I've been thinking about BioShock a lot over the past week or so. Its co-director, Ken Levine, has been in the news after he leant his support to a questionable Change.org petition requesting that gaming sites Polygon and Kotaku effectively own up for Gamergate attracting great criticism.
A VICE article on how video games can never truly be cinematic saw some commenters point to the 2K-developer shooter of 2007 as evidence that, actually, they can. And then there's Sony's new The Order: 1886, issued to the press with a strict reviews embargo and instructions to not spoil the game's biggest narrative twist – which, honestly, you'll probably clock long before its reveal.
But BioShock's twist wasn't one most players will have predicted before it presented itself. And for the sake of those yet to play it, know now that spoilers follow. The game can be considered cinematic, if you really must, for a few reasons. Its setting is undeniably widescreen, the collapsing underwater utopia of Rapture a set designer's soggy dream, if only there was money enough to make a movie happen. The fiction of the series – three main games, plus accompanying DLC, so far – has been greatly acclaimed, the climax to 2013's clouds-set BioShock Infinite comprehensively studied and "explained" by several outlets: VentureBeat, Eurogamer, Digital Spy, IGN.
As deeply detailed as Infinite's plot proved, it's the first game that delivered the series' standout moment of narrative ingenuity. "You" are Jack, the survivor of a plane crash into the Atlantic Ocean in 1960. You swim to what seems to be a lighthouse, just standing there, in the middle of the sea. It's a terrifically atmospheric, wholly enveloping introduction, and one of modern gaming's best first chapters. The building proves to be a bathysphere station, the docked vessel taking Jack down to Rapture, a seabed city constructed in the 1940s by business magnate Andrew Ryan to encourage scientific and artistic progression without governmental meddling: "No gods or kings. Only man."
Needless to say, Ryan's dream has rather died on its arse by the time Jack shows up, and while the city's founder remains in residence, Rapture is a creaking shell of its former self, plasmid-powered freaks terrorising its once tranquil halls. Jack is contacted by a man calling himself Atlas, who wants to break Ryan's hold on Rapture, freeing what sane inhabitants there are left from their dire situations. But all is not as simple as it seems. Jack catches up to Ryan himself, and it's here, after so much instruction from Atlas, that the game delivers its guts-crunching twist, flipping the narrative and role-reversing the story's most pertinent players.
Another warning here, and it's your last one: spoilers follow.
Jack is Ryan's illegitimate son. Ryan knew he was coming. It's revealed that Atlas is actually the gangster Frank Fontaine, who'd smuggled Jack to the surface several years earlier with the intention of bringing him back as a weapon, as "your" DNA can operate a lot of Rapture's systems that only Ryan would otherwise have access to. Jack has been used, abused, hypnotised to carry fabricated memories and respond to a key phrase: "Would you kindly". Fontaine has been, to this point in the game, using it to control Jack's progression through Rapture. "Would you kindly head to Ryan's office and kill the son of a bitch." Ryan willingly dies at the hands of his son: "A man chooses, a slave obeys." If you're not following, the video below will clear things up.
'BioShock' gameplay: the Andrew Ryan plot twist
YouTube comments on the above clip include "The greatest moment in any video game, period" and "My jaw was on the floor the entire time, one of the greatest moments in gaming for me, ever". I vividly remember the first time I saw the scene, and it left me numbed, actually – cold, and oddly uncomfortable in my own home. I felt like I'd been taken advantage of, that I was really in Jack's shoes; that I'd smashed that skull in with the business end of a golf putter. That's fantastic fiction, right there: believability enough that you're living the moment. Rapture might be a fantastical backdrop, but BioShock's most dramatic instance of deadly intimacy felt more palpable than any plot twist from the world of film.
In comparison, The Order's "big reveal" was received with a shrug. My wife and I called the twist several cutscenes before it occurred. Anyone with the slightest experience of gothic fantasy fiction could have guessed, accurately, at where The Order was headed: think of the period in question, the late 1800s, and certain world-famous horror novels of the time. The Order is a game that desperately wants to be a movie, and is a slave to the worst clichés from that world. BioShock's brilliant writing allowed it to transcend its medium – it really is a piece of terrific storytelling, albeit punctuated by explosive first-person gun battles. Its twist is the best that gaming has so far delivered; but others have come close to matching its impact.
Infinite might actually be nearest to its series predecessor for what-just-happened emotional resonance. Its ending (watch it) delivers a couple of bruising blindsides that recontextualise what you knew about proceedings to that point, lending unexpectedly relatable, affecting closure to so many hours of explicit murder. Elizabeth, your quarry early on and subsequent partner, was once called Anna DeWitt, the daughter of player-protagonist Pinkerton, Booker DeWitt. Who, in turn, isn't all he appeared to be: the game's alternative-realities-rooted plot reveals that the apparent antagonist, Zachary Comstock, is a Booker whose life branched in a different direction at a pivotal point in his life, a baptism.
IGN analyses the ending to 'BioShock Infinite'
As the above video confirms, there's a lot going on in Infinite, not least of all an appreciation of multiverses within physical cosmology and a healthy dose of applied American exceptionalism, as the game is set on a breakaway, theocractic state in the sky where institutional racism runs rampant. It's high artistry trapped within the conventional construct of a guns-front action game, and perhaps suffers for deafening its thought-provoking qualities with ballistic thunder.
A little easier to understand is the twist of Quantic Dream's interactive drama of 2010, Heavy Rain, which, while less original than the BioShock brace, was nevertheless an eyes-widening revelation. You control four characters in pursuit of the Origami Killer, whose signature paper figures are found beside his drowned victims. One of these four is Ethan Mars whose son, Jason, is (accidentally) killed in the game's opening hour. His remaining son, Shaun, goes missing, and his disappearance becomes linked to the Origami Killer, who eventually contacts Ethan and presents him with a number of trials. Complete them, and he'll earn clues to his son's whereabouts, where he might yet be saved. And it's the identity of the killer that provides the game's crucial twist.
The ending of 'Heavy Rain' varies, depending on the player's performance
Another of Heavy Rain's playable characters is Scott Shelby, an overweight, asthmatic private detective who, at one point, successfully gets a baby to settle down after he's dragged her suicide-attempting mother out of a bathtub (assuming you follow the correct commands). He stands up for a case-significant prostitute, beating down one of her clients when he turns aggressive. He's made out to be a good guy, quiet and considered, determined despite an inclination for introversion. So it's naturally shocking when he turns out to be the Origami Killer, his crimes hardwired into a personality misshaped by childhood tragedy, when his own brother drowned before his eyes.
Konami's Silent Hill 2 of 2001 is a classically brooding survival horror game with a disturbing twist at its core. Like Heavy Rain, there are several possible endings, but every playthrough will feature a scene where protagonist James Sunderland watches a videotape of him smothering his terminally unwell wife, Mary. This act of assisted euthanasia is what causes the terrifying environments of Silent Hill to rise up around James, as a manifestation of the guilt he feels. The unstoppable Pyramid Head figures that stalk James are representations of his desire to be punished, inescapable demons that won't quit until, as the "In Water" ending portrays, he takes his own life as penance.
Browse the internet and you'll find various lists of the "top twists in video games", featuring some that are arguably not all that important at all, a couple of epilogue surprises (Samus is a girl! In a bikini?), and just a few that do seem striking, but that I haven't experienced first hand. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic sucker-punches the player by revealing that their good guy is actually, drumroll, the evil Darth Revan with his brain all scrambled. Apparently nobody saw that coming. You can then choose to stick with the Republic or pursue the Dark Side and slaughter the rebel scum, although I'm basing that on Wikipedia because I've not actually played the thing. Sorry.
I have played BioShock, though, more than once, and it's what I think of first when considering video gaming's most memorable twists. The greatest moment in any video game, ever, it's probably not – seriously, what beats an entire level's worth of lemmings exploding? But with its "would you kindly" method of mind control reaching meme level, inspiring Easter eggs in other games and wretched dubstep tracks, BioShock is the title that's given the most to video gaming about-turns.