Who's been cutting onions?
As video games continue to mature as a medium, they become more adept at reaching beyond their confines as mere entertainment. Sometimes they empower us, other times they challenge us, and, rarely, they move us. But packing an emotional punch is no easy task; it requires a carefully choreographed assault designed to dismantle our defenses and strike us where we are most vulnerable. One misstep and the whole effort crumbles.
Telling a story that can reduce a you to tears is quite a feat, but working that climax into the opening hour of a game requires a whole new level of mastery. You have to step outside of the box and tell a new kind of story, one that surprises as much as it devastates. You must dig deeper to find the humanity in your characters, so that when they suffer, we suffer too. If you're on the hunt for some games that'll get you misty-eyed before you've even settled into your chair, then look no further.
Ni No Kuni
Kids do dumb things. But having your harmless childish antics result in the death of your only parent is a cruel twist. As children, we tend to think our parents are invincible, that they will always be there to care for us. But as Oliver's mother collapses to the ground grasping her chest, it reminds us all that, sometimes, the universe has other plans.
But what makes Ni No Kuni's prologue so heart-rending is the moment where Oliver finally succumbs to his grief. As Joe Hisaishi's moving soundtrack begins to swell, Oliver clutches a doll his mother made for him and remembers the sweet, yet inconsequential, moment she gave it to him before heading to work. Watching Oliver break into tears is hard to watch, because it forces us to reflect on the same fleeting moments that we're left with when the ones we love are lost to us forever. When people die, they leave holes in our lives, but how can a boy as young as Oliver ever expect to fill the space left by his mother?
The Last of Us
Sometimes love is absolutely terrifying. It makes you vulnerable and, in the worst cases, can opens you up to immeasurable pain of loss. But Joel never had a choice not to love his daughter, Sarah. And he never had a choice when the outbreak of a zombie-like infestation drove them from their home and into the iron sights of a merciless soldier.
The Last of Us is deserving of praise for its harrowing vision, but never was that vision more realized than in the quiet moment of a father cradling his fatally wounded daughter. Dying in someone's arms has become a cliche, but this wasn't a time for composed last words. Instead, it was the heart-dropping panic of a dad clutching his dying baby-girl, barely able to utter a single word of comfort as she slips away. Few things in video games have ever been as haunting. There was no peace, no quiet passing, just a little girl who didn't want to die and a father not ready to let her go.
Seeing the future is as much a blessing as it is a curse. For Shulk, the protagonist, it often acts as a painful reminder of just how helpless he can be. Even with the knowledge of the future, he finds himself unable to change its course. That helplessness, however, was never more realized than as he watched, incapacitated, as his best friend Fiora was ruthlessly murdered and his hometown destroyed.
Fiora's death is painful because we took her for granted. In life, we wrongfully expect that bad things only happen to bad people, and, in a way, Xenoblade Chronicles lulls us into that line of thinking. It placates us with quiet moments between friends, and the nurtured expectation of a peaceful existence. The moment Fiora's bloodcurdling scream is silenced by the blade, we, like Shulk, realize how delicate peace truly is. Tragedy doesn't discriminate. It doesn't care if you're selfless or kind. Tragedy only cares if you have something to lose. And, as Xenoblade Chronicles shows us, we all do.
No one ever comprehends true fear until they become a parent; to deal with the creeping dread that, like a monster under your bed, waits until your mind is quiet before ambushing you with the terrifying cruelty of the world your child belongs to. But to see those nightmares played out before your very eyes, to stand neutered and helpless as death whisks that child away, is a pain that no one should suffer. But in the opening moments of Heavy Rain, you experience just that.
Chasing your son, Jason, through a mall is a debilitating insight into that boiling dread. As you fumble awkwardly through crowds, it's easy to imagine you are Ethan Mars. You feel his panic as if it is your panic. By the time you find Jason, just in time to see him carelessly step in front of traffic, you're so emotionally raw and agitated that it's impossible to separate yourself from what is happening on the screen. For that brief moment, you feel Ethan's loss as if it was your loss.
The Walking Dead: Season 2
After the harrowing conclusion to Season 1, it's hard not to step into The Walking Dead: Season 2 with your guard up. Like Clementine, you have internalized the lesson that no one is safe. In a world as barbarous as this one, emotional attachment is just another weakness. It's a terrible sacrifice to choose between your humanity and your survival, but The Walking Dead asks it of you again and again.
But just when you think The Walking Dead can no longer surprise you, it hits you with an emotional sucker-punch. Without even a moment to catch your breath between the shocking conclusion to Season 1 and the span of time between Season 2, Clementine is thrust back into the heart of tragedy. Within the blink of an eye, a simple robbery goes wrong, leaving Clementine and the very pregnant Christa to pick up the pieces. But that lingering shot of Clementine's empty eyes taking in the brutality is what brings it all home: any shred of innocence she had left is now certainly gone and there is nothing you can do.
While some games elicit an emotional reaction through sweeping musical scores or tender moments of humanity, Homefront is a literal tour de savage force, stripping you emotionally naked and hosing you down with its merciless prologue - and all you can do is watch. Its premise of North Korea invading the United States might seem farfetched, but it's only the backdrop for a sobering look at the horrors of military occupation.
As the prison bus you're confined to makes its way through the neighborhood, your window becomes a tapestry of brutality: families torn apart, people beaten to death before your eyes, rows of innocents chained and gagged. Rounding the corner, all of that crumbles beneath the weight of a single moment. A mother and father, up against a wall, calmly reassuring their baby boy that everything will be okay. But as two gunshots crack, and their bodies slump lifelessly before their screaming child, all we can do is watch. Shooters empower us to intervene, to take command. But sitting on that bus, hands bound, we are powerless - stripped of all agency.
Ori and the Blind Forest
"Nothing gold can stay," wrote Robert Frost. As the amber hues of the forest shifted to rancid brown, those words are brought to life in heartbreaking clarity. Whisked away one night by a storm, the adorably nimble Ori is discovered by the pudgy Naru, and the two become fast friends.
The short, yet painful, prologue employs a masterful use of visual storytelling, seeing you literally walk through a season's worth of memories in the span of minutes. Ori and Naru's friendship is beautifully resilient, even when the forest they inhabit slowly withers and both risk starvation. But that loving selflessness is never more apparent than when Naru gives Ori the last apple, dismissing her own starvation with a playful wave of her furry hand. Ori and the Blind Forest will enchant you with its breathtaking storybook visuals and sweeping musical score, but it's the quiet moment where the fox-like Ori settles onto the still and silent body of his best friend Naru that remains long after the credits have rolled.
Everybody needs a good cry now and again
I won't blame you if you felt caught off guard by these heart-breaking prologues. Most of us expect to invest a few hours in a game before it reduces us to a quivering pile of tears and sobs, but there's a lot that can be said about a game that isn't afraid to come out swinging. As we only begin to explore the potential of the medium, we also come to grasp new, and sometimes heartbreaking, ways of telling a story.