Things can't get any worse!
As games have grown out of their 8-bit britches and started getting more extreme, the motivations of their protagonists have gotten more and more intense to justify it. These guys and gals can't really mow down an army of mooks because Generic Soldier #562 cut them off in traffic. It has to be something serious and vicious and way worse than the last guy. Talion from Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is the newest in a line of brutally abused protagonists. I wouldn't want to spoil exactly what happens, so I'll just say it's really, really bad (and note that you probably shouldn't watch the game's announcement trailer if that concerns you).
As tragic as the backstory is that leads Talion to massacre a small nation's worth of Uruk-hai, it's still pretty tame compared to many other tragic gaming protagonists. Like the eight ridiculously grief-stricken characters we have in the following slides. Who do you think deserves the first swing at Generic Soldier #562 for reasons entirely unrelated to his terrible driving? Read on, and place your bets.
Cloud Strife (Final Fantasy 7)
In another reality, where Sephiroth didn't go completely nutbar after learning of his highly experimental origins, Cloud could've spent his entire life as a moderately interesting SOLDIER grunt trying and failing to impress the cute girl next door. Instead he gets to be a hero and save the planet (cool!) after watching Sephiroth murder everyone he's ever loved. As if that wasn't bad enough, he finds that cute girl sliced open, becomes an unwitting subject in a mad scientist's horrific experiments, and suffers a debilitating identity disorder (oh).
All of this leaves him deeply disturbed and half-amnesiac. I say half because he does remember stuff, it just happens to be stuff out of his war buddy's memories rather than his own. When he realizes that, it shatters his mind completely, and he takes a good long while to come back to himself (whoever that even is). He gets the cute neighbor girl in the end though, so there's that at least.
Gabriel Belmont (Castlevania)
Oh Gabriel: so sweet, but so, so dumb. After the pointedly mysterious death of his wife Marie, he's sent on a mission to track down a special mask that can do anything. Like, say, bring a recently deceased loved one back to life. How convenient! Too convenient actually, because it all ends up being an elaborate plot to get Gabriel to kill all the Lords of Shadow and assist in Satan's ascent from hell. The mask itself, by the way, was never going to revive his wife. Good job, really, as it turns out Gabriel killed her himself, while possessed by the guy who orchestrated the whole thing. Ouch.
Things only get worse from there for poor Gabe. Turns out by wearing the God Mask he's become immortal, so he'll never get to ascend to Heaven with his wife. Also, by killing the Lords of Shadow he releases an even greater evil, and in order to defeat it he has to drain it's power and become Dracula. And because he does that, the son he didn't know he had comes after him. And THEN Gabriel kills his own son and turns him into a vampire too. Gabe, please, stop. Just stop.
Kratos (God of War)
You need a pretty freaking awful back story to justify murdering the gods themselves, but no worries, Kratos' got that covered. Losing his brother Deimos in their youth to Ares and Athena (who kidnapped him thinking he was the warrior prophesized to overthrow Olympus) is a start, but not enough to push him over the edge. Ares then comes back for round two and forces Kratos to murder his family in a blind rage, figuring that our hero would have nothing left to live for but total servitude. A flawless plan that surely won't result in Kratos swearing vengeance against Ares and all of Olympus. Surely.
That may sound bad enough as it is, but God of War isn't known for pulling its face-shattering punches. After Kratos discovers Ares' deceit and his very, very dead wife and daughter, a passing oracle decides that the knife needs twisting. He then magically grafts the ashes of Kratos' family to his flesh so he never, EVER forgets what he did. Good gods.
Max Payne (Max Payne)
Max Payne? I think you mean Max Pain. Yes, that completely original pun just happened and it can never be undone. Much like the murder of Max Payne's wife and daughter, which kickstarts his crazy noir murder-mystery adventure.
Max opens his game with an explanation of how great his life was three years prior--beautiful wife, baby girl, suburban house with a white picket fence and probably a golden retriever in there somewhere--so you know things are about to go to shit. And go to shit they do, as Max comes home from work one day and finds his family slaughtered by junkies hopped up on a drug called Valkyr. This drives Max into a loop of self-deprecating angst as he joins the DEA to try and combat the spread of the drug, eventually leading to a three-day rampage where a lot of people end up dead and at least one helicopter explodes. On the bright side, Max does kind of find love again with a renegade killer named Mona Sax. On the downside, that turns out about as well as you'd expect.
Corvo Attano (Dishonored)
Most of the folks on this list have to wait years before they get to go on a killing spree to take revenge for the horrors of their pasts. Corvo gets lucky though, and only has to wait six months! Granted it's six months of mind-shattering torture to get him to confess to the Empress' brutal murder, all with the knowledge that her daughter (who is totally not his daughter also) is lost somewhere in the world with no one to protect her. But then he gets magic! So that helps.
In addition to all those murdered/abducted loved ones and weeks of horrific torment, Corvo is apparently dealing with a set of wannabe Bond villains. As they wind down the torture ringer, they make sure to taunt him with the fact that they totally killed the Empress and he was just a pawn in their flawless scheme, though the devs must've cut the part where they pet a cat and laugh maniacally. Surprising exactly no one, Corvo escapes and exacts his revenge, and nothing bad happens to him ever again. Nope.
Jennifer (Rule of Rose)
So far this list has been made up of big strong guys seeking revenge and/or forgiveness for the tragic events of their past (you know, whichever). In a group like that, Jennifer is a unique example. Not just because of the whole being-a-19-year-old-girl' thing, but also because she's not interested in vengeance or salvation. She's more into keeping her tragic past from killing her ten years after the fact. Yeah, it's that messed up.
The sole survivor of an airship crash that killed both her parents, Jennifer wandered into the woods and was kidnapped by a severely disturbed farmer that dressed her up as his dead son and refused to let her leave. She was eventually "saved" by a girl named Wendy who led her to the orphanage, where she was tortured by sociopathic children. She even adopted a dog that they murdered because they were trying to get to the next level in being evil, and it all ends with everyone but Jennifer getting slaughtered by that same crazy farmer. The twist is that, despite her seemingly being 19 years old at the time, this all went down when she was eight and she's reliving it in a dream. Her mind even throws a few monsters in for good measure, and it says something that they're nowhere near as scary as those little brats.
Samus Aran (Metroid)
Killing a character's parents is usually sufficient for establishing a properly tragic backstory, but apparently that wasn't good (or bad) enough for poor Samus. The only survivor of her home colony's destruction when she was a child, she was taken in by the kindly and wise Chozo and raised as their own. After that she swore to take revenge against the space pirates who killed her parents, but probably should have done it quicker, because the pirates had no problem swooping in and murdering her alien dad. That's right, three dead parents. Top that... or maybe don't.
It's unclear as to how this affected the intrepid bounty hunter, since the source material isn't sure where her reaction falls between general moodiness and fits of PTSD that leave her catatonic. Sufficed to say, it messed with her wiring. She's firmly in the second camp though, when she learns one last backstory truth: her nemesis Ridley, who led the charge against her colony, ate her parents on the day of the massacre to recover his strength. Sufficed to say, that messed with her wiring a bit.
Asura (Asura's Wrath)
Here's a guy who could give Kratos a run for his money, and I don't just mean in hand-to-hand (-to-hand-to-hand-to-hand-to-hand) combat. Asura also has to deal with god-tier shenanigans when his deified friends decide to purge the world of impure demons by getting every human to sacrifice themselves for the cause. Oh, and of course his god-buddies demand that Asura uses his own daughter as a vessel for the required magic too. When Asura takes exception to that, they go into full Kill Bill mode, betray him, kill his wife, kidnap his daughter and banish him from the world. Man, some friends.
Asura wakes up from a cat nap in hell, only to discover that he's been out for 15,000 years and his daughter has been in the hands of the enemy the entire time. None of his nemeses seem particularly worried about the possibility of him taking revenge, since he'd have to drag his way out of the afterlife to do it. They all apparently forgot that Asura's demi-god powers are directly related to his Wrath, so the more pissed off he is, the stronger he gets. Yeeeah, somebody didn't think this one through.
It just got worse
Haven't gotten your fill of soul-crushing tragedy? Check out our 8 most tragic video game ghosts and 16 bizarre, strange, and utterly tragic Miiverse posts. And don't forget our Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor review so you can help Talion out with all that vengeance.