“Are video games art?” is a question that arouses nothing but apathy in me. If yes, then let’s get pretentious. If no, then let’s insult people doing cool stuff. One thing is for sure, however. Video games offer a plethora of wham moments for the storyteller to imitate or steal from. Here’s ten of my favorite. Add your own in the comment section or pick my list apart. It’ll be fun.
Wham moments are when something in your narrative strikes the audience from left field, upending expectations and creating a sense of vertigo that, when done well, gives the reader a perverse combination of pleasure and pain. When these happen to people in “real life” they’re usually unpleasant and mean the life we’ve been living up till now must be reevaluated, often with unpleasant implications.
The wham episode lets us, as with many other fictional tropes, experience these vicariously. We get to experience the pain and pathos of a sudden surprise without having to endure the life-changing agony of “you’ve got cancer” or “you should never have trusted them.” At their best, I feel they help us learn to deal with such unexpected but inevitable events. Failing that, they’re usually pretty frelling awesome. Tvtropes.com has multiple articles on the subject.
I keep hoping that before M. Night Shmayalan directs another film, he spends a lot of time studying this since the last movie that had a twist I really felt in my gut was The Last Airbender. The twist was “it’s horrible and he didn’t even bother to put in the gigantic super water monster taht would have saved the entire finale of the movie.” And yes, I mispelled his name on purpose. The Last Airbender really made me angry in ways few things can.
Anyway, back to the topic, the best part of these moments is great ones maximize the audience’s engagement. I remember when I finished J Daniel Sawyer’s Down From Ten, the first thing I did was go back and listen to the podcast a second time just to look for clues to the ending. That’s part of the fun: did the wham make sense all along or come ridiculously from so far out of left field that some poor hack in the stands could only be responsible for the plot twist?
These moments often make or break a story. In the Horde podcast, the most positive feedback I’ve received is the moment I reveal exactly why it is Terry, my narrator, can fly around invisible in an alternate dimension as a weird crystal dragon thing. I spent a ridiculous amount of time layering the clues to this and other whams and this is the first one the listener gets to hear, both paying off a number of weird things I set up earlier but also, from the feedback I’ve received, getting good will from the audience regarding the other crazy stuff I’m doing that seems to make no sense. If I rewrote that part now, I’d have it or another wham much earlier just for the suspension of disbelief it buys.
Anyway, enough commentary. On to the list! Just so we’re clear, spoilers abound. Remember the 10top list is not in order nor is it exhaustive. Feel free to give me yours or comment on mine.
1. Final Fantasy VII: Cloud’s a loser. FF7 gets a lot flack for almost singlehandedly bringing bishonen badasses with angst to the forefront of the Japanese role playing game (JRPG) scene. What people often forget is that Cloud, the hardened ex-supersoldier whose dead inside but carries a giant sword and is destined to save the planet, is really just a loser with a case of hero envy. About halfway through the game, you find out that everything Cloud has said about his past, including his personal history with the main villain, never happened to him at all. His dead best friend actually is the butt kicking supersoldier and all Cloud did was appropriate his sword and life story post-mortem. The main villain barely remembers Cloud.
This wham moment completely shatters Cloud’s sense of self which, since he stole someone else’s life rather than live his own, must not have been that strong to begin with. I have may issues with this game’s plot but this particular twist can be felt from the first moments and makes Cloud’s recovery and heroic pursuit of the main villain all the more gripping. After all, he’s not a hero. He’s just some dude who looted the right corpse.
2. Final Fantasy X: Tidus doesn’t exist. Yes, another Final Fantasy. Say what you will about the series, they’re usually pretty solid on the wham moment. So here’s the setup, Tidus appears to be some sort of weird time traveller at first. His city is destroyed and he wakes up in an alternate/future/who knows world where monsters are real, technology is all gone, and somehow his status as an angst ridden underwater soccer star blesses him with awesome in the eyes of those around him. It’s impossible, really. I mean the way they worship underwater soccer is pretty freaky.
The whole game you learn about this weird trait of the world: pyreflies. They imprint with the spirits of the dead and, if not banished, they go nuts and transform into monsters that hate the living over time. Over time you find out this is the basis of the whole world: summon monsters, random encounters, the giant civilization destroying monster, even most of the manipulative villains are rooted in this whole “dead people imprint and if they don’t get help, they get an angry monster body instead.” People can literally build alternate virtual worlds with enough of these crazy little ghostbugs.
The big awesome spoiler? Tidus isn’t real. His whole city that was destroyed is just the pyrefly memory of an actual city that was blowed up centuries ago. In other words, he’s a dream ghost thingy that mostly by accident slipped outside and is now wondering around totally confused. But it gets better.
The way to fix the horrible situation, ultimately, involves disabling the entire existing network of pyreflies, putting monsters and most of these weird ghost things out of existence. Yay, that’s great, save the world and all. Oh wait, but that means Tidus isn’t real so when they pull the plug, he’s just going to vanish like a dozen powdered sugar donuts on my office desk, leaving only a slightly powdery white residue that might be embarrassing to explain. It’s one thing to kill your hero to save the world, especially when he’s in a pretty nice love relationship with the heroine at the end, but it’s another to say he doesn’t exist, shouldn’t exist, and never should have existed then wipe him from reality.
Thinking about it, Final Fantasy has some serious issues with self identity just looking at these two examples.
3. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic: A Sith lord is you! Two big bad Sith lords destroying the eponymous Old Republic. One vanishes and the other goes even more nuts bombing any planet that moves (hint: that’s all of them). Luckily you pop on the scene heroically to save the day, a random nobody who no one has heard of but who gets adult Jedi training (violating the Darth Vader Oops rule) and who, in super fast movie time, becomes a Jedi superman. Too bad that remaining Sith lord is always on your trying to kill you for some strange reason and the people responsible for killing the other vanished Sith lord gather round you trying to help you stay on the light side of the Force.
You guessed it. You’re Revan, kidnapped by the Jedi council and brainwashed into being a good guy with no memory. It’s often cited by my friends and drinking buddies as one of the best whams. It’s there, it’s real, and once you find out it has serious narrative impact. I’m not alone in having played a light side hero who decides “Screw this. I’m gonna kill Malak to get revenge then I’m going to destroy all the Jedi ever.” It’s pretty much a game defining moment and I hate spoiling it for people. Sorry, people. It also comes with a great montage of “look you were bad all along.”
4. Super Mario Bros: Sorry Mario, but you just wasted 800 coins worth of life and a thousand dollars worth of hallucinogens getting here. It’s a simple concept really, you fight what you think is the final boss but you ultimately find out that the princess isn’t even in the castle you were storming. We’re all so jaded and this one is so old but think about the genre unsavvy fourth grader who got this the first time, back when plot development in a video game meant “based on a movie, go see it for the plot.”
5. Planescape Torment: The bad guys don’t know Ignus. Planescape has a complicated plot. Go play it. Now. But if you don’t listen, check this: one major player is Ignus, who is a mage who spends the entire game ON FIRE, making him already awesome. He’s also pretty nasty and insane. He’s not evil, he just likes to burn stuff. If you play the game right, in the end game, you can talk to the people (they happen to be your earlier incarnations but let’s not confuse things) who are responsible for the plot. The crazy one is crazy and doesn’t give you much information. The good one is mostly quite and doesn’t say much. The evil one laughs about all the evil stuff he’s done to try to fix the problems caused by the plot including seducing a woman then manipulating her to die so her ghost can serve as an eternal infodump in case he fails to stop the big bad.
Anyway, the bad guy lists all his deeds and doesn’t hide them. Then you ask him about Ignus, who one of your past incarnations drove mad and helped turn into the crazed burninator he is today. His response? “Ignus who?”
So your evil past life didn’t create Ignus and neither did your crazy one. That leaves… the good one. Who also turns out to be the most evil and is only good now cuz he doesn’t like the idea of going to hell. It’s 100% awesome.
6. Final Fantasy IX: But wait, there’s more boss! You get to the end and the interesting, nihilistic, kind of awesome “brother to the hero” villain has been defeated. But wait, there’s a bigger evil. It’s some sort of world eating thing and it has powers. Or something. It doesn’t really make much sense but it turns one boss into like three or four. Ok, this is always lame. Surprise! A boss with multiple forms! It was old on the Super Nintendo.
The real 6. Dragon Quest V: Congratulations, you’re a slave. Most of these spoilers were mid to late game and involve revelations about what’s gone on so far. But that’s only one way to wham. In DQ5, fairly early on, you’re wondering around as a kid with your super strong dad busting up an evil cult that keeps popping up. You go to a fairly routine dungeon with your best buddy, a spoiled brat prince who at least does stuff in battle, and end up watching your father killed by a miniboss. Said miniboss then owns you and your spoiled prince friend and sends you to work in the mines for something like eight years.
You don’t see it coming but that’s mostly due to narrative tropes and the very human “it can’t happen to me” rule that seems to rule most tragic surprised. If you look back over the build up to that moment, it makes sense. You’ve got an evil cult kidnapping people and forcing them to help build some crazy temple thing. It’s a miracle you didn’t get killed or captured early in the game, actually.
The best part is this is only one of a half dozen such moments in DQ5 that, while coming from left field, keep damaging the sense of plot protection you’d imagine would guard the poor little hero.
7. Dragon Quest VII: Congratulations, you saved God but whoops you were tricked. There’s a rule in Star Trek: if it calls itself God, it’s probably lying. At the beginning of DQ7, the world appears to be one tiny island and endless ocean. In the past, God had split the world up into numerous little pocket dimensions to stop the Devil from rising to power but now he needs your help putting the world back together. After an epic quest involving some pretty neat adventures, you manage to unseal the rest of the world as well as release God from where he was trapped. You even manage to summon his Super God Tower that is where he keeps his stuff.
Just one problem though. The dude you freed wasn’t God. He backstabbed God for quadruple damage right as the world was split up and ever since then he’s been biding his time in the Super God Tower, drinking all of God’s best liquor and putting his feet up on the couch. He even redecorates so it goes from looking like a God Tower to the Super Devil Tower. It has horns and stuff.
It’ll be okay though, all you have to do is find the real God, right? Sorry, but Nietzche’s comments about God were actually about DQ7. The Devil totally killed him and there is absolutely no chance to bring him back to life. None. So not only did you free the Devil, there is literally no one but you who has even the slightest chance to stop him. Wham!
8. Metroid: If you can’t see the girly bits it must be a man, right? Samus Aran. Famed bounty hunter. Super powered suit wearer. Last hope of the galaxy. Somewhat clumsy jumper. Also, not a man.
The expectation of most genre is that if you can’t see what gender a character is, assume it’s a man. Numerous movies and books have used the gender neutral seeming character femme reveal because it works. Even today it can surprise audiences, which is a whole other issue and better reserved for someone’s feminism blog.
But back in the early days of video gaming, sneaking a female hero into an action game that eventually became one of the most popular and actually defined a genre was a pretty awesome move on the part of the Metroid creative team. Yes, the players all thought she was male (unless some jerkhead told you) and many didn’t even know after playing because she only reveals herself as a woman if you are particularly awesome in the game.
It’s really actually a pretty sweet twist given the expectations of the time. First, she’s “as good as a man” (bleck). Second, he skills are superior and she has a decidedly unsexualized outfit at this point (a formless stormtrooper suit basically). Third, to get the twist secret that Samus Aran (who no one knows the true identity of, like Batman or something), you must be exceptional in beating the game. In other words, to know Samus is a woman, you must prove how awesome she is.
Since then there’s been a lot of backtracking in the series, especially the horrid game where she has a codependent abusive relationship with her commanding officer, but that moment was a pinnacle of messing with gamer expectations. Of course, that jerkhead who said, “She couldn’t do that, she’s a woman” even after the reveal probably deserved getting hit in the head with a medicine ball, not that I’m responsible for throwing it.
9. Phantasy Star II: catfights can be serious. People mention Final Fantasy 7 as groundbreaking for killing a major character dead for real really with no way to save her. Bah, it’s been done. It was done best in an old Sega Genesis game. You’re some sort of scifi psychic space cop on a world where mutants are growing out of control due to a computer glitch in the biosphere computer or something like that. Your best friend (possibly love interest) is the beastgirl Nei, who you rescued from some monsters and now live with. She’s pretty fast, an awesome fighter, and just genuinely cool.
Then you get closer to the end of the game and fight your way to the cloning facilities. There you find Nei waiting for you. Except it isn’t YOUR Nei, it’s the first Nei clone, who kills your beloved most useful ally without hesitation. No you can’t save her. Not even at the end of the game. She doesn’t even get the FF7 “she lives on in the spirit of the planet” crap they tried to shove down your throat in the ending. This is a “now it’s for real” moment of the finest order, doubly powerful for the genre expectations it breaks.
10. Final Fantasy VI: Everything? No? Ok, I’ll pick just one part. FF6 is an opera and an epic. There is a huge cast of characters each with their own secret surprising back story. I could pick one of my favorite tiny character defining moments but I have to go with the big one: you lose and the bad guy blows up the world. Seriously.
You’re on a floating island with the statues of primordial power battling the evil empire with all your allies all ready to try to save life, the universe, and everything from the bad guys who are united against you. Except they aren’t. Bad guy 1, the evil emperor, is contemplating how to take advantage of the statues without destroying the world. Bad guy 2, the insane clown, has other ideas. He backstabs the Emperor while you’re busy then tosses him over the side of the flying island. Then he pushes the statues out of alignment, possibly just for giggles, which results in massive energy blasts ripping continents apart and killing most of the people on the planet.
You barely escape with your life and even then your airship is destroyed, your party split up, many of the side characters die of starvation, end up brainwashed, or just give up and consider killing themselves. All the while, the insane clown now has a posse of worshipers along with a giant laser of doom that he aims at anyone who doesn’t worship him. The game keeps going and yeah you can stop but it never fixes the world or brings the dead back to life. Life is going to be hard for the victors. Evil, in a way, wins.
So there’s my 10top video game spoilers and wham moments. Give me yours. Blast my decisions, my comments, or my bad jokes. What’s your wham?