We tend to associate video games with frenetic action, be it old-school quarter-munchers like Space Invaders or the more intense first-person shooters of today. Yet, with all of the noticeable evolution in game mechanics and presentation, we’ve also started to see more and more examples of something that most people would never consider a possibility in games back in the 70s: Genuine emotion.
Undoubtedly, a feat that was considered nigh on impossible in the days of Atari was the ability for developers to incorporate engaging stories and characters that resonate with the audience on an emotional level. Now, with all the big-budget games running at 1080p and 60fps, it can be easy for many players to take the gift of good storytelling for granted, especially considering how easy it can be to lose yourself in the actual gameplay of many titles.
And with more opportunities for developers and writers to get players attached to their characters and stories, they naturally also get more opportunities to tug at the audiences’ heartstrings. Be they the inevitable occurrences in life of death and loss, or even a more broad and hard to place reaction (something the final entry in this list is a shining example of), gaming has no shortage of poignant scenes these days that even the most hardened players can admit to getting a little misty-eyed at, and, after we’ve dealt with the industry’s memorable misfires, this list is here to showcase some of the very best.
With that said, be warned that key events and even some endings in the seven games featured in this list will be spoiled in great detail, so if you see a title that you haven’t played yet but intend to, it may be best to skip to the next page. Also, just because a specific game you may see as a shining example of heartbreak isn’t on the list doesn’t mean it counts for nothing (I came pretty close to including big titles like Red Dead Redemption and the Mass Effect series on it), as these are just some of our personal picks and, like with many things, your mileage may vary.
So, with that in mind, here are seven video games that struck a chord with the WGTC staff and plucked more than a few heartstrings in the process.Next
7) Professor Layton and the Unwound Future
If you’ve played basically any Professor Layton game but Unwound Future, you probably would not expect what is traditionally a lighthearted series more famous for brainteasers than its plot to end up on this list. But the third entry in the series does indeed have a major emotional sucker punch up its sleeve that it saves for the very end.
Layton and his assistant Luke have saved the day once again, and along the way encountered and indeed been helped out by Celeste, a woman who happens to be the younger sister of Layton’s old girlfriend Claire, who lost her life in an explosion while attempting to test a time machine prototype.
After the main story is wrapped up, the big shocker is dropped: Not only did Claire not have a younger sister, but Celeste has been Claire this whole time. Right before the explosion, the time machine did in fact work, transporting Claire a decade into the future.
This might sound like a setup for a happy ending, one in which Layton is reunited with his long-lost love, but that is not the case. As a former colleague of Claire’s explains, telltale signs pop up that Claire’s body is automatically attempting to return to the past, at the moment before her death in the prototype’s explosion. There ends up only being enough time for Layton and Claire to have a final farewell before she departs for good.
All of this culminates in what is easily the most emotional and heartbreaking moment of the entire Layton series, mainly due to the way our lead himself acts in it. Throughout every game, Professor Layton shows himself to be extremely level-headed and stoic, always keeping a cool head and never letting rash emotions get the better of him. But when faced with the idea of being reunited with Claire, only to lose her all over again, he can’t cope, and for the first time, we see Layton finally break down, screaming at Claire that she can’t leave despite knowing that there’s nothing he can do.
After Claire’s final departure, we get our big heartbreak. Not only do we witness Layton shedding some tears, but for the first and only time in the series, what was a running joke becomes something poignant, as the professor removes his iconic top hat. Numerous characters throughout the original trilogy often ask why he never takes it off, with his most common response being that it’s ungentlemanly. As it turns out, the hat was the last gift he received from Claire shortly before her death, so we can assume he was holding on to it to remember her by.
The fact that this is chronologically the final entry in the Professor Layton series and ends on such a melancholic note is pretty astounding but, at the same time, commendable, as it will likely leave a more lasting impression on fans of the franchise than a more traditional and tidy wrap-up. The fact that we get additional sadness after the credits, as Luke is forced to move and say farewell to his longtime mentor, only enhances it.
- John FleuryPrevious Next
6) Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is hardly what I’d call a lighthearted game, despite its feudal fairy tale aesthetic, but I don’t think many people fully expect the ultimate weight of its final act the first time they play it. Chronicling the titular pair of brothers journeying across the land to find a cure for their ill father, the story climaxes when, after saving a young girl from an apparent sacrifice ceremony and travelling with her for a period of time, she ends up being a monster in disguise, leading to a boss fight where the teenage older brother must pull off her newly revealed spider-like legs.
Though the siblings do prevail over the monster, it’s not without great cost, as the older brother is stabbed by one of the limbs in the dying moments of battle. It’s a wound that our hero ultimately succumbs to just as the pair reach the coveted source of magical water, which holds the cure to their father’s ailments. And while the younger brother attempts to revive him, he arrives too late, and now not only must cope with the loss of his sibling and partner throughout this entire journey, but bury him as well (which the game makes you control).
The younger brother is able to make it back home with the water afterwards, thanks to a friendly griffin the pair freed earlier, and it’s during the final playable scene that the game’s unique control scheme delivers its own emotional payoff. From the beginning, you’ve controlled each brother individually, with the left joystick and trigger button going to the older one and the right pair going to the younger one.
After close to three hours of getting used to these controls, the final moments of the game feel strange and isolated, as you’re now limited to the right stick and trigger only, helping you feel the full weight and importance of the connection the brothers had and how the younger one is now all alone in his quest. While he is able to get close to home much faster than normal thanks to the aid of a griffin the pair earlier assisted, he finds that his final obstacles aren’t dangerous creatures or people, but his own fear.
The game originally opens with the younger brother recalling the memory of being unable to save his mother from drowning in a storm, resulting in a severe fear of water and swimming. On several occasions throughout the game, you’re required to have him piggyback onto the older brother for assistance in getting across several ponds and rivers. When there’s one last swim ahead of the now-isolated younger sibling, players may be at a loss regarding what they should do at first, but eventually and inevitably, when you resort to pressing the left trigger one more time, things click into place.
What exactly this triggers is open to interpretation (it could range from the older brother urging his sibling on from the afterlife or the younger brother remembering the encouragement he received from him throughout the journey), but you hear the older brother’s voice faintly in the background, and the younger brother forces himself to swim at long last. Soon after, you come across a huge lever necessary for getting across a bridge, which initially seems too large and stiff for the smaller brother to operate, but pushing the left trigger one more time gets similar results.
The final scene is the tragic cherry on top of a heartbreak sundae, as we see the now-healed father and younger brother paying their respects to the mother’s grave seen at the beginning of the game – only now we have the older brother’s grave sharing space with it. The heartbroken father eventually collapses to the ground and weeps, while the younger brother continues to solemnly stand upright – a sign that the journey he’s taken and how it ended has helped harden him for the future ahead, whatever pains it may bring.
- John FleuryPrevious Next
5) The Walking Dead: Season One
“There’s only one thing you can do. You know that.”
“I don’t know if I can.”
Telltale’s The Walking Dead is a series where players are forced to get used to constant tragedy, so it’s fitting that the most heartbreaking moment is saved for the first season’s conclusion. As Lee Everett, players do their best both to keep a struggling group of survivors in a post-zombie apocalypse world alive, while also protecting and helping to raise the recently orphaned Clementine.
Clementine is ultimately kidnapped by an unstable stranger with a grudge against Lee’s group for taking his supplies at one point, and to make matters worse, while looking for her, a rogue zombie gets the drop on Lee and bites him, leading to his slow infection over the final episode. By the final scene, Lee has saved Clem, but one look at his pallid skin tone and constant fainting shows that he doesn’t have much time left.
Clem is able to drag Lee into a nearby store, but not before getting visual confirmation that her parents, who she’s spent the entire series hoping to see again, are no longer among the living. With Lee being all she has left, she begs for him not to turn, but it’s obvious at this point that there’s no going back, which leads to the final decision of a game well-known for its moral choices: Have Clementine shoot Lee, or leave him to die.
Much like many of the choices that have come to define this iteration of The Walking Dead, the way the final scene plays out varies depending on what you choose. The game even throws in a nice callback to past decisions, with Lee possibly mentioning how difficult it was for him to shoot other characters depending on how you played. You also get to choose what Lee’s final statements to Clem are, closing with the possibility to pick three simple but effective statements: “Don’t be afraid,” “You’ll be okay,” or “I’ll miss you”.
Since initially beating the game, I’ve rewatched both versions of the last scene, and while they definitely both pack an emotional gut punch, I’d argue that the one I ended up choosing, which was having Clem shoot Lee, has more of an impact in how it’s presented. Clementine lifts her pistol, Lee gives her one more reassuring smile, and after much hesitation and preparation, we focus on her firing the shot, leading to an immediate cut to black, the sound of Lee drawing a final breath, and a cut to the credits.
Given the somber nature of The Walking Dead, it was hardly a shock that things didn’t turn out well for Lee in the end, especially given that the fourth episode concludes with him initially being bitten and realizing he’s running out of time. And yet, so many things about the way the finale is delivered, be it the emotional performances delivered by Lee and Clementine’s voice actors, the memories of the more tender and lighthearted moments they spent together amidst all the bloodshed, or the fittingly melancholy folk tune sung by Alela Diane over the credits, all combine to deliver one of the most impactful moments in a series already full of them.
With the final episode of the follow-up season, which chronicles Clementine’s struggles a year later, not far off, it will be interesting to see if Telltale can match the initial season’s now-iconic conclusion.
- John FleuryPrevious Next
4) Elite Beat Agents
Yes, you read that title right. Elite Beat Agents, that goofy DS rhythm game where people in trouble summon dancing men in black to cheer them on, has a tearjerker level. What’s more surprising than that fact is that it really works by the time you reach its conclusion.
As with every song in the game, you get a standalone story setting up the conflict. But instead of other levels, like the babysitter dealing with bratty kids or a truck driver fighting zombies, we get a not-so-goofy prologue detailing the story of a girl whose father dies during a business trip right before Christmas.
Though the mother begs the daughter to move on, she remains unable to accept what happened, due to her father’s promise to return for Christmas. Cue the agent’s boss observing her plight, and in a nice touch, we don’t get a flashy scene of him summoning the dancing trio like in other levels, choosing to sit silently instead.
The song choice for this level is Chicago’s 80s classic, “You’re the Inspiration,” and it will probably be hard for anyone who plays this to not associate the song with this scenario afterwards. The accompanying sound effects for successfully tapping each note during gameplay suitably change from the usual loud and flashy noises to more subdued chimes and tones, and the dance moves of the agents themselves are noticeably more subdued.
The level ends on a bittersweet but heartwarming note, as the father’s ghost temporarily comes home to keep his promise of bringing one last gift to his daughter in time for Christmas. The game doesn’t seem to forget the emotional connection many gamers may have with the daughter by that point, too, because in the final level of the game, when the agents are seemingly killed by invading aliens, she ends up being the first one to motivate people to cheer for them to come back.
It’s nice touches like this that helped Elite Beat Agents become the sleeper hit it’s known as today, and this level is one of the best examples in gaming of getting a lot of emotion out of a short period of time.
- John FleuryPrevious Next
3) The Last of Us
Choosing your favorite scene from The Last of Us is akin to selecting your favourite flavour of pizza. Granted, there’s often no out-and-out right answer, but there’s always that one particular relish or, in this case, cinematic that stands head and shoulders above the rest. And for Naughty Dog’s magnum opus, it’s the opening prelude that deserves the most praise.
Perhaps one of the reasons this segment in particular was so poignant is the fact that the studio refrained from using it during the game’s marketing campaign. In the build-up to release, we as an audience became acclimatised to key characters such as Joel and Ellie and began to form an idea as to how this tale would unfold. Given Naughty Dog’s penchant for storytelling, though, our heartstrings probably should’ve been prepared from the get-go.
And so, as the soldier draws fire on Joel and Sarah on the outskirts of town, we begin to realise that this is a pivotal scene in The Last of Us’ narrative in and of itself. A lost, broken father holding his dead daughter in his hands will always be heart wrenching, but it’s a testimony to Troy Baker’s raw, heartfelt voice acting that we feel that explicit sense of emotional attachment a mere fifteen minutes into the game.
As a prelude, not only did this heartbreaking sequence provide a crucial glimpse into Joel’s past, it also painted a harrowing picture of the Cordyceps-infested world we were about to venture into.
- Michael BriersPrevious Next
2) Final Fantasy X
“I will defeat Sin…I must defeat Sin.”
Final Fantasy X marked a lot of firsts for Hironobu Sakaguchi’s genre-defining franchise. Not only was the tenth numerical iteration Square’s first release on the PlayStation 2, it was also one which featured full voice acting — and, of course, Blitzball — for the first time in the series.
At its beautiful, quasi-religious core, Final Fantasy X was an atypical love story centring around Tidus and Yuna — a young, naive summoner tasked with defeating Sin in order to restore a new era of Calm across Spira. In doing so, Yuna begins her pilgrimage to the forgotten city of Zanarkand alongside a select and indeed eccentric group of guardians.
Granted, Final Fantasy X is brimming with emotionally poignant scenes; Tidus and Yuna’s memorable cinematic in the Macalania Woods, for instance; or, when you discover that Auron is, in fact, unsent and his brooding ass belongs on the Farplane. Nevertheless, it is FFX’s ending that serves as the culmination of a long, heartfelt journey.
Essentially, in order to overcome Sin, Yuna must complete an archaic ritual known as the Final Summoning. However, the definitive spell also means that Tidus himself will fade away too, as he is figment of the Dream Zanarkand created by Yu Yevon — a corrupt deity responsible for the creation of Sin.
And so, as the Fayth retires from its thousand-year slumber, Yuna runs desperately across the deck of the Al Bhed airship to hug Tidus one last time, only to fall through his ghostly arms. It’s a surprising, touching scene; one that typifies the heartfelt and ultimately tragic relationship between the beloved pair.
- Michael BriersPrevious Next
Ethereal. Serene. Absorbing. Those are but a few of the superlatives I could attribute to Journey; the third entry into thatgamecompany’s indie trifecta after Flow and Flower. Devoid of a HUD, clear-cut narrative or even a firm objective, the title is undeniably unusual — idiosyncratic, even. But what lends Journey it’s raison d’être is its defining, minimalist beauty.
If the essence of video games is escapism, then thatgamecompany’s breathtaking release enthralled me like no other. It’s mysterious, intriguing and downright majestic. Jenova Chen’s vision is realised to perfection, and though Journey glided onto the ageing PlayStation 3 in 2012, it exacted some of the most awe-inspiring visuals of the last generation.
What infuses Journey with that emotionally poignant strand, though, is it’s ability to resonate with anyone. Whatever culture background we come from, all of us have been through a personal pilgrimage of our own; one that defines who we are. As such, Journey taps into that universal emotion expertly, and projects a profound experience for us to enjoy.
Without doubt, the game will mean different things to different people. There are those who believe Journey shouldn’t be labelled as a game at all — and, honestly, that’s understandable. But with some truly novel drop in, drop out multiplayer coupled with an array of potential interpretations, Journey is a unique, deeply personal experience; and that, is what this medium is all about.