I distinctly recall the first time I ever saw anyone cry because of a video game. It was back in the mid-’90s, and during a game of Marble Madness on the Mega Drive (Genesis, to you folk in the colonies), my friend’s little sister decided she wanted to play Ecco the Dolphin, and just ripped his cart out of the console while he was in the middle of a high score run. While he generally wasn’t prone to emotional outbursts, or even basic empathy (the guy laughed when Bambi’s mum died) on this occasion, as he watched his game seize up and crash, Niagara Falls.
As gaming has evolved over the years, the ability of video games to make us feel things has grown. Where video games used to be about beating your friends in the arcade, they’re now a way of absorbing stories, and escaping to fantastical new worlds. Within the medium of video games, story-telling has grown stronger, the characters more well-rounded, and with player agency being something only gaming provides, the experiences, often, truly unique. Just as movies grew beyond scaring people in the theatre with a train driving towards the screen, games have grown beyond Pac-Man and Pong into a medium that can evoke joy and sadness in equal measure.
So grab a box of tissues, pop the lid off your tub of ice cream, dig out your favourite Morrissey album, and let’s count down the top ten video game tear-jerkers.
Disclaimer: It should be obvious, but there’s going to be spoilers galore in this article. Like, everywhere.
10. Super Paper Mario
The Mario series generally isn’t known for emotional storytelling. Everyone’s favourite Italian plumber is usually too busy collecting stars, rescuing princesses, or committing genocide against the goomba people to hit us in the feels, but that’s exactly what Nintendo wanted us to think when they released Super Paper Mario for Wii. Lulling us into a false sense of security with cute graphics and compelling gameplay in which a flat, or paper, Mario has to negotiate a 3D world by flipping the perspective of the camera, this is a game which has all the hallmarks of a classic Mario game, but then throws a curve ball at the player with a surprisingly moving story.
As the game begins, a megalomaniacal villain named Count Bleck tricks Princess Peach into marrying Bowser, which according to a prophecy, will trigger events leading to the end of days. Of course, there’s only one man who can save the day, and at the behest of a butterfly-like fairy named Tippi, Mario is soon on another adventure. He brings Peach, Bowser and Luigi along for the ride and our four heroes begin battling the minions of Count Bleck, in an effort to stop the entire universe being sucked into a black hole.
As the seemingly simplistic tale of good versus evil chugs along as expected, we’re introduced to visions of two other characters named Blumiere and Timpani; lovers whose relationship was ended by Blumiere’s vile father when he banished Timpani to another realm to starve and die, alone, for no reason other than he’s not a very nice man. Eventually it’s revealed that Blumiere, not content to deal with his recent break-up like everyone else by drinking hard liquor and downloading Tinder, succumbed to his own anger and misery and became the villainous Count Bleck. Now he’s hell bent on destroying, well, everything, because if his life turns to shit then everyone else’s might as well too.
Timpani, it turns out, didn’t die at all, but was rescued by a wizard and born again as the fairy Tippi unbeknownst to Count Bleck. The two are eventually reunited at the end of the game after countless years apart, and the heroes and villains join forces to stop the universe ending calamity instigated by the former Blumiere at the beginning of the game. Alls well that ends well, and the heroes and villains go out together for a celebratory meal. Well, except for Blumiere and Timpani, who are in fact shown to be dead, and now trapped in some sort of afterlife. So that’s alright then.
9. Ether One
Ether One is a first person puzzle game in the style of PC classic Myst that explores the world of dementia using an Assassin’s Creed-esque machine to send our hero, referred to as ‘the restorer’, into the mind of an Alzheimer’s sufferer named Jean in an effort to rehabilitate her, and restore her memories. Led by a pioneering doctor named Phyllis Edmunds, we negotiate the patient’s mind, and we explore events from her past, getting to know a little about her in a dream-like state of colliding memories and eerie recollections of important events. While the obtuse puzzling and the game-breaking bugs are probably responsible for as many tears shed by gamers as the story is, the yarn crafted here by White Paper Games is well worth the price of admission.
As the player uncovers more and more about Jean’s past it’s revealed that she entered into a relationship with a man named Thomas some years ago, although thanks to her failing memory, we learn little more than that, or where Thomas is now. The restorer continues to fix the parts of Jean’s memory that have been damaged by her dementia, and as he does so, the environment becomes more and more unstable, a sign, Dr. Edmunds assures us, that the treatment is working. Just when we think we’re making some real progress, the game decides to kick the player in the plums for being silly enough to think there was any good left in this stinking world.
The twist is that the restorer isn’t actually a restorer at all, because they’re not a real thing, and neither is the machine. No, the game we’ve played up until this point has all taken place in the mind of Thomas, and Dr. Edmunds, when giving him instructions, is actually trying to get him to remember aspects of his own past. Jean was his wife, and I say was, because of course she’s dead, and her death becomes one of the first things Thomas remembers when he momentarily snaps back to reality at the game’s ending. In the words of Cypher from The Matrix, sometimes, ignorance is bliss.
8. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
It’s a testament to just how accomplished Hideo Kojima is at making video games that he can take a game as utterly ridiculous as Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and still manage to give it a genuinely emotional climax. Set in the ’60s and featuring the dad of long-time series hero, Solid Snake, as the lead character, Snake Eater is a prequel that aims to show how the events of the entire series were set into motion in the beginning. Our hero, Jack, AKA the future villain Big Boss, is sent to Russia to rescue a scientist named Sokolov that is allegedly working on some sort of super weapon. Less than an hour into the game, Jack is betrayed by his mentor, a woman named The Boss, who defects to the Soviet Union and joins the ranks of the evil Colonel Volgin, a Russian separatist who promptly detonates a nuclear bomb on his own people, eradicating all evidence of the super-weapon under construction there.
With America and Russia on the brink of World War III thanks to the Russians now believing that the nuclear attack was in fact instigated by the Americans, Jack is sent back into Russia with one goal; prove America’s innocence in this atrocity by bringing down Volgin and his uprising, and killing his teacher, friend, and now enemy, The Boss. Aided by an American double agent called EVA, Jack heads back into the Soviet Union and systematically takes down Volgin’s forces, before the man himself, and eventually catches up to The Boss to face her down in a fight to the death.
Jack wins the fierce battle against his mentor, and as she lays dying on the ground in front of him, puts her out of her misery by shooting her with her own gun. Jack and EVA head off to a log cabin to celebrate their victory with a bottle of claret and a couple of rounds of bedroom gymnastics, before Jack wakes in the morning to discover EVA gone, with only a note left to explain the situation. EVA, it turns out, was actually working for the Chinese all along, and only helped Jack to get her hands on Volgin’s private fortune. As if that wasn’t bad enough, she then drops the bombshell; The Boss never actually defected to the Soviet Union at all. It turns out that The Boss was also sent to retrieve Volgin’s private stash of money for America, but when Volgin nuked Russia, and World War III was looming, her mission required her to be killed by her own student to prove her country was innocent in the whole affair, and go down in history as one of the most hated war criminals of all time to boot. Unable to deal with his mentor being used as a scapegoat by the country she served until her last breath, Jack begins his turn to the dark side that will eventually lead him to do battle with Solid Snake.
7. Shadow of the Colossus
Shadow of the Colossus‘ approach to story-telling is to barely tell you a thing, and let you put the pieces together yourself mainly from what you see throughout the game. Taking up the role of a boy named Wander, the goal of Shadow of the Colossus is to revive a poor girl who has slipped into some kind of coma. How do you revive a comatose girl? Apparently, by making a deal with a sinister spirit, who claims that if you kill sixteen giant beasts known as Colossi, that will somehow get the job done.
So Wander rides off on his trusty steed named Agro to set about killing these vile beasts. Only, when he arrives at the first Colossi, he discovers that not only is it a magnificent, towering creature, but it’s also pretty friendly, showing no signs of hostility toward the player whatsoever until Wander sticks an arrow in it’s neck. The game proceeds with many of the Colossi not actually posing any threat to the player until Wander initiates the conflict, which gives the player, if they have a heart, the feeling there’s something not quite right about all this.
As each Colossi is murdered by the player, Wander becomes noticeably sicker and sicker, signifying that this probably isn’t going to end well. At the end of the game, he rides off to face the last Colossi, before succumbing to his sickness, transforming into a hideous beast, and being murdered by soldiers. Oh, and his horse falls off a cliff too. Thanks for that.
6. Persona 4
Persona 4 is generally considered a lot more upbeat than Persona 3, but there’s a couple of moments in the later portion of the game that will still have you reaching for the Kleenex. Taking on the role of a transfer student from a big city in Japan, the player moves into the country house of his uncle, Dojima, and his cousin, Nanako. As the story progresses, our nameless hero and his new-found school friends uncover a sinister mystery involving a serial killer, and must do battle with creatures from a secret world inside the television to save fellow students and friends from certain death.
Towards the end of the game, it’s revealed that our cousin Nanako has been kidnapped, and she’s the next potential victim of the serial killer. So the protagonist races to her aid, confronts the kidnapper in the TV world, kicks his ass, and brings Nanako back to reality. In a normal game that would be a pretty good ending, but in Persona 4 it’s the beginning of the worst ending in the game, as when you get back Nanako dies anyway, and the protagonist and his friends murder the kidnapper, who as it turns out, is actually innocent and not the killer at all.
Games have used the good, bad, and true ending system before, but Persona 4 handles it a little differently in that the requirements to achieve the better endings are so obtuse that almost everyone who plays the game will be lumbered with the bad ending on their first play through, before furiously Googling how to make it all better. Getting the bad ending after sixty or so hours of game is soul-crushing, as you watch a six year old girl cough and splutter her way to death in front of her widowed father. Oh, and even though you’re cousins, she calls you “Big bro” too, just to really twist the knife. Fortunately, reloading the game and making a few different choices get you a much, much, much happier conclusion to the game, but not before the bad ending has mentally scarred you forever.
5. The Last Of Us
It’s difficult to evoke an emotional response from people in the early goings of a story, because if they haven’t had a chance to become emotionally attached to the characters, any attempt to pull at the heartstrings usually fall flat. But as Pixar proved with Up, if you do it properly, you can have them blubbering inside fifteen minutes, and it’s to Naughty Dog’s credit that they managed a similar feat with the absolutely harrowing opening to the PlayStation exclusive instant classic, The Last Of Us.
As the game begins we control a young girl named Sarah, who is talking to her father, Joel, about his birthday. The writing and the performances are absolutely perfect here, with the scene giving the player a feeling that there’s a genuine warmth between these two characters in just a couple of minutes, and doing so more convincingly than some games manage in their entire running time. Of course, this isn’t a list of the most charming family moments in video games, so everything goes to hell, real fast.
Cue fungus-zombies, explosions, and sustained, abject horror. As Joel and Sarah try to escape the town as it becomes overrun by the infected, they meet a soldier who tells them to stop where they are. The soldier whispers something about one of them just being a kid to his commanding officer, and it soon becomes abundantly clear that the army isn’t taking any chances here. Despite the best efforts of Joel, Sarah is gunned down in cold blood, with Joel’s brother killing the soldier in retaliation. After the brief exchange of gunfire, there’s just enough time for Joel to watch his only daughter die in agony in his arms before the opening credits start rolling. Hello darkness, my old friend.
4. Final Fantasy IX
Final Fantasy IX is, on the surface, a lot more light-hearted than the other two PSone Final Fantasy games – the often angsty Final Fantasy VII, and the always angsty, Final Fantasy VIII. But what makes Final Fantasy IX such a compelling game is that beneath the cutesy character designs and the whimsical first few hours, the main story touches on some fairly meaty subjects. One such subject is existentialism, as three of the major characters, Zidane, Vivi and the flamboyant villain Kuja, have all been built, rather than born, to be used in war.
The crux of the story is that the three characters all deal with the nature of their existence in vastly different ways. Kuja loses the plot and decides that if they want a war, he’ll give them one, by basically ending the world. Zidane has a bit of a crisis towards the end of the game but is eventually talked round by his friends. And Vivi spends most of the time wondering if he, as a black mage, a tool created for war that has since gained sentience, could ever truly be alive. As the game progresses, Vivi meets other black mages that have become self-aware, living in isolation in a small village. Talking to the mages he discovers that some of their fellow villagers have previously, randomly, stopped working, and the tribe are forced to confront the harsh reality of the situation; life doesn’t go on forever, and black mages, apparently, have a fairly limited life expectancy.
As the game ends and Kuja is defeated, the party celebrates in the city of Alexandria. We see various characters from the game in many different, often amusing scenarios, as text rolls on the screen giving the player heartfelt thanks. As we learn the fates of the main characters, there’s one character we don’t see. Vivi is nowhere to be seen, and it becomes clear that the text on screen is actually a letter from Vivi thanking Zidane, with Vivi having presumably died before the ending takes place. Thanks a lot, Square Enix.
3. Mass Effect 3
Mass Effect 3 broke the hearts of gamers around the world when they played it and found out that the rushed, nonsensical ending was absolute pigswill. But for all the faults of Mass Effect 3, there were some things that Bioware really nailed, and one of them was the quest-line on Tuchanka featuring everyone’s favourite Gilbert and Sullivan singing Solarian, Mordin Solus.
In order for Commander Shepard to secure an alliance with the Krogan people, an essential part of his strategy to take on the Reapers, they demand that he help them cure an illness that blights their people and stops them breeding, known as the genophage. There are numerous ways to complete this quest-line, as is usually the case with Mass Effect, but the one with the biggest gut-punch involves Shepard being given an offer by the Salarian high command; they’ve sabotaged the plan to help the Krogans as they’re scared of them breeding at an uncontrolled rate, and they want Shepard to help protect their secret.
Of course, if you’re not a bastard, Shepard tells the Krogan about the double-cross, and the Salarian doctor, Mordin Solus, agrees to defy the wishes of his own people in order to do the right thing. As the cure is ready to be dispersed into the atmosphere, lo and behold, the machine they’re going to use to spread the serum is broken, and only Mordin can fix it. It’s in a tower that’s becoming unstable rapidly, and so both Shepard and Mordin know it’s going to be a one way trip for the good doctor. They say their goodbyes, and Mordin sacrifices himself for the good of the Krogan people, and the galaxy, humming Gilbert and Sullivan to himself as the laboratory explodes around him. While some would argue that Mordin getting blown up was actually a lot kinder than the way the majority of the cast was treated in the divisive, controversial third game in the trilogy, his noble sacrifice was surely one of the most emotionally charged moments in the series to date.
2. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
The Metal Gear Solid series is known for being many things. It’s ridiculous, overblown, and the cut-scenes can sometimes go on a bit. From the first game in the series on the original PlayStation, to the fourth on PS3, there’s been happy times, sad times, and times that were so confusing that we weren’t really sure if they were happy or sad. But while most games in the series are generally a fairly even balance between lighthearted action and melodramatic tragedy, MGS4 is surprisingly downbeat from start to finish.
Series hero, Solid Snake, has for reasons unknown to him started aging rapidly. Even though it’s only a handful of years since his adventures in MGS2, he looks about twenty years older. Sporting an old man moustache and suffering from a bad back and a smokers cough, Snake comes out of retirement for one last job; to take out series uber-villain, Liquid Ocelot. Watching a beloved character like Snake struggle on through the game is genuinely quite upsetting, made worse by the fact that series creator Hideo Kojima had announced before release that this would be the final game starring Solid Snake, implying death could be in the cards. The feeling of bad things about to happen hangs over this game right from the opening credits.
So what happens then? Well, Snake meets his mother for the first time, and she dies about fifteen minutes later. Naomi Hunter returns from the first game, helps Snake for a bit, then dies. Otacon has fallen in love with Naomi, so he’s crying again. And again. Raiden returns, looks like he’s going to die about eight times, but somehow survives for the entire running time. It’s just one downer after another, culminating in an absolutely brutal scene where Snake has to make it through a corridor that is blasting him with microwaves. As he’s being cooked from the inside out, and crawling desperately for the door, it’s practically impossible to not feel something for the legendary hero.
Snake does make it through the microwave crawl, he fights Liquid Ocelot to the death, and then saves the day. After he’s warned by Naomi earlier in the game that his body contains a virus that will start spreading to other people within six months, Snake decides to take matters into his own hands and just blow his own head off for the good of humanity. But just as he’s about to do it, his long presumed-dead father, Big Boss, returns for a touching reunion. Oh, and then he dies about five minutes later.
1. The Walking Dead: Season One
Few games are as relentlessly bleak as The Walking Dead by Telltale. Like the graphic novels that inspire it, the game paints a depressing picture of a post-apocalyptic world in which zombies are making a nuisance of themselves, and humanity continually screws things up in an attempt to survive. The game is played from the perspective of a convicted murderer named Lee Everett, who is being transferred to prison when the outbreak kicks off, and is freed following a zombie-related car crash.
He soon meets a young girl named Clementine who has been left with the baby-sitter while her parents are away in Savannah. Once the baby-sitter starts getting a little bit bitey and Lee has to flatten her head for her, Clem follows Lee on the road and the two strike up a genuinely touching friendship that lasts the remainder of the game. Clem has nobody as it becomes obvious very quickly via a series of answer phone messages from her mother that her parents are likely dead, and early in the game Lee discovers that his entire family too has gone the way of the dodo. The two new friends make quite a team, as Lee looks after her, and eventually, teaches her how to survive against the titular walking dead.
Given the tone of the game from the outset, it’s pretty much a given that things probably aren’t going to end well, and the game makes sure to remind you of that fact by icing characters left, right and center whenever the opportunity presents itself. Eventually, heading into the final portion of the game, the gang find themselves in Savannah, and Clem runs off alone to see if she can find her parents. Lee, not having had the heart to tell her that her parents are dead, immediately goes looking for her, but is bitten on the arm soon after.
So Lee, knowing he’s on the way out, struggles on to find Clementine, getting sicker by the second. One by one, his friends are removed from the group either by death or separation, and Lee goes on alone to rescue Clem from her predicament, before promptly collapsing in the street. As he wakes, Clementine, using her survival skills that he taught her, has managed to rescue him and drag him to safety. Only now they’re locked in a room together, and Lee hasn’t broken the news to her that he’s about to turn into a zombie and eat her if she doesn’t do something about it.
The last portion of the game makes the rest of it look like an episode of Teletubbies in comparison, as it dials the bleakness up to eleven. It’s next-level bleak. It’s too-bleak. It’s like that song from Watership Down being covered by Radiohead-bleak. It’s absolutely awful. And so Lee has to explain the situation to Clementine; he’s dying and there’s nothing either of them can do about it. And if he does die, he’s going to turn into a zombie and eat her. Predictably, she doesn’t take the news well, and her reaction is soul destroying. Ultimately, whether you decide to have Clem shoot Lee and put him out of his misery, or leave him to his zombie-fate, the results are the same; there’s not a dry eye in the house.
Games like The Walking Dead and the others mentioned here are making great strides in emotional story-telling, and they’re not alone. There’s dozens of games like Journey, Limbo, Thomas Was Alone, and more, that are doing new and exciting things when it comes to telling a story in video games. While there’s still plenty of games that are content to give you a gun and direct you toward people who need shooting in the face in order to progress (and there’s nothing wrong with that), its nice to see that we’re getting the other side of the coin too, with thought provoking, emotional experiences becoming more and more common. Oh, and if you’re wondering where Aeris is, I never liked her anyway.
This article was originally posted on www.soundonsight.org