Never judge a book by its cover. That’s a great lesson in general, especially for video games, but even more so for a select batch of games that are far more than they appear on the surface. While many games feature narrative and mechanical twists, these particular titles go the extra mile to hide their true natures, intentionally so, to surprise players.
I love games that subvert expectations like this, but they can be hard to seek out or suggest to others. For one, they may initially appear out of your wheelhouse. If you don’t play visual novels, then Doki Doki Literature Club, for example, may pass you by even if the things it’s really going for would be up your alley. That also makes these sorts of games hard to pitch to skeptical friends without giving away what truly makes them special. Plus, if you decide to investigate these games before playing them, you may expose yourself to blatant spoilers. So how to discuss?
Here’s my solution. Each game listed will have two entries: The Premise and The Twist. The premise explains what the game appears to be on the surface. After all, simply popping up on this list indicates that something’s up, and that might be enough to spark your curiosity to give it a shot.
The Twist, which will be obscured with spoiler tags, is the section for those wanting to know how the game changes. Though it won’t blatantly reveal every single thing that happens, it will provide a general overview of a game’s true form, if you will. However, you’ll still have to play it yourself to get the whole picture.
You’re trapped in a cabin by a mysterious stranger. You can’t see his face, but you can earn your freedom by defeating the stranger in a series of card games. This deck builder tasks you with traversing a world map and engaging in card battles and other challenges, then facing a boss at the end. Slay the Spire players, in particular, will feel right at home. The stranger acts as both the opponent and a sort of Dungeon Master, governing the rules and conditions while also role-playing the bosses himself. Can you defeat the stranger and escape the cabin?
Inscryption is a deck builder, but it’s also a horror and puzzle game. Players are free to explore the cabin to solve environmental puzzles vital to unlocking new cards while also learning key clues about their captor. Inscryption’s presentation and storytelling methods routinely evolve, even shifting genres, including an old-school JRPG and even elements of FMV games. Inscryption’s sinister tendrils may even stretch beyond the confines of its card game roots.
Hoo boy, where to even begin? Frog Fractions drops its guise pretty quickly (which, honestly, it barely tries to maintain). What starts as an innocent game about eating flies warps into a silly space odyssey, a ridiculous business simulator, and other destinations and gameplay mechanics far beyond its initial concept. The best part? Every second of it is hilarious.
Doki Doki Literature Club!
Platforms: PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, PC
You control a high school student coerced into joining the new literature club! While you’re not much of a reader, the fact that beautiful girls run it entices you to stick around. This bubble gum visual romance novel lets you get to know the club’s four members – Sayori, Natsuki, Yuri, and Monika – as you help them get this club off the ground. You can also flex your poetry chops to impress your favorite club member and maybe even spark some romance! The original 2017 game is available for free on PC, but existing fans can fall in love all over again with last year’s Doki Doki Literature Club Plus. This expanded (and paid) edition features new scenes, extra side stories, and updated visuals.
Doki Doki Literature Club keeps a straight face better than most games on this list, but things eventually take a turn for the bizarre and flat-out terrifying. Let’s just say the game is more self-aware than you realize and brilliantly turns its concept against you to become far more sinister and meta than a cutesy romance simulator. The “disturbing content” warning upon booting up the game is the first tip-off that something is amiss, but it’s easy to forget about it given how long (and, frankly, enjoyable) its initial facade is. Do take the warning seriously, though. There’s some messed-up stuff involving, among other things, depictions of physical harm and suicide.
Test your mettle in an innocent old-school arcade game about ponies in another joint by Inscryption creator Daniel Mullens.
Despite the name, ponies have little to do with Pony Island. This devilish (quite literally) game has you navigating the cursed programming code of this broken arcade game in a variety of ingenious ways. Like Inscryption, Pony Island’s gameplay regularly shifts while challenging you to think outside the box thanks to its fourth-wall-breaking mechanics. Better figure it out quick, though. Your freedom, and life, may depend on it.
The Stanley Parable
You control Stanley, a mundane office worker going through the motions of a boring 9-to-5 job! You’ll explore your strangely empty office building, perhaps in search of some purpose. If that doesn’t excite you, maybe the fact that the expanded edition, The Stanley Parable Ultra Deluxe, is slated to launch sometime in the near future.
What starts as a seemingly boring office romp quickly becomes an intelligent, hilariously written analysis and deconstruction of well-worn video game design tropes and player behavior. A humorous narrator guides and instructs you on what to do, but the story seamlessly responds if you decide to go left instead of right, leading to several endings.
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, PC
Do you enjoy old-school Ninja Gaiden? The Messenger is a great love letter to that series and other hard-as-nails action sidescrollers. You play a ninja tasked with delivering an important scroll to the top of a mountain to help stop an invading Demon King. The 8-bit action sees you cutting down all manner of threats while platforming across various deadly environmental traps.
The Messenger’s shift isn’t as dramatic as the other games on this list, but it’s still a cool one. Midway through, the game transforms from an 8-bit 2D sidescroller into a Metroid-style 16-bit game. Although developer Sabotage Studio revealed this style change before launch (which is why I’m saying it here) it still surprised many players. However, what wasn’t disclosed ahead of time was The Messenger’s surprisingly fleshed-out narrative that features a fair share of mind-bending twists. It also packs an unexpected amount of well-written humor that reveals it doesn’t take itself nearly as seriously as you’d initially expect.