I finished playing Heavy Rain last night, and it got me thinking about plot twists and their function in storytelling. Heavy Rain is a game that places itself firmly in the "thriller movie" genre, for better or worse.
It's great at building tension and getting you to care about the characters you meet and control, but it falls into the trap that undermines so many thrillers, namely that its endgame centers around a "shocking" reveal that doesn't actually make any logical sense.
(Just a quick warning: this rest of this post will contain spoilers about movies that are old enough I will assume everyone has seen them. There will be no Heavy Rain spoilers, however.)
The problem with plot twists, see, is that by nature they should make you jump out of your seat or gasp in horror. You'd never expect that [CHARACTER NAME] was the killer in Heavy Rain, after all, and you are of course horrified that you empathized with the character while playing. That's the root of the problem, though; in order to make the twist ending truly surprising, the game's writers decided to fill the story with red herrings and give no real concrete clues about the real killer's identity. They didn't want you to figure it out ahead of time, after all.
I think this is why very few storytellers can pull off a truly stunning twist that holds up under scrutiny. If a writer works to make her story internally consistent, she may layer in too many readable clues and people will write off the twist as "predictable" and feel cheated. The easiest shortcut to making a completely unpredictable twist, then, is to make that twist completely illogical or at odds with everything leading up to it. This will at least ensure a visceral shock in the moment, but ultimately… the audience just feel cheated in the light of day. Six of one, half dozen of the other.
There are the occasional successful twists, of course: The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, and The Usual Suspects come to mind. From what I can remember of the first two, clues to predict the twist were layered in throughout both movies. If you go back and re-watch them a second time, knowing the twist reveals the story rather than undermining it. Of course, there may be those of you out there who figured out the twists halfway through because of the clues.
The Usual Suspects treads in kind of dangerous territory, however, in that its twist ending makes you question why everything you just watched even matters. If the entire movie is a lie told by Kevin Spacey's character, why should I even care what happened? I think what helps Usual Suspects is that it is such a well-made movie we forgive it for playing with such a hackneyed trope. It's rare that "it was all just a dream!" is used as anything but a cheap gag.
I think the best twists are often so subtle you may not even realize they are there. I would argue that Minority Report has a twist ending, for example, although everyone who saw it with me disagreed with my perspective. My argument was that when Tom Cruise's character is arrested and put into cold storage, everything that happens after that is a dream, thus explaining why he is rescued and everything works out positively for the characters. The end of the movie doesn't pull back the curtain and reveal this, however, so it is entirely up for interpretation. The only clues you are given are a few lines from the jailer character about whether his charges dream while they are in storage.
In any case, I'd love to play another game in the style of Heavy Rain, if only the makers could be convinced to forego the showy twists of thriller movies and focus on things like character development and an internally consistent story. Surely there is a way to work in shocking reveals without causing massive inconsistencies and plot holes.