10 Video Games You Weren’t Expecting To Make You Cry
Way back when Pong and Space Invaders were the tip top of video game science, and even when Spyro and Crash Bandicoot were the prime gaming mascots, few could have expected games to have the capacity for emotional devastation that the past few years have given us. Gamers have always known the potential that video games have, but nobody could’ve predicted the impact that narrative games have made over the past few years.
Games easily rival Hollywood in terms of plot intricacy and emotional involvement, especially as the interactivity makes it a much more engaging source of entertainment. Both indie platforms and mainstream studios have now started painting incredible worlds with characters that we inevitably grow to love, and choices that are physically heart-breaking to make.
Everyone knows that games like This War Of Mine are made specifically to smash your feelings into little pieces, so it’s almost expected that you need to pause here and there to scream to the sky “Oh God why?!” when confronted with a particularly brutal choice and consequence.
But what about those games that sprung it on you without notice? Those games that were marketed as a straight up RPG, a shooter or a puzzle etc., and then as it turned out they could rival Heavy Rain in terms of sheer emotional pain. Some of the most simple, generic, and even boring-looking games that have been brought out over the past few years hold inside of them a secret sucker punch right for the feels, and it’s often even worse when you have no idea it’s coming. There will be spoilers, and there will be tears. You have been warned.
10. Silent Hill 2
“Hm, Silent Hill, that’s that horror game with all the weird monsters isn’t it?” you say, or at least said back in 2001 when it was first released, blissfully unaware of what was to come. In Silent Hill 2, you play as James Sunderland, who comes to Silent Hill after receiving a letter from his dead wife, Mary. So far, so spooky. You battle various creatures and meet an ally called Maria who is quickly killed off by a terrifying being called Pyramid Head, a brutal humanoid monster with no face and a pyramid-shaped head. The beginning of Silent Hill 2 is fairly standard horror genre fare. While the original Silent Hill was much more of a psychological thriller than previous horror games, it certainly couldn’t prepare the player for the emotional turmoil that lay within its second installment.
Things get even darker as you go along; discovering another version of Maria who, among other distressing details, denies ever having died. As you tumble haphazardly down the through the story (and once Maria is murdered again, this time by two Pyramid Heads), it then becomes clear that Silent Hill is largely a representation of James’ psyche. You see a video of him killing his ill wife, and as it unravels, this disturbing world falls apart. Even as an arguable mercy killing, James is consumed by guilt and has created Pyramid Head as a figure to punish him for his crime.
Depending on your actions within the game, you will receive an ending that is determined by whether you’ve played as a character who is worthy of moving past this trauma, or whether you should just kill yourself. Interestingly, this determination isn’t totally formed by your necessary actions or obvious choices within the game. The ending you receive is assigned by the smallest of details, such as how many times you read Mary’s letter. James’ outcome is judged, as are you as the player, on an almost unquantifiable non-binary moral scale which forces you to participate in the psychological nightmare on a much deeper and more affecting level.
9. To The Moon
To The Moon presents itself as a rather cutesy throwback to classic 16-bit RPGs in what starts off as a very satisfying nostalgia trip. You play as a doctor who is part of a corporation called Sigmund Corp. Your job is to implant false memories into the minds of the dying and gives them a sense of “wish fulfillment” on their death beds so they believe that they have done the things they always wanted to do in life. You meet Johnny at the beginning of the game. Johnny wants to go to the moon but doesn’t remember why.
The game relies on classic RPG puzzle formats, searching through the house for clues, solving riddles, and interpreting information. Like many of the games on this list, the soundtrack is a big part of the key as to how it plays the heartstrings so effectively. From the very beginning we’re treated to delicate piano which is equal parts cheesy, nostalgic, and beautiful. Paired with the touching story, the two compliment each other perfectly to make an excellent tear-inducing recipe. Technically, you could argue that To The Moon isn’t even much of a game, but a click-through film of epic proportions.
It’s the conclusion of To The Moon that really smashes you in the face, emotionally speaking. The game elegantly deals with love and loss, and looks at the fleeting missed connections that can transform an entire existence. The rest of the entries on this list are pretty spoiler-heavy, but there won’t be spoilers here. If you haven’t already played it then, please, get it, play it, and sob into your pillow. To The Moon is a gorgeous story, and deserves the hype that it’s received.
8. Fallout 3
Fallout 3 isn’t one that may have touched everybody who played it. Part-RPG, part-first person shooter, it’s not particularly a game that you could predict to be as emotionally intense as it is, especially if you, like many players, are new to the Fallout series. You could easily play the game as a straight FPS, blasting down ghouls and super-mutants with the both the main story and the side-quest stories as the trimming to the main event. Let’s be honest though, you’re missing out on a lot doing that. Fallout 3 is made to be an immersive experience, to the point that you witness, in first-person, your character being born. You control your character as a toddler, through school, and eventually to your escape from the Vault into the Wasteland.
That first burst into the Wasteland is one that affected many players. Having spent the whole game so far in a claustrophobic, underground living space, suddenly you can see for miles across a barren, yet beautiful landscape. When you explore the land, you come across instantly recognisable landmarks, such as the White House, which are crumbled, broken, and filled with radiation. Fallout 3’s world shows us a possible future of our own which, no need to mince words, is jarring and frightening.
What makes it worse is the stories that you discover, often by accident, throughout your exploration of the Wasteland. When you investigate certain vaults, it becomes clear that these were not vaults designed to protect, as their inhabitants had been promised. Many vaults were used for governmental experimentation, and the stories that come from them are harrowing to hear.
This is even before we touch the main story, which is a Hollywood-worthy story of familial loss and, in all honesty, deserves an entry apart from the setting. Many of the choices that you must make along the way are surprisingly affecting, as self-preservation can lead you to (sometimes unintentionally) destroy whole communities. Framed in the bleakest of backdrops, Fallout 3 serves up a truly cold dish of emotional pain.
7. Thomas Was Alone
Thomas Was Alone is one game that you generally feel quite emotionally safe about playing. You’re making blocks jump on other blocks to get to a portal at the end. You’ve probably been playing flash games like this for around ten years – there’s no way something like this can make you cry. Sure, the reviews go on about how you’ll never care so much about a bunch of polygons but, come on, you’re going to be fine. You sweet, arrogant fool. Thomas Was Alone will destroy you.
The game is literally bouncing rectangles and squares around to each get to an end goal. For the most part, anyway. The actual gameplay is teamed up with the kind of atmospheric music that Sigur Ros would be proud of, which really punctuates the punch to the feels that this game packs. Add this to the omniscient narration that happens throughout the game, and Thomas Was Alone becomes the truly emotional experience that it is. As you go from level to level, a soothing voice gives the player insight into each of the polygons’ thoughts, and how they’re reacting as artificial intelligence to their own blossoming consciousness as they navigate their environment.
What makes the game quite so affecting is the way that each AI has a distinct personality, and we get to see their hopes and fears when they discover themselves as part of this group. The game calls into question the meaning and status of existence as the AI discover and break into the “outside world”. Thomas Was Alone proves that you don’t need incredible graphics to present a beautiful story. Its writing and presentation was enough, with Danny Wallace’s narration won a BAFTA for the game, and rightly so.
6. Metal Gear Solid 4
Metal Gear Solid has always been a core gaming franchise. Back from its humble (and awesome) beginnings when the Metal Gear series was remade for the original Playstation, MGS cemented itself as the high bar for all other games to follow at the time. Playing as super stealth soldier Solid Snake, the series has made a name for itself as an often action-packed military game. Every game has (mostly) had a stellar story, so it does make sense that there would be some surprise emotional intensity to come around at some point, and the fourth installment definitely delivers on this. MGS, as a franchise, has always had excellent writing and voice acting (remember Sniper Wolf in the first game?), but has never really been a series that goes after your feelings. Metal Gear Solid 4 turned this around with fierce dedication.
MGS4 involved a lot of characters that seasoned players knew from the beginning, most notably Dr. Naomi. Despite having not been a totally friendly character in the first installment, she was fairly integral. The discovery that she had cancer in MGS4 was a shock, and her decision to end her own life was intensely difficult to watch. With the graphical capabilities that blessed the game, along with the aforementioned talent behind the scenes of this franchise, there is no difference between this and an emotional scene in a film.
In addition to this, MGS4 played with the heartstrings in a storm of false passes. Using some deft smoke and mirror twists in the story, you are led to believe that several characters had died when, in reality, they were fine. A bit of a cheap trick, but very effective, particularly with Snake himself. Thanks to the mutated FOXDIE, Snake has become a biological weapon. He prepares to commit suicide (and so prevent a pandemic), placing a gun inside his mouth. A shot is fired, leaving you to believe that this is how our hero ends but – thankfully – this shot was not for him, and he was allowed the chance to live a normal life once the FOXDIE is neutralised. While the end of the game was seen as somewhat underwhelming, it was definitely fitting. As Otacon says, Snake had a hard life, so he should be able to live out his remaining days in peace.
5. Papers, Please
Papers, Please comes across as a fairly simple detail-orientated game where you play as a border control officer for the fictional country of Arstotzka. As people seeking to enter the country come to your desk, you check over their immigration documents to ensure there’s nothing suspicious, such as an expired passport or that they’re a wanted criminal. The game presents itself as putting you in the world of a fairly humorous dystopia and, quite honestly, sounds a bit boring. The gameplay is fairly standard checking-of-documents fare, until tighter, and stranger, restrictions are placed upon the border control, and the Arstotzka government appears to become more and more frightening. This is when the game becomes increasingly absorbing, and checking over hundreds of passports goes from dull to compulsive.
If you make any mistakes with the documents (and you will), then your daily wages are docked. This often means that you cannot pay for heat or food, and without heat or food your family soon become sick. In these situations you must choose whether to, for example, feed one family member at the expense of another dying of cold. You passively continue at work while your family members drop fairly quickly at home. As the political situation in Arstotzka worsens, you then also have to cope with increased terrorist threats at work.
The story of Papers, Please puts you within an intensely difficult situation where you must choose between the bonds of following orders to protect your family and yourself (even when these orders involve shooting people), being compassionate to those that come into your booth, and whether rebellion is the righteous path (but one you need to be willing to die for). With twenty possible endings (take that, Mass Effect), Papers, Please can be an emotional rollercoaster without much context or story, and a stark commentary on civilised society. Some of the choices are as draining as The Walking Dead’s, and depending on how you play, you can come to an abrupt and shocking end.
Journey is a truly one-of-a-kind game in which you play as an unnamed figure wandering through the desert towards a mountain. It’s described as a puzzle platformer and, in all honesty, it’s a little difficult to describe the story. Journey is a wordless experience, showing you the rise and fall of a civilisation through cut-scenes. The graphics are fairly minimalist, but with music – oh the music! – that encourages intense emotional engagement, even in a single player scenario. It’s no surprise that, among the masses of awards Journey was up for, best score soundtrack was one of them.
One of the key components that makes Journey so individual is the revolutionised approach to multi-player experience. If you play online then you will find yourself matched with another player, and the two of you will explore the landscape together. You can only communicate through a chime sound that each of your characters can make, but as you travel together it becomes clear that, sometimes, this is all you need. Players connected in this way can help one another through the levels and, if they complete a level at the same time, are kept together throughout their journey and so can maintain their wordless relationship.
With this relationship in mind, it can be a real kick in the face once you reach the your goal. You build a bridge together, but once done your partner disappears, leaving you to cross it alone. While the relationship between the two of you is literally nothing, this loss can leave an emptiness inside of you, as you complete the game on your own. Journey is known as an emotional game, but it is a real surprise when you realise just how attached you were to this random stranger, and the feelings that this detachment invokes come suddenly and mercilessly. Despite its short play time, Journey’s simplicity allows for the player to get inside their character and, to an extent, feel the journey for themselves.
3. Final Fantasy VII
This is almost a cheat entry, as most gamers worth their salt know the exact premise of Final Fantasy VII even if they haven’t played it (infidels). However, back in the late 90s when arguably the best Final Fantasy game was released, there were no avenues that could spoil the impressively vast story that lay within those three discs of gameplay. Final Fantasy VII follows Cloud Strife, a mercenary with a very distinctive haircut and sword, who is hired to help out the eco-terrorist group AVALANCHE. Friends and followers join the group as you go along your mission to try and save the world from the Shinra corporation who are draining the world of life force and, naturally, you become somewhat attached to them.
While FFVII proved itself to be an epic story along the way, nothing could prepare you for the cruel twist of fate about halfway through the game. After a standoff with super villain Sephiroth, Aeris, arguably the most peaceful member of AVALANCHE, chases him while the rest recover from their encounter with him. This was clearly a stupid move, but in a world where you can just take a Phoenix Down when you run out of HP, nobody could really expect what would happen next.
As the rest of the team come to Aeris’ aid, they find her praying to the planet in the Forgotten City. She looks up to see Cloud, before suddenly being skewered through the stomach by Sephiroth in an uncharacteristically brutal execution. When Sephiroth disappears, Cloud carries her lifeless body out to a lake so that she can be at one with the planet again, and we all cried hot tears of loss and frustration. Whatever you felt about Aeris as a character (let’s not beat around the bush, she’s quite annoying), this death was so sudden and so merciless that it remains, to this day, one of the most shocking scenes in video game history.
2. The Last Of Us
Yeah, you sort of knew that The Last Of Us would be here, didn’t you. The Last Of Us, if you were unaware, is probably one of the best games to come out of anywhere in the past few years. In just two short years, The Last Of Us has cemented itself as an indisputable classic that has changed the mainstream perception of game narratives. Not bad for what could’ve just been another standard zombie game.
In The Last Of Us, we are faced with a world that has succumbed to a mutant fungal infection that turns people into very zombie-esque cannibalistic monsters. When we enter the game, the vast majority of civilisation has already been destroyed, with most of those left living in quarantine zones or beyond the law. Starting play as Joel, you act as a smuggler outside of the law. You become responsible for Ellie, a girl that a rebel group want smuggled to them, presumably because, as you discover, she has immunity to the fungus.
Admittedly, The Last Of Us looks very familiar. We’ve all played as a grizzly bearded white guy with a gun before, and when gameplay teasers were first released it looked great, but no different from the large amount of post-apocalyptic adventure games that swamped the market at the time. Nobody could’ve predicted the emotional impact that The Last Of Us is responsible for. By creating interesting and compelling characters, it’s a game that is truly skilled at emotional manipulation.
The game is unrepentantly tragic from start to finish and, like Fallout 3, even the environment is a master of mental devastation. When meeting the giraffes, most people definitely had a little guilty thought in the back of their mind of “maybe the world would be better if people were mostly wiped out”. Pair that with the emotional journey of a teenage girl discovering herself and having to grow up too fast (by way of murder) and you’ve got yourself a winner. The entirety of The Last Of Us is incredibly intense, right down to the endlessly bleak finish. An incredible game, but just make sure you’ve got someone to hug nearby for when you complete it.
1. Shadow Of The Colossus
Shadow of the Colossus is definitely a law unto itself. When you first begin the game, you’re given very little context or story as to what you’re doing or why you’re doing it. You play as Wander, a boy who intends to resurrect Mono, a girl who was unjustly sacrificed as it was believed she was cursed. Fairly simple so far. So you set off into the Forbidden Land after the mysterious character Dormin promises to bring Mono back to life in exchange for the destruction of the colossi. The colossi are massive entities that line the Forbidden Land but, it’s cool, if a video game sets you off on a quest to destroy something like that it’s usual that they’re the baddies so it’s all good.
While the game is beautifully rendered, for the first part of the game it would be easy to not immediately understand what you’re doing. You fight the colossi, kill them to complete your mission, and it’s all good. However, the further you get in the game, it slowly but surely becomes clear that the moral implications of your actions aren’t quite as sound as you may have assumed. Killing the colossi releases parts of Dormin that were previously scattered to render him powerless, and Wander experiences a physically draining effect from these as Dormin slowly possesses him.
The key emotion that Shadow of the Colossus elicits is guilt, plain and simple. As you realise that the colossi haven’t actually done anything to warrant being attacked and killed out of the blue, you start to feel that your mission is not for the greater good, and you are simply killing innocents. This is something that is almost unheard of in other video games. How much guilt have you felt shooting everyone you see in Grand Theft Auto? Just a guess, but none? None.
While you’re, in theory, saving the “heroine” from an unjust death, you’re causing sixteen unjust deaths as a result and also releasing and becoming the host for a demonic spirit. Some of the colossi don’t even fight back, which arguably confirms their innocence and makes your character even more of a villain. If that doesn’t get you where it hurts, well, congratulations scumbag. Shadow of Colossus has always been held as evidence for gaming as art, and a beautiful, heart-wrenching example of it too.
What do you think? Leave a comment.