You may think you have a tight grip on the storyline threaded through your current game, but things are not always as they seem and developers love pulling the rug from under you to subvert your expectations. From fake protagonists to existential subplots, here are 10 staggering Xbox plot twists that will teach you never to trust games ever again. Spoilers incoming, obviously!
10. Spec Ops: The Line
Spec Ops is a tricky one. Some people revere it as one of the smartest shooters ever made – others feel that the rough combat isn’t worth the emotional payoff. Even if it doesn’t cohere into something wholly satisfying, it’s still one of the most thoughtful investigations of warfare in games, based largely on Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness. Playing as Captain Martin Walker, you battle through a war-torn Dubai to reach rogue Colonel John Konrad (geddit?). When you get there, you discover that he’s actually dead and the whole thing is a figment of Walker’s damaged imagination. A smart take on how we rationalise violence in war.
9. Mass Effect
This is one of those twists that makes you want to put down the controller and give up, but in a good way. It’s enough of a shock to learn that Sovereign isn’t just a weird ship, but an ancient, implacable cosmic squid. It’s another to learn that he’s one of many, and everything every sentient creature in the galaxy does is part of a hopeless cycle of destruction. It’s a brilliant way of making you feel wholly insignificant, tempering everything Shepard does in the following games with a vivid sense of desperation. Mass Effect proves that cold indifference is scarier than pure evil.
8. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
It’s hard to look at Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare now and imagine a time when it surprised anyone. These days it’s just immaculate multiplayer and numbing bombastics. The first Modern Warfare was different. Just as you’re getting to grips with Sgt Paul Jackson, you experience the horror of an atomic bomb firsthand. You see your colleagues wiped out before you and have to watch as Jackson slowly expires, all the while thinking that some deus ex machina will save you from nuclear annihilation. Jackson’s shock death gives a fresh dramatic impetus to the campaign that follows, and teaches you that anyone in CoD can die.
7. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
There was something obvious missing from Mercurysteam’s superb, brooding reboot of the classic Konami adventure. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow had something capey, with fangs. As the doomed Gabriel Belmont, you emote your way through a savage fantasy storybook, accidentally murdering everyone who gets close to you. In the end, you even kick Satan’s ass, but there’s a price: after the credits roll, you learn that Gabriel has become Dracula – the very thing the rest of his offspring will spend their lives fighting – and he’s still around in modern times. Look closely and you can even see famous Castlevania boss Slogra in the carvings leading to Drac’s domain. A cool touch.
6. Silent Hill 2
The twist in Silent Hill 2 is so good it makes all other horror games look like thoughtless, mewling chimeras. James Sunderland enters the Toluca Lake town after receiving a letter from his dead wife. What follows is a sticky muddle of confusing-sexy monsters and Freudian demons. The truth is fascinating: Pyramid Head, a bad tempered phallus in an apron, was created by James to punish him for euthanising his dying wife. The lithe, scuttling monsters are the manifestation of James’ sexual frustrations. It all ties together wonderfully, making Silent Hill seem almost benevolent in the way it forces people to confront their demons.
Braid feels like scant reward for hours of thoughtful puzzle-solving, but sweet lord it’s clever. You control spongy cartoon man Tim, on a quest to rescue a princess snatched by ‘a horrible and evil monster’. As you approach the final level, you work together as she flees a presumably evil knight and helps disarm traps in your way. Except that you don’t. Reach the end and the whole scene plays in reverse, revealing that the princess is actually fleeing from Tim, laying traps to hinder him, and escaping with the gallant knight. A slightly smug twist, perhaps, but what do you expect from Jonathan Blow?
4. Red Dead Redemption
Red Dead Redemption has the best post-final boss section of any game, ever. Except that Dutch isn’t the final boss – returning to your family is, and it’s a fight you can’t win. The final hours of Red Dead show a glimpse of the life John Marston has been struggling to preserve, before it’s ripped away when he’s gunned down by the people who he’s been helping. You take control of his son Jack in the epilogue, leaving you with a challenging decision: do you avenge your dad and go down the very path he died trying to protect you from?
It’s easy to now scoff at anyone making a ‘would you kindly?’ reference, but few who played Bioshock saw this one coming. It’s brilliant because everything around it connects and confuses. Rapture becomes a more threatening and alien place when you realise you’ve navigated it according to the whims of someone you can no longer trust. Ten years on and the specifics of who’s doing what to whom have blurred, but the impact on player agency remains strong.
2. Knights of the Old Republic
Few twists hit as hard as this, and it’s all down to the perfect pacing of Knights Of The Old Republic. By the time you start your Jedi training, you feel like you’ve already had an adventure. You’ve met dashing hero Carth Onasi; you’ve ‘rescued’ Bastila Shan; you’ve fought crime lords and won Swoop races. You’ve probably lost loads of credits playing Pazaak, too, but let’s not talk about that. The threat of Darth Malak, and the lingering evil of Darth Revan, make your newfound powers feel unwieldy and precarious.
Then, just as you begin to understand who you are and what you’re doing, the truth is revealed. You’re Revan, dreaded Dark Lord of the Sith, turned from the Dark Side and stripped of your memories. Do you revert to your old ways, or fight evil despite the deceit of your allies? It’s a fantastic moment that’s wonderfully veiled, which changes what you do and how you treat your companions. It’s the most nuanced and thoughtful examinations of the Light and Dark Side in games, and a powerfully memorable twist.
1. Metal Gear Solid 2
Every Kojima game could be on this list, but MGS 2 gets the nod because of the immaculate construction and sheer, yes-I’m-actually-doing-this brio of it. Back in 2001 anyone with a passing interest in Metal Gear played the demo, in which you infiltrated a tanker as Solid Snake. It was brilliant. You could smash bottles, hold up enemy soldiers, shoot fire extinguishers – the works.
Imagine the confusion, then, when people got their hands on the finished game and you were playing as waifish, nudey-cartwheeling milquetoast Raiden instead of sandpaper-rugged Snake. It’s delicious. No other developer would have the audacity to pull off such a twist, and we’ll never see anything like it again. Even as you reach the end of the game and Snake reappears, there’s a lingering sense that you’re being toyed with, because... well, you are. Perhaps not the most enjoyable twist on this list, but certainly the most cerebral.
This article originally appeared in Xbox: The Official Magazine. For more great Xbox coverage, you can subscribe here.