Plot Devices: The Gut Punch

By “the gut punch,” I’m talking about a plot where there’s a sudden climax that’s supposed to be shocking to the player.  In a movie, this might be the revelation that you’ve been working for the villians, or the cliche “you fought the war, but killed a little girl” style scene.

Here, Firia's grandmother reveals that Firia is really a member of the community.

I’m surprised how often this plot device pops up in Dragon Quest games.  In Dragon Quest VII, you have an incredibly long playtime, but people still are furious over certain scenes in the game.  For example, at one point in the game, your party finds a town of winged people that treat an adopted girl named Firia rather cruelly because she doesn’t have wings.  It’s eventually revealed that she is not adopted, and instead her father preferred to treat her like a slave rather than admit she was his daughter.  While the grandmother is irritated with her father, there’s basically no revenge for his cruelty.  Instead, Firia forgives him and continues living in the village.  She’s treated more kindly, but that is purely because she is able to reveal that she’s a member of the village.  There’s a sequence of “gut punch” like terrible events in Dragon Quest V, but it’s difficult to describe them without spoiling the plot.

In Dragon Quest IX, you find a sickly rich girl who suddenly became well.  She gave away her money and possessions to people that she thought were friends. Soon, you discover that the girl died, and it is her doll attempting to take her place and futilely make friends.  The doll claims to be going on a long trip, and instead she dies.  You can revisit the town, and the butler and staff watch the house waiting for their mistress to return.  Meanwhile, a doll lies on the bed, and there’s another grave in the graveyard.

The dead characters from Chrono Trigger try to be philosophical.

These gut punches don’t work when you’re not willing to buy into the story.  For a lot of people, Chrono Cross’ plot doesn’t work.  The tragic moments are hurt by heavy handed ecological messages or badly translated philosophy.  The pacing is rough because you have massive plot dumps mixed in between banal or confusing gameplay.  There’s also a tone mismatch between the first game.  The first game is largely a positive romp through space and time.  The second game involves the deaths, on-screen or not, of almost everyone in the first game, and a story that basically says that humans are terrible.  If you don’t buy into the story, the story can’t easily shock you.

Another problem with gut punches is pacing.  If everything in the game is tragic, or has a twist ending to the plot line, then you don’t have the same impact from the plot.  Breath of Fire III has your hero going from one messed up situation to the next as a kid.  After a while, it feels more annoying that yet again you were beat up rather than sad that you were yet again beat up.  You’re not shocked, say, that someone betrayed you because everything had betrayed you.

The hero in Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker looks rather like a gangly punk. This probably makes his relationship with his father read a little more antagonistic.

I think, for me, this is one of the problems with Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker.  You start the game in jail because your father doesn’t want you participating in a tournament.  Several people in the starting area ask you leading questions trying to get you to say that you forgive your father.  He releases you purely to have you infiltrate the tournament for him.  Later in the game, your father reveals he had your best interests in heart.  You’re again given chances to forgive him.  It’s blatantly obvious that the tournament is shady, and it’s obvious that your father is aware of that fact.  However, since your father doesn’t trust you, and your father is rude to you, it never feels like you have any reason to give him any respect.  The plot really has nothing to do with the actual game, but it seems weird that they chose to have this antagonistic relationship at the start.

All in all, I think a gut punch in a game is a risky choice, but one that often pays off.  People remember these plot elements.  If the gut punch doesn’t give you emotional catharsis, or is badly done, people remember these plot elements as a negative.  On the other hand, a well done one will be a haunting element of the game.

  1. SolarBoyMatt’s avatar

    The last paragraph perfectly sums up how I feel, as well.

    One game that I think does this particularly well is Square’s oft forgotten SFC RPG Live-A-Live. All I can say without spoiling anything, is that’s it’s a truly shocking twist that NOBODY would see coming, especially when looking at it in context of when the game was released. To this day it’s one of my favorite plot twists/gut punches in any game I’ve played.

    Mother 3 also is great example of how the player can constantly be bombarded by gut punches, to create an incredibly memorable story.

  2. SolarBoyMatt’s avatar

    Both of those games are fantastic and really worth taking the time to play, I very highly recommend them both.

    Also, another game that does the whole gut punch thing pretty well is Magical Starsign for the DS. It starts off with a fairly lighthearted story with a group of students looking for their lost teacher, but that quickly circles the drain about halfway through when the story starts getting quite dark. I was actually a bit shocked at some the things that happen in the second half of the story.

  3. Rav’s avatar

    I got almost to the end of Magical Starsign. I almost thought that the game was like Earthbound. You had the quirky mess of kids, with some eerie dark elements for some of them. You had a variety of worlds much like the cities in Earthbound.

    Still, I think the world feels darker than Earthbound. From what I read, the previous game had some sort of cutoff for certain things if you gathered too many jellies. You had “real world” stuff about paying for school, and stuff that was “gut punch” like due to how the world worked.

    Did you like the mood change in the game? I’m kind of – on the edge on if I liked how Magical Starsign changed over the course of the game. I felt like part of the game you were getting pushed into dark elements because they could, and wanted to have a gut punch revelation. Stuff like the jungle area with that mayor where you never really get that much catharsis for the angst that happens, and so on.

  4. yukie’s avatar

    I still think that the head slap/gut punch moment in Secret of Mana worked well. “I’m WHAT and mom is WHAT?” The face Randi’s sprite makes? Yeah I was makin’ that one. It makes sense in the context of the story – I’ve heard people say it comes from nowhere but considering that Randi’s the guy the sword picks…yeah.

    And you make this discovery AFTER the villain does something incredibly ass-tastic, too.

    You get back to upbeat-ish after that thanks to Popoie (love the sprite kid) but it’s a very sombre moment in the game. (There’s also some wicked examples of nightmare fuel – what happens to Geshtar is shudder inducing, and some of the plot reveals about what the endboss IS and WHY he’s doing what he’s doing…yaagh.)

    The character deaths in FF6 and FF7 count as this for me too. The latter makes me cry. it’s Cloud’s shocked rambling afterward that does it. XD;

  5. Rav’s avatar

    Randi, cutely enough, has slightly different sprites. There’s three sort of paths for the game. The “got girl in castle,” the “rescued girl,” and the “went with girl through woods” versions. If you got her in the castle, you get a more “rrrgh” face. The other versions got a more unhappy face without the hands on the hips. (I believe the sprite talks about how she’s your girlfriend if you’re on the unhappy face version of events.)

    I think Phantasy Star IV’s death is one that really upset me at the time. It seems like the game is implying that the hero is just filled with fury over it, though the translation doesn’t really stand up to that. Still – it’s a depressing scene. I felt worse for Gryz though, since he lost so much more.

  6. yukie’s avatar

    Popoie does tease Purim about liking Randi once; that’s when you meet the resistance. (In the Japanese game, the reason Purim is annoyed is Randi is trying to be all polite and cool to Krissie, and he’s been an outight dork to her the whole game. XD So she’s all “What is with this captain suave act suddenly” and Popoie’s like “Lol u jellus?” That’s why she makes that crank face. Krissie being a girl too has nothing to do with it.)

    I’ve only ever seen him do the D: face at the reveal about his mom.

  7. Rav’s avatar

    I can’t remember the cutoff to get the other text lines with her – I think you need to take her to the dwarf cave, let her go there, and then meet her in the castle instead of rescuing her in the woods? I do remember I liked the alternate version better. Of course, I was a youngish teen at the time, and it’s been ages.

    I do remember the one time that my friend missed the steps and got the other version of events. The sprite talked more about how Purim was the hero’s boyfriend. I think the other version was the sprite talking about money owed due to the dwarf fight? I can’t remember though.

    I never liked the light city much in the game. The spy stuff was amazing in that era to get past the censors, and it did an effective job of feeling scary and dangerous.

  8. SolarBoyMatt’s avatar

    Oh yes, as for Magical Starsign, I kinda liked the change in the story’s tone personally. What caught me off guard the most was the part about getting the Wood Millennium Gummy, while I understand why it happened, I just didn’t expect a likable and fairly established character to be killed off like that, and all of the circumstances that led to it didn’t really help.

    At least for me, all of the events that happen when revisiting the Earth Planet to get the Earth Millennium Gummy, was a big gut punch because Mokka was my favorite character. The optional boss there is also fairly creepy.

  9. Rav’s avatar

    I played a light aligned woman in Magical Starsign, so I don’t know how much the plot changed. I did find it very odd that the mayor from the Wood area basically was established to be a pretty terrible guy, and even his attempt at sacrifice was mocked for not being good enough. It’s very rare that a “kid” game shows adult authority figures as bad people.

    I did find the optional boss in the Earth planet as well. I think it’s implied she’s the poor assistant that has all the diaries around the place? I was weirdly overlevelled and didn’t have much trouble fighting her. In the SNES area, she would have more than likely had a hastily edited in nightgown and probably wouldn’t be such a creepy fight.

    I think Magical Starsign may’ve been treated more leniently for being utterly squeaky clean. It was an early RPG for the DS, and it takes a fair amount of time to get to those eery sections of the game.

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