Warning: spoilers for Dragon Age: Origins, Red Dead Redemption and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.
We all know that video games can be emotional experiences. The exhilaration of taking down a boss by the skin of your teeth, the excitement and wonderment of a new adventure begun and the sheer pride in a perfectly executed headshot that wins the game for your team. But one emotion that video games aren’t very good at producing is sadness. To be fair, most games aren’t even aiming to give a kick to our oxytocin levels and ratchet up our empathy but I wonder why this is. Are video games not expected to be a suitable medium for this kind of emotion in the way that films or novels are? There aren’t many games that have moved me to tears but the ones that did have stuck in my mind as they provided an experience that was somewhat unique within the medium.
Here are a few games that have brought a lump to my throat:
Dragon Age: Origins – asking Alistair to cheat on you
Ah, Alistair, my favourite fictional boyfriend. I originally started to “romance” him on my first play through of Dragon Age because I wanted to be Queen of Ferelden but his superb characterisation won me over. He was funny, honorable and rather charming. Once we had the “lamp post” conversation there was no turning back, I was determined to make sure Alistair and my character got the happiest possible ending. This turned out to be a lot harder than I expected. Near the end of the game, you discover that either you or Alistair must die in order to slay the Archdemon. There is one way out – Alistair can perform a ritual with the character Morrigan (whom he dislikes greatly) in order for you both to live. Unfortunately, this ritual involves him impregnating Morrigan. I have never felt more guilty playing a video game than when I asked Alistair to sleep with Morrigan. After everything we’d been through and all the conversations we’d had it felt genuinely painful to ask him to something I knew he’d hate. At this point in the game it wasn’t an easy decision to make but this is exactly why it has remained such a powerful moment in my mind.
Red Dead Redemption – there are no happy endings
John Marston is a former outlaw that has been recruited by federal agents to round up his old gang members under threat that his family will be hurt if he does not. You spend the whole game playing through various missions to this end but the game never lets you forget that Marston is doing so under duress. After Marston finally catches up with the gang leader Dutch and kills him in a climatic moment, he is finally allowed to return home. At this point the game gives you missions that revolve around every day activities – herding cattle, hunting with your son and generally allowing Marston to settle into family life. The game gives you the opportunity to see Marston happy and to get to know his family. And sure, Marston could be pretty unlikeable some of the time but it’s hard not to get at least a little attached to a character you’re playing so it’s almost heartening to see him finally free. It also helps set the scene for what comes next and give it pathos. The serenity does not last. US soldiers and federal agents surround the farm and Marston sends his son Jack and wife Abigail to safety whilst he prepares for one last shoot out. After all, Marston IS the last member of the gang and must meet the same fate according to the law. At this point the player realises that Marston never stood a chance. He was simply a pawn to be used. There is no happy ending to be found here. Marston cannot escape from his past. The only redemption he can achieve is to save his wife and son by sacrificing himself.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare – the horror of war
The CoD games aren’t exactly known for their deep plots or well-rounded characters. This isn’t a criticism because CoD is very, very good at what it does. However, there was one moment in the first Modern Warfare game that gave me pause to feel something amongst all the bullets and explosions. In the first act of the game during a search and rescue mission there is a lot of foreshadowing that the major terrorist threat has a nuclear bomb. Well, so what, that’s just about the type of thing I expect out of terrorists in these games and I am fully looking forward to kicking their asses before said bomb goes off. Just need to save a few more and then hop back onto the chopper and speed away. Except, instead of escaping, you are suddenly faced with a massive detonation, a mushroom cloud in the air and as the blast catches up with your helicopter you know there is no way anyone is surviving this. I wasn’t expecting it. The game hands control back to you once the chopper has crashed and you make your character crawl his way out. The entire scene is red and the mushroom cloud looms large. Your character can barely move and his breathing is becoming more and more laboured. Everything is silent. It’s horrific. It’s a moment in the game when it’s not simply about killing AI characters or enjoying raining down merry hell on pixels below – it’s a moment about death as it often is in war; frightening, painful and horribly pointless. I’ve forgotten many of the moments in CoD games but not this one. It stuck with me.
What games, if any, have made your bottom lip wobble?