The best plot twist of 2018 came when I least expected it — in a video game.
Video games can pull off big twists and turns, to be sure. (I can still remember the once heroic Kerrigan returning as a more villainous figure in the original Starcraft, with the same chill down my spine that I felt back in 1998.) But Unavowed didn’t feel like the sort of game that would have a twist.
I was enjoying it, but in a vaguely nostalgic way, thanks to its big, pixelated images and very-’90s graphics, which captured the golden era of the graphic adventure game. (Think King’s Quest or The Secret of Monkey Island — games where the goal is to advance the story by having the main character solve simple puzzles, usually by combining objects they find lying around.)
These sorts of games, increasingly, are played by diehards who never quite left the ‘90s heyday of the genre (guilty as charged), and even the best stories in these games are rarely unpredictable.
But Unavowed was, and the more I thought about what made the twist so successful, the more I realized that it could be a good case study for people who write other forms of fiction could learn from. It’s all about subverting expectations.
For most of its running time, Unavowed is a pretty straightforward “magic detectives” show
Unavowed, from Wadjet Eye Games, is the latest work by the terrific designer Dave Gilbert, who is particularly skilled at designing great characters and writing fun dialogue, even if the plots of his past games have rarely pushed the envelope of what video games are capable of.
Unavowed is by far Gilbert’s biggest game — both in terms of acclaim and in terms of its total size. It tells the story of the player character (I’m going to call her Sally, for that was the name my wife and I gave the player character when we played), who opens the game discovering she was possessed by a demon and wreaked untold havoc across New York City.
By answering questions in the opening scene — in which a then-unnamed demon is exorcized from the main character — you fill in the name, gender, and occupation of the player character, allowing for a variety of different stories, though you can only choose from three occupations. Our Sally was a woman bartender; you might play as a man actor. (You can also be a police officer.)
The changes this device makes to the game are ... mostly superficial, but they provide a feeling of freedom within a genre that can be pretty locked-down to a single perspective even at its best. The main character joins a group called the Unavowed (hey, that’s the name of the game!), which is a sort of magical detective agency whose members travel around New York to fix things that the main character’s previously possessed self set wrong.
This is an absolutely rock solid setup for the game, because it effectively divides the game into nine or 10 episodes of a TV show, slowly joining up with other Unavowed members who accompany the main character on her voyages. You’ll surely come to like some of the characters more than others — my wife and I were particularly fond of Mandana, a half-Djinn woman who was hundreds of years old — but you can change up which of the four Unavowed characters you bring along with you on cases at essentially any time, and they all boast different powers that offer a diverse range of solutions to certain problems, depending on whom you’ve brought along.
And the cases, while giving the game a “case of the week” feel like something out of The X-Files or Supernatural — especially since any of them can be solved in a single sitting — also sneakily contribute to character development, because we’re slowly but surely learning what the protagonist got up to when she was possessed and apparently trying to build some horrible magical device. (The game leaves her true intentions a mystery until the very end.)
The result is a steadily building sense of dread, with prophets of doom parading on Wall Street, and little girls who won’t stop scribbling on the sidewalks even though it’s well past bedtime, and endless rain dumping all over the city.
It’s all very well done, and though most of the puzzles aren’t too difficult to solve, the cleverest cases require stringing a bunch of them together, as in one scenario that requires the protagonist to garner the help of a ghost child she can technically only communicate with when she, herself, is also kinda dead. Add to that strong characters, Gilbert’s typically keen ear for dialogue, and a lovely “shadow New York” atmosphere, and Unavowed would be a great game even without its twist.
But that twist does take the story up another level. And to explain it, I’m going to have to spoil everything.
Unavowed turns its structure against you in an incredibly clever way
Now, to be fair, had I been experiencing Unavowed as a TV series or something similar, I might not have been so sideswiped by its big twist. After all, part of why it worked was that I wasn’t looking for it, whereas I would have been expecting this exact type of plot turn in a genre film or a TV series.
Still, I thought I knew what would happen: Unavowed appeared to be a standard redemption tale. Sally would be chasing down her demons — literally. She would figure out what had happened when Melkhiresa (the demon that had possessed her) had attempted to turn New York City into her own stomping grounds.
She would try to assuage the battered souls she left behind in her wake, releasing them to move on to the afterlife and putting right things that had gone wrong when she, say, slowly baited a couple and the woman renting a room from them into killing each other, by building suspicion and mistrust among the three of them.
But that’s not what’s going on. What’s going on is that Sally is the bad guy. Drawn to a life filled with power and riches after a nondescript tenure as a bartender, Sally lured a demon known for possessing vast amounts of knowledge into her head, then used its vast amounts of knowledge to do evil things. The exorcism that opened the game was designed to draw out an evil spirit, not a demon in particular — and it drew out the essence of the very human Sally while leaving behind a Melkhiresa who thought she was Sally.
It’s a twist that ends up flipping all of Unavowed on its head, making it a story less about a human trying to find her own redemption and more about the meaning of redemption, period. After all, Melkhiresa wasn’t “evil,” in the traditional sense. She was more or less a giant library of knowledge — until she was made party to evil by an evildoing human.
But is Melkhiresa still responsible for that evil? After all, Sally couldn’t have carried out her misdeeds without all Melkhiresa’s knowledge newly transplanted into her head. So the evil was driven by Sally but facilitated by Melkhiresa. Does a remora care what the shark eats if it still gets fed?
Slowly but surely, Unavowed’s interest in redemption and grace reveals itself not to be a standard exploration of those themes but a story that ponders to what degree our longing to right our wrongs makes us human at all. It’s also about the ways that we assume certain things about certain people, just based on the kind of story we’re in. (After all, when you start a game with an exorcism, well, you figure you know what kinds of demons you’re dealing with.) The twist here isn’t just a great twist because it’s unexpected, but because it turns everything in the game on its ear.
Unavowed proceeds from that point with roughly a third of the game left to finish post-twist, which really gives the emotions its provokes time to sink in. But I’ll be thinking about the how of the twist for quite a while to come. The game used an episodic structure to lull me into complacency, then socked me out of nowhere with something that upended all of my expectations. I’ll never quite be able to recapture that feeling when playing the game again — but the thematic depth it adds will only make future playthroughs all the richer. It’s quite the achievement.