The Sturm and Drang of Head Explody
The Red Wedding shocked the buh-jayzuz out of me — twelve years ago, when I read A Storm of Swords.
Wait, don’t mash the back button just yet! I don’t aim to condescend or claim superiority over the unread masses. Contraire! I just need to be clear that the Red Wedding plot twist was gut-wrenchingly gnarly in the innocent days of 2001, back in the age when a man could drink a Pabst Blue Ribbon as unironically as he could throw around the term "spoiler alert." Back in those simple, early millennial times, when the pinnacle of fantasy on television was the climactic final season of Xena: Warrior Princess, a person didn’t have to work so damned diligently to avoid knowing all manner of stuff about things.
I’ll do my best to tip-toe around Game of Thrones spoilers here, but I’d guess that fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones who hadn’t already read George RR Martin’s books were, at the very least, hep to the jugular-julienning jive surrounding season three’s penultimate episode, and, while I’m sure many viewers experienced genuine shock and awe at the outcome, I doubt any but the most sand-buried GoT headz didn’t have at least an inkling that a major plot twist was in the offing. If nothing else, the Game of Thrones track record of previous ninth episodes must've had most fans’ spidey senses tingling in anticipation of that knuckle-taped fistful of surprise hurtling towards their collective faces. That's dandy if you're the Marquess of Queensbury, but when it comes to entertainment, I'd prefer the uppercuts not be telegraphed. Be it a sprawling 10,000 page fantasy series or an indie-developed retro platformer, I'd rather be left lying on the mat, spitting bicuspids after a clock-cleaning that I never saw coming.
But a smartphone ain't a tomato can on a string, and the infobarrage pulsing through my smartphone is an E. Honda Hundred Hand Slap. Ducking and dodging topics even remotely in the pop culture zeitgeist requires relentless, ever-vigilant dis-observance.
On a typical weeknight, I'll lounge on the futon with my hole-toed socks kicked up in front of the ol’ LCD, watching Netflix stutter away on the Xbox. The Arizonan heat of a laptop fan blisters my thighs, a ring-stained $500 iCoaster rests on the coffee table, and an insomniac smartphone pings a half dozen servers from my sweatpants pocket. I’m relaxing, but assaulted by a cacophony of dings and guitar riffs and sirens and pop-up windows and text bubbles, alerted in audiovisual triplicate to every instance a friend of a co-worker in my circle “likes” a thumbnail of a link to a Pinterest image of a Reddit post of a YouTube puppy video.
This makes it damned tough to not know that I’m going to die before I die. I found out my girlfriend was going to die with a sword in her back. I discovered both my wife and I would die in a hail of bullets. I found out I was the evil Jedi the whole time! I also found out I was Dracula. Twice. Hell, there’s a major twist or two in BioShock that I know about, and I’ve never even played it!
I’ve stumbled across a number of Metal Gear plot spoilers, too. On the positive side there, the story in Metal Gear appears to be so impenetrable that almost none of what I’ve read would appear to mean anything to anybody not named Hideo Kojima (and even then, one can’t help but wonder), so if I ever get around to slogging through the rest of the Metal Gear series, I’ll probably have to go back and re-read plot summaries just to understand what happened anyway.
Admittedly, every instance of let-down can’t be blamed on an internet connection. Even in the ancient times, trudging the path of the spoiler-free was no easy task. In one instance, my buddy from whom I’d borrowed Symphony of the Night asked how far I’d progressed, and when I couldn’t remember what percentage the menu screen said I’d completed to that point, he asked, “Well, have you got to the upside-down castle yet?”
Still, there have been more than a few twists that I didn’t see coming, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these are the twists that have really stuck in my memory over the years. While I knew of the impending identity reveal in Knights of the Old Republic, I wasn’t expecting the fact that half of homeboy’s face was missing! I had no idea Samus Aran was a blue-eyed, blonde-haired, stone-cold fox of a space pirate until well after I’d conceded defeat to the Mother Brain and Justin Bailey’d my way out of the sticky spots of Planet Zebes. Since I’m not the biggest fan of straightforward run-and-gun shooters, the copy of Modern Warfare 2 that I borrowed from my dad surprised me with all kinds of unexpected death and mayhem involving the main characters (who shall remain nameless since they aren’t memorable) — not unlike the mayhem and unexpected death in Game of Thrones.
The earliest and most enduring shock of my videogaming life exploded in front of my spectacled, pimply face yet another twelve years before A Storm of Swords hit the bookshelves, when Capcom captured my imagination with a mind-blowing plot twist. The mind was Adolf Hitler’s.
In December of 1988, Capcom released Bionic Commando to the US market for the Nintendo Entertainment System. The Famicom version upon which Bionic Commando was based, released in Japan six months earlier, does not bury the lede. The translated title is Top Secret: Resurrection of Hitler. As the story goes, once Nintendo of America’s censors got their puritanical little phalanges on the game, the swastikas hit the cutting room floor, replaced by red flags touting vaguely Teutonic eagles, and the mustachioed madman’s moniker was changed to the inscrutable "Master-D."
Oh sure, the Japanese title is terrifyingly cool. But the US localization’s beauty lies in its mystery. There’s no plot twist to be had when you name a game The Nazis Want To Wake The Evilest Mofo Ever From The Dead And We Think You Should Stop It With Your Cool Robotic Arm. The US-localized Bionic Commando’s plot began with some indecipherable garbage about some creatively named evil dudes called The Badds who wore snappy uniforms and were apparently up to some kind of no-good that included kidnapping your buddy Super Joe, the hero from Capcom’s original Commando, and working on the nebulous "Albatros Project". As far as video game plots go, it was a fairly routine affair on the surface, especially to a 12 year-old kid immersed in Nintendo-ese.
With no twitterverse #HitlerIsTheAlbatrosing the surprise right out of the plot, I marched along unwittingly from area to area, rescuing my buddy Super Joe and hurtling towards a showdown with Generalissimo Killt, head of the dastardly Badds and brains-behind-the-soon-to-be-resurrected-brains of the “Albatros project,” a Death Starry laser-gun-toting mech-ship that can only be completed with the help of some mysterious dead dude.
There I am, a 12-year old kid blessed with an armful of bionics, a brainful of war movies, and the godless notions of a heathen belief system. I march into Generalissimo Killt's chambers thinking we are going to tangle. Next thing I know, he's fried in a blast of electricity.
Then Adolf Freakin' Hitler, the modern-day secular devil himself, barks in my face that I'm a damned fool and he’s taking over the world.
The true stroke of genius (or dumb censor-driven luck) is that Master-D's true identity is never actually made explicit. You jump off a cliff and fire a rocket into his face. His head erupts into three chunky frames of eyeball and brain matter, and, as you make your grand escape, your sixth-grade races, piecing together movie scenes and textbook snippets, and it dawns on you that you just blew Adolf Hitler’s head off with a bazooka while mom and dad thought you were hopping around on turtle shells and rescuing fairy princesses.
I played through the game three more times before my thirteenth birthday and loaned it out to all my friends just to let them in on the goose-stepping, gob-smacking secret of it all. The mechanics of the game were incredible for the time, and the graphics were top notch, but no gameplay mechanics could ever top the shock I felt experiencing that first playthrough, as the tingle of anticipation was blown wide open with an eye-popping, audacious twist.
If the original Bionic Commando’s release date were spring of 2014, Capcom’s teaser trailer of Hitler’s resurrection chamber would’ve probably debuted at E3 2013 or been leaked by a disgruntled developer and gone viral on Youtube. With answers to all your questions riding shotgun in the pocket of your skinny jeans, the thrill you experience from a plot twist is directly proportional to the willpower you exert towards your own ignorance. A virgin mind is a rare prize, now more than ever.
I can admit that a little foreknowledge probably won’t throw you into your own little personal entertainment eschaton. I expect Xcom on iPad is going to kick ass, and despite having played through the Xbox version, I’m going to buy it. I’ll probably play it with my dirty socks on the coffee table while watching Game of Thrones, and I’ll enjoy every minute of both. But the increasing rarity of shocking resurrections and unspoiled Red Weddings makes the dogged pursuit of the purely experienced plot twist all the more rewarding.