal chain, and that it isn’t about stopping the inevitable; it’s about embracing this certainty and leaving your mark for the universe that comes next.

There is no shocking truth bomb revelation, no antagonist or even mentor character to reveal this truth to you; it is one you find out on your own, as you sit with your friends around a campfire and play a song that weaves the strands of the next universe into existence. And while it is a little sad, it is also filled with hope, unlike the rest of the twists on this list. Not every twist has to be shocking and scary. And while this one is at first a little sad, it is also wondrous.What a wonderful thing to be able to leave your mark on a blank surface and will it into existence. We can only hope to be so lucky someday.

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