Once in a while, a game will come along that we connect with on a much deeper level than usual. We’ll transcend the standard playthrough affair where we’re crossing the Ts and dotting the Is, and we’ll form an association with the characters or the story. I’m proud to say that I’ve played more than my fair share of titles over the years that have provoked an emotional response from me. I believe it’s the marking of an incredible developer when something as commonplace as a video game can draw feelings of sadness, longing or empathy from a player.
Strangely, I’ve found that some of the simplest games can often have the strongest impact. A game doesn’t need to have ground-breaking graphics, or world-class voice actors to tug at those tender heartstrings.
Warning: if you’ve played these games already, you may be off on an emotional path down memory lane. I’m not to blame for any sudden tears!
Also, spoiler alert! I’ll try my best to not ruin anything, but sometimes it can’t be avoided…
1. What Remains of Edith Finch (Giant Sparrow, 2017)
I’ll open this list with the game I’ve played most recently: What Remains of Edith Finch. I picked this game up after subscribing to the Xbox Game Pass, and I must admit that I’d never actually heard of it before then. The name rang a bell, but I didn’t have the slightest clue what it was about.
Edith Finch is one of those ‘interactive story’ games and is more or less a passive adventure. The control system consists of movement, and action – that’s it. However, this is where my ‘simplest games’ theory comes into play; Edith Finch might be plain in what you can do with it, but it’s the story itself that is so powerful.
The player assumes the role of the titular character as she returns to her childhood home, being the sole survivor in her family line (aside from a baby that is currently developing inside of her). Edith explores the abandoned home for the first time in years, delving deep into the history of her upbringing and the generations of her family that lived – and died – before her. The game has a compelling style, as the player is tasked with controlling a collection of her family members, both close and distant, as we learn how they met their demise.
If that doesn’t sound all that emotional, just wait until the closing scenes. I can promise you, What Remains of Edith Finch contains one of the most heart-breaking twists I’ve ever experienced in a game. You might see it coming, but it doesn’t make it any less difficult to bear.
2. To The Moon (Freebird Games, 2011)
To The Moon is a charming, heart-warming and incredibly simple adventure game with a genuinely interesting premise. In this 16-bit title (built entirely in RPG Maker), the player assumes the role of doctors from a futuristic agency that have developed a technology that allows them to interact with, explore and alter people’s memories. This is a service lovingly entitled: “wish fulfilment”.
Enter Johnny Wyles, a poor old gentleman on his death bed. His lifelong dream is to go to the moon (title!) but for some reason, nobody knows why. Throughout the game, the player will explore Johnny’s memories, from childhood, to adulthood, and ultimately to his twilight years. We learn about the trauma, tragedy and suffering Johnny experienced throughout his life, and the connection he formed with a woman called River.
Trust me – I’m actually getting chills writing this.
The ending to this game is where the emotion really hits home. This is one of the very few games I actually cried at (not ashamed to admit it) but haven’t replayed since. I just don’t think I can relive that experience and feel the same level of catharsis. This basic game, devoid of voice acting or any advanced mechanics, features one of the most beautiful endings to a game I’ve ever seen.
3. Life is Strange (Dontnod, 2015)
I’m almost certain fans of this franchise were expecting this title to appear on the list. Life is Strange: a game I put off at launch, believing it to be an angsty, desperate attempt to connect with teenage gamers… How wrong I was.
I bought into the title when it was on sale on Xbox 360, and was swept off my feet from the first episode of the five-part series. It had it all: a killer soundtrack, a fantastic art style, brilliant voice acting, and a compelling story. It’s clear from the get-go that Life is Strange is an emotional rollercoaster, as we deal with murder, bullying, depression, friendship and – yes – the ability to control time, all in the space of a few hours.
As time goes on, Life is Strange only becomes more entangled in your heart and mind. You become invested and connected to the characters and share in their pain and suffering. I became addicted and crashed through all five episodes in a very short time. The choices I had to make, the twists I was exposed to, and the situations I was put in were expertly crafted, designed specifically to turn me into a gibbering wreck.
Life is Strange had its universe expanded with a prequel – Before the Storm, which serves to cast light on the backstory of the franchise’s co-main character, Chloe Price. It’s just as heartrending and is well worth playing, but Life is Strange is the truer experience.
4. Old Man’s Journey (Broken Rules, 2017)
Old Man’s Journey is quite similar to Edith Finch, or To The Moon, in that it’s blissfully simple, but extremely powerful. Again, this was a title discovered through Game Pass, and only lasted around three or four hours of play time.
This title has won or been nominated for a stack of awards, and rightly so. The art style is superb and makes for some gorgeous settings. In Old Man’s Journey, we follow an unnamed gentleman as he undertakes what appears to be a final journey, with the destination being unknown until the closing scenes of the game. This journey will see our aging, but adventurous protagonist bound across hills, ride trains, board boats, or slide down waterfalls. The player must interact with the environment in ingenious ways to get from A to B, by literally moving the world around the old man.
Periodically, the player is rewarded with glimpses into the man’s past. As you can expect, these aren’t all moments of joy and happiness, as we unfortunately learn that this particular man has had a very tough time of it. The closing scene is brilliantly done and will definitely make some sensitive eyes water a little.
5. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (Konami, 2004)
Metal Gear is famous for its grand story telling. The legacy of this game stretches back decades and has enticed players over the years with tactical adventures spanning a 50-year timeline. For the most part, we’ve lived the life of Big Boss, from the first deployment in 1964, to the final scenes in 2014.
However, it’s Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater that impacted me the most. Of course, it helps that it was by far my favourite MGS game of all-time. This game is an absolute marvel, featuring some of the greatest scenes in video game history. The characters are incredible, the gameplay and engine way ahead of its time, and the voice acting (iconic, right?) absolutely on-point.
This game truly does deliver. You start out as a fledgling soldier, wet behind the ears and raring to go, but by the time the closing scenes roll around, you’re a battle-hardened tactician, scarred both mentally and physically, and are set on a path that would irrevocably change the world. Extreme stuff.
As with almost every other title in this list, it’s the ending that really makes it emotional. There are choices in video games that are difficult to make, and then there’s the choice at the end of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. It’s a whole new level of tough, and you won’t be prepared for the onslaught of feels. Hint: you don’t want to, but you have to
The Last Of Us (Naughty Dog, 2013)
Naughty Dog’s 2013 post-apocalyptic epic was riddled with emotional scenes right from the start. The storytelling is brilliant, but it never reduced me to blurry, tear-filled vision. It is however, one of the best titles of all time to grace PlayStation consoles, has won an incredible number of awards, and is well worth a play through, no doubt about it. The sequel, The Last of Us 2, is expected to arrive next year.
Red Dead Redemption (Rockstar North, 2010)
You know the scene. Come on, if you’ve played it, you know the scene. Rockstar really hit a homer with the ending to this grand cowboy adventure, as players were left equal parts stunned and furious with the closing scenes of John Marston’s tale. Unforgettable.
L.A. Noire (Rockstar, 2011)
This is a bit of a curveball, admittedly. Another Rockstar title almost made the list, solely for the closing seconds of the game, where we learn the fate of Cole Phelps, L.A. detective extraordinaire. This game featured some revolutionary face-mapping that makes for almost eerie conversations, but overall it’s a brilliant title with a long and winding story that always keeps you guessing. Was it enough to make me break down into tears, though? X Doubt.