Spoilers for Dragon Age Origins, Life is Strange, Undertale, The Walking Dead Season One, and The Last of Us and inspired by a particular heartbreaking moment in the second episode of Life is Strange 2.
1. The Walking Dead — saying goodbye to Lee
The Walking Dead video games are full of heartbreaking moments. It is the zombie apocalypse, after all, and there’s no shortage of characters to die and people left behind to mourn them. But after playing through five episodes of The Walking Dead Season One, you hope that maybe, maybe things will be OK. You’ve made it past zombies and cannibals and survived many a heartwrenching decision. Maybe life for Lee and his adopted daughter Clementine will work out.
And then Lee has to go and get bitten by a zombie.
You cut off his bitten arm, but it’s no good. He’s going to turn. There’s not much time left. If he stays with Clementine, he will kill her. So all he can do is chain himself to a radiator in a basement, and make one final choice: let Clementine run and leave him, or ask her to shoot him and end things quickly.
In my playthough, Clementine shot Lee. It was awful, after Clementine had been through so much, but I was worried about what would happen if she didn’t. Could zombie!Lee escape from his restraints and kill her? They needed to be pragmatic. Anything for Clementine to survive.
I don’t think I’ve ever cried so hard at a video game.
2. Life is Strange — finding Rachel’s body
At the very start of Life is Strange, you learn that Rachel Amber, a student at protagonist Max’s new school, has been missing for six months. Your best friend and Rachel’s ex-girlfriend Chloe is stuck in a conundrum — either Rachel ran away (and so is safe, but abandoned Chloe without a word), or something bad happened to her.
Throughout the first episodes of the game, Max and Chloe hang out at the junkyard where Rachel and Chloe used to meet, talking about their dreams, playing with Max’s time rewind powers, and discussing what might have happened to Rachel. Then, near the end of the fourth instalment of the game, they find a creepy murder basement, hidden away. The shelves are full of binders of pictures of tied up girls, including Rachel. Except one of the pictures isn’t taken in the basement. It shows her lying outside, on a very familiar patch of ground.
Max and Chloe race back to the junkyard, and Chloe runs ahead, while Max screams at her to slow down. But Chloe is going to get answers. She’s going to find out what happened. She has to prove that Rachel is alive and safe.
She starts digging with her hands, and uncovers Rachel’s body. And Chloe’s scream of pain… the way she asks why, what kind of world can this be for this to happen, while Max hugs her… oh god. It hurts just to remember it. Life is Strange is full of sad moments, but that’s the one that wrecked me.
3. Undertale — the True Pacifist Ending
So many things about Undertale break my heart. But the real emotional kicker is near the end of the true Pacifist ending, when you are forced to fight Asriel and he turns all your allies against him. Asriel, you have learned, was the child of the king and queen, and was killed by humans after attempting to help his dying friend, the first human to fall into the world of monsters, Chara. In a desperate attempt to save him, his father attempted to put his essence into a flower, but instead of helping him, this left him twisted and evil. Now, at the end of the game, he has finally regained his true form… a grown up Asriel, mad with power, determined to destroy everything, and most of all you, the person who reminds him of the friend he died to save.
After you refuse to harm him in the battle, slowly reminding your allies of your friendship to win them back to your side, Asriel begins to break down. The beautiful Undertale theme starts playing, with its simple, music-box melody, and you see images of Asriel’s past, before he lost his soul. As you show him kindness, despite all that he has told you about the world being cruel and there being no other way to stop him, his attacks start missing you, and he talks about his love for the first fallen human, and how he isn’t yet ready to let go. He begs you to stop being kind to him. He says he’s alone and afraid. But you persist, and he turns back into that little goat boy, apologising for everything he’s done.
Yet even after all this, you cannot save him. You can save the other monsters, all of your friends, but Asriel is doomed.
And, if you’re anything like me, you cry and cry and cry, like a video game has never made you cry before. Goddammit, how does a pixelly RPG hurt so much?
4. Dragon Age Origins — Alistair sacrifices himself
This one upset me so much that I went back like 5 hours on my save to undo it. After hours of adventure, after gathering an army to fight the evil plague of Darkspawn threatening to destroy the world, the Hero of Ferelden and her allies are ready for battle. There’s just one problem… someone has to sacrifice themselves in order to kill the Archdemon and end for the Darkspawn plague for good.
You have two options: you, the Hero of Ferelden, or your ally and adorkable love interest, Alistair. Alternatively, you could perform an evil ritual with your mage friend Morrigan, which would keep you both alive but possibly unleash another demon on the world.
Conveniently, you find a third option, a heroic Grey Warden who isn’t either you or Alistair, so he can die, and the two of you can go off and get married and live happily ever after.
Except then the convenient dies too early. One of you or Alistair is going to have to take the killing blow and die along with the demon.
As I fought my way through the final fight, I became resolved. As sad as it was, I was going to choose to have my character sacrifice herself, allowing Alistair to live. The final moment came, Alistair declared that he should be the one to kill it. Not happening, Alistair. I told him I wouldn’t let him die… and he said, “You say that like I’m giving you a choice.” Before I could do anything to stop him, Alistair ran off and killed the archdemon, dying so that my character could live.
And I immediately went back to my old save and performed Morrigan’s dark ritual so everyone could live instead. I’m not living with that guilt, Alistair.
5. Portal — Murdering Your Dear Companion Cube
Halfway through your adventure, evil AI Glados gives you a Companion Cube to help you with solving some puzzles, and asks you to take care of it. This is literally just a cube with hearts on every side, but you carry it with you throughout the level, growing ever fonder of your inanimate little buddy.
Until you get to the end of the level, and Glados informs you that the Companion Cube cannot accompany you any farther. You must throw it into an incinerator, so that it can be, in her words, “euthanised,” and the doors to proceed will not open until you do so.
You agonise over it, desperately wanting to find a solution, but in the end, you do what you must, and throw your dear friend down into the fiery pits of hell. At which point Glados informs you that you killed “your faithful companion cube” more quickly than any other person in history. “Congratulations.”
Yes, you lived, but at what price? AT WHAT PRICE?
6. The Last of Us — that prologue
Look, I haven’t even played The Last of Us. I’ve only watched about an hour of a Let’s Play, and even that has imprinted itself in my mind as major video game trauma. The zombie apocalypse has arrived. Danger is everywhere. Throughout the prologue, your only goal is to protect your daughter, and finally, finally, you reach safety. Except the soldiers you expect to save you turn on you too. You could be infected, they say. They need to kill you to be sure. Although you manage to fight them off, your daughter gets shot, and she dies in your arms. She has been killed by the very people you were relying on to protect her, and now you must play the rest of the game carrying the guilt over her death.
Maybe one day I’ll get around to playing this game myself. I have it sitting on my shelf. But the knowledge that I’ll have to see these events again… idk, maybe I’ll just play more Stardew Valley instead.
7. Pokemon Yellow — when my brother saved over my game with a complete level 100 team
No further explanation needed. I’m still mad. Thank God I’d already transferred my Mew onto my Pokemon Gold cartridge, or there would have been blood.