When we hear a story for the first time, I think we all try to predict the ending. Sometimes we’re spot on, and sometimes we are way off. The “twist” reveals as much about what we thought would happen as it does about the story we are hearing: sometimes a “twist” is so unexpected and out of the blue that it ruins what felt like a coherent story. Other times, like in Fight Club, the story is appreciated far more the second time through, with the twist revealed. The upending of our expectations is something we all sort of want, but some storytellers go too far.
One film that managed to avoid this problem was Pacific Rim, which is probably the most straight-forward film of the past few years. The trailers promised you giant robots fighting against giant monsters, and the film delivered exactly that. The story may have felt somehow less “interesting”, simply because there wasn’t really a twist. There was danger and a progression of that danger, but there wasn’t a sudden reveal that maybe we were actually the problems all along, or something of that nature (maybe the kaiju were actually our deep-seated fears, and the whole thing happened in our minds, or some other inane twist). But twists for the sake of twists are hardly worth examining.
Last year there were quite a few games that were (rightly) praised highly: The Stanley Parable, The Last of Us, and Bioshock: Infinite come to mind. The first I’ve already written about, but the game functions as an exploration of our expectations, as a way to take what we think a game is and, well, upend it. The latter two, however, don’t really step outside of the way a game is put together. They’re both linear, and you follow the story regardless of the decisions you make (Bioshock: Infinite has a few choices, but are not nearly as significant as the choices in Mass Effect, for instance). In fact, in a time where choice is becoming a near requirement for games, I appreciated both of these games for just letting me play the story that the games had to tell.
Spoiler warning for both The Last of Us and Bioshock: Infinite.
The ending for The Last of Us is one that I hated. I know many thought this was the best game of the last year, and in many ways they are right. The game is mechanically impressive, providing a depth and terror to the combat that many games lack. I felt real emotions for the characters, akin to some of my favorite books. There were, in fact, quite a few moments where I was emotionally flustered but had to act; a character just died, for instance, but I needed to shoot my way out of whatever situation I was in.
At the end of the game, the protagonist (who you have spent the majority of the game playing) lies to save the girl he now thinks of as his daughter. The daughter might be the only way to save the world from the terrible disease that has infected so many, but she would need to be killed to do so (she wouldn’t survive the operation required). In a terrifying last scene, you break into the room and save her from the surgery, only to whisk her away unconscious. When she awakens, she asks where you are, and you explain (falsely) that there are others just like her, that she isn’t unique, and that the world will eventually be saved anyway.
At this point I was upset with the protagonist, but could live with it. This girl had seen through lies before; it takes someone fairly smart and quick to survive as long as she has. But the finale of the game is a bit more harrowing: she forces the protagonist to look her in the eye and promise that he’s telling the truth. He does it, and she is satisfied. The end.
The frustration that I’d embodied this man who was not only unwilling to make the sacrifice to save the world (which is understandable, considering the cost), but he couldn’t even tell the truth to this young girl who thinks of him as father was almost unbearable. I had to rethink the entire game, and every development that the protagonist made felt empty in light of this moral failure. It felt as though the conversations I’d sought to have with the young girl were all to build trust, only to have that ripped away.
And maybe the story wanted to teach me that people are evil. But I already knew that, and didn’t feel better for the new “realization.”
Bioshock: Infinite was far more philosophical in nature, in regards to the twist. With jumps between various parallel universes throughout, the twist in that game ended up faring far better. The reveal that Booker (the protagonist) is also Comstock (the villain) works well, primarily because the protagonist reacts the same way that we do: Booker is angry and distraught, and immediately seeks to make sure that this isn’t going to be the case for him. The game even ends with Booker drowning his alternate selves (who chose baptism into a new name, Comstock), simply to remove the universes of his own evil. That’s a far cry from someone consciously lying to their child about perhaps the most important truth in their world.
Both of these games were heralded partially for their gameplay, but also for their unique stories. The twists made them, in a sense, memorable. I’ll likely not forget either of them, and would be interested in replaying both in a couple of years when the intricacies of the stories aren’t so fresh.
The breaking of expectations can go either way: sometimes we herald the story as ground-breaking and beautiful, while other times we decry the absurdity of the change to the story we’ve been told all along.
Even earlier this week with How I Met Your Mother‘s finale we saw the way people reacted to broken expectations. Some were frustrated, and some felt the show had a great conclusion.
Spoiler alert for How I Met Your Mother.
My friend Sarah Parro nailed many aspects of the conclusion, but one bit in particular is worth repeating:
[…] the finale does not change the overarching messages of the entire show, as much as it may attempt to. With the shift of focus back to Ted and Robin and the kids’ sharp insight into Ted’s underlying feelings for Robin, the driving narrative of being with “the one” still holds up amidst the rushed and stunning events of the final episode.
The end of the show was somewhat predictable (I knew that the titular Mother would die, for instance), and somewhat painfully consistent. The show was always about Ted and Robin, even when it wasn’t. The show always had Marshall and Lily together, even when they broke up for awhile. The show never had Barney settling down (which makes his new-found love for his daughter a little hard to swallow, considering what else he goes through in the show). The one question that is left unanswered is whether or not Ted and Robin will work this time; they’ve both tried this before, after all, more than once. But maybe now that Ted had his children and Robin had her career they can finally settle down with each other. The show really was about meeting the Step-Mother, not the Mother.
So did HIMYM break expectations? Sure, in some ways. I didn’t expect the show to end at all (I kid, I kid). For the most part, the show landed precisely where it always fell: the Universe wants you to be with the One, and you will be with the One, unless you screw it up somehow (but even then, you’ll probably end up with the One).
Twists are valuable, of course, but only insofar as they are twists that we can swallow. If I were to re-watch HIMYM, I should see, from the start, that Robin and Ted were meant for each other (for the record, Barney and Robin were a far more endearing couple; they both started at a similar place and grew together, which has quite a bit of merit in its own right). But I suspect I’d see the same convoluted story of on-and-off again romances that we felt the first time: only now we’d chime in with Ted’s kids that no, someone other than Robin isn’t right for you anymore.
I don’t mind twists. I think some twists are fundamental to good stories. But some stories can be told well without them, and HIMYM might have been more honest if it hadn’t attempted to include lots of twists at the end, no matter how expected.
Perhaps if the ending to HIMYM was something like this, we’d all feel that it was too generic and familiar (or, dare I say it, happy). Perhaps if The Last of Us had ended in sacrifice, we’d all have been bored to tears by the now-played-out sacrificial father role. And perhaps if Bioshock: Infinite had just forced us to kill Comstock, instead of realizing that we were him, it would have been forgotten as a game with above-average gameplay and writing that neglected to do anything new in the genre. I might have preferred that ending to the first two, even if I would likely have forgotten the last soon after finishing it. But sometimes I’d like a happy ending that doesn’t skirt my expectations, except the expectation that the ending will be happy.