The Twist

Please be advised, the following article contains heavy spoilers for the game Q.U.B.E: Director's Cut.

I'm not, in general, a fan of twist endings. They're hard to do well, and usually betray authors who are entirely too enamored of their own cleverness. Done well, though, a twist ending can be a fantastic piece of ambivalent logic. You question what you know about the story, the world, or both, until you realize that the twist is the only thing that reconciles all of the contradictions you didn't even know were there.

Take Q.U.B.E., for example. All through the game the player gets two stories from two different voices over the radio. One is a woman who tells you you’re trying to save earth, and the other is a man telling you that the first voice is lying to you and they’re running sick experiments on you like a rat in a maze. Also that they plan to kill you. Or something.

Everything the second voice tells you makes perfect sense. He points out, for example, that all of the puzzles have icons that are recognizable to humans, and that this proves that you’re not on an alien spacecraft bound for Earth, but in some box made by humans. He warns you that the other voice will try to earn your trust with soothing promises and stories about your history that may be lies, which the first voice promptly does.

The first voice, on the other hand, seems untrustworthy. She keeps repeating the same phrases as if she’s reading a script, and seems to contradict herself often, especially once she discovers the presence of the other voice, and gives some c*ck and bull story about who he is and why he’s there.

All of those reasons make perfect sense and would lead me to want to believe the second voice, if this weren’t a video game.

Comparing the game to Portal, which is lofty but inevitable, we inherently understand what's put before us. It makes perfect sense that an alien missile would have a self-destruct mechanism that is activated by solving gravity-block puzzles. It even makes sense that there is gravity to solve the puzzles with. Because video game.

Having a character question that logic explicitly, without damaging the fourth wall, is a clever way to make the players doubt everything that videogames have taught them for the past thirty years. All through the game the players are encouraged to ignore videogame logic in favor of real-world logic. It isn't until the twist at the end when game logic reasserts itself. Indeed, that reassertion is the twist. The first voice was telling you the truth all along. The ship was, in fact, some sort of interstellar ballistic missile programmed to self-destruct if someone solved color-coded block puzzles. You were playing a video game the whole time.

They certainly fooled me. I was certain that the “rules” of fiction meant the second voice was actually telling the truth. It plays on decades of mistrust for shadowy, well-funded organizations in popular fiction (never trust anybody in a suit!) and it follows the popular nerd-fiction trope of making the player care about a protagonist and then screwing them utterly in the final act.

Q.U.B.E. managed the obfuscate the line between game logic and real-world logic in a uniquely interesting way. It's not just the novelty of a triumphant ending – They’re not as common as I’d like but they’re certainly not rare – nor is it the novelty of being surprised, as I’ve been slapped in the face with any amount of random baloney in my life. It’s more the combination: being pleasantly surprised by a happy ending.

Pleasant surprises are, shall we say, uncommon. Nobody calls you at three in the morning to tell you that you’ve won a million dollars. Even surprise parties, which are supposed to be nice, are awful. They basically work by making the subject of the surprise think they are a useless waste of space until that amazing moment when you jump out from behind a couch to tell them they’re not. The only reason people smile at surprise parties is because the bar for happiness has been so drastically lowered. That and it helps to grit your teeth when you remember that punching everyone is probably illegal.

So at the end of Q.U.B.E. I realized I had been holding my breath waiting for the other shoe that would surely drop on my head. I'd been holding my breath so long that my fingers were turning blue. There was no shoe. Maybe it was the hypoxia talking, but I was astonished, bewildered and elated in turn. Here was this elaborate puzzle game, steeped in science-fiction tropes, and they ended it hopefully, even happily? Is that even allowed?

Well, yes, as it turns out. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes you can spend hours dreading something, only to find out that your dread was misplaced. Sometimes instead of sitting on a hidden thumbtack, you discover a fiver in an old coat.

It's nice, on occasion, to have the good presented to you on a plate instead of having to go digging for it. It's a reminder that, even in the imagination of a science fiction writer, sometimes things can work out just fine.