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Everyone has memories of video games that have left a strong impression. Maybe it was collecting stars in Super Mario 64 as a child, or defeating the first boss in Nioh this year. Some games go beyond memorable and deliver moments that would be impossible in another medium. Though they have narrative elements in common with books, movies, and more, games have their own special components that let them tell stories in a way nothing else can. Through clever plot twists, unique mechanics, and player interactivity, we catalog some of the best moments that have come to define games as a genre and explain why they couldn’t work in any other form.
WARNING: This list features major spoilers for Metal Gear Solid, BioShock, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, X-Men for Sega Genesis, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, God of War III, Braid, and Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem (listed in order). If you want to play any of these games spoiler-free, skip that entry!
Metal Gear Solid – "You like Castlevania, don't you?"Perhaps one of the most iconic moments in video game history is the infamous battle between Solid Snake and Psycho Mantis in Metal Gear Solid. A powerful enemy with telepathic and psychokinetic abilities, Psycho Mantis flaunts his mind-reading skills before the fight begins. What makes this moment unique to games is the individuality of his observations. If the player saved rarely, Mantis calls them “reckless.” If they successfully avoided traps, he questions whether they are cautious or a coward. To further add to the unsettling atmosphere, Mantis then proves his power by listing other video games that the player enjoys.
The eeriness of the whole encounter is breathtaking, leading to a brief wriggle of doubt that this is just a game… right? No other medium could replicate the sense that the antagonist is talking not to a collective you, but you the player specifically, like this moment does. The clever trick of beating Psycho Mantis by switching the controller from the first port to the second to stop his mind-reading further cements this fight’s place in video game innovation.
BioShock – "Would you kindly...?"As diverse as video games are, they can fall into a pattern that is easy to get used to. A voice comes over a radio, gives players an objective, and the player does it. In many cases, players follow these instructions simply because that’s how games work. Missions arrive, you complete them, and the story advances until the game is over. Almost as though you were in a trance…
The moment Andrew Ryan reveals to Jack, the protagonist of BioShock, that he has in fact been under Atlas’ hypnotic control throughout the entire game is both awesome and awful. With one phrase, the apparent freedom of interactivity in video games is subverted, leading players to question the many things they’ve done on their journey through Rapture. Because the impact of the twist lies in the player’s actions and choices (or lack thereof), this moment could only work in a video game.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons – Learning to swimKnown best for its moving story, this game is rife with memorable moments. One that works only in video games, however, relies on the game’s unique control scheme and themes. In Brothers, the two siblings are each controlled simultaneously, either through the left and right stick on a controller or the WASD and arrow keys on PC. This leads players to establish a clear distinction for the controls: left is for the elder brother, right for the younger. The two also have their own skill sets, the most notable being that the older brother can swim and the younger brother can’t.
At the end of their long journey, the elder brother is attacked by a monstrous spider woman and dies from his injuries, leaving the younger brother alone on his return home. The younger brother travels home only to be confronted by an expanse of water without his older brother to help him across. The moment players realize they must use the left stick to move the boy across, marking his passage into adulthood, is powerful in a way that only a game can convey.
X-Men – "Reset the computer now!"Released on the Sega Genesis in 1993, this game frustrated many players with a devious twist rarely seen in video games and never in other media. In this entry to the series, the X-Men are stuck in a computer simulation that has been infected by a dangerous virus which forces them to fight against increasingly powerful foes.
Before the level called Mojo’s Crunch, Professor X, leader of the X-Men, explains to the player character that they must reset the computer to erase the bug in the simulation. After defeating the level’s boss, players are reminded of these instructions by a prompt simply stating, “Reset the computer now!” Confused, many players scoured the level searching for the computer without success. Instead of referring to a computer within the game, players actually had to use the reset button on the Genesis console itself. Using the Genesis reset button as a gameplay component was a mind-blowing moment of innovation that was far ahead of its time.
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories – "It's titled 'Happy family.'"The Silent Hill series is notorious for its psychological depth, but Shattered Memories follows a direction only a game could. Throughout the game, players complete a series of tests under the guidance of Dr. Kaufmann, a psychoanalyst. Beginning with a yes or no questionnaire, the game tailors the players’ entire experience based on their responses. These changes are subtle at first, but the breakthrough moment where players realize how much impact they have on the story comes after Kaufmann’s second test. The doctor gives players a picture called “Happy Family” and tells them to color it in however they wish.
After the session with Kaufmann ends, the game cuts to the player character, Harry Mason, approaching an eerily familiar house. Players can immediately see the enormous effects of the psych tests here: the door, roof, and even the shirts of the residents match their drawing perfectly, tying these two distinct game segments powerfully together. This technique has also been used in Until Dawn, allowing games to give players an individualized horror experience unlike anything else.
God of War III – "I created you and I will be your end!"Revenge isn’t sweet so much as brutal in the God of War series, as God of War III’s ending demonstrates. God of War II begins with Kratos being shunned by the gods of Olympus for his disobedient and violent nature. Zeus eventually betrays Kratos and kills him, but Kratos’ soul is rescued by the titan Gaia, who sends him off on a quest for revenge that spans the events of God of War II and continues into God of War III. His journey culminates in an epic final battle against Zeus.
Once Zeus lies defeated at Kratos’ feet, players are given the usual circle button prompt to attack the fallen god. What makes this moment unique is that players can repeatedly hit the circle button, punching Zeus over and over for as long as they like. The longer the player mashes the button, the redder the screen becomes as blood covers the first-person camera, and even then they can continue. This moment is only possible in a video game because it gives full agency to players to decide when enough is enough and end the fight.
Braid – "Help!"Braid follows the journey of Tim, a man with the power to rewind time, as he attempts to rescue The Princess from an evil monster. Tim’s quest propels him through strange worlds and difficult puzzles that put his abilities to the test. Eventually, he reaches the final world, where all of time runs in reverse except for Tim himself. He finally finds The Princess, who escapes from the grip of a knight and begs for help. She and Tim run through the stage helping each other overcome obstacles until she is safe in her home and Tim is able to reunite with her… Or so it seems.
When players try to enter the door to The Princess’ room, time suddenly reverts to its normal flow and The Princess begins to run from Tim. Confusion gives way to revelation as players chase her, realizing that the apparent help they gave and received before were actually attempts to trap one another. The moment The Princess jumps into the knight’s waiting arms and you realize you were the monster all along is a shock that comes from the masterful intertwining of narrative and interactivity.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem – "This isn't really happening!"For some developers, messing with the audience is a crucial part of their work. Unlike a twist in a film or a difficult passage in a novel, video games can make players question not just themselves, but technology as well. Eternal Darkness is a survival horror game whose sanity effects chip away at players through the guise of attacking the player character. The most memorable of these moments is targeted directly (and cruelly) at players without any attempt to disguise it as a sympathetic reaction to the protagonist’s woes.
If players try to save their game with a full sanity meter, the game will appear to save as normal. Immediately afterward, a prompt asks players if they would like to delete all save files. No matter which option is chosen, a deletion progress bar comes into view and states that all files have successfully been deleted. The fear of losing all their progress is coupled with fear that the disc, memory card, or console has been damaged somehow. This direct jab at players without the intermediary of the character is completely unique to video games and devastatingly effective, as victims of Undertale, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and Eternal Darkness can testify.
Moments like these show what video games are truly capable of by giving players experiences they can’t find in other media. Would you kindly share some of your favorite memories of moments that could only work in games in the comments below?
Email the author Manon Hume, or follow on Game Informer.