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Video Games and the Fine Art of Subversion.

Warning, the following article features major spoilers to plot points of several games, read at your own risk.

We as gamers tend to be an especially obedient bunch. For all our attempts at being individual by demanding the ability to have different endings and customizable options, at the end of the day when a game tells us to do something, we do it. It doesn't matter why Bowser kidnapped Princess Peach. For all we know, turtles are a subjugated race in the Mushroom Kingdom and kidnapping Peach is the only way for Bowser to open up a political dialog. Nope. All that matters is that we need to get Mario across all those levels and smash all the turtles along the way. This obedience isn't lost on people. The US Army uses specially made shooter games in attempts to recruit people, and gun companies pay big money to have product placement in games like Call of Duty. But every so often a game will come along and use that obedience to throw it in our faces. Subversive games that take our expectations and habits of video games and use it to really make us think.


Plot twists, of course, are an essential part of storytelling. They have been a common element of stories, particularly in the mystery and horror genres. As such, they are a common element of their corresponding video game genres. Though it was so long ago we take it for granted, it was a huge twist in Resident Evil to discover that the Umbrella Company was the bad guy all along. The subversion I'm talking about is very different than a plot twist. While they too are twists in the story, the difference is that we facilitate these twists. It is our hand and our actions that not bring about the revelation, but the result. And as such they make some of the most interesting kinds of games as different kinds of subversion have different results and different meanings.

Subversion as Art

Storytelling as an art is often used metaphorically. Heroes represent virtues, villains represent sins, places and goals represent ideals and so on. They are used by their authors to teach us a lesson or to make us think differently about something we take for granted. George Orwell's Animal Farm was an oblique satire of Communism, for example. Many games use metaphors as well, but one of the most interesting and successful metaphoric games is the Indie sidescroller, Braid. What made Braid so brilliant, and by extension, so subversive, was that the real meaning behind the game was lost unless you played it to full completion, doing beyond even what the game told you to do. On the surface Braid appeared to be a sidescroller similar to the earlier mentioned Mario games. You rescue a princess by going through several levels, and in the final level discover the princess doesn't seem to want to be saved. This subverts the classic sidescroller genre already. We're so used to the pattern that we don't stop to think about the princess's side of the story. But we don't learn why the princess is so against being rescued unless you collect the stars scattered through the game's levels. When those are collected the game's real story is understood. Rescuing the princess unleashes a catastrophic explosion of lights and sounds, ended with a quote from Oppenheimer from the Manhattan Project. We learn the princess was actually a metaphor for nuclear power. You pursued her without thought to end with a terrible result, as had the Manhattan Project had with their success in creating the Atom Bomb.

The Villain is not the Boss


Learning that a previous ally is actually a villain is a fairly common element of RPGs. In fact, it isn't unusual for a character that may even as far as be a part of the player character's team. Though later in the game Seymour becomes Final Fantasy X's main enemy, fairly early in the game play he is required on your team to defeat a piece of the monster Sin. And while Final Fantasy VII begins in pursuit of evil company Shinra, you learn the planet's main threat is Sephiroth, once main character Cloud's idol. The best of the subversive games however, don't allow you at any point to actually destroy the one behind the chaos.

One of my favorite games of all time is The World Ends with You, an action JRPG from Square Enix originally for the DS. While I loved the style, the game play, the characters and the music, what really cemented this game to be in my permanent list of favorites was the ending to the story. In TWEWY you play as Neku, a surly, snarky teenager who wakes up in Shibuya to discover he is dead, and the only way to have a second chance at life is the play The Reaper's Game. As you play through you discover that not only were you murdered, but that if you don't stop the Conductor, the leader of the Reapers, Shibuya and all its inhabitants will be destroyed. After a spectacular battle against the Conductor, who like in true Square Enix fashion, takes on his final form as an elaborate multi-headed dragon serpent you finally discover the truth behind the Reaper's Game and Neku's death. It turns out that Neku's murderer was none other than Joshua, one of Neku's partners, who not only was a major player for the middle part of the game, but was one of the characters whose powers helped you defeat the Conductor is his serpent form. Joshua not only murdered Neku, he is also Shibuya's Composer, the area's creator, who had made a bet with the Conductor to prove to him that Shibuya hadn't become a stagnant, creatively dead place who could only be saved by total destruction. Neku had been used by Joshua to prove that Shibuya was beyond salvation, only to have Neku prove him wrong by growing as a person and expanding his world beyond himself. However, upon this discover there is no additional battle. No final conflict. Despite all the chaos and pain Joshua put Neku through, when given an opportunity for revenge, Neku lets Joshua go. So despite the fact that Joshua is the villain of the game, he never becomes the final boss, something so ingrained in video games that we don't even question it.


Shadow of the Colossus takes it even further. As the game's slow, minimalist play through goes on, you discover that the final villain can never truly be destroyed—because you are effectively the game's antagonist.

The Cake is a Lie


So far my examples have been plot based, the subversion has been in the storyline, or the metaphor of the story, but the beauty of games as an art form is that the game play can be as much of a tool of communication as the story itself. Meaning, how you play tells the story as much as what you play, which is brilliantly displayed in the runaway hit Portal. In the original Portal the character Chell awakens in a cell and in a course of several rooms is given a series of directives by a computerized voice that promises cake for finishing the tasks. The tasks start off extremely basic and get progressively more challenging. Yes, the pools of water are full of toxin, there doesn't seem to be anybody else around and failing certain tasks guarantee death, but you don't question these tasks until almost the end of the game when you discover that the wry, black humored computer telling you what to do is actually planning to murder you and incinerate your body, regardless of if you succeed her tasks or not. In this case the staple of game play, the tutorial, is the element that has become subverted.

The Truth was Always There


What got me thinking about the ways games subvert our expectations when it comes to classic gaming elements such as the goal of a game, our understanding of the 'final boss' and even something as simple as elements of game play, was a recent experience with the JRPG from Square Enix, Bravely Default, which has perhaps one of the most interesting cases of subversion I've experienced. Bravely Default subverts our expectations of video games, particularly the JRPG formula, in two major ways. The first is a combination of my first point, the goal of the game, and my third, our assumed understanding of game play. Bravely Default begins as a classic JRPG in the vein of a classic Final Fantasy game. A group of plucky heroes go on a mission to awaken the four crystals of Wind, Water, Fire and Earth to save the world from darkness. This has been the basic outline of the majority of the Final Fantasy games since the first NES title from 1987. We go through the game awakening the crystals, collecting jobs and completing side quests in true RPG fashion, with our little mission guide Airy the cryst-fairy, reminding us what we need to do next every time we open the menu window. Though there are little tragic moments here and there, we fundamentally follow the Final Fantasy formula with little question. Town, dungeon, town, dungeon, side quest, etc. However, very deep into the game we learn we are being severely misled. Cute, harmless (though utterly obnoxious) cryst-fairy Airy is not the useful little guide she appears to be. We discover that she is in fact the horrible monster we must face to defeat the game. While cute-thing-turns-out-to-be-monster isn't entirely unexpected, though it's surprising in an RPG instead of a horror game, the deliciously subversive part is that the game tells you this at the very beginning. And when I mean the beginning, I mean the title page. Before you even start the game the player is treated to the title page: Bravely Default: Where the Fairy Flies. As you continue to go through the game and learn about the true evil threatening to destroy the world, the letters from the title page shift and the words 'Airy Lies' are highlighted. The message was planted since before you even start the save file. In this case what's being subverted is the idea of the spoiler. Additionally characters within the game constantly remind you to not blindly follow the game's orders. By disobeying Airy's orders in awakening the crystals and breaking them instead, you can activate the ending of the game as soon as the second chapter, forcing Airy to reveal her true intentions.

As game formulas get more and more intrenched and more independent people develop their own games, there will be new forms of subversion that will creep in. But as gamers, we should not continue to take gaming constants for granted, after all, this is what most gaming developers expect. So remember that the next time you play a game, it could just as easily be playing you.

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