Playing protagonist musical chairs
It's a real feat for a game to actually surprise you. We've entered an age where every character reveal, every playable mode, multiplayer feature, or gameplay quirk is carefully calculated and announced at the most opportune moment to build hype to an absolute fever pitch. By the time you've bought the game, you've likely already been exposed to nearly everything except the ending (and sometimes that, too).
But sometimes, the PR machine waves a character in your face with their left hand, while holding the super secret true playable character behind their back with their right. Or we already know who the characters are, but then find out you get to control the sidekick once the main hero finds themselves in quite the pickle. However it happens, a proper fake-out is a rare thing in video gaming, and these are some of the most satisfying switcheroos ever. Needless to say, there will be spoilers in the video below.
Assassin's Creed 3
Ubisoft loves to tell people about its games. It seems that in the weeks leading to an upcoming release that Ubi can't go more than a couple of days without showing some new 'dev diary' or revealing every single, granular gameplay feature. But even after hours of behind-the-scenes footage and character profiles, fans weren't prepared to spend the first six hours of Assassin's Creed 3 as British transplant Haytham Kenway, and not his son Connor.
Say what you will about the pacing of those opening hours (OK, fine, yes, they were a tad slow), but they set the stage for Connor's own tale of revenge and redemption. This posh chap has a hidden blade! He's looking for artifacts from the First Civilization! He's a templar? What the hell? It's a bold move for Ubisoft, and I'm surprised that the whole thing hadn't been detailed in a five part mini-documentary two months before release.
BioShock 2 puts you in the role of one of Rapture's hulking Big Daddies, but there's a surprising bit near the end that puts you in the shoes of another iconic denizen of the underwater city. After losing consciousness, a particularly adept bit of handwaving puts you in control of a Little Sister, allowing you to wander through Rapture's vents and hidden crevices. With this flip, BioShock 2 turns into a whole different game, as most of the citizens you come across don't even react to you. You even catch a glimpse of Rapture as it was during the old days, before everything went to hell, thanks to the Little Sister's special vision.
Unfortunately, the moment is fleeting, lasting only a handful of minutes. Being forced to wander around Rapture and avoiding splicers while sucking Adam out of the recently deceased could have been a twist that rivalled the 'would you kindly' of the original Bioshock. Instead, you pick up a few items and are back in the Big Daddy suit in the time it takes to watch a commercial break. Still, the brief time spent looking through the eyes of a Little Sister is hauntingly effective, revealing more insight into the twisted lore of Andrew Ryan's failed creation.
Following up one of the greatest JRPGs of all time is a tall order, so there was practically no way Chrono Cross could ever hope to escape the shadow of its predecessor. Even so, it certainly has its charm, and it's got a few surprises and fake-outs of its own. Case in point: half-way through this adventure, you end up switching bodies with the main villain of the game.
Yes, technically you're still hero Serge, only now you're stuck inside of the body of an evil talking cat. But this Freaky Friday scenario actually impacts how you play, and not just because you have a different set of techs to use in combat. Now that you're the big bad, all of the heroes you've recruited this far want nothing to do with you, so you have to find a totally new set of companions to help you regain control of your actual body. It's not as bold as killing of the main character like the first game did, but it's pretty damn close.
Oh, no! We've been captured by zombies and tossed into an underground prison with no hope for escape. Though, I suppose that's better than being eaten alive, but still! Who will save us? Only thing we can do now is pray: "You are a friend who I have never met before. If you hear this message, go to the south."
And suddenly, you're not playing as Ness anymore. You're now a boarding school student named Jeff, who lives several continents away from where Ness and Paula are held captive. After receiving this mysterious telepathic message, you break out of school, cross a pond with the help of the Loch Ness monster and a monkey obsessed with bubble gum, and make your way through a dungeon built by a guy who loves to build dungeons. Finally, you find your father, who has been working in his lab on a flying machine. After an awkward exchange of pleasantries, you're off to finally rescue the best friends you've never met before.
Metal Gear Solid 2
What's a list of potential fake-outs without an appearance from Metal Gear Solid 2? You'd be forgiven if you thought you'd be spending most of your time playing as series mainstay Solid Snake. I mean, he was only featured in every E3 trailer, the demo that came with Zone of the Enders, and even the cover of the goddamn box. But nope, as soon as you beat the Tanker chapter (which will likely only take a couple of hours), you're spending the rest of the game as newcomer Raiden.
If you're like me, you probably went through the five stages of grief in real-time. It starts with denial ("Maybe he's just wearing a voice modulator and grew his hair out and changed his name"), moves on to anger ("I can't believe Kojima would trick us like this!"), and trucks right on through to bargaining ("Just let me play as Snake for a few minutes, and I'll buy all your games. Even Boktai!") and depression ("...stupid game."). But then, as we looked back, we realized what a ballsy move it was to drop Snake for the second act, and that Raiden wasn't such a bad character after all. And thus, acceptance.
Batman: Arkham City
The Arkham series actually takes more than a few cues from the Metal Gear series, with its emphasis on stealth and its uncanny ability to surprise the player and get inside their head. The Scarecrow bits from Asylum and the Mad Hatter side quest in City both evoke that same sense of "hey, wait, is my game broken" found in the best parts of Metal Gear. They even share a similar character switching moment, though Arkham City is kind enough to give Batman back to us when it's done.
You're given control of Catwoman a few times throughout the course of Arkham City, as she goes on the prowl, looking for thugs to beat up and valuables to steal. She controls similarly to Bats, but she's much more lithe, agile, and her whip can make quick work of her opposition's weaponry. While her inclusion was announced prior to the game's release, the best part wasn't. Near the end of Arkham City, Batman is in mortal danger and Catwoman has a choice: Does she take the cash and walk out of the bank vault, leaving the city behind, or does she reluctantly drop the money and go save Gotham's last hope? Arkham City actually lets you pick option A, complete with a fake roll to credits as she strolls out of the vault.
The Last of Us
The Last of Us features not one, but two incredibly impactful character switches. The first happens right at the beginning, when you're put in the shoes of Joel's daughter, Sarah. She wanders bleary eyed and groggy around her house, looking for her dad while teaching you basic movement and interaction controls and finds herself smack in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. When the perspective finally shifts to Joel, you know that some truly bad shit is going down.
And then, about halfway through the game, it happens again, this time thrusting you in control of Joel's new companion, Ellie. After getting impaled by a piece of rebar, Joel is (understandably) too weak to walk, or even stay conscious. And so now you play as Ellie, as you try to combine all of the skills that Joel taught you over the months to hunt for game, look for medicine, and survive. While she doesn't have Joel's brute strength, she more than makes up for it with her resourcefulness and that knife she carries around.
Red Dead Redemption
As outlaw John Marston, you've travelled to Mexico and back, you've finally taken out Bill Williamson and his gang, and gained amnesty for your crimes thanks to a deal with the government. Now that you're back at home, you're running through tutorial missions again, this time teaching your son Jack how to rope horses and wrangle cattle. You've been away for a long time, but now, you can finally settle down and bequeath life lessons to your child and steer him on the right path.
Until the government reneges on their deal, shows up on your doorstep and guns you down in cold blood. This is the part where the credits are supposed to roll except that they don't, and now you're in control of an older, angrier, hairier Jack as he attempts to get revenge on those who took his father away from him. This character switch is brilliant because it doesn't just set up the post-story free-for-all most open world games provide. It also calls directly back to the cyclical nature of violence and tragedy that Red Dead Redemption's themes have been touching on the entire time.
Didn't see that one coming
It's nice to get surprised by a secret playable character, and it's even better when the change makes for a dramatic turn in the story, or reveals some surprising, undiscovered detail about the world around the protagonist. What are some of your favorite character switches? Let me know in the comments!
Looking for more? Be sure to check out these 9 old games that were made gloriously new (opens in new tab), or this feature on what makes Bloodborne's combat so bloody brilliant (opens in new tab).