The 8 weirdest flashback sequences in video games

So this one time...

The flashback is a fairly standard narrative construct. In fact, it's so frequently used that it's become a rather dull cliche. Some games get around this by simply making the content of their flashback sequences flat-out brilliant, masking the hackneyed nature of the technique by filling it with interactive excellence. See Call of Duty 4's All Ghillied Up, for example.

Other games though? Other games liven things up by making their flashbacks just plain odd. They might still be great, of course, but egad, do they raise an eyebrow along the way.

Metal Gear Solid 4 - The Shadow Moses dream

You flash back to: Shadow Moses Island, at the start of the original Metal Gear Solid. In the 'current' timeframe, Snake is already on his way there, and because flight is an incredibly dull way to travel after the intial "Whee!" of take-off, he's fallen asleep and started dreaming about the old days.

It's weird because: The old days are literally the old days. The old, jaggy, poorly-textured old days. The whole playable flashback sequence is rendered exactly as the original scene was on the PS1, blocky heads, grainy visuals and all. Afterwards, Snake recieves the MGS1 FaceCamo mask, which turns his prematurely aged face into that of his younger, more Lego-y self. Whether it's an improvement is a matter of interpretation.

Gears of War 3 - The imaginary thrashball match

You flash back to: Cole Train's pre-war glory days as a thrashball superstar.

It's weird because: Fighting in an abandoned thrashball stadium, Cole has a nostalgic brain-fizz and thinks he's conducting an altogether different kind of field work. After a nostalgic look around his old locker room, he plays out the rest of the stadium section in a fugue state, merging the current reality of battle with memories of his sporting heyday. This culminates with a playable slow-motion sprint across the field--carrying a bomb as if a thrashball--body-checking Locust until finally delivering an explosive touchdown against a Lambent stalk. It's garish, completely insane and comes absolutely out of nowhere, making it the tonal equivalent of being slapped across the face by a clown.

Plok! - Legacy Island

You flash back to: Plok's memories of his grandfather. Particularly his grandfather's quest to find a lost amulet 50 years previous to the events of the game.

It's weird because: There's a whole area of the world map set in the past, where you play as Plok's dad's dad. Even better, the entire section is played in sepia-tinged monochrome. Even better than that, all of the level names are presented in the style of flickering silent movie text cards and the soundtrack switches to an old-timey piano-and-tuba version of one of the game's earlier tunes. BECAUSE THAT IS HOW EVERYTHING LOOKED AND SOUNDED IN THE PAST.

Call of Duty: Black Ops - Reznov's mission

You flash back to: 1945 (and then technically 1942), during a Russian assault of a Nazi collaborator's base.

It's weird because: It's actually a telescopic triple-flashback, begetting flashbacks within flashbacks to reach back 25 years. The present day in Black Ops is 1968, with almost the whole game's story recounted by captive Black Ops agent Alex Mason. On a couple of occasions we experience his time in a Russian gulag, and on one of these occasions he's told a WWII story by fellow gulag prisoner Victor Reznov.

Cue a playable flashback to Reznov's mission in 1945, during which Reznov tells another Russian soldier of something that happened back in 1942. Intentional narrative deconstruction of narrative cliche, using a smartly ironic Russian stacking doll theme? Possibly, but it's probably more likely that the writers just completely lost the run of themselves. Follow this narrative thread through far enough and you'd probably end up playing a mobile turret section in which you're riding a dinosaur, throwing rocks at mammoths.

Splinter Cell: Conviction - The Highway of Death

You flash back to: The first Gulf War. Specifically the notorious "Highway of Death" between Iraq and Kuwait. Protagonist Sam and best buddy Victor are on a patrol when everything goes explosively wrong and one of them subsequently ends up in need of a good dose of rescuing.

It's weird because: The game lets you think you're playing as Sam until right at the end, when it's revealed that your rescue target is Sam. Also, you'll immediately die the first three or four times as a result of trying to play it as a straight stealth mission, before you realise that the game really wants you to get shoot-y. Also, it's a bit crap.

Batman: Arkham Asylum - The Scarecrow hallucination

You flash back to: Bruce Wayne's childhood. You can probably guess which bit.

It's weird because: It's a psychotropically forced flashback, during which Batman is tripping balls throughout his most traumatic and defining experience. Water dripping from the ceiling becomes a full-scale rain shower. Corridors become city streets. The stoic, hulking wraith of justice turns into a small, terrified boy wondering why his parents are leaking red stuff all over the floor instead of taking him home for a mug of cocoa and a nice bedtime story. And that's before you even hit the interesting incident with the collapsing towers and the 300 foot scarecrow. This is Batman's brain on drugs. Just say no, kids.

Max Payne - The Valkyr nightmare

You flash back to: The night Max was forced to take a good, hard look at the punsome implications of his name.

It's weird because: Proving, just like Batman did in the previous entry, that tortured crime fighters really should not pass around the weaponised hallucinogens, Max is off his grimacing face on a new street drug called Valkyr and having a bad old time. He's having a total-immersion trip about the fateful night he got home from work, cheerfully threw his coat onto the hatstand, chirped "Honey, I'm home!", and then found his wife and baby murdered to bits all over the walls and floor.

There are twisting camera angles. There's a dark abyss where the only safe path is traced by trails of blood. There's constant screaming and crying. Time loops and repeats. There's an altar made out of a bloody cradle, and then to top it all off Max eventually has to shoot his own evil doppleganger in order to escape. Freud wouldn't so much have a field day as run around the field until exhausted, collapse on the grass and vomit his lungs out.

Final Fantasy X - Dream Zanarkand

You flash back to: Now, sort of. Except it's not. And you're in a place that doesn't exist. But you're there anyway.

It's weird because: See above. Dream Zanarkand is effectively a living flashback. When the original city of Zanarkand faced certain destruction by war 1000 years before the start of the game, its leader elected to preserve it by using the souls of some of its inhabitants to dream a new version into being. A near exact recreation of the city at its peak, Dream Zanarkand is a tangible memory of the city that once was, complete with the people and culture that made it whole. To explore it is to be inside the collective flashback of a whole people, brought to life as a living, modern-day extension of the point that its original story left off. So it's actually a sequel to a flashback. As well as a place that exists in its own right. And one that doesn't exist at all. Because Final Fantasy.

Any more bonkers backstories?

So there's our list of the weirdest flashback in games. But are there any desperately odd historical detours you think we've missed? Let us know.

And while you're here, why not check out some of our related content? Maybe The Top 7 historically inaccurate historical games or Metal Gear Solid's craziest moments.

David Houghton
Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.