Video games are among the newest and most unique mediums for storytelling. We’ve come a long way from the bare-bones plots of the early era of video games. Many video games today have very interesting and complex plots, though I’ll always have a soft spot for stories like BAD DUDES. Naturally, this means that video games throughout history have also had many shocking plot twists. These twists threw us all for a loop when we first played them.

Sadly, in the age of the internet, many of these plot twists are such common knowledge that they are not twists anymore. Even people who have never played these games know their stories. But continue reading and you might find out something new! In any case, if spoilers are not your cup of tea, then exercise caution when reading this article! And if there are great gaming plot twists that you feel I have missed, feel free to list them in the comments!

1. METROID — Samus is a Girl

METROID for the NES, first released in 1986, was a landmark game in a number of ways. It pioneered open-world and exploration-based gameplay. As a side-scroller it moved the screen in an unthinkable direction: left. Mechanically, though, the game has sadly not aged well at all. If one wants to play it, I would recommend instead playing its phenomenal remake for the Game Boy Advance, METROID: ZERO MISSION.

A great plot twist and landmark moment for women in gaming
This was a huge twist and a landmark moment for women in gaming (Image credit: The Federalist)

The game’s plot, like that of many other NES games, was pretty bare-bones. Most of the plot is found in the manual rather than the game itself, and even then it basically it amounts to “Space Pirates stole Metroids, they are bad, kill them.” However, the game still managed to include a shocking plot twist despite this, albeit at the very end of the game. Even those with a cursory knowledge of video games will know what that twist is: the sex of the protagonist. Yes, Samus Aran is, in fact, a woman.

Why this was one of the Great Plot Twists

Now, this is common knowledge these days. Later games wouldn’t even attempt to hide Samus’ sex, and calling Samus a “he” today will get you laughed at. But at the time, this was a genuine shock. People had just assumed that the badass space bounty hunter would obviously be a man. While I sadly cannot find any image examples, the fanart of Samus submitted to NINTENDO POWER magazine in the 80s all but ubiquitously depicted her as a man.

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Samus being a woman was groundbreaking. She is one of the first and most noteworthy female protagonists in gaming history. This is just one more way in which METROID was a trailblazing game.

2. FIRE EMBLEM: GENEALOGY OF THE HOLY WAR — Generation 1 Ending

FIRE EMBLEM: GENEALOGY OF THE HOLY WAR was released for the SNES in 1996. It never saw an official release outside of Japan. That is a tragedy because it is one of the best games in the series and one of my personal favorite games overall.

The game has a very good plot, one more engaging and complex than most FIRE EMBLEM games before or since. Some have described it as being like GAME OF THRONES, both due to the complexity and because it covers many serious, dark themes that you would never expect in a NINTENDO game. This is exemplified no better than in the game’s biggest plot twist. Those fortunate enough to have played the game know full-well what I’m talking about.

It’s the ending of the game’s first generation, one of the most shocking moments I have ever experienced in a video game. Any summary I give could not properly do it justice. I highly recommend watching the video above. To make a long story short, when it seems like the protagonist, Sigurd, has finally triumphed over his adversaries and cleared his name after being framed for treason… Arvis, whom he thought was as an ally, betrays him.

Why this was one of the Great Plot Twists

Arvis played Sigurd like a fiddle from the very beginning. He tricked Sigurd into letting his guard down by seemingly vouching for his innocence. As if to add insult to injury, Arvis brings out none other than Sigurd’s missing wife, Deidre (who had been kidnapped and brainwashed by the big bad several chapters prior), to show that she’s his wife now. While it is ambiguous as to whether Arvis knows that Deidre is Sigurd’s wife, it is nonetheless a cruel way to rub salt in the wound.

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And then, to top it off, Arvis orders his army to rain hellfire down on your group, while personally executing Sigurd. You failed. Arvis won. Sigurd? Incinerated. Your army? Mostly slaughtered, with the survivors scattered to the wind. Everything you accomplished up until now? Pointless. The game even lists the fallen members of your army while depressing music plays. This is where the first half of the story ends. There is then a time skip as the plot shifts to focus on Sigurd’s son, Seliph.

When I first experienced this scene back in 2008, I was quite literally at a loss for words. It is very rare that a game can do that to me. That says a lot about how this was one hell of a twist. I dearly hope that Nintendo one day officially releases this game outside of Japan, so that North Americans and Europeans can experience it for themselves.

3. CALL OF DUTY 4 — The Atomic Explosion

I know, I know. CALL OF DUTY is hardly a series known for its intricate plots, to put it charitably. This is especially true in recent years. Which makes it all the more surprising that a plot twist like this happens in CALL OF DUTY 4, of all games. Released for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in 2007, CALL OF DUTY 4: MODERN WARFARE was a departure from previous games in the CALL OF DUTY series.

Rather than being set in World War II like it seemed every shooter and their dog was at the time, CALL OF DUTY 4 is set in modern times. Unlike later games in the series, which mostly are just linear strings of grandiose set-pieces a la Michael Bay, CALL OF DUTY 4 had several moments of being profound. This is exemplified nowhere as well as in the tenth mission of the game, “Shock and Awe.”

The mission consists of an assault on what the characters believe to be the location of enemy leader Khaled al-Asad. This is despite warnings that he may have a nuclear weapon. At the end of the mission, when the US forces are evacuating the city due to said nuclear weapon still being at large… the bomb goes off.

As one can see in the video above, the effects of the blast are absolutely horrific, as one would expect from a nuclear explosion. The blast’s shockwave sends the player character’s helicopter careening down to Earth. Needless to say, the blast also obliterates the city and everyone in it. That’s bad enough. But what makes this such a shocking plot twist is the immediate aftermath.

Why This Was One Of The Great Plot Twists

As one can see in the video above, it’s not enough to simply witness the explosion. No, in the very short mission afterward (fittingly titled “Aftermath”), you get to play as a survivor of the blast. The aforementioned player character, Sgt. Paul Jackson somehow survived his helicopter’s crash-landing. Perhaps it would have been more merciful if he hadn’t.

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The brief mission consists of one thing only. It is Jackson crawling out of the wreckage of his aircraft (with a foreboding heartbeat sound effect playing and speeding up all the while), only to crawl futilely around in the desolate post-explosion hellscape. He only lasts for about a minute before succumbing to his injuries and the radiation.

This is not a mere cutscene. You, the player, are in full control of his movement for the entire time. You actively force him to crawl out of the wreckage and breath his last in the ruins. With the hellish sky and mushroom cloud in the background further punctuating it, it’s undeniably dark.

Say what you will about CALL OF DUTY, but one cannot deny that this scene was profound. An excellent twist, it is one of those gaming moments that flat-out leaves you at a loss for words.

4. BATEN KAITOS: ETERNAL WINGS AND THE LOST OCEAN — The Reveal of the Traitor

BATEN KAITOS: ETERNAL WINGS AND THE LOST OCEAN, is a niche Gamecube game from 2003 that needs more attention. It is a crying shame that so few people bought the game because it has a lot to offer. The graphics are gorgeous by Gamecube standards (and in some cases even by today’s standards), the art style is vibrant and colorful, the characters are fun, the soundtrack is absolutely incredible, the battle system is unique and entertaining (if a bit frustrating at times), and the story is great. The biggest criticism is that it has comically bad voice acting.

However, I would argue that this game, while often overshadowed by its contemporaries such as TALES OF SYMPHONIA, has one of the most masterfully executed plot twists I have seen in a video game. And that twist involves the main character, Kalas, whom you had been playing as for the entire game up to that point. You see, Kalas is actually the traitor, and had been aiding the big bad the entire time.

One of the most shocking plot twists in an RPG
The party members are just as shocked as the player. (Image credit: OverratedSage on Something Awful)

Now, Kalas had spent most of the game straddling the line between being a loveable jerk and just being a straight-up jerk. But up until this point, you never thought that he was a bad guy. While there is some very subtle foreshadowing of it prior to the big reveal, chances are you’ll only pick up on it on a second playthrough. First-time players who have not been spoiled will most likely be totally blindsided by this reveal, as indeed I was when I first played this game.

Why this was one of the Great Plot Twists

Now, you may be wondering, how did they pull this off? How were they able to have the main protagonist of the game be the traitor and a villain, right under the player’s nose? The answer lies in the framing device utilized by the game. You see, you do not play from the point of view of Kalas. Rather, you play from the POV of his “guardian spirit,” which is, in essence, an insert for the player in the game’s story.

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Most of the time, this amounts to Kalas occasionally asking the spirit/player for their thoughts on a matter, though your reply usually doesn’t have an effect on the story in all but the most minor of ways. However, this framing device allows the story to hide the fact that Kalas is working for the bad guys until the big reveal. It even explains why the spirit/you was not aware of it: your “amnesia” at the very beginning of the game is actually the result of Kalas wiping your memory because you were against his plans.

It’s truly a brilliant execution. It is well worthy of being called one of gaming’s great plot twists.

What Makes A Good Plot Twist?

What plot twists do people end up remembering, and why?

The answer is somewhat subjective. What one may consider a great twist could be what another would consider contrived. I would argue that the “wow” factor plays a big part. In all the examples listed above (with the exception of METROID, as I was late to that party), the twists left me literally gobsmacked. All I could say was “wow.” Generally, a good twist is one that is not contrived. You want a twist that you do not see coming from a mile away. A good twist leaves the player in awe, and, most importantly, eager to see what comes next.

Gaming is one of the youngest and most intriguing mediums for storytelling. I have no doubt that in the future we will continue to see great plot twists that will leave us in awe. And hungry for more.

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