Twist endings. Sucker punches. Moral dilemmas. Psychological terrors. These 33 games will mess you up.
I love games that inspire a strong emotional reaction. I’m not just talking about the elation of victory or getting a bit teary over a melodramatic cutscene; I mean games that leave you breathless and confused, hurting and betrayed, cowering and whimpering. Games that linger in the mind; that make you look over your shoulder.
There’s a fashion for shrugging off the emotional effects of video games, like “I’m too tough to be scared” or “I’ve seen better than that”, but if you’re willing to let go of your tough persona and engage with a game you can experience something very special indeed – and/or be profoundly messed up.
The games below all have the capacity to affect the player deeply. Please note that there will be massive, weighty, egregious SPOILERS in the discussion, so please skip straight past any title you want to experience for yourself; these games are most successful when you go in clean. Click through to the very last page for a spoiler-free list of games, if you’re just looking for recommendations. Every game here is worth playing.
We may as well start with the Big Daddy of twist endings: BioShock, the delightfully sandboxy combat of which distracts you from all the narrative warning signs – until it’s too late.
Rapture is such a beautifully realised world that you’re inexorably sucked into the lore and backstory almost without noticing that a great deal of groundwork is being laid; you arrive at the end fully briefed on the warring philosophies of the undersea utopia without realising it, thanks to a masterclass in embedded narrative. Meanwhile, the moral dilemma of whether to harvest the Little Sisters or not keeps your attention away from the questionable nature of the rest of your actions.
And then the punch: it turns out that none of your actions and choices mattered a jot. You were being controlled all along, and you never even knew. You’re brainwashed – or are you?
It’s hard to convey the impact of this moment in text form, but there’s more going on here than just a surprise ending. BioShock deliberately foregrounds the lack of choice and pressing linearity of narrative shooters, as well as most players’ unconscious acceptance of that. If you think about it too long you’ll never look at games the same way again.
Papers, Please is not any easy game. Processing enough hopeful travellers to pay your bills requires concentration, accuracy and speed, and it’s very hard to muster those virtues when you’re being threatened, abused, pleased with or even almost blown up.
On your first few goes the stories of the people interest and sometimes touch you; repeating chapters to try and pass difficult checkpoints turns you into a stamp-bot, ruthlessly refusing to engage in your quest to pay for heating so your kids don’t freeze. It’s not a pleasant transformation.
The escalating security requirements of your overlords, the increasingly desperate attempts of the populace to cross the border and the genuinely stressful management of your time and money while juggling the possibility of assisting revolutionaries all add up to a game experience that cannot be described as comfortable. Papers, Please leaves you exhausted, conflicted and questioning.
Spec Ops: The Line
A re-telling of Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, Spec Ops: The Line deliberately engages with the horrors of war our action-hero triple-A shooters regularly gloss over.
One scene in particular sticks out: the player fires white phosphorous into a building, which is shortly thereafter revealed to have been full of civilians. You’re not just told that this was the case, though; you have to move among the bodies, absorbing the consequences of the action. It’s genuinely horrifying.
The long list of atrocities and horrors would be confronting enough on its own, but The Line isn’t content with making you feel deeply uncomfortable about ever playing another military shooter; it also pulls out a twist ending where you discover that the leader who has guided you through this ordeal, whose orders you obeyed and who you intend to hold accountable for what you’ve seen and done – was you all along. You did these things, and lied to yourself to pretend you didn’t want to.
Blow this for a game of soldiers. I need my teddy bear.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
Silicon Knights has clearly gone bonkers, but the question “why would anyone give those guys money?” is very clearly answered with Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem; if this cult classic had been published on multiple platforms and backed by a publisher with the horror experience to market it, it would likely be more widely recognised for its brilliance.
Much of the impact of Sanity’s Requiem is that pure Nintendo gamers hadn’t really played anything like it on their family-friendly consoles, but to be fair neither had anyone else. It introduced the sanity metre, a concept then so novel Nintendo trademarked it, and like Metal Gear Solid 2, manifests your character’s declining mental comfort by messing with you through glitches and gameplay twists.
Uncomfortably disturbing and eerie in a way that lingers long in the mind, Sanity’s Requiem also distinguishes itself by getting a bit meta. Early in a play through you’re given the choice of one of three alignments, and it’s only after you complete the game with all three alignments that the true ending is revealed; you have been manipulated in three timestreams simultaneously to wipe out the rivals for a potentially greater ancient evil. What in the heck. Take my money.
The Walking Dead: Season One
If you’ve got kids or parent issues, The Walking Dead: Season One is harrowing. Talltale is skilled enough that everyone else is reasonably likely to be strongly affected, but there are huge groups of gamers out there for whom the story of Lee and Clementine is damn near unplayable.
By episode three the pressure to protect, cherish and teach Clem weighs down like millstones. The failures of other parents, despite their very best efforts, is a constant theme throughout the season but really begins to bite in this one.
By the time you reach the conclusion of the season, faced with the choice of asking Clem to murder you or to die knowing you’ll reanimate and possibly harm her, it’s almost a relief. You have done what you could, and you can forgive yourself for what you couldn’t do, because by now The Walking Dead has beaten a lesson into you that you may never forget: you cannot protect your children. And nobody can protect you, child.
Another very famous twist ending, Heavy Rain really does a number on the player with its red herrings, false trails, and seeming contradictions.
Tasked with tracking down the Origami Killer, the player is more than gently nudged into wondering whether one of the multiple playable protagonists is responsible for the kidnapping of his own son. The game deliberately highlights chunks of missing time and asks you to consider what the character was doing during these periods.
This makes the reveal much more awesome, because you were half right. The killer is one of the cast members, but it’s one that you’re unlikely to suspect, even with meticulous exploration. In fact it almost feels impossible, and many players considered the solution unfair.
A repeat play through, in the knowledge of what comes next, can make you feel stupid; the clues are there all along. What happens during the times the camera’s not on the player? What’s the simplest solution to a locked-room murder? You asked all the right questions, but you didn’t point them in the right direction.
In the same first-person-puzzler vein as Portal, but on a whole ‘nother level. Whereas Portal 2′s single-player puzzles devolve into obstacle courses, near impossible to get stuck on once you realise every single object is part of the solution, Antichamber can hold you down for days.
It’s not just that the puzzles are tricky, it’s that they escalate in multiple directions. You are free to explore in any direction you choose, switching to an alternate path if you get hopelessly stuck, but each twist of the corridors throws up a new kind of challenge, requiring you to bend your brain in yet another new direction.
Escher-like tricks of perspective and unreal architecture must be accepted and incorporated into your mental landscape in order to proceed. The act of getting your head around the puzzles feels like physical effort; you push and push and push and suddenly squeeze on through to emerge on the other side of a gestalt switch that leaves you disoriented. You may have scraped off a limb or two in the process, though, and you’re going to need them back when the game switchbacks and undoes all its own work to insist you think perpendicularly to your current course.
Play this one alone and don’t use guides. Beware of the hangover after marathon sessions.
The new byword in horror, P.T. is a playable teaser for Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro’s take on the Silent Hill franchise. As an adventure game it is reasonable; as a horror experience it is extraordinary; as marketing it is phenomenal; as a combination of all three it is a work of genius.
Unforgivingly inaccessible, P.T. left many players confused and bored, seemingly stuck in a dull loop. But for those who worked out how to get further, its mysteries are still being discussed. What makes the baby give its final laugh? What determines which of several random corridors you’ll see at a specific point? What does the dialogue refer to? What do the numbers mean?
Plugging away at these puzzles is an exercise in masochism, unless you’re happy to turn the sound down and the lights on. P.T. is deeply, profoundly scary. Go in cold and play in the dark. Your heart can take it – probably – and maybe one day you’ll even stop looking over your shoulder. I haven’t.
Read more here: VG247