The Art Of The Plot Twist

A few years ago, I spent a weekend cranking through season 1 of 24. I don't regret this. Binge-watching is a beautiful experience.

24, by the way, is a show about a dude named Jack Bauer who uses cheat codes to save the world once every 24 hours or so. The show is well-known not just for high-octane action (read: lots of guns) but for being Plot Twisty As Heck: at the end of every episode, some crazy shit goes down. Your favorite tech support guy is gassed to death. It turns out the president is a bad guy. That sort of thing. It's addictive.

Near the end of season 1, which, again, I watched within two days, you get to experience The Plot Twist Of All Plot Twists when it turns out that (SPOILERS) Nina, Jack Bauer's best friend and confidante, is actually an evil super-spy for reasons never entirely explained. When you re-watch that first season, there are a couple of subtle hints, but mostly this plot twist comes out of nowhere and screws with your head for no reason.

That was cool. But you know what would've been cooler? If I had to identify the double-agent through my own investigation, and solve the mystery myself. In other words, it'd be cooler in a video game. (Incidentally, there was a 24 video game on the PlayStation 2, and it was actually pretty decent, but the twists were, as in the show, spoonfed to you.)

Over the past few weeks, I've been playing Phoenix Wright: Dual Destinies, an excellent game that I won't spoil here. Dual Destinies, like 24, is Plot Twisty As Heck. But unlike 24, the latest Phoenix Wright's bombshells are revelations that you have to put together on your own, by gradually piecing the clues together (as guided by the game) to figure out who the real killers are and why they did it. Everything mostly makes sense. The plot twists feel earned, like they're there because things couldn't have happened any other way, not because the writers needed to pull out a plot twist at the last minute.

During a few different points in Dual Destinies, you the player have to hash things out for yourself. Instead of reading or watching one of these twists, like, say, the fact that the murderer was a golden retriever all along, you have to figure that out for yourself, and choose the golden retriever from your case files to present as the real killer instead of the corgi or pitbull.

If you're anything like me, you'll get a certain thrill out of that moment where suddenly everything hits you, and the adrenaline starts rushing and the pieces start falling in place, and you realize that oh wow it really was the golden retriever all along.

Here are some of the Rules Of The Plot Twist: 1) It should feel simultaneously unexpected and inevitable—you won't see it coming, but when it happens, everything fits perfectly; 2) It has to be earned—we have to care about the people involved; 3) It's okay to fool the audience, but it's not okay for storytellers to rely upon camera trickery or other nonsense that deludes us just for the sake of setting up a twist.

We human beings are addicted to surprise. We love it. We eat up live events where anything could happen—"holy crap did Janet Jackson just show her nipple?"—and we get hooked on shows that leave us hanging at the end of every episode.

But those are passive moments. We just watch them happen. In a video game, unlike in any other narrative medium, we can have active plot twists—plot twists where we're part of the story, and where we can decide what happens next.

Take Persona 4, for example. Atlus's high-school-simulator-slash-RPG is stellar for many reasons, but the one big moment you'll never forget is the sequence near the game's end, when you have to pinpoint the person who has been murdering people in your little town for some 50 hours of gameplay. When you figure it out—and you have to figure it out, based on what you've seen and heard over the entire game—it hits you like an Ali punch. (You get three tries for this, and if you get it wrong, you get a bad ending.)

Or Knights of the Old Republic, a plot twist in which the player's entire purpose is flipped in a scene that comes out of nowhere, yet feels totally justified and earned once you know the truth behind it. BioShock's big twist is similarly heavy and well-structured.

Those are the best plot twists. The ones that you get to play. The ones that take advantage of this medium to make you an active participant in the story. The ones that feel more satisfying because your actions were part of them, or because you were the one who put in the work to piece them together.

I just wish we'd see them more often.

Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG. It runs every Friday at 3pm ET. You can reach Jason at jason@kotaku.com or on Twitter at @jasonschreier.