My last column took a critical look at video games as a storytelling medium, harshly judging game developers and declaring that the industry lacked emotional depth. While I still believe that to be mostly true, there have been some amazing emotional moments. From love to anger and joy to fear, the full spectrum of human emotions has been represented in many stories in the annals of game history. Video games as a reflection of the human condition? Sounds like art to me. Someone tell Roger Ebert. In no particular order, here are the most emotional moments video games have witnessed.
Game: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Situation: Darth Malak’s Revelation
Emotion: Depends on whether you’re Light or Dark Side
Lovingly known as proof that Star Wars could still tell a great story following the prequels, KOTOR follows a familiar storyline 4,000 years before the events of Anakin and friends. The wicked Darth Malak, apprentice of the Dark Lord Revan, has overthrown his master and seized power as the new Dark Lord, threatening all goodness in the universe. Malak’s pre-game attack had left you with no memories. Near the end of the game, when you battle Malak while defending the Republic, he reveals the secrets of your lost memories in all their twisted glory: you, yourself, were once the dark Lord Revan, leader of the Sith. Given the moral choices presented to you within the game, this plot point will stand out as one of gaming’s finest due to the impact it had on the decisions the player had made until that point. Can an evil be redeemed through good actions? Or was a pawn being used by the Jedi? Personally, I’m on any side HK-47 is on.
Game: Final Fantasy VII
Situation: Aeris Dies
Already established as one of the finest series in gaming, Final Fantasy’s seventh release remains a hallmark among fans for its beautiful artwork, intriguing story, modern settings and refined gameplay. When players sat through the first hours of the story of our tortured hero Cloud Strife, it was obvious it would be the simple flower girl that would change our protagonist from a freelancing, bomb-planting eco terrorist into an emotionally connected savoir and protector of wherever-this-story-is-going. I mean, every hero needs his girl, right? Whatever you thought would happen, you knew there was no way they were going to kill off a character so fixed to the main character. You even spent some time levelling her up. So when Sephiroth’s katana pierced the back of our maiden, no one saw it coming. Every player’s jaw dropped with disbelief. Aeris? She’s……..dead? Some of the more emotional gamers out there will even tell you they cried worse than in Old Yeller. All I want to know is, why couldn’t you use a phoenix down?
Game: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Situation: Feeding the Dog
One of the most popular games of 1984 was the infocom text adaptation of this popular sci-fi comedy. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy followed the plot of the novels and radio show, putting players in control of Arthur Dent when his home and planet are both destroyed to make way for terrestrial and interplanetary bypasses. Near the beginning of the story, you are whisked off to the local pub and told to drink three beers to prepare for your galactic hitchhiking off the soon-to-be-doomed planet. While at the bar, you notice a hungry dog. If you ever decide to play this game (a lovely Flash version can be found here), do yourself a big favor and FEED THE DOG! Fail to do so, and the inexorable logic of a “big, really big” universe will allow that very same mutt to come back after many hours and eat your microscopic space ship, thus ending your game. How do you avoid getting eaten by the hungry hound and not have to restart the whole game over again? You don’t.
Situation: Discovering Samus is a Girl
First released on the ancient and wise NES on August 6, 1986, Metroid gave players the chance to control intergalactic bounty hunter Samus Arun on a mission to destroy the menacing alien species known as Metroid. In an era where saving the princess was video game cliche, a female protagonist was unheard of, but Samus was an unflinchingly badass bounty hunter and wasn’t interested in going anywhere near a pink dress. Only, you didn’t learn she was a girl until you cleared the game, and she took of her helmet in the final sequence. Overwhelmingly shocking to the average nine-year-old boy, Samus’ revealed sex became the stuff of playground legend. “A girl killed Mother Brain?! Did you know?” Yes, a girl can totally handle the dark and looming caverns of planet Thebes and shoot that laser rifle just as well as any boy. Even in a bikini. Wait a minute…is Master Chief…?
Situation: The Black Mesa Incident
Emotions: Confusion. Panic. Crow bar
One of the most shocking moments in any game happened in the original Half-Life. After the explosively failed experiment at Black Mesa, you find yourself fighting for your life as you try to escape the massive research compound. “Rest assured,” you are told by fellow scientists, “the Army is on its way, and you will soon be safe.” After a series of gruelling fights, you make your way to the rescue point, only to witness a fellow survivor shot in cold blood while running to a group of soldiers. The soldiers then turn their guns on you. At a moment when you thought you were safe, the game turns in a dramatic surprise plot point — told in real-time — delivering one of the most effectively emotional moments ever experienced in a video game.
Situation: Destroying the Companion Cube
Emotion: Cube Love
When students from DigiPen showed off their project Narbacular Drop to Valve, they probably didn’t expect to not only be hired, but given a chance to make one of 2007’s most successful games, Portal. This polished and quirkily presented first-person puzzle/shooter has a spark of a subtly evil humor that lures players deeper into the halls of Aperture science. After being dropped into a series of tests using teleporter-like Portal “weapons,” players are guided by a snarky sentient computerized voice that mainly roots for your death, in one case even attempting to lure you into a death trap using Birthday cake. While the cake is lie, the most emotional moment in Portal is not achieved by a voice actor, next-gen graphics or Kojima-esqe cut scenes, but an inanimate cube. Alone and taunted by a machine, the companion cube becomes your only friend escaping from the twisted experiments of Glados. But like the greatest deaths in gaming, your companion must sacrifice itself so that you may go on. Only this time, you will do the killing No one wanted to drop their beloved little block into a fire, and some even struggled to find some way to carry it with them. This is great emotional gameplay. Make a note, game industry.
Game: Guitar Hero
Situation: Cowboys From Hell
We all love Guitar Hero and Rock Band, but getting stuck at that one song that ramps up the difficulty level a couple notches can be aggravating. Practice makes perfect, but did all rock gods have to play the opening licks of Cowboys from Hell on expert this many times over? It’s downright infuriating. But when you reach that final whammy and realize you’ve cleared that one freaking song that you’ve been stuck on all this time, you don’t just talk the talk, you rock the rock. Nailing ‘that one song’ in Guitar Hero is extremely satisfying; you know what I’m talking about. Now go rest your pinky finger.
Game: Phantasy Star II
Situation: The Death of Nei
Phantasy Star II for the Sega Genesis dropped players in a futuristic utopia seemingly perfected by technology but hiding a dark secret. Early in the game, you are stopped at knife point by an overwhelmed and desperate man whose daughter has been kidnapped. After completing the mission and returning the young girl, the father kills her in cold blood over a matter of money. This is a harsh world indeed. Yet death strikes closest to you when the your own party member dies at the hands of her sister in a confrontation between good and evil. Nei’s death is often considered the inspiration for Final Fantasy’s love of killing-off female protagonists. And Nei will be mourned by many players even if you thought she was the planet’s genetic savoir. You were wrong; the planet blows up.