Gaming can make you feel many things. It can be joy, elation and frustration among many others. Of course, as gaming has evolved and changed, so have the storytelling capabilities of games. Many games now deal with complex, adult themes, and as such are better at eliciting more emotional responses. As a result, I will be counting down the top 5 of the most emotional moments from modern games. These moments do not necessarily have to be tear inducing but most of them are.
This article will contain major narrative spoilers.
5. Red Dead Redemption 2
Arthur’s last ride
Red Dead Redemption 2 was, and still is, a truly massive game. The ambition of Rockstar was there for all to see, from the visuals to the music. For me, the story is where this game truly shines. John Marston is one of gaming’s great protagonists and many were initially skeptical about Arthur Morgan in Red Dead Redemption 2. Luckily, those fears were unfounded. Arthur Morgan turned out to be one of the most well written characters in a game full of well written characters. Arthur’s arc throughout the game was utterly compelling going from ignoring his moral compass for the gang to someone who tried to save those he felt had a chance away from a life of crime. The tuberculosis diagnosis was a truly shocking revelation which I failed to see coming and the conversation with Sister Calderon (or Reverend Swanson depending on your choices) where Arthur admits he was afraid to die is one hell of a gut punch.
However, the true emotional peak comes with Arthur’s last ride. After watching Dutch refuse to help Abigail and Arthur taking it upon himself, with Sadie, to rescue Abigail from the Pinkertons, Arthur goes on one last ride to the gang’s hideout. After everything the game shows you, you are left in no doubt as to what the game is finally pushing you towards. You are riding to the end. Arthur will not be surviving the mission. The sense of foreboding the last ride instills adds a whole lot of emotional weight to the moment. On top of that, there is the beautiful song, “That’s the Way It Is”, playing over the top as well as flashbacks to past conversations which relate to Arthur’s honour level. All of this combined creates a truly memorable, emotional moment that will last with you for a lifetime.
4. The Last of Us
The death of Joel’s daughter
The Last of Us was a tonal departure for Naughty Dog, who were most famous for Uncharted, Jak and Daxter and Crash Bandicoot. Clearly, this was Naughty Dog’s attempt to truly make a video game that was a dark and gritty look at a zombie outbreak. So, how does a company like Naughty Dog show that this game won’t be like their previous work? How about kill off the character you play as at the start of the game? Yeah, that’ll work. While there were jokes about Sarah’s death being obvious as she was not on the cover art, it was still a brave move.
Obviously, The Last of Us Part II could have made this list but that was just following in the footsteps of this game. Sarah’s death was such a shocking moment to open the game with and immediately set the tone of the world and what kind of game it was. The performance of Troy Baker as Joel only added to the heartbreak of the scene. You can truly empathise with Joel in that moment of pain and it is a credit to both the game and the actors that you can feel that pain in the opening moments before you have even got to know the characters.
3. Marvel’s Spider-Man
Aunt May’s death
Marvel’s Spider-Man had a lot of hype to live up to. Spider-Man is one of the most beloved comic book superheroes and has been one of the most successful heroes to adapt to film and video games. Insomniac had the unenviable task of making a great Spider-Man game after years with poor movie tie-ins. Fortunately, Insomniac lived up to the task and we got a truly great game. One of the best aspects of Marvel’s Spider-Man was the story. It was well written, well produced and well paced (forced stealth sections aside) and focused on Peter Parker’s life as himself and as Spider-Man. It became very clear that when Spider-Man wins, Peter Parker loses. At no point could both sides win at the same time.
This culminated at the end of the game in spectacular fashion. Insomniac used the fact that Spider-Man has established characters and an established world to maximum effect. There was the dramatic irony with Otto Octavius, with his descent into becoming Doc Ock being completely compelling. The final confrontation between Peter and Otto could have its own spot on this list as Peter’s disappointment in his hero is relatable and superbly acted. However, that moment pales in comparison to Aunt May’s death from Devil’s Breath. Peter has the decision to save Aunt May or save New York and he makes the decision he knows he has to. Aunt May’s revelation that she always knew Peter was Spider-Man was a stellar moment in a stellar game and watching Aunt May pass still chokes me up just thinking about it.
2. Mass Effect 3
Mass Effect 3 had an entire trilogy of story to close out. While it did not completely stick the landing, Mass Effect 3 still had some gut wrenching moments. One of the most successful moments in the game came from the mission to Tuchanka. Shepard is tasked with curing the Genophage to ensure Krogan support in the war against the Reapers. The character who synthesises the cure is none other than Mordin Solus, the Salarian scientist from Mass Effect 2 who originally defended the Genophage. If you played any of the previous games in the series, then you will be familiar with the Geneophage. It was a huge plot point in the first game as it causes Krogan infertility and an argument over a potential cure could lead to the death of your Krogan squad mate, Wrex.
So, you come to Mass Effect 3 and you can choose to cure the Genophage or to sabotage the cure. Most of your choices in relation to this will lead to Mordin dying. It is possible for Mordin to survive but the cure would be sabotaged. That is hardly a truly emotional moment in gaming. The moment I’m referring to is the paragon version. Mordin cannot be stopped from releasing the cure, even with the dispersal system being sabotaged. Essentially, it’s a death sentence. Mordin sacrifices himself to make up for his “mistake” in defending the Genophage and dies singing Scientist Salarian. This emotional moment is hammered home by the Krogan realising they have a future. It is a poignant moment filled with loss and celebration and only Bioware could pull off such a bittersweet moment.
1. The Walking Dead Season 1
This was the first of the Telltale episodic games and for many, it is still the gold standard. Everything about this game still holds up. The story and characters are fantastic and the game remains a testament to how good Telltale could be. The Walking Dead Season 1 followed the story of Lee Everett as the world descended into chaos after a zombie outbreak. It’s like the premise just begs for emotional moments. Lee eventually comes across Clementine who he decides to protect after her parents have gone missing. The rest of the season is about Lee and Clem trying to survive and the internal politics of survivor groups.
Unfortunately, a zombie bites Lee in the penultimate episode. You start to believe that you could save Lee from an impending death but the game affords you no such luxury. The game ends with a Lee handcuffed to a radiator in case he becomes a zombie. There is a final conversation with Clem as Lee prepares her for life without him. You then have the option to kill Lee or to leave him to become a zombie. No matter what decision you choose, the tears will be flowing. Telltale did not pull any punches with the ending and the reality of the situation will leave you feeling like Clem as she goes forward on her own without Lee to protect her.