I was chatting to a friend of mine the other day about The Last of Us, and how one of the best things about the game is that it grabs you right from the start with that incredibly powerful opening fifteen minutes, and how he found himself shedding a tear or two at the culmination of the prologue, such was it's impact.
I cry at films and books and the occasional piece of music a fair bit. Not necessarily because what I'm taking in fills me with a sense of sadness, it's more that I find myself rather susceptible to emotional overloads, particularly when there are multiple forces at work. You'd perhaps expect, then, that games by their very nature would be even more successful at eliciting such an emotional response, but it's a difficult thing to pull off.
Not for the following ten games, mind.
NB. Be aware that there are some pretty major spoilers for a number of games after the jump.
10. Mass Effect
The most cited tearjerker from this series is probably Mass Effect 2's post-jump cinematic, where you go off on the suicide mission and your team's survival is determined by the side missions you've conducted, but that never really hit home for me. Because I'm one of those people who likes to complete everything before a No Way Back From Here moment, everyone survived first time.
Wrex's death on Virmire, though, came like a punch to the gut as I breezed through several conversation options only to find that I'd gone down a path I couldn't talk my way out of and one of my favourite characters was ethically hell-bent on sacrificing himself for a cause of which I could see both sides. I screamed at the TV, tears of rage and shock and disbelief stinging my eyes. I'm also not ashamed to say that I wept like a baby when Mordin went to his death in ME3.
9. Half-Life 2: Episode 2
A number of the games on this list appear here because of a feeling of helplessness. Interaction gives players direct control, and having that control taken away can be a rather powerful device, an done of the best things that Valve do throughout the Half-Life series is never ever take you out of that first-person perspective. I remember growing to really care about Alyx and Eli as characters over the course of Half-Life 2 and its subsequent episodes, and it seemed like everything was going to be okay. But then a couple of Combine advisors turned up, and I found myself pinned to the wall, unable to do anything but watch as Eli sacrificed himself to save his daughter, who screams for him to run even as he tells her not to look. I remember a lone tear and a feeling of grim determination that has never been satisfied.
Perhaps that's the truly sad thing about the ending of Half-Life 2: Episode 2 -- it's still yet to be resolved.
8. Silent Hill 2
The "In Water" ending is a tricky one to come by, and I certainly didn't attain it the first time around. But playing through Silent Hill 2 again a few years ago, I finally managed to unlock this emotional battering ram of a conclusion. "In Water" basically reveals that the whole game is a psychological allegory brought about by the mental trauma James experienced after killing his ill wife, before going to Silent Hill and killing himself in the place where they used to go on holiday in the hopes of being reunited with her in the afterlife.
The most emotionally tortuous aspect of it all for me, though, was hearing Mary's voice read aloud the letter she had written on her deathbed, where she apologises for being a burden to James in her illness. For me, and quite possibly anyone who's gone through anything like that themselves or had a family member or partner or someone they care about deal with disability or illness, mental or physical, that ending was utterly devastating, even with the mitigating prospect of togetherness after death, and that was unlikely to be rosy, given the spiritual context of the Silent Hill universe.
7. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Back in the day, Ocarina of Time was the finest game I'd ever played. It was sublime. The first time In played it through to completion I just sort of basked in the end cutscene that sees Link transported back through time, his job done, and I reflected that getting an N64 was really the best thing I'd ever done up to that point.
The second time I played it through, though, I found myself incredibly sad at the end as the realisation struck home that Link, having journeyed so far and become the Hero of Time, having grown up, saved the world, defeated monsters and channelled the power of the gods through him, having fallen in love and helped restore Zelda to her throne, would now have to go back and return to childhood.
And no-one knows who he is or what he has done because that future no longer exists. He's learned definitively that he doesn't belong in Kokiri Forest, that his parents were Hylian, and without the purpose of destiny to guide him, he's even more lost and alone than before.
6. Final Fantasy X
Music has a profound effect on me. It's why I can't watch the ending of Gladiator without squeezing out a tear -- "Now We Are Free" just sets me off every time, combining perfectly with Connie Nielsen's tearful eulogy, the unfair demise of Maximus himself, and the bittersweet redemption in the fact that at least Commodus is no more and Maximus is now with his family.
I have that with "To Zanarkand" and Final Fantasy X. Carl and I went to see Distant Worlds at the Albert Hall a couple of years back, and I was so enormously glad that the lights over the audience were dimmed because it made it incredibly difficult for anyone to see the shiny tear streaks cascading down my cheeks. There is so much about Final Fantasy X that I love (the entire score is one of Uematsu's finest), and there are so many moments of romance and beauty and loss and empty promises and hope and home all wrapped up in the theme of Zanarkand, and it all hits me when that piece of music plays.
5. All of Lost Odyssey
Kaim is an amnesiac immortal who has lived for over a thousand years, but you can help him reclaim snapshots of his life as you play through the game, and there will be a steady stream of moments where Kaim regains snippets of the memories that he has lost.
Only thing is, he's better off not remembering.
One series of collectibles to be found in the massive game is called A Thousand Years of Dreams -- a collection of short stories played out in text form, with nothing but some painted backdrops, sound effects, and an Uematsu soundtrack for support. Every single one is heartbreaking. The one embedded above sees Kaim go out to pick flowers with his daughter, only they're a little early and the flowers aren't quite in bloom yet. But in the night there's an earthquake, and Kaim's family are crushed to death as the house collapses, and in amongst the rubble Kaim sees the flowers beginning to bloom only his daughter will never see them and he never got to say goodbye and now there's sad piano and I can't see properly because I'm all misty-eyed for the fortieth time!
There are four games remaining, and I don't know how to put them into order because all four made me bawl my eyes out, and for one of them I'm still not entirely sure why. Still, this is the order I have, and I'll almost certainly change my mind as soon as I've hit "publish"...
4. The Walking Dead: Season One
I bet I'm not alone with this one.
Knowing that Lee was almost certainly going to die, knowing that no-one who has been bitten survives, still didn't stop me from clinging onto the hope that he might find a way to make it. For Clementine. For me!
The work to reach this emotional conclusion happens across the entirety of what has come before. It's in the excellent writing that constructs the relationship between Lee and Clem, it's in the phenomenal performances from Dave Fennoy and Melissa Hutchison, and it's in every single little choice that we make right up until the very final decision: does Clem leave Lee to die or does she put him out of his misery?
I couldn't make her shoot Lee the first time through, especially after he mentioned how hard it was for him to shoot others before, and so I just made Clem leave and felt sad and sick for a good hour afterwards. We gave The Walking Dead Game of the Year back in 2012 and it still gives me pangs of guilt and regret to think about how I walked out on Lee.
3. To The Moon
To The Moon is a point-and-click masterpiece made in RPG Maker that has you flitting between two scientists -- Eva and Neil -- whose speciality it is to change people's memories so that they can die with no regrets. It's like altruistic Inception, but with less violence and Hans Zimmer and more space shuttles.
John is dying and his last wish is to go to the Moon, but he can't remember why he wants to do that, so its up to Eva and Neil to go sifting through John's life to try and find the source of this desire. This basically leads players on an Eternal-Sunshine-meets-Memento-esque journey back through John's memories. And it's incredibly sad. Exploring John's memories leads to the discovery of lives never led, potential never realised bathed in repression and regret and trauma. His relationship with his wife is fascinating, starting with John mourning her death, before seeing her hospitalised, and then flashing back to her finding out about her dwindling mortality. Again, we have characters with extraordinary abilities to control and change things rendered helpless in certain situations, and travelling back through these emotionally-charged memories, knowing that there's nothing that can be done to save her is shattering.
I'm still not sure I understand completely why Journey made me cry. Here's the blurb from my review:
For me, Journey is a reflection of life itself. The beauty, the vibrancy, the fluid nature of things. How we all start off not really knowing who we are, but our march towards our end is inexorable, tumultuous, filled with both light and dark. That those who take the time to delight in the world around them will find joy, that those who persevere will find reward, that sometimes you have to travel the lowest depths to reach the highest peaks. That a Sam Mendes' plastic bag dancing in the wind has nothing on thatgamecompany. That doing it alone can be devastating.
The end of the game swings wildly between conflicting emotions, and there's a perfectly placed slip-up and the realisation that one might not make it to the top of the mountain. Determination followed by despair and disappointment, and then soaring elation. And when I reached the top I just wept, with joy or relief or something. It was like I'd been holding my breath and everything just tumbled out. Another game, too, that is inextricably linked to its superb sound design and scoring, and listening to Wintory's soundtrack has the ability to put an automatic smile on my face.
1. Shadow of the Colossus
At some point during Shadow of the Colossus, I started to realise that I was just wandering into the natural territories of these magnificent beasts, and slaughtering them because a creepy voice had told me too. I can't quite pinpoint exactly which Colossus triggered that feeling for me the first time, but I remember feeling desperately sad for the Colossi at that point. They're not killing loads of people or rampaging about the land, terrorising everything under the sun. They're just quietly minding their own business for the most part, until I come along with my sword and stab them in their vulnerable bits. At some point I found myself desperately hating Wander and asking whether or not it was all worth it.
That's not what made me cry, though. Losing Agro made me cry.
See, throughout this lonely, murderous pilgrimage, Wander has one constant and that's Agro. And she matters. But like so many things and people, I only realised how much she mattered when I lost her. Right before the battle with the last Colossus, there's a bridge. It's old and crumbly and it looks dodgy, but I have to cross it. As I do, it begins to buckles and Agro hurls me to safety but is unable to save herself and she falls an enormous distance into the water below. Right before the presumed final battle, and my trusty companion falls to her doom to save me. Me! Murderous, stupid, fucking me. And for what? So I can kill another glorious beast like some poacher of mythological beasts? What a dick! I had to pause the game for a bit so I could calm down.
The ending then broke me completely. There's so much to be had there: despair, hatred, anger, relief, then crushing sadness, and bittersweet joy. Just writing about it is making me tear up again. Excuse me...