My Formative Gaming Moments (part III)
Here is the final installment in my series about the moments in gaming that were formative for me in my creative career. These are the games that made me put my controller down in absolute awe and just think—not only about what just transpired but also about the colossal effort that went into such endeavors. I'll only be writing about three games today, and that will be the end of this series with a haunting thirteen entries. Enjoy!
Note: The games I'll be talking about today are more recent than the previous entries, so I'd like to put a big
right here, so you're aware of what is coming.
11) Virtue's Last Reward (2012)—Remembering Something Important
This is one of my favorite games on this list, and probably my favorite moment in all of gaming (if not, definitely in my top 3), so once again I want to put a spoiler warning here in case you haven't played this game and don't want its most crucial gameplay element spoiled for you. Of course, if you don't intend to ever play this game, then surely read on, and perhaps I will convince you to play one of my favorite series of all time.
Virtue's Last Reward (or VLR for short) is the second in a trilogy of games called Zero Escape. The first game in the series, called 999, is in my opinion one of the best puzzle / visual novel games ever made. It starts off with an escape-room-esque premise—9 characters have been kidnapped and trapped on a tanker ship, and their only promise of escape is to proceed through a series of puzzles in which they must split up to open a series of doors—you know what, nevermind, just go play 999, seriously, you won't be disappointed. In any event, there is a lot more going on behind the scenes with 999, and its sequel, VLR, expands on these concepts magnificently.
Both 999 and VLR are what is called a "bi-directional" narrative. That is to say, you experience the narrative by jumping forward and backwards through various iterations. Rather than experiencing a linear story that goes from point A to point B to point C, you experience a story that goes from point A to point B, to point C, then perhaps back to point A, then to a different but parallel point B, and so on and so forth. Each time you jump, you—the player—learn something that gives you more insight into the situation, and what you should do next. The result is a flowchat that looks like this.
This in and of itself is nothing new—it's essentially what every CYOA ("choose your own adventure") game's narrative looks like. What makes VLR so special is how it presents this story. So, here's the setup. In Virtue's Last Reward, once again 9 characters have been kidnapped and brought to a facility in order to participate in a game of life and death, wherein only one of them may escape. This time, the participants earn points by playing "the AB game," a game similar to the classic "Prisoner's Dilemma." The characters are paired off, and you—playing the character Sigma—are brought into a room with a lever, and you are told the rules.
"So, let's say you choose "ally" and so does your opponent. You'll get 2 BP, and so will they, and you'll all get a nice warm, fuzzy feeling inside. We call that the "Best Pals" outcome. Just puts a smile on your face, doesn't it?
"Next is what you get if you choose "ally," but your opponent chooses to betray! If that happens, you lose 2 BP, and they get 3. We call that the "Stupid Jerkface" outcome. Somebody did that to me, I'd skin 'em and stew 'em with some taters.
"The third choice is the hopposite of that. It's when you choose "betray," but your nice, innocent opponent chooses "ally." This time you're the one who gets 3 BP, and they're the one who loses 2. We call that the "Serves Them Right" outcome. I mean, what were they thinking? Choosing "ally" was a stupid choice. And there's nothing for you to feel guilty about.
"And finally... The very last scenario. This is when you choose "betray", and so does your opponent! If that happens, neither of you gets or loses anything. Absolutely zero change in BP. Ugh. Boring. We call this the "Why Even Bother" outcome. As the gamemaster here, this is the situation I want to avoid the most!"
(this is Zero's dialogue, taken directly from the game's script. Yes, he says "hopposite." He's a bunny, see.)
You are forced to choose: ally or betray. If you reach 9, you escape. If you reach 0, you die.
The first time you play the AB game, you have no idea what your opponent is going to choose. You pick, they pick, and the game goes on with your choice recorded. This is the narrative splitting in the flowchart above. Choose "A," and you go down that story path. Choose "B," and you go down that one. You keep doing this, reaching various endings that range from bad (another character escaping and Sigma being left behind) to really bad (Sigma reaches 0 and dies) to really really REALLY bad—
—until finally, you choose to go back to that first branch and try something new. And when you do, a peculiar thing happens, and you realize what is really going on here. Let's say that first time around, you chose A and your opponent chose B. This time, you choose B, expecting your opponent to choose B again, and...
...they choose A.
You are dumbfounded. Flabbergasted. How is that possible? You are the player. You are the one with the ability to experience the bi-directional narrative. You are the one with the ability to jump from scene to scene and try new things, because it is a video game and you are the one in control. So how?
And then you realize that Sigma is having the same thoughts you are. His internal dialogue mimics your own. But, last time, they chose...so why, this time... And it hits you. Sigma remembers. Sigma is starting to remember the previous timelines—the previous jumps you have made along that flowchart. And the longer you play, the more you realize that Sigma isn't the only one—your companion, Phi, has been acting this way the entire time. And as the game progresses, both Sigma and Phi begin to retain their consciousness whenever they "jump" from one timeline—from one dimension, essentially—to another.
That's when Virtue's Last Reward blew my goddamn mind. Not only did it integrate its core gameplay loop directly into the narrative, but it explores things like mutli-dimensional theory and parallel worlds—concepts that I find incredibly intriguing.
There are many, many more twists and turns from there, but this is the moment that cemented this game in my top 3. I love it when games explain their "video-gaminess," for lack of a better term, with in-world explanations. Undertale, Destiny, Hades, and even the recent Loop Hero all do this perfectly, but in my experience, none of them stand up to the presentation of 999 and VLR.
The Zero Escape games were largely my inspiration for the Labyrinths of Lunacy scenario in Arkham LCG. There is this idea throughout that all three sets of participants are trapped in the same complex, fighting against the same mastermind, and then you reach the center where you expect to team up, and...nothing. It's just you. The other groups don't exist in your reality.
They are in their own parallel timeline, and your captor, Eixodolon, exists across all of them. I know it's not quite the same level of effectiveness, but I hope the twist in that scenario was similarly entertaining for players. I especially love this "Paradox Effect" treachery that hints at this somewhat by showing the same person in three timelines, giving players the opportunity to speak with a teammate from another timeline. (In an early draft of this treachery, you and that teammate would both draw a card if you were playing the same investigator—a nod to the fact that you are communicating with yourself across a different timeline, just like Eixodolon!)
I think a lot about the theories at play in VLR. I often dwell on my own choices, and what my life would look like if I could "jump" back to a previous point in the vast flowchart of my life, and choose a different option. Sometimes I wish I had that power. Sometimes I think about the alternate, parallel me out there, living out a completely different life than my own, and wonder if they're happy. I took a lot of inspiration from this experience when writing one of the short stories in A Drift Apart, which is the short story collection I wrote in tandem with last year's Kickstarter for Darkdrifters. In The Dream of the Last Stop, June is trapped in a somber nightmare demesne of their own creation—an endless train that runs through the countless decisions they have made throughout life. Each passenger represents a decision point, and with each stop, June most grapple with their own regrets as they watch their life unfold in ways they never could have considered. Definitely check it out if this sort of thing interests you.
12) Doki Doki Literature Club (2017)—Oh, so that is what this game is about
Few games surprised me as much as Doki Doki Literature Club. In addition to being freaky as all hell, it has a lot to say about video games as a medium, or indeed even any work of fiction, if you extrapolate enough. It also has one of the best heel-turn mic-drop reality shredding moments in any video game, hands down. It also looks like this:
Again, I'll be dropping pretty massive spoilers, so if you want to experience this moment for yourself, scroll no further. For some context, I experienced Doki Doki in probably the most unrealistic and also most optimal of situations. Basically, a friend of mine who knows my tastes really well told me to just start playing the game completely blind, knowing absolutely nothing about it. I was encouraged even to avoid looking at the steam page and/or any reviews, in order to keep myself purposely in the dark about the game's true nature. I will say that I did catch a glimpse of the game's tags on Steam, and that alone intrigued the hell out of me. For those wondering, the game's tags on steam are as follows: Anime, Visual Novel, and Psychological Horror. To which I replied:
So I started playing, having no clue what I was getting into. It opens up with a very basic and intentionally cliche premise. You are the newest member of your school's literature club, populated only by a group of cute girls: your childhood friend; the quiet, bookish girl; the feisty tsundere girl; and the popular club president. And they're all sooo dateable! It is essentially the same premise as every single visual novel dating sim ever made. The first several hours of this game do not play at all with this trope, except with very very slight hints that there may be more going on behind the scenes. You attend class, converse with the girls, hear the poems they've written (some of which start to get a little.........strange), and "write" your own poems by clicking on words that match the girl you want to get to like you. Not that this ever pans out.
Your first sign that something might be wrong is that Sayori, your childhood friend, starts to exhibit signs of depression, which is exacerbated as you start spending more time with the other girls in the club. After several days of this, she confesses her feelings to you, and you are given the choice of whether or not to reciprocate them.
At this point, I was starting to get a little...worried. Both options seem a little unhealthy. Sayori was putting immense pressure on herself, feeling undeserving of your love. I didn't think that there would be a happy ending just by reciprocating her feelings. But then again, this is just a video game, and I'm reading way too much into it...right?
Okay, I have to give another warning here. This one is not a spoiler warning, it is a content warning. The rest of this entry contains images and/or video of explicit suicide.
Well. I suppose by now you can guess what happens. You go to pick up Sayori before school like you usually do, only this time, she's not responding to you knocking at her door. Your stomach turns. Something is not right. You open the door and what happens next is so sudden and jaw-dropping, I am quite sure it literally stopped my heart for a few seconds.
Again, this video is very disturbing. If you really want to know more but don't wish to watch this, I don't blame you. Seriously, I'm not joking.
What is truly nightmarish about this scene is how the rest of the game seems to understand it has just descended into an entirely different genre. The music, normally upbeat and cutesy, is warped and garbled. The game begins to break down and glitch. The background disappears, replaced with an error message. And the best part is, if you actually open up the game's text files and look at the spot where the "error" supposedly occurred, you see this little piece of genius: "Oh geez...I didn't break anything, did I? Hold on a sec, I can probably fix this...I think...Actually, you know what? This would probably be a lot easier if I just deleted her. She's the one who's making this so difficult." (jacksepticeye does this himself around 3:00 in the above video if you'd like to see this for yourself.)
This moment dug into my soul. I can't stress enough how completely out of left field it felt. Even knowing that users gave the game a "Psychological Horror" tag, I really honestly did not see it coming.
And then, the game resets. And Sayori simply isn't in the game anymore. It goes back to "normal," with you attending class and your "character" not seeming to wonder where Sayori has gone, but you, the player, know. Something is wrong. And as it proceeds, the game continues to glitch and break down in ways that make you question (1) whether this is really even a game, (2) who is making this happen, and (3) what you can possibly do to prevent it. But nothing stands up to the heart-stopping shock of Sayori's death.
In case you haven't played the rest of this game, I won't spoil the rest, but suffice it to say that this game made me re-evaluate what it might like to be a character in a false world, stripped of agency and worth, and what that realization might do to a person. This became a major theme in my Darkdrifters series: what is real, and what is fiction? If a Drifter like Poppy meets a demesnewalker in one of her dreams, is that demesnewalker a real person, or a fake one? And how much does the line between the two matter?
13) Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony (2017)—The First Case
Nope, I am not going to talk about the ending to this game. If you're a fan of Danganronpa, you know how polarizing the ending to this game is. Honestly, it blew my mind quite a bit, but no—I'm going to talk today about the twist in the very first murder case, why I absolutely adore it, and why it lives rent-free in my head almost every day.
Again, I want to reiterate I'll be talking about some big spoilers for the opening of Danganronpa V3, which is the third in the series. If you've played 1 and 2, I highly recommend you play 3 before reading this! If you're not a fan of Danganronpa and have no idea what this is or how to pronounce this, let me lay down some information so you know what the heck I'm talking about.
Danganronpa is a series of visual novel games (seeing a recurring theme here) in which a class of 15 high schoolers, each the very best at their chosen study, profession, or hobby, are locked in a "killing game." The only way to escape is to kill one of the other students and get away with it. If the other students guess wrong, they are killed and the killer escapes. If the other students get it right, you are punished, and the rest live on, still trapped within the school. It's a fun premise, and it plays like a cross between a murder mystery, friendship/dating simulator, and a deduction game, like Phoenix Wright.
Danganronpa typically follows a pretty standard formula. In a cast of characters who are truly unique and eccentric in their own ways, you always play a pretty mundane, average boy with no spectacular ability. This helps you assume the role of the main character, and also serves to accentuate the rest of the cast. But this is not the case in Danganronpa V3. The writers instead made the decision to have the game's main character be one of the cast members with a specific skill—in this case, the "Ultimate Pianist." This is interesting because in this series we've never been given control over a character with such a distinct personality. She swiftly becomes friends with Shuichi Saihara, this game's "Ultimate Detective", and when the first murder happens, the two team up to uncover the truth.
I'll gloss over the exact details of the case, but the important thing is that, among Danganronpa trials, this one is actually kind of tough if you—like me—fell hard for the twist. Everybody who is suspicious seems to have an alibi, and there doesn't appear to be any way for the murder to have occurred...that is until you stumble across a piece of information that changes everything. It appears to implicate Shuichi at first, and for some reason, Shuichi is refusing to defend himself. In fact, he's oddly quiet for most of the second half of the trial. Kaede knows Shuichi is not the killer. At first you think it's just because of their deep bond. Then Kaede is asked if she knows who the killer is, and she drops this absolute bombshell of a line:
The game grinds to a halt. Kaede and Shuichi have an exchange in their heads—not a real conversation, but a sort of battle of wits as Shuichi realizes the truth. In her head, Kaede apologizes for putting him in this position. To make him do what he is about to do—she knows it will tear him apart inside. And yet, to protect all of them, she must.
Then your point of view switches.
And now, you are playing as Shuichi.
Kaede is the killer. She went after the mastermind to protect them all, but as the trial proceeded, it became clear that the person she killed was not the mastermind, but an innocent (and also, in my opinion, the character with the best fashion sense, goddamn it Kaede). And so, she forced Shuichi to reveal the truth.
Maybe some people were able to see this coming a mile away, but I will be honest. This twist got me hard. You have to understand—despite only being the first trial, by now, you had been playing as Kaede for a pretty huge chunk of gameplay—between 4 and 7 hours, likely. You've watched her every action. How could it be her?
But it's not just that. If you look up this game, until you've actually played past this point, Kaede is the main character. Despite only being in maybe 15% of the game's story, she is placed prominently in advertisements, including the game's box art.
Granted, so is Shuichi, but that's pretty common. In every Danganronpa game, there is usually some other "best friend" character who has prominent billing, so to speak. In fact, this whole twist is cleverly disguised by the fact that up until the twist, the original Danganronpa follows the same exact formula: the main character is best friends with the Ultimate Detective. And since Danganronpa is a very formulaic series (by design), you think: "Ah, it's this sort of relationship." You are convinced from word one that Shuichi and Kaede will probably both live until the end, or at the very least, until the final case.
Not only does this twist hit hard and fast, but it leaves its mark on Shuichi throughout the rest of the story. This scene in particular, in which Shuichi visits the school's piano hall to grieve, and hears her favorite song in his head (Debussy's Clair de Lune, which also happens to be my favorite piano piece of all time), well...it definitely got to me.
Anyway, while this moment isn't the most mind-blowing on this list by any means, I think I can appreciate it a lot more as a game designer than as a consumer. See, there are a lot of people who end up touching a game in some way before it reaches players. This is especially true for video games. There are entire departments who might even work in different offices or buildings from the game's developers. Besides those responsible for writing and directing the game, there is an art team, a graphic design team, a marketing team, a sales team, a production team, upper management, dozens of people. And for a twist like this to be effective, every single one of them has to be 100% on board.
In order for this twist to really work, the art team has to give Kaede the compelling appearance of a main character. The graphic design team has to work both Kaede and Shuichi prominently into the game's cover. The marketing team has to really sell the fact that Kaede is the game's main character and only main character. And you might be thinking, "well, yeah, obviously," but it isn't always easy to get that many people all on the same exact page. All it would have taken is one marketing writer to accidentally call Shuichi the main character in a press release or magazine ad, and wham. Suddenly the whole thing is dead in the water. This is even more true when one considers the game's ridiculous and incredible ending.
I guess this twist just impresses upon me the fact that every game is a team endeavor, and that communication between departments is absolutely key to selling a story's twists and turns.
Well, that's it. I hope you've enjoyed this series. It turns out I have a lot to say about video games, which is...not surprising, to say the least. If you've enjoyed reading this, please consider subscribing to the site to be notified of future updates, and check out my projects page for more! Thank you!