Video games have an enormous potential to play with our conception of reality. They can do this because when we play video games they are defining a reality. We are forced to play within a set of rules, and we get accustomed to them after a short period of time, no matter how weird they may be.
We have to push a ball around until it sticks to stuff and gets bigger, eventually grabbing onto sports stadiums? Got it. Eat a mushroom, jump on some turtles, climb through sewer pipes to bash a fire-breathing dinosaur who kidnapped your girlfriend? Ok! Invite him to go play tennis afterward? Ok …I guess? Eat meat you found in an old castle wall to restore health? Fine. Whatever.
Yet, video games also have the capability to suddenly break these rules. Sometimes, it’s done as a challenge, such as taking away your guns for a stealth section or switching the controls in a platforming level. Other times, rule changes seem to occur at random, invariably making the player scream and throw the controller.
Finally, there are special times when the rules are changed purely to screw with our heads. Here are some of the best times this happened…
We Have to Stop Meeting Like This – Fallout: New Vegas
Half Life and Half Life 2 had a neat trick where you would see the G-Man intermittently throughout your travels. He had no effect on the level progression or plot, but it was a nice easter egg that pointed out he was always watching.
Similarly, in Fallout: New Vegas Victor the robot is scripted to bump into you out on the world map at random points to remind you he’s following you. However, thanks to Bethesda’s mind-of-its-own programming, “out on the world map” can turn into “at the bottom of a vault you had just cleared out of super mutants and have been exploring by yourself for the past hour.”
Nothing was more unexpected than seeing a robot in a cramped room with their head touching the ceiling, shouting Howdy!” nonchalantly. I screamed when it happened. I’m not ashamed to admit this.
Big Metroid – Super Metroid
Scripted events were rare in the era of 2D gaming. If you got any cutscene at all, it was either before or after you were allowed to play.
Super Metroid was one of the first games to introduce this element, and it came quite late in the game where it was completely unexpected.
After unlocking the final area, Tourian, you venture down seeking Mother Brain’s lair. Tourian marks a distinct departure from the environments you are used to seeing; it’s claustrophobic, linear, and has an odd, cramped level design found nowhere in the game. In short, it’s an off-putting change of scenery. The creepy music doesn’t help, either.
While crawling around in the hell hole, you notice strange, pale versions of enemies that look like they’ve been drained of life. Each time you bump into them, they dissolve into dust. When you’re still trying to let this phenomenon sink in, you encounter an extremely tough, almost-unbeatable version of a common enemy in the game.
Before you can try to kill it, the biggest metroid you have ever seen swoops in and kills it first. Then, it comes after you! You struggle trying to figure out how the hell to get away from it, but it lets up after leaving you with one single health point. The sudden departure in tone and continuity was truly mind blowing.
The big metroid later redeems himself in an epic finale, but I’ll save that experience for people who’ve actually beaten the game.
“Would You Kindly?” – Bioshock
Not to gripe, but Bioshock was showing its hand from the beginning. Between the surreal nature of rapture and the all-too-simplified conflict between Atlas, the splicers, and Andrew Ryan – you just knew something was up. Also, despite the reference to source material, the “WHO IS ATLAS?” posters wanted you to be skeptical of accepting the plot at face value.
Even with all of these tells, the game still had plenty up its sleeve. While the reveal that you were actually under the control of someone claiming to be helping you was fairly surprising, the fact that the game forces you to bash Andrew Ryan’s head in with a golf club immediately afterward made me sick to my stomach.
You Lose Your Name – Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door
Paper Mario was full of fun, quirky moments including Mario fighting as a pro wrestler under the name “The Great Gonzales.”
Even with all the odd play modes and changes in elements, nothing comes close to the time that you beat a boss and Mario walks off the screen. Without you. You, who for some reason are now playing as the shadow Mario who’s butt you were whupping ten seconds ago.
The moment was particularly jarring because of the sudden shift in perspective. You think that you are playing as some random fallen enemy, perhaps with a grudge of some sort, and Mario has just traipsed out stage left.
It takes you a long trek back into town to discover that the “real” Mario was the boss you were just battling. He stole your name and consequently your identity. Before you can restore the status quo, you have to learn his real name from a blabbermouth parrot and square off against your former allies, who all think that the fake Mario is you. Tough crowd.